In reality, this supposed lesson was wholly misleading. Not only was Chamberlain's conduct more honorable and understandable than has been conceded since. "Appeasement" is the underlying principle of diplomacy, as the Cold War itself showed in practice, if not in theory.
That 1938 crisis had been simmering since the Anschluss in March, when Hitler absorbed Austria, though on another view it had been brewing since Hitler came to power in 1933. It concerned the "Sudetendeutsch": the three million Germans of Bohemia and Moravia, which had become the western end of the newly invented state of Czechoslovakia after the Great War.
After much coming and going - it was the first exercise in shuttle diplomacy - Chamberlain returned to London from Munich bringing, as he hoped, "peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time". Three days earlier he had given another phrase to the language when he broadcast to the nation about "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing". Little did he know how bitterly he would be reviled ever after, or how unjustly.
Even the proximate cause was not the simple question of ceding land and people to a rapacious dictator who was set on the dominance of Europe, as it has so often been represented. Liberal opinion had held for nearly 20 years that the position of the Sudeten Germans was a grave affront to the national principle which the post-war settlement had been meant to embody.
Not that national justice was Chamberlain's motive. He was trying to avoid war, which is never a bad principle, whatever the practice. Everyone knows now how wrong he was to tell his sister that "I have met a man with whom I can do business". As sundry German politicians had already learnt the hard way, no one could do business with Hitler. But the experience of one brutal criminal cannot invalidate the normal rules of good faith and fair dealing. In any case, the war which Chamberlain was trying to avoid eventually cost as many as 60 million lives: to try to forestall it was not inherently ignoble.
The "men of Munich" all remembered the charnel house of the Great War, even if they had not, like Daladier, the equally reviled French premier, actually fought in it. Anthony Eden had resigned as Foreign Secretary earlier in 1938 in disagreement with Chamberlain's policy, but he was far from advocating war come what may. Eden used to point out that the first Oxford English Dictionary definition of "appease" is "to bring peace, to settle strife". He had the mixed feelings about war natural to a man who had served in the trenches, had lost two brothers in the first war, and was to lose a son in the second.
The emotional charge of "Munich" was seen again in 1961 when AJP Taylor's book The Origins of the Second World War was published. It caused a furore, with some critics accusing Taylor of white-washing Hitler by discounting his long-laid plans to conquer Europe.
However that may have been, Taylor was unquestionably right about something else, and he hit a raw nerve. Ever since Chamberlain was reluctantly forced to go to war in 1939, or maybe since the Churchillian Finest Hour the following year, there had beeen an unconscious collective rewriting of history. Not only was "appeasement" a dirty word, it had become the name of a conspiracy. To quote the title of the tendentious and displeasingly bloodthirsty pamphlet Michael Foot and two others wrote in 1940, Chamberlain and his colleagues had been "Guilty Men". Their appeasement of Hitler and Mussolini had been wicked, and it had been foisted on a British people who would willingly have resisted the dictators.
This was completely false. As Taylor later wrote: "To judge by what is said now, one would suppose that practically all Conservatives were for strenuous resistance to Germany in alliance with Soviet Russia and that all the Labour Party were clamouring for great armaments." On the contrary, he said, few causes were ever more popular than appeasement. With the exception of Reynold's News, every newspaper in the country applauded the Munich agreement. The Labour Party was sunk deep in pacifism and most Tories disliked the idea of war in general and war in alliance with Russia in particular.
The few on the Tory side who opposed appeasement were eccentrics like Churchill. He was regarded as erratic and untrustworthy by the respectable classes (there was more rewriting of history in that regard also after 1940), while his realpolitisch balance-of-power arguments were peculiarly offensive to the liberal left.
There have been more subtle forms of dishonesty since. At the 1938 Oxford by-election, immediately after Munich, young Quintin Hogg stood as the government, or appeasement, candidate, and the philosopher JL Austin coined the slogan "A vote for Hogg is a vote for Hitler". Fifty years later, Lord Hailsham, as Hogg had become, explained that Chamberlain's policy had bought time for rearmament, especially the introduction of the fast eight-gun fighters which won the Battle of Britain.
This is a retrospective justification. Hailsham's sometime cabinet colleagues RA Butler and Lord Gilmour were more candid. As Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office in 1938, Butler was a strong appeaser (or munichois, as his enemy Macmillan would later say). And Butler, in the words of his admirer Gilmour, "regarded Munich not as a way of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Adolf Hitler".
The memory of Munich lay long and dark over postwar international politics. It was consciously evoked by Eden in 1956 when he stood up to Nasser and in 1956, and by Kennedy's claque in the early 1960s when they advocated standing up to Ho Chi Minh. Perhaps the Suez expedition and the Vietnam War should be included in the otherwise exiguous list of Michael Foot's political achievements.
The Cold War lasted for more than 40 years, from the estrangement between Stalin and the Anglo-American allies in 1946-47 until the final fall of Soviet Russia in 1989-91. Western Cold warriors weren't wrong about the nature of Russian Communism, of course: its crimes were actually worse than the most miltant anti-Communist knew 50 years ago. But they were wrong about the Cold War itself, about "appeasement", and about "Finlandisation".
This last became another battle cry, describing the way that Finland had supposedly adopted - and other countries might yet adopt - a policy of supine, voluntary subservience to Russian demands, or even become satellites without being conquered. As William Pfaff, the sanest of American commentators, has pointed out, this is a complete misreading.
What actually happened was that Russia had attacked Finland in 1939 and been fought to a draw, the Finns had ill-advisedly renewed the war when Germany attacked Russia, and had been forced to make peace in 1944, so that after the war Finland found herself in an almost hopeless position, politically and physically (as Stalin himself once said in an almost apologetic phrase, when bullying the Helsinki government, "I am not responsible for geography"). And by a mixture of patience, sensible accommodation, and, yes, appeasement "to settle strife", Finland protected her independence and political freedom for the next 40 years.
In spite of this, fear of Finlandistaion, or appeasemment, or domino effects, or another Munich underlay one folly after another in post-war Western policy. This is not to endorse the revisionist view that Stalin and his successors were benevolent pussy cats with no aggressive designs at all. It merely means that, as Taylor said of Chamberlain and Daladier, historians do a bad day's work when they write them off as stupid or cowards. "They were men confronted with real problems, doing their best in their circumstances of their time."
That was true also of the Western statesmen of the Cold War. And they were, not always but often, at their best when they sought to bring peace and to settle strife. It is scarcely too much to say that after the advent of the intercontinental nuclear missile, all leaders of super-powers had to be appeasers. Kennedy is portrayed as a Churchillian warrior during the Cuban crisis of 1962. It would be truer to say he was following Chamberlain's lead when he pulled back from the brink and gave us peace for our time. It was certainly a better legacy than his refusal to appease over Vietnam.
Again, Nixon was surely a "Chamberlainite" when he went to Peking, and Reagan when he met Gorbachev to "settle strife".
The lessons of the closing century are often curious. But one of them is surely that appeasement is among the noblest words in the language.