From Vietnam to Nazi Germany, why do politicians continue to use faulty historical analogy?

Our leaders misinterpret past crises just as frequently as they learn the right lessons from them

Andrew Hammond
Thursday 04 September 2014 15:18 BST
Ukrainian soldiers near the city of Slaviansk as fighting continued in eastern Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers near the city of Slaviansk as fighting continued in eastern Ukraine

In advance of this week’s landmark NATO summit, which begins today in Wales, David Cameron has reportedly drawn parallels between the actions of Russia in Ukraine and those of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The Prime Minister apparently believes that the West is in danger of “appeasing Putin as we did Hitler” and that “Putin has already taken Crimea and we cannot allow him to take the whole” of Ukraine.

Cameron’s intervention follows allegations of new Russian troop incursions into Ukraine and reported claims by EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso about Putin. According to media reports, Putin allegedly told Barroso that Russian forces, if ordered to do so, could conquer Kiev in a fortnight, and also said that some 1,000 Russian troops are currently in Ukraine in what has been widely condemned as a violation of international law and Ukraine’s sovereignty.

In seeking to frame Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Cameron is not alone is utilising historical analogies. The use of such analogies by leading politicians, including recently by Hillary Clinton, in international crises is commonplace.

The turmoil in Ukraine is one of the biggest crises to face Europe since the end of the Cold War. And in the complexity and uncertainty of fast moving day-to-day events, policymakers often seek to draw what they perceive as key lessons of the past in seeking to guide and provide rationales for their actions.

For much of the period since the 1970s, for instance, many US officials were fearful of ‘another Vietnam’ referring to the disastrous US intervention in that Asian country. This tended to reduce willingness to deploy US military force internationally unless any action (such as the 1991 Gulf War) had clear, attainable objectives that could swiftly be achieved with a minimum of casualties.

The Vietnam debacle also became a key frame of reference when the US-led intervention in Iraq faltered after 2003. This was despite the fact that the two experiences (Iraq and Vietnam) were dissimilar in many respects, including the nature of the insurgencies, and US objectives in each country.

However, the most widely used historical analogy is that of Munich and Nazi Germany, as Cameron invoked this week. The widely seen implication for foreign affairs of the ill-fated 1938 agreement with Adolf Hitler is that appeasement with aggressors doesn’t work.

Numerous politicians claim to have been influenced by Munich from George W. Bush during the ‘war-on-terror’, Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands conflict, Lyndon Johnson concerning Vietnam, Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet during the Suez crisis, and Harry Truman over Korea. Moreover, the analogy’s continuing salience is also illustrated by the fact that, some Asian politicians, including Philippine President Benigno Aquino have compared what they claim is China’s recent belligerent behaviour with Nazi Germany’s expansionism by openly questioning “at what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’?”.

While some see very strong similarities between Russia’s actions and Nazi Germany’s expansionism, the fact remains that use of analogies can be fraught with difficulty for policy makers. On a fundamental level, for instance, not all military actions end up like Vietnam, while not all diplomatic agreements turn out like Munich.

As history shows, there is a danger that politicians misinterpret past crises just as frequently as they learn the right lessons. For instance, Suez and Vietnam underscore how Munich was used to guide or justify major foreign policy blunders by the United States, the United Kingdom and France in the 1950s and 1960s.

Another example is John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis who was influenced by Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” book which argued that the First World War started as a result of miscalculation and mistake from all sides. Kennedy believed the events of October 1962 were reminiscent of the lead-up to that conflict and, wisely, sought to deploy a range of diplomatic options with the Soviets, overruling advice of military advisers for a quick military strike on Cuba.

However, an increasingly number of academics now believes that Germany actively sought war, and that Tuchman’s thesis is wrong. In this sense, it has been argued that Kennedy’s actions (which were highly prudent in the context of Cuba, and may have saved the world from nuclear war) were based on a misreading of First World War history.

In the case of Ukraine, Munich is by no means the only historical lens through which to interpret what is happening in the country. And, even if it were, there are clear differences between the 1930s and today, including in the interdependence of the global economy, wider dissimilarities in the global balance of power, and the fact that Russia has an extensive stockpile of nuclear weapons which has led a majority of politicians in the West to look for non-military responses to the crisis, including sanctions.

In the unpredictability and tension of the current moment, calm, clear and careful decision-making is now needed by Western politicians as they think through the array of options they still have at their disposal, including wider sanctions. History can provide an especially useful framework in addressing similar or identical policy challenges, but to avoid potentially major misjudgement attention also needs to be devoted by politicians to any significant differences between past and present conditions.

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Andrew Hammond is Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics, and a former UK Government Special Adviser

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