Hawkish commentators always remind us of Munich when the U.S. faces recalcitrant states. Russia flies some planes over a destroyer? MUNICH!! China puts some missiles in the South China Sea? MUNICH!! Iran says something inflammatory? MUNICH!! Indeed, it’s almost as if these people aren’t aware that there exists history beyond just World War Two. As hard as it might be for Sean Hannity to wrap his tiny brain around, not every world leader who opposes certain aspects of American grand strategy is equivalent to Adolf Hitler. Just because a foreign leader is annoying or uncooperative doesn’t mean that they are planning to take over the world and create a Fourth Reich.
If one actually bothered to read the rich literature base on conflict initiation (for a few examples, see here, here, here, here, here, and here) he or she would know that conflicts start for reasons beyond just the failure to deter. For example, Christopher Clark makes a compelling case in The Sleepwalkers that World War One broke out precisely because countries were too inflexible and sought to deter instead of compromise. While wars certainly have started due to aggressive leaders (see, for example, Napoleon, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein), many wars have occurred because of miscalculation and insecurity. When one steps back, one realizes that there are explanations for Iranian, Russian, and Chinese behavior beyond just world domination. It’s possible Russia is acting out of insecurity, afraid of losing its regional preeminence to NATO and the EU. Maybe Iran wants a strong military and a latent nuclear capability not to destroy Israel but to defend itself from an Iraq-style invasion. Perhaps China is acting to placate domestic nationalists, appeasing them with small islands instead of war with Japan. Of course, maybe these countries are all exactly like Nazi Germany, though I think the available scholarship points to that being unlikely. The point is that the world is far more complex than Ralph Peters and Bo Dietl seem to realize. It’s important to learn from history. However, we must also make sure not to pigeonhole ourselves into one historical analogy without considering alternate views and empirical data points.
World War Two was arguably America’s greatest war. It was very clear which side was good and which side was evil. It is certainly important to recognize the bravery and fortitude of American soldiers, diplomats, and factory workers who battled fascism, but it is also important to focus on history more broadly. Just because World War Two was a generally positive moment in American history doesn’t mean it’s the only one that’s worth examining. Just because hawks only seem to remember Munich doesn’t mean it’s the only historical analogy that matters.