For decades now, two analogies have battled for supremacy in American foreign policy circles: those of Munich and Vietnam. At the moment, Vietnam has the upper-hand. But don’t count Munich out.

Hitler and Chamberlain at Munich
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain
takes a stroll with Adolf Hitler in 1938

The appeasement of Nazi Germany at the Munich Conference in 1938—when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, after a meeting with Adolf Hitler, declared, he had brought “peace for our time”—has haunted western policymakers and intellectuals ever since. The fear of not stopping a tyrant in his tracks—before it is too late—has been particularly acute in America, weighed down as it is by the responsibilities of a great power. Because such a fear may demand preemptive military action, the Munich analogy flourishes after a lengthy and prosperous peace, when the burdens of war are far enough removed to appear abstract.

The fear of another Munich was an underlying element in the decision to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi aggression in 1991. If we didn’t stop Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, he’d next invade Saudi Arabia, thereby controlling the world’s oil supply and taking human rights in the Middle East to an unutterable level of darkness. “Munich” was heard often in reaction to the failure to stop genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Munich was the driving force behind military operations in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999, which were clearly wars of choice: as the threat to our national interest in both cases was indirect.

The Balkans constituted the high water mark for invoking “Munich:” the upshot of ethnic cleansing occurring on the same continent where Hitler had perpetrated his genocide of the Jews. Those opposed to our Balkan interventions raised the Vietnam analogy, but because a quagmire never resulted, it was in the Balkans a decade ago where the ghost of Vietnam was once-and-for-all exorcised—or so it was thought.

Indeed, the 1990s were a time of unchallenged American power following the easy victory over Iraq in the first Gulf War. Thus, many argued it was incumbent upon us to do good works. Humanist philosophy, exemplified by the writings of Isaiah Berlin, captured the intellectual spirit of the decade. For Munich is about activism: about confronting perceived evil in advance of its worst deeds. It is the supreme argument of idealists intent on re-labeling realists as cynics. The Munich analogy, while justified in particular instances, requires the luxury of a strong domestic position, both economic and military.

Munich was at work in approaching the dilemma of Saddam Hussein after 9/11. Though we had just suffered an attack on our soil comparable to Pearl Harbor, the country’s experience with ground war had been, for a quarter-century, nil or at least not unpleasant: in Kosovo and the Iraqi no-fly-zones, the Air Force and Navy had been busy; much less so the Army and Marines. Moreover, Saddam was not just another dictator, but a tyrant comparable to Hitler or Stalin, whom it was thought harbored weapons of mass destruction. In light of 9/11—in light of Munich—history would never forgive us if we didn’t take action.

Alas, when Munich leads to overreach the result is Vietnam. Remember it was an idealistic sense of mission that helped draw us in to that conflict in the first place. The nation was at peace, at the apex of its post-World War II prosperity, and the North Vietnamese communists—as ruthless and determined a group of people as the twentieth century produced—had murdered more than 10,000 of their own citizens before the arrival of the first regular American troops.

Whereas Munich is about universalism, about taking care of the world and the lives of others, the Vietnam analogy—so prevalent following our overreach in Iraq—is domestic in spirit. It’s about taking care of one’s own: 58,000 American dead is the critical fact for those who hold “Vietnam” over your head. The wielders of the Vietnam analogy look back to the early decades of the Republic, to a continental nation protected by seas from an older and less tractable world. They summon forth the words of John Quincy Adams, that America should be “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” but “the champion and vindicator only of her own.” The best of the Vietnam crowd are mindful of how tragedy is avoided by thinking tragically. They are haters of incessant fervor. They know just how wrong things can go. They worry about investing too much national prestige and treasure in one particular area.

The Vietnam analogy thrives following national trauma. For realism is not exciting. It is respected only after the seeming lack of it has made a situation demonstrably worse. As someone labeled a realist in the 1990s, who nevertheless supported the Iraq War out of intimate knowledge of Saddam’s brutality, I can’t help but respect the wisdom of those who opposed it.

Yet those opposed to Iraq should be careful about taking the Vietnam analogy too far. Vietnam can be an invitation to isolationism, just as it is to appeasement. Remember that the Munich Conference itself occurred only 20 years after the mass death of World War I,  making European politicians like Chamberlain hell-bent on avoiding another conflict. Such situations are perfectly suited for the machinations of a tyrannical state that knows no such fears. To wit, the disaster in Iraq should say little—one way or the other—about how we should think about, and respond to, the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran.

As the division between Republicans and Democrats on foreign policy grows more indistinct, it may be replaced by a Munich-Vietnam division. Because of the ongoing problem of rogue states with awful human rights records, Munich may stage a recovery. The Munich crowd is a configuration of aggressive liberal internationalists and neoconservative interventionists—the alliance that sought action early-on in Bosnia in the 1990s. The Vietnam crowd constitutes the old-fashioned realists that span both parties.

Vietnam is about limits; Munich about overcoming them. Each analogy on its own can be dangerous. It is only when both are given equal measure that the right policy has the best chance to emerge. For wise policymakers, while aware of their nation’s limitations, know that the art of statesmanship is about working as close to the edge as possible, without stepping over the brink.