Before we go anywhere, with the Nobel Peace Prize, I think something should be said in defence of Neville Chamberlain.
Chamberlain has received a bad press, these last 70 years, though famously it was a good press after he signed the Munich agreement 71 years ago with Adolf Hitler, and flew home to England promising, “Peace in our time.” Let us grant, the result of his policy of appeasement was not what he intended; and let us allow, that Hitler negotiated in bad faith.
(Historical aside: Chamberlain flew home to the Heston aerodrome, not Croydon as often misremembered. And he waved his little agreement, signed by the Fuhrer and himself—and worth considerably more than the paper it was written on, should it ever come up for auction at Christie’s—not upon disembarking, but a little later, outside 10 Downing Street.)
Alas, Chamberlain—child of an illustrious Liberal political family, a dynasty that made Birmingham proud—who for one gleaming
moment in an otherwise non-illustrious political career, became the pulsating superstar of statesmanship, all the world round—proved an unlucky man.
He was not nearly so stupid as history has painted him; indeed, he could probably have matched Barack Obama in IQ. He was perfectly aware that Hitler was “nuts,” as we say in the colloquial, just as I’m sure Obama today is aware that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is playing with too many missiles and not enough sense.
Chamberlain was also aware that, unlike the U.S. today, Britain and allies were woefully underprepared for war. This was the result of the ascendancy, through the 1930s, of the pacifist mindset, which holds that because war is unthinkable, we must never think about war. People in England were under the impression that if another world war began, they would all be killed—and what would be the point of that? They believed the new bombers could achieve the devastation that people in the 1960s attributed to nuclear weapons, and people today to asteroids and global warming.
But Chamberlain was not so ill-informed. He probably grasped the disposition of forces as well as did a certain Winston Churchill, the notorious war-monger whom he held in distaste. He may even have realized that war was inevitable, though as a typical politician he thought he could hold it off until after his term in office.
In the event, he could not hold it off. All he had succeeded in doing was cutting the throat of an important ally, Czechoslovakia, and giving away the Czechs’ formidable defences in Sudetenland. It was, finally, Chamberlain himself who declared war on Sept. 3, 1939.
A broken man; and the fact he was broken paradoxically argues well for him, as for all his pride Chamberlain had a conscience, and knew how badly he had failed. His last public act was trying to
manoeuvre Lord Halifax into office to replace him, to keep that crazy Churchill out of power. And praise the Lord, that didn’t work, either.
Events spiralled out of Chamberlain’s control so fast that the Nobel committee in Oslo were never able to offer him their peace prize—although they had already given it to his half-brother, Sir Austen, for his work on the Locarno treaties; including the one Hitler casually abrogated when he remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936.
It is also perhaps worth exculpating Alfred Nobel, for the farce his peace prize has become. The man took various precautions in his will to make sure it would not be cheaply politicized, and specifically that it would never be used as a means to influence current events. It was to be a retrospective award, for specific accomplishments universally acknowledged, and thus the opposite of a partisan statement. But Nobel’s will was written in 1895, by the brilliant entrepreneur who converted a failing iron and steel mill into an extremely successful munitions factory. And as students of philanthropy should know, “good intentions” generally go the way of the Munich agreement.
In this case, I don’t think a fix was in. There is broad speculation, among the sort of people I hang out with, that it was offered to Obama on the understanding that he would “do a Le Duc Tho,” and decline it, thus showing the world his immense strength of character. (But how can such a narcissist pass up the opportunity to give a Nobel Prize speech?)
Instead, I think the intention of the prize, for which nominations closed on Feb. 1—less than a fortnight after Obama took office—is in fact designed as an essay in pre-emption. The left-wing, pacifist committee wanted to saddle the new U.S. president with their little “hope diamond,” in case he got any ideas about killing more jihadis in Afghanistan. Or hesitated to do to Israel what Neville Chamberlain did to Czechoslovakia.