When Ronald Reagan Was Neville Chamberlain

When Ronald Reagan Was Neville Chamberlain April 8, 2015

One thing you can be sure of whenever a Democrat doesn’t go immediately to war or dares to negotiate a solution to a problem rather than start dropping bombs is that Republicans will compare them to Neville Chamberlain. But Amanda Taub reminds us of the time conservatives accused Republican saint Ronald Reagan of the very same thing.

Reagan is now the patron saint of the American right. But during his presidency he was accused of Chamberlain-style appeasement because of his negotiations with the Soviet Union. In 1985 Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Geneva Summit, where the two leaders discussed the arms race, the Strategic Defense Initiative (the anti-ballistic missile system also known as “Star Wars”), and human rights. Newt Gingrich called the meeting ”the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Chamberlain in 1938 at Munich.”

And in 1988, Conservative Caucus Chair Howard Phillips ran an ad that compared Reagan signing the INF arms-control treaty with the Soviet Union to Chamberlain signing the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938. “Appeasement Is As Unwise In 1988 As In 1938,” said the ad, which showed pictures of Chamberlain, Hitler, Reagan and Gorbachev.

The accusations against Reagan are a clear reminder that the frequent cries of “Munich! Munich! Muuuniccccchhhh!” in American politics aren’t really about appeasement: they’re just code for “negotiation with dictators we don’t like.”

It’s true that Reagan, like Chamberlain, was negotiating with a hostile power. But Reagan wasn’t blind to the threat of the Soviet Union, or responding weakly in the face of aggression — the US was, if anything, the more aggressive party in the arms race at the time.

And, of course, we now know that the Soviet Union crumbled within a few years of Reagan’s supposed “appeasement.” Reagan’s negotiations didn’t embolden Soviet aggression; they smoothed the path of Soviet decline.

Now, of course, Ronald Reagan has magically transformed into St. Ronald the Magnificent (Peace Be Upon Him) and he is invoked by the very same people who once called him a weak-kneed appeaser as an example of a Real Leader who would never do what Obama is doing. And in the case of Iran, of course, they’d be right. Reagan wouldn’t have negotiated an effective agreement with them, he would have sold them a few thousand missiles, then used the money to violate the law by funneling it to the Contras.

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