President Donald Trump has instituted an entirely new type of diplomacy with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, and it seems to have worked, at least in the short-term. By building a personal relationship with “bad guys” Trump has avoided the poisonous Bush-era chemistry whereby Western “Axis of Evil” insults drove them ever further into destructive behavior. One is forced to ask: would Trump’s methods have worked against other adversaries, in particular against the ultimate “bad guy” regime, the Third Reich?
Much has been written against British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s crafting of the September 1938 Munich Agreement, by which Adolf Hitler’s German Third Reich was allowed to annex the Czech Sudetenland in return for a promise to renounce further aggression and respect the independence of the remainder of Czechoslovakia. In the event, Hitler annexed the remainder of Czechoslovakia within six months, after which Britain guaranteed the independence of Poland, only to see Hitler invade that country in September 1939, setting off World War II.
There were two possible alternative strategies available for Britain at the time of Munich. One, advocated at the time by Winston Churchill, would have precipitated Europe into war then. The most likely outcome of such a strategy would have been a parallel conflict to that actually endured, in which Hitler’s Germany was defeated, but Britain’s losses were so great that her global position was fatally weakened and her Empire lost. It is also however possible that a war that began a year early, when Britain had as yet few Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, would have seen the Battle of Britain lost and Germany victorious.
The second alternative strategy, much less examined, would have had Britain avoiding the March 1939 guarantee of Poland. Britain had not intervened to save Poland when it was partitioned in 1792, when Britain’s relative strength had been much greater; the weakened Britain of 1939 could and did do nothing to save Poland when war came. By avoiding war in 1939, Britain might have remained neutral until the United States was ready to confront the Third Reich, thus lessening the war’s drastic further erosion of Britain’s economic and geopolitical strength.
It is unlikely for two reasons that Trump, had he been British, could have affected the Munich outcome significantly. First, the British system of prime ministerial selection discriminates against populists and did so even more then, being based on Royal selection of a candidate approved by party consensus. Thus, Trump could not have got the job – equivalent British wealthy populist outsiders like Horatio Bottomley (1860-1933, MP for Hackney South, 1906-12, 1918-22) never gained significant power. (Yes, in a Presidential system, I would have voted happily for Bottomley against David Lloyd George in 1918!) Second, Britain’s alternatives at Munich were limited and its options poor; it had lost a great deal of relative strength in the previous half-century and despite its Empire, was by 1938 a very weak hegemon indeed, if it was a hegemon at all. Without American support, Britain had no hope of defeating Germany, as was to be demonstrated in 1940-41.
A more interesting speculation, therefore, would be to imagine the effect of an American Trump, elected in November 1936 and thus late in his second year of office at the time of Munich. Of course, if the Democrats of 1936-38 had been as sleazy and unprincipled as those of today, Trump would have had no chance of playing a useful role at Munich; in September 1938 he would still have been defending himself against spurious charges of conspiring with Germany’s Nazis to steal the 1936 election. However, let us give the 1936-38 Trump the blessing of the more respectable Democrats of that time.
Trump’s first achievement in office would have been to mitigate and reverse the recession of 1937-38. This painful downturn, occurring while the economy was nowhere near full employment, had three causes: a doubling in Fed reserve requirements in 1936, producing contractionary monetary policy; tax increases to fund Social Security and on undistributed profits in 1937, causing contractionary fiscal policy; and continuing energetic New Deal regulation, stopped only by the Republican/southern Democrat congressional gains of 1938. Trump would have violently objected to all three recession-producing policies, and his actions, while not effective immediately, would have made the recession starting in 1937 much shorter and less severe than it was in real life. By September 1938 the U.S. economy under Trump would have been in renewed vigorous recovery.
In foreign policy, Trump would presumably have shared the isolationist instincts of both parties in the 1930s, though Republican opinion was more mixed than that of Roosevelt’s Democrats. However, he would also have perceived the possibilities of a hegemonic America – a man who attempts to purchase Greenland would have seen the potential benefits of the U.S. foreign policy leadership role that after World War I was already well within reach. Trump would thus have taken a far more active role in the diplomatic run-up to Munich than did Roosevelt and would quite possibly have flown the Atlantic to join Chamberlain there – an air journey that in 1938 had become technically possible, albeit still dangerous.
At Munich, Trump would have attempted to establish a friendly working relationship with Hitler as he appears to have done with Kim Jong-il. He would have been helped in doing so by his German origin, by his personality and by his moderately nationalist views, which Hitler would have respected more than he did conventional liberalism. By his presence at Munich, Trump would have provided the Western negotiators with a massive accession of strength, since he represented and would undoubtedly have emphasized overwhelming U.S. power, economic and potentially military.
Chamberlain would have been aggrieved at Britain’s demotion from the leading role at Munich, but he would have found Trump much more congenial than he did FDR (who had let him down badly over the London Economic Conference of 1933). Being a thoroughly sensible man, Chamberlain would quickly have adjusted to the new situation and to the additional possibilities it brought.
A Munich settlement led by Trump would very likely have allowed Germany to annex the majority-German Sudetenland, correcting one of the many massive errors of his Democrat predecessor Woodrow Wilson at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference. However, Trump’s threats of retaliation should Germany proceed further would have been emphatic, and Hitler would have taken them seriously. Most likely, Hitler would have been forced by Trump’s presence at Munich to abandon plans to annex the remainder of Czechoslovakia and proceed further into Eastern Europe.
Goodwill gestures would have followed on both sides. Perhaps Hitler would have lent his architect Albert Speer to Trump for some forthcoming projects, private or public – Speer’s unsurpassed ability to project grandeur would have suited the Trump style well.
If Hitler had after signing the Munich Agreement seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia, he would have faced the combined forces of Britain, France and the United States. At that point, the German General Staff would have rightly regarded Hitler’s strategy as militarily suicidal, and would have taken steps to remove him, as they were reportedly considering doing at the time of Munich. The successor German government might well not have been a democracy, but it would have lacked the worst features of the Third Reich and would not have been a major danger to Germany’s neighbors or to its Jewish inhabitants.
Even if Hitler had held off further aggression for a while, the Trump-induced pause after Munich would not have given the Third Reich a prolonged lifespan. Like Napoleon’s Empire a century earlier, the Third Reich’s strength rested on economic illiteracy, and it required a succession of conquests to fuel its economy and pay for its massive military spending. Unlike today’s Russia, Germany, even with its pre-Munich additions of territory, was geographically fairly small and lacked natural resources, notably oil.
After a few years with massive military expenditures and no conquests, Germany’s economic dead-end would have become clear to the German people and to its armed forces, and the Third Reich regime would have been ousted. If Hitler’s regime had attempted to resume aggression before its ouster, it would again have been faced by the combined democracies, by then better prepared for war, so its demise would have been relatively swift.
Alternative history of this type has little intellectual coherence; changing the personalities involved in a historical event causes second-order alterations that make such predictions hopelessly invalid. Nevertheless, the exercise demonstrates two realities. First, Trump’s unique approach to foreign policy has considerable strengths, absent from conventional diplomatic maneuverings. Second, a more helpful, internationally aware U.S. President in 1938 would very likely have been able to steer the Munich conference to a much more successful outcome than poor Chamberlain could achieve alone.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)