Ah, the “lessons of history.” Reader C.B. reminds me that “One of the huge mistakes that the democracies made with regard to Hitler was that they refused to take seriously what he said… until it was too late.” In turn, “We dare not do that again– especially when we are talking about nuclear weapons that can be packed in suitcase or stuck on the end of a Katuysha rocket.” Interestingly, I was just reading (via Robert Farley) this great monograph by Jeffrey Record of the Army War College about the West’s pre-war approach to Hitler and the abuse of the lessons thereby learned by subsequent American presidents.
At any rate, it’s certainly the case that the leaders of the United States, Britain, and France erred in their estimates of Hitler’s strategic ambitions. It’s also certainly the case that, in retrospect, we can see that Hitler outlined those ambitions in advance, in Mein Kampf and elsewhere. People have, however, a terrible habit of overinterpreting these data points. In particular, they want to propose that the 1930s teach us the lesson that we should always take foreign leaders at their word.
Except, of course, that nobody actually thinks we should take that lesson away. I hope I won’t rob anyone of their innocence by making this observation, but politicians lie. In particular, along with telling the truth about his strategic ambitions, Hitler lied about his strategic ambitions. One reason people underestimated their scope was that Hitler put some time into trying to deceive people. He said different things at different times. Similarly, you don’t hear the people arguing that we need to take Ahmadenijad’s public statements more seriously arguing that we need to take his public protestations that Iran’s nuclear program is for civilian purposes more seriously.
So the “lesson” people want to draw from the 1930s isn’t that we should take people’s statements more seriously. Rather, the “lesson” they’ve learned is that we should always adopt the most alarmist possible interpretation of every given situation. But, of course, they never put it that way. Why don’t they? Well, because when you put it that way it sounds like a stupid lesson. Which, obviously, it is. If you want to draw lessons from history, you need to really look at history as a whole. Have countries, as a general matter, been well served by adopting maximally alarmist interpretations of events abroad? I don’t think that’s a remotely justifiable view. If anything, history teaches the reverse lesson.