What Is Appeasement? Definition and Examples in Foreign Policy

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Tea Party supporters gather on the West Front Lawn for a rally against the Iran nuclear deal at the U.S. Capitol September 9, 2015 in Washington, DC.

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Appeasement is the foreign policy tactic of offering specific concessions to an aggressor nation in order to prevent war. An example of appeasement is the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement, in which Great Britain sought to avoid war with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy by taking no action to prevent Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 or Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938.  

Key Takeaways: Appeasement

  • Appeasement is the diplomatic tactic of offering concessions to aggressor nations in an attempt to avoid or delay war. 
  • Appeasement is most often associated with Great Britain’s failed attempt to prevent war with Germany by offering concessions to Adolph Hitler. 
  • While appeasement has the potential to prevent further conflict, history shows it rarely does so.

Appeasement Definition   

As the term itself implies, appeasement is a diplomatic attempt to “appease” an aggressor nation by agreeing to some of its demands. Usually viewed as a policy of offering substantial concessions to more powerful dictatorial totalitarian and fascist governments, the wisdom and effectiveness of appeasement has been a source of debate since it failed to prevent World War II.

Pros and Cons  

In the early 1930s, the lingering trauma of World War I cast appeasement in a positive light as a useful peacekeeping policy. Indeed, it seemed a logical means of satisfying the demand for isolationism, prevalent in the U.S. until World War II. However, since the failure of the 1938 Munich Agreement, the cons of appeasement have outnumbered its pros.  

While appeasement has the potential to prevent war, history has shown it rarely does so. Similarly, while it can reduce the effects of aggression, it can encourage further, even more-devastating aggression—as per the old “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile,” idiom. 

Though appeasement might “buy time,” allowing a nation to prepare for war, it also gives aggressor nations time to grow even stronger. Finally, appeasement is often viewed as an act of cowardice by the public and taken as a sign of military weakness by the aggressor nation.   

While some historians condemned appeasement for allowing Hitler's Germany to grow too powerful, others praised it for creating a “postponement” that allowed Britain to prepare for war. While it seemed a reasonable tactic for Britain and France, appeasement endangered many smaller European nations in Hitler’s path. The delays of the appeasement are thought to be at least partially to blame for allowing pre-World War II atrocities such as the 1937 Rape of Nanking and the Holocaust. In retrospect, the lack of resistance from the appeasing nations enabled the rapid growth of Germany’s military machine. 

Munich Agreement 

Perhaps the best-known example of appeasement took place on September 30, 1938, when leaders of Great Britain, France, and Italy signed the Munich Agreement allowing Nazi Germany to annex the German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. German Führer Adolph Hitler had demanded the annexation of the Sudetenland as the only alternative to war. 

However, British Conservative Party leader Winston Churchill opposed the agreement. Alarmed by the rapid spread of fascism across Europe, Churchill argued that no level of diplomatic concession would appease Hitler’s imperialistic appetite. Working to ensure Britain’s ratification of the Munich Agreement, appeasement supporter Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resorted to ordering the British media not to report news of Hitler’s conquests. Despite growing public outcry against it, Chamberlain confidently announced that the Munich Agreement had ensured “peace in our time,” which, of course, it had not. 

Japanese Invasion of Manchuria

In September 1931, Japan, despite being a member of the League of Nations, invaded Manchuria in northeast China. In response, the League and the U.S. asked both Japan and China to withdraw from Manchuria to allow for a peaceful settlement. The U.S. reminded both nations of their obligation under the 1929 Kellogg–Briand Pact to settle their differences peacefully. Japan, however, rejected all offers of appeasement and went on to invade and occupy the whole of Manchuria.

In the aftermath, the League of Nations condemned Japan, resulting in Japan’s eventual resignation from the League. Neither the League nor the United States took any further action as Japan’s military continued to advance into China. Today, many historians assert that this lack of opposition actually encouraged European aggressors to undertake similar invasions. 

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action 

Signed on July 14, 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is an agreement between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and the European Union—intended to deal with Iran’s nuclear development program. Since the late 1980s Iran had been suspected of using its nuclear power program as a cover for developing nuclear weapons.

Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to never develop nuclear weapons. In return, the UN agreed to lift all other sanctions against Iran, as long as it proved its compliance with the JCPOA. 

In January 2016, convinced that the Iranian nuclear program had complied with the JCPOA, the United States and the EU lifted all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. However, in May 2018, President Donald Trump, citing evidence that Iran had covertly revived its nuclear weapons program, withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA and reinstituted sanctions intended to prevent Iran from developing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Adams, R.J.Q. (1993). British Politics and Foreign Policy in the Age of Appeasement, 1935–1939. Stanford University Press. ISBN: 9780804721011. 
  • Mommsen W.J. and Kettenacker L. (eds). The Fascist Challenge and the Policy of Appeasement. London, George Allen & Unwin, 1983 ISBN 0-04-940068-1. 
  • Thomson, David (1957). Europe Since Napoleon. Penguin Books, Limited (UK). ISBN-10: 9780140135619.  
  • Holpuch, Amanda (8 May 2018). .Donald Trump says US will no longer abide by Iran deal – as it happened – via www.theguardian.com