One of the most significant political developments over the last decade or so is that the defining views of what was once the extremist right-wing fringe have become mainstream. Few things illustrate that development more than this week's branding by George Bush, John McCain and Bill Kristol of Barack Obama (and anyone who prefers negotiations to knee-jerk wars with Israel's enemies as the optimal method for conflict resolution) as a Neville Chamberlain-like "appeaser."
This is the same exact insult, grounded in the same war-cheerleading mentality, that was hurled by the extreme Far Right at Ronald Reagan in the 1980s because he sought to negotiate with that decade's Evil Empire. Conservative Caucus Chair Howard Phillips, for instance, "scorned President Reagan as 'a useful idiot for Kremlin propaganda,'" and published ads which, according to a January 20, 1988 UPI article (via LEXIS):
likens Reagan's signing of the INF Treaty to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's signing of an accord with Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler in 1938. The ad, with the headline, "Appeasement Is As Unwise In 1988 As In 1938," shows pictures of Chamberlain, Hitler, Reagan and Gorbachev overhung by an umbrella. Chamberlain carried an umbrella and it became a World War II symbol for appeasement.
According to the January 19, 1988 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when Pat Robertson was campaigning for President in Missouri in 1988, he "suggested that President Ronald Reagan could be compared to Neville Chamberlain . . . by agreeing to a medium-range nuclear arms agreement with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev." The Orange Country Register editorialized in September, 1988 that "Ronald Reagan has become the Neville Chamberlain of the 1980s. The apparent peace of 1988 may be followed by the new wars of 1989 or 1990."
Newt Gingrich -- who today regularly invokes the "Chamberlain/appeasement" cliche for anyone who does not crave war with Iran -- denounced President Reagan's rapprochement with Gorbachev in 1985 as potentially "the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Chamberlain in 1938 at Munich." Don Rumsfeld -- who gave a controversial 2006 speech likening war opponents to 1938 appeasers (and used the same 1939 quote as Bush just used from the U.S. Senator who wanted to talk to Hitler) -- has been tossing around the Chamberlain insult in order to promote his pro-war views for almost 30 years. The Associated Press reported on November 26, 1979 on efforts to oppose ratification of the SALT treaty:
"Our nation's situation is more dangerous today than it has been any time since Neville Chamberlain left Munich, setting the stage for World War II," Rumsfeld said at a news conference.
The people who think this way, who casually toss the Chamberlain slur around towards anyone who doesn't crave more war, today claim the Canonized Ronald Reagan as their Patron Saint of Strength and Greatness. But, back in the 1980s, people who thought that way were so far on the crazed fringe that they believed Ronald Reagan was too far to the Left, that he was the New Neville Chamberlain, "appeasing" the Soviet Union by sitting down and speaking with them in an effort to achieve a negotiated peace. Today, those same people and their core mentality dominate and define the Republican Party.