Beware of Munich

Historical analogies can lead decision-makers dangerously astray. Should a crisis break out with China, the US should exercise great caution in seeking guidance from them, especially the 1938 Munich meeting between Hitler and Chamberlain.

A helicopter taking off from aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea last year. If a major crisis in the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait punctuates the US-China competition, decision-makers should exercise great caution in relying
A helicopter taking off from aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea last year. If a major crisis in the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait punctuates the US-China competition, decision-makers should exercise great caution in relying on historical analogies to "evaluate" the stakes, says the writer.PHOTO: REUTERS

How do wars start? Sometimes, it's because leaders apply the wrong lessons of history.

Then US President Lyndon Johnson, for example, scribbled to himself while deliberating whether to intervene massively in Vietnam: "To give in = another Munich. If not here - then Thailand." Mr Johnson's old friend, Senator Mike Mansfield, repeatedly warned him that Vietnam was not "another Munich", but his warnings fell on deaf ears. The net result was a war lost, and over 50,000 American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese killed.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2021, with the headline 'Beware of Munich'. Subscribe