Negotiating with Nazis – A Good Idea

Yesterday George Bush said:

Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

This comment is so irritatingly ignorant that I break into the usual random research notes posted on this non-blog to point out that the United States did, in fact, actively negotiate with Nazis long after the invasion of Poland, and not out of any delusions about the nature of the regime. The U.S. continued to operated a diplomatic mission in Germany after the invasion of Poland, staffed by – among others of course – an able administrative officer named George F. Kennan. A taste of the duties undertaken by U.S. diplomats among the Nazis can be had from Kennan’s Memoirs: 1925-1950:

Among other things, we were taking over the interests of France and Great Britain: the protection of their nationals, their diplomatic property, their prisoners of war, and the tasks connected with the exchange of their official personnel…

This administrative burden of the Berlin embassy, incidentally, grew steadily as the war progressed… The increasingly desperate situation of the German Jews,, and Jews from the German occupied areas, and the heavy attendant pressures brought to bear upon us to effect their release and removal to the Untied States, added to the burden…

As the Nazi conquest proceeded, new countries were added to the list of those whose interests we were protecting. By the time of Pearl Harbor there were, I believe, about eleven of them. And we had the responsibility for representing the interests of these countries not just in Germany alone, but also throughout the wider and steadily expanding sphere of German-occupied Europe, so that in the end we stood as the sole representatives for most of Europe, of the interests of the United States and a good part of the remainder of the Western world.

Now somebody with knowledge of the historical details will find some painful ambiguities in this excerpt, for the “pressure” to rescue German Jews was resisted by many in the U.S. government. But that is another topic altogether, and I quote the passage just to show that if George Bush wants to make a list of delusional appeasers, and his criteria for this list is that they negotiate under such circumstances, then he should definitely include Roosevelt and the best of his diplomatic service.

And in case you think that negotiating over the status of foreign nationals is a small thing compared to the negotiations Barack Obama must have in mind for Iran, here’s a bit more from Kennan about what Roosevelt wanted:

In late February 1940 I was sent off to Italy to meet the Under Secretary of State, Mr. Sumner Welles, and his party on their arrival at Naples and to accompany them on their journey to Berlin. Mr. Welles had been dispatched by President Roosevelt to the four European capitals of Rome, Berlin, Paris, and London to ascertain the views of the leading European statesmen on the possibilities for the negotiation of an end to the hostilities and the establishment of a just and permanent European peace. Up to that time, it will be recalled, the western front had been inactive. It was clear that unless the war could be in some way terminated before the advent of spring, hostilities would begin in the west on a serious scale, and the struggle would assuredly develop into another great and tragic one, from which it would be unlikely that the United States could remain aloof. If there were the slightest possibility of averting this catastrophe, the President wanted to know about it before it was too late.

Kennan did not think such negotiations likely to succeed. He preferred that the White House rely on the diplomatic work of the staff, who were likely to be better informed. “But,” he writes, “this was FDR’s way of doing business, and he was entitled to the indulgence, in this respect, of his own preferences.”

Kennan’s clear criticism of Roosevelt here has nothing to do with the mere fact of engagement with the Nazi regime and everything to do with the level of preparation, analysis, and diplomatic tact that could be expected under the circumstances. The irony here is that, while President Bush criticizes others for being naive in even considering to meet with the leader of Iran, he himself is most notorious for letting a sense of inner conviction substitute for information and thought.

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