Whoa! I missed the part about ‘Peace in our time’!


As I said before, I didn’t catch all of the president’s speech yesterday, and something rather important got by me:

The WTF moment for me in Obama’s second inaugural address, delivered Monday at noon, was his use of the phrase “peace in our time.” This came during his discussion of foreign policy, and in such circles, that phrase is a synonym for appeasement, especially of Hitler by Neville Chamberlain in September 1938. What signal does his using it send to Iran? I hope he was just using it to jerk Netanyahu’s chain.

I also simply didn’t understand what he meant by “a world without boundaries.” But my immediate thought was, No, right now we need boundaries — like those meant to keep Iran out of Syria and Pakistan out of Afghanistan…

Yikes. You know, there are certain phrases that anyone with an understanding of history would be careful to avoid. Such as “Mistakes were made.” “I am not a crook.” “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

And of course, “peace in our time.” What was the thinking on that? Did the president think that his base would like the sound of it, and not understand the profoundly disturbing historical allusion? Hey, it was politically popular when Chamberlain said it, although Britain woke up later.

I just don’t see how a line like that appears in such a formal speech by accident. And no other explanation is excusable.

That’s an association you don’t want. And for another thing, it doesn’t fit well with the president’s ongoing aggressive drone war. That suggests cynicism. As in, the president gave the gift of peace to four al Qaeda militants on Monday…

Oh, and another thing… since when did people who right for Foreign Policy start using such expressions as “WTF”?

45 thoughts on “Whoa! I missed the part about ‘Peace in our time’!

  1. Doug Ross

    Yeah, what a sorry goal peace in our time would be. Who would want that? Certainly not the defense contractors and military leaders who might have to find something better to do. And I do mean “better”. We have now spent more time in Afghanistan than any other war in our history and with less success. We’ve spent more tax dollars creating more weapons than we could ever use.

    Hate to tell you, Brad, but the number of people who would associate the phrase “peace in our time” with anything but “peace in our time” is probably limited to a very small minority of history geeks.

    What would you prefer: “We’ll Take War To Any Shore! Semper Fi! Hooah! Geronimo!!!!”

    1. Silence

      If peace breaks out in the world, I will happily find a different pursuit. Until then, keep the dollars coming.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Actually, the Marines say “oorah.” It’s the Army that says “hooah,” not the Semper Fi guys.

    And this generation of Marines doesn’t so much say “Geronimo,” as “Get some!” According to “Generation Kill,” which is a pretty interesting book by a Rolling Stone journalist who was embedded with Marines in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

    Although the Seals who killed bin Laden did use “Geronimo” as their code for “mission accomplished.”

    Frankly, I don’t think anyone who doesn’t know about Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement — I’m not talking details, just the general outline, and what it meant, and the context of it (basically, can they associate “Chamberlain” and “appeasement,” or understand that sometimes good intentions aren’t enough?) — should be allowed to get out of school and vote.

    1. Doug Ross

      “Frankly, I don’t think anyone who doesn’t know about Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement — I’m not talking details, just the general outline, and what it meant, and the context of it (basically, can they associate “Chamberlain” and “appeasement,” or understand that sometimes good intentions aren’t enough?) — should be allowed to get out of school and vote.”

      Want to test that theory some time? I would put the percentage of people on the street who would be able to identify Neville Chamberlain with that quote at under 2%. I have no problem admitting I didn’t know it… I think you live in a different world when it comes to history than most folks. Sorta like the Trekkies who wouldn’t believe everyone doesn’t know what a Tribble is or sports fanatics who can name the backup shortstop for the 1964 Dodgers. It’s just trivia.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        You know what, Doug? You’re right, and I apologize.

        I’m a history major, and a WWII buff, and a longtime professional pontificator, so something like that seems to me as basic as … well, the first things you learned about computer programming when your avatar was taken. Like breathing.

        It’s the same with the Foreign Policy guy. In his world and mine, a person CAN’T not recognize a reference like that.

        But… I will still state it as an ideal that all Americans SHOULD know these things. An understanding of history is essential to having the context to understand the present, and therefore be an informed voter. To me, the highest goal of public education should be to help people understand how the world around them works, how it got to be that way, and how they can most constructively engage it as citizens.

        “Peace in our time” should be recognized right away, like “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” and “Four score and seven years ago” and “the better angels of our nature.” I don’t expect anyone to be able to recite those speeches and addresses, but be able to place them, and the historical context, and understand what they meant overall.

  3. bud

    Perhaps a different phrasing would have been more appropriate but I like the sentiment. When Chamberlain first spoke those words he was an optimist and hopeful that events would prove him prescient. Even though he was wrong, and looked foolish in hindsight, he was able to buy the British time to build their airforce. As it turned Chamberlain’s actions proved that Hitler was a militaristic tyrant and that war was the only way. Without that attempt at peace that well-known fact about Hitler would have never been proven beyond any shadow of a doubt and the waging of the war would have lacked the ardent public support that it eventually did. I think Chamberlain gets a bum rap from history on his efforts.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Bud, I’ll give you one thing – you certainly have your opinions. As PM, Chamberlain certainly was an idealist. He sold out the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia to get “Peace in Our Time”, ceding a strategically important region of Europe to the Third Reich. Mistakes were made.

      Less than a year later, Adolf and they boys invaded Poland. Doh!

      What no one really ever remembers Chamberlain for is arguably his biggest failing. All in the run-up to WWII, when Germany was building war material in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Chamberlain did very little to get Britain on an equal footing. Accordingly, in the early days of WWII (long before Pearl), the British government had it’s back up against the wall. Aircraft were scarce, material, arms, and men were short. Chamberlain tried appeasement which was a bad idea. He made it worse by not strengthening Britain.

      To this day, it is my opinion that if Germany had not made the mistake of bombing London and other non-military targets, and had continued to concentrate on the RAF aerodromes, the Battle of Britain would have had a different result, and they’d be speaking German in Normandy right now.

      Go do some reading, bud. Lots of knowledge out there.

  4. Mark Stewart


    I think younger generations of speechwriters are responding subconsciously to things that they have heard throughout life, without asking why these phrases are memorable.

    I guess that goes for politicians, too.

    Doug is right, who wouldn’t want to aspire to a state of international peace? Hoever, some ways of stating that desire have been tainted by history. Cynically speaking, yearning for world peace is just setting people up for trouble. Containing violence is really all we can expect as humans – that and dealing with those who chose to go bad. We can’t expect that no apples will ever turn rotten.

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    Here’s the passage in question from Obama’s speech:

    America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad. For no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice.

    Not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes; tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice…

    With much of his base, as I said, “peace in our time” is an applause line. For me, the applause line was at the beginning of this passage: “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe.”

    And that’s not really a political assertion, or anything that’s subject to debate. That’s just something that it’s been essential for every president, of whichever party, to understand about this country and its role in the post-1945 world.

    And so far, every president in my lifetime has understood it.

    The very first question I asked Sen. Obama when he was sitting next to me in the editorial board meeting (after asking him to give us his general elevator speech on why he should be elected), was to ascertain his understanding of that role. I was satisfied with his answer.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Ironically, that passage could have been spoken by George W. Bush. It’s sort of an assertion of one of the assumptions underlying the Bush Doctrine.

      Although it’s really more like what I’d like to call the Blair Doctrine. Tony Blair’s understanding of our (and Britain’s) post-9/11 stance in the world was rooted in his communitarian approach to international relations, that we have a responsibility to act “to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    “Peace in our time” is a phrase from the Anglican/Episcopalian liturgy. “Give peace in our time, O Lord.” Chamberlain didn’t coin it, and for many people, it just means what it means, no connotations.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Not in a political context it doesn’t. In a political context, it’s completely out of bounds.

      And just to be clear, Chamberlain was giving the British people what they very much wanted. But they should have been listening to Churchill telling them what they needed. Eventually, they did.

      And then when the war was over, they dumped him and the Tories.

      Fickle folk, the British electorate…

      1. Doug Ross

        I agree with Kathryn… my reading of the statement says that Obama was defining what peace today (our time) means: “the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes; tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice…”

        According to Wikipedia, Chamberlain said “peace FOR our time” … which Wikipedia also says is often misquoted as “peace IN our time”.

        Chamberlain was claiming the mission of achieving peace was complete. Obama was not.

        We should be waging peace. We create enemies out of thin air.

        Brad – since you are almost done with Team of Rivals, I wonder if you had a similar reaction as I did to Lincoln’s protests against President Polk and the Mexican American War? It sounded a whole lot like the anti-Iraq war movement does today. Lincoln said: “This war is nondescript …. We charge the President with usurping the war-making power … with seizing a country … which had been for centuries, and was then in the possession of the Mexicans …. Let us put a check upon this lust of dominion. We had territory enough, Heaven knew” — essentially saying that Polk lied, people died.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Oh, and you’re right. The quote IS wrong. But since it’s remembered as “IN our time,” that’s the deadly phrase.

          It’s like… it’s correct to associate “Play it again, Sam” with Bogart and “Casablanca,” even though he didn’t actually say it…

    2. Mab

      The Episcopalians (Christians) likely got it from the Jews, their Salvation Prototypes…

      “Speedily in our days” is a common liturgical plea.

      “Bimheirah b’Yameinu (Speedily in our Days).

      I really dig learning Hebrew. Can you tell? Hebrew is the language Jesus spoke/will speak, you know.

      I figure we better learn some.

  7. bud

    Such as “Mistakes were made.” “I am not a crook.” “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
    “The British have learned, Saddam Hussein is seeking large quantities of Uranium from Africa”
    “I won’t have American boys do the fighting that Asian boys should be doing”
    “We will stay.” U.S. Vice President George H. W. Bush toured the Marine bombed-site on October 26 and said the U.S. “would not be cowed by terrorists.” (following the 1983 bombing of Marines in Lebanon, shortly before they were withdrawn)

      1. Steven Davis II

        “Define “is”.”

        “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

        “Could I interest you in a cigar?”




        “57 states”

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yeah, but give him a break on that. Everybody said it.

        I would put “Read my lips, no new taxes” in a special category. It was a promise that should not have been made. And he did what a leader should do — when the circumstances made breaking that promise the right and responsible thing to do, he broke it.

        Just as Lincoln broke his promise not to end slavery in the states in which it existed when he was first elected. Although in Lincoln’s case, I would defend his original statement as prudent when there was still some hope of holding the Union together. Lincoln wouldn’t have been elected, in fact would have been dismissed as madder than John Brown, had he instead said, “I’ll end slavery in the South even if we have to fight a war that kills 600,000 of us.” The profound tragedy of the war changed what was possible, and made a far nobler goal achievable.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          By the way, although I was for McCain in 2008, Guantanamo is one of those issues where I’m glad he wasn’t elected.

          Obama very responsibly realized that it was impractical to close Guantanamo, after he was elected. And because he was the candidate of the side that most wanted it closed, because he was their guy, he got away with it politically.

          Can you imagine the hell to pay had McCain, having made the same promise but facing the same circumstances that Obama faced in office, had been the one to have kept Guantanamo open? It would have been pretty nasty.

          Nixon could go to China. Obama could keep Gitmo open (and conduct a much more aggressive drone war). Others, not so much.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          NPR has a nice recap of the Guantanamo issue, reminding us that Congress made it pretty much impossible to close it, by making it illegal to send them anywhere else.

          So that left the president with no choice. Only in the fantasy world in which all of those people are innocent, and therefore not dangerous, could he responsibly have just released them. (And even then, they would have to go somewhere. We couldn’t just “release” them over the wire to Castro.)

          So it stays open.

          1. Silence

            I have an issue with depriving people of their right to due process. Even though they are being held at an American (leased) base, they are still on American soil and shouldn’t be held indefinitely without a trial, based on limited evidence and an agency’s assertion that they are a danger. It just doesn’t seem right that the president can hold individuals without any recourse, or any chance to confront their accusers or have an impartial court weigh the evidence against them. It’s very un-American, and sets a truly dangerous precedent.

            That being said: I do believe that they are dangerous, and don’t want them about. Most of them would probably walk out free men from an ordinary courtroom, though. I’m having trouble reconciling that.

            It’s really a short jump to unlimited imprisonment of Americans who are deemed dangerous.

    1. Doug Ross

      They teach it. I’m sure I was taught it back in the old days. It just doesn’t stick with people like me. The old line about “those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it” is hogwash. There are too many variables that change all the time to make history repeatable. Whatever Chamberlain said many decades ago doesn’t matter. Whatever Barack Obama said yesterday doesn’t matter either. It’s just words.. .open to interpretation, misrepresentation, and otherwise. Actions matter more… so I guess what I am saying is “Where’s the beef?”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Actually, they may have taught it when you were in school, but not when I was. WWII was mentioned at the very end of some of my textbooks in school, but I never had a course that got that far in the book.

        I’ve always thought it was because my teachers thought that was so recent, like current events to them, that they didn’t see the need to get to it. But the war ended eight years before I was born. Sort of like what things that happened in the 90s are to us. I wouldn’t think a history teacher was slack today, for instance, for not teaching about the wars in the Balkans, or the impeachment of Clinton — I mean, those things just happened, right? Never mind that kids entering high school now weren’t alive at the time.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Everything I know about the WWII era, I’ve learned on my own — by osmosis, or through voluntary reading. I actually started reading about it while I was in school and NOT being taught about it — I knew that what happened then had shaped the world I was growing up in, so I did all I could to learn about it. That, and the fact that it just interested me so much… Before I started reading about it, I used to leaf through those Time-Life coffee table books full of photos from the war whenever I was in the school library.

          And when you write about public policy, the “peace in our time” meme just comes up all the time — even though that’s not exactly what he said…

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Yes, we did not make it that far, either. I did learn it in college, and it is out there in general, but it isn’t as resonant as the other quotations, in part because it is not as distinctive. It is descriptive, as they say in trademark law.

  8. Juan Caruso

    “I also simply didn’t understand what he meant by ‘a world without boundaries.’”

    I do, and for him it is nothing particularly novel. He references the abstract goal of those who want to end U.S. sovereignty (which first requires subjagfation of 50 U.S. states) in preference to a One World Authority propped up by the corrupt, insolvent, intellectually bankrupt, and ineffectual United Nations.

    Some Americans did not fall for such tripe when inartfully broached by Bush 1, and we are certainly not naieve enough to countenance such regressiveness under Barack ‘Odrama’.

    Preparedness for war, history demonstrates amply, secures peace. I am certainly for the latter.

  9. Tom Stickler

    As long as we are being nit-picky, “Oh, and another thing… since when did people who right write for Foreign Policy start using such expressions as ‘WTF’?”

    Fixed that for you.

    1. Tom Stickler

      Maybe I’ll learn to leave out the second html tag for strikethrough some day, too.

      Any chance of ever allowing preview or edit?

  10. Karen McLeod

    After re-reading the context of Pres. Obama’s use of “peace in our time” I think he’s purposely playing on the phrase. Rather than being willing to sell out others to maintain “peace” in his country, he says pretty strongly that we must support emerging but poor democracies in order to attain/maintain that peace. It seems to me that he deliberately used that phrase so that thinking people, like you, would stop and look at the context, and consider what he’s actually calling for.

  11. bud

    I knew that what happened then had shaped the world I was growing up in, so I did all I could to learn about it.

    Too bad you learned all the wrong lessons. WW II was really just an extension of WW I and certainly cannot be considered outside the context of that tragic conflict. All the horror and suffering should not be viewed as some kind of nostalgic tranformation of mankind but rather as a lesson in what to avoid and how to work instead toward creating a peaceful planet where all can live in harmony. It is painful to watch folks wax so blissfully about an event that while transformational was catastrophic. I’d rather look back on the disco days and all the safe, clean fun that the 70s had to offer young folks. Too bad so many would rather focus on killing and war.

    Until we can get past that (as the Europeans largely have) we’ll continue to suffer through boughts of un-necessary and tragic little wars. And for what? So we can build new monuments on the Washington mall? I say let’s put up a statue of John Travolta in his White Suit dancing away on the light-up dance floor instead.

  12. bud

    Worst Presidential Moments (in no particular order)
    1. Hoover watching passively as the great depression unfolds
    2. Buchannan presiding passively over the last days before the Civil War
    3. Clinton claiming he did not have sex with that woman
    4. Bush Sr. promising no new taxes
    5. LBJ suggesting American boys would not fight for Asian boys
    6. Carters hostage crisis
    7. Reagan’s Iran/Contra debacle
    8. Nixon proclaiming he is not a crook
    9. Bush Jr. inexplicably continuing to read to second graders while the WTC is attacked
    10. Bush Jr. ignoring the presidential daily briefing about 9-11
    11. Bush Jr. lying about WMD in Iraq
    12. Bush Jr. proclaiming Mission Accomplished
    13. Bush Jr. failing to help Katrina victims
    14. Bush Jr. presiding over banking collapse
    15. Andrew Jackson defying supreme court sends Indians on long, deadly march to OK
    16. Harding Teapot dome fiasco
    17. Grants patronage fiasco
    18. James Madison presiding over failed invasion of Canada
    19. Theodore Roosevelts Philipine debacle
    20. FDRs failed attempt to expand the supreme court
    21. Reagan’s Lebanon debacle
    22. Ford’s misguided pardon of Nixon
    23. Adam’s alien and sedition calamity
    24. Andrew Jackson’s misguided banking policies
    25. FDRs internment of Japanese Americans

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