“Peace at any price” is a phrase closely associated with the politics of appeasement, and especially with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his diplomatic approach to Hitler’s Germany. It was once used as a positive term, but became an attack on appeasement after World War II.
In the 1930s, both France and the UK were pursuing a policy of appeasement in response to Germany’s mounting shows of aggression. Both countries had a strong desire to achieve “peace at any price,” in part because they had suffered losses during World War I and had little appetite for a new war.
In 1938, Germany was preparing to invade Czechoslovakia and take possession of the Sudetenland, a German speaking region in the country’s south. The invasion was expected to set off a broader conflict in Europe, since both France and the UK had treaties with Czechoslovakia. The French and British people were anxiously waiting to see whether war would break out.
At the last minute, the leaders of France, the UK, and Germany held a conference in Munich. The three powers agreed that Germany could move against southern Czechoslovakia and that the UK and France would not stop them. In return, Hitler promised that he would not invade the rest of Czechoslovakia.
The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, returned to London triumphantly and announced that the country would not be going to war with Germany. Crowds cheered as he announced,
“My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.”
Soon after this, Germany did, in fact, invade Czechoslovakia.
The phrase “peace at any price” is strongly associated with Chamberlain but in fact, it was first famously used by Theodore Roosevelt. In 1917, Roosevelt was long out of office but still took a major interest in politics. The former Rough Rider was agitating for the US to enter World War I. In a letter to his friend S. Stanwood Mencken, Roosevelt wrote:
Americanism means the virtues of courage, honor, justice, truth, sincerity, and hardihood—the virtues that made America. The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living and the get-rich-quick theory of life.
Roosevelt’s phrase, peace at any price, retains its scornful power and is still used to indicate a cowardly, short-sighted policy. In the year 2000, as President Bill Clinton’s term was ending, the Wall Street Journal lambasted Clinton’s attempt to reach a deal with North Korea. “Peace at Any Price?” read the headline.
Six years later, a headline in the USF Oracle, also lamenting the failure of US diplomacy with North Korea, read, “Peace at any price can be worse than war.”
That same year, a book written by two former United Nations staffers appeared, criticizing the international community’s actions (or lack of action) in Kosovo. The book, titled Peace at Any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo, analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the international effort and has been read as a broader critique of the UN’s peacekeeping efforts around the world.