In the context of his usual call for “engagement” (rather than war) with nations who harbor “suspicion and fear” of America, President Obama in his inaugural speech of January 21 called for “peace in our time.”
Since it is hard to believe that any literate person, with or without Ivy League degrees, can fail to recognize the irony that has surrounded these words ever since Neville Chamberlain uttered them in September 1938 after signing the Munich Agreement with Hitler, just what did the president intend by them? Is it possible, even in these dark times, that neither the president nor anybody around him in his large cadre of speech writers and advisers, reviewing the speech before its delivery on such an occasion, took notice of them? With the single exception of Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post, no prominent representative of the chattering classes noticed them either. Not even the normally astute Charles Krauthammer, who is not only a relentless critic of the president but a certified psychiatrist conversant with and presumably on the lookout for, “Freudian slips,” thought to ask whether Obama had here committed a grievous error in speech and memory because of some unconscious, subdued wish or train of thought.
Let me venture a few possible interpretations, if only as aids to further reflection. They are a distillation of conversations I’ve had with several of my fellow septuagenarians, every one of whom, I should perhaps add, was jolted by hearing Obama’s call for “peace in our time.”
Interpretation One: This may have been an instance of what is sometimes called “The Ignorance of the Learned.” Recall, for example, that Obama used to make a habit of scornful references to the doctrine of “American exceptionalism” without having the faintest idea of what that term has traditionally meant, from Alexis De Tocqueville to Werner Sombart. On a far less exalted plane, in July of 2009, while proclaiming himself a dedicated Chicago White Sox fan he referred to the team’s long history in “Kaminsky Field” (previously known to all Chicagoans as Comiskey Park).
Interpretation Two: Obama is tone deaf to language, so that these four words pregnant with ironic meaning for people with a sense of history, were for him nothing more than another slogan. The same holds for his advisers and speechwriters. They may possess very expensive degrees, but their professors in Cambridge and New Haven and Morningside Heights probably lectured (if they did so at all) in blue jeans and sweatshirts, showing less respect for their work (and clients) than the ordinary shoe salesman at Macy’s does for his.
Interpretation Three: Obama’s call for peace in our time was indeed a Freudian slip, in which the speaker, quite unconsciously, reveals far more than he intends. That is to say, Chamberlain’s words emerged from the deepest unconscious recesses of Obama’s mind without his having any intention at all of recommending appeasement of Iran or al-Qaeda or the Islamic Brotherhood.
Interpretation Four: Obama meant exactly what he said, expected people to recognize Chamberlain’s words and understand that Barak Obama still believes that Chamberlain was right, and Winston Churchill wrong. Had the Washington weather been worse, he would have opened an umbrella.
Interpretation Five: Perhaps #4 gives Obama’s scant knowledge of Europe’s twentieth century history too much credit for relevant content. He certainly holds views similar to those of Neville Chamberlain , so he naturally falls into the use of Chamberlain-like expressions; but he hasn’t the slightest inkling of the actual Chamberlain who first uttered them. And it goes without saying that he has no room in his head for Winston Churchill’s verdict—and history’s—on the appeasement policy. Churchill told the House of Commons, while much of the British nation, including King George and the dowager Queen, were still cheering peacemaker Chamberlain: “England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war.” And who was right?