For many Americans, World War II remains the Great Crusade. For George W. Bush, John McCain, and legions of Churchill-worshipping neoconservatives, it is that and more: they take from the war—especially the war against Hitler—“lessons” that must inform current American statecraft. Patrick Buchanan disagrees. In Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, a book critically reviewed for TAC by historian John Lukacs, he depicts the war as an avoidable disaster and object lesson in what not to do.
Revisionism is the lifeblood of history. Facts may not change, but with the passage of time perspective can. Perhaps the moment is ripe for Americans to take a fresh look at World War II, one that might revolve around the following questions:
Do the war’s canonical lessons, such as Munich, retain their instructive power, or does the war offer other lessons of greater relevance? Does Churchill provide a model of statesmanship useful for American presidents? What about the largely forgotten Pacific War? Are there other wars, for example, the Great War of 1914-18 in which Churchill also figured prominently, that might offer more when it comes to illuminating the present?
While it would be impossible to respond to all of these questions in a brief essay, we invited several TAC contributors to use them as guideposts in offering their own interpretations of the lessons of World War II.
How could Americans not think of World War II as “the good war”? We were victors. Our cities weren’t burned, our towns not occupied, our civilians not starved or slaughtered. Our battlefield casualties, nearly a million killed and wounded, were the heaviest in American history but lighter than other major combatants’. In terms of military and economic power—not the sole measure but important in assessing world politics—the war’s outcome was overwhelmingly favorable to the United States.
But most victories carry the seeds of their own undoing: 1945 left America more prone to seek military solutions than the chastened and war-exhausted Europeans. And, of course, the victory was partial. No one could claim that Hungary, Poland, or Czechoslovakia was liberated by the conflict, though as “captive nations” they were able to breathe and eventually played noble roles in the decomposition of communism. Today they have become part of a Western world in which human rights are enshrined and no one fears the knock on the door in the middle of the night.
This accomplishment should never be taken for granted. One needs to remember how the world appeared in the prewar ’30s, and indeed in the early postwar years, when the most plausible political trendline in the West pointed to a forced march toward some variant of Orwell’s dystopia.
Indeed, these deeper social and political trends, barely discussed in Pat Buchanan’s book, formed the psychological backdrop for the flawed diplomacy that preceded the war. By the late 1930s, the Western democracies were gripped by lassitude. While Britain and France had stumbled though the Depression, few believed their democracies were the wave of the future. The energy belonged to the totalitarian alternatives. Probably most intellectuals were Marxists, the lion’s share of them committed Stalinists—acolytes and propagandists for a murderous dictatorship that had starved millions of its own citizens though forced collectivization. This regime of the “necessary murder” was what many of the West’s bien pensants aspired to. For the rest, the virile alternative was fascism: order, modernism, trains on time, a vigorous and—to its admirers—poetic mass politics for anti-Marxists. By contrast, the bourgeois and social-democratic parties seemed exhausted. It is no surprise that occupied France saw the cream of its young writers dive into open collaboration.
Yet the politicians of the old, still ruling parties could not shirk their duty to make choices. Was Stalin the more dangerous enemy or was Hitler? To what extent was Hitler, as Buchanan and before him A.J.P. Taylor have argued, simply pursuing traditional German statecraft, seeking escape from the terms of Versailles and an ingathering of German peoples? To argue this, it helps to overlook not only Hitler’s writings—about which there was nothing traditional—but also the dynamics of his regime. It is true that the commitment to carry out the Holocaust was not made until 1942. But the Nazi regime virtually from its inception meant concentration camps, the end of political freedom, mass arrests, and a free pass for Nazi street thugs. German foreign policy was eventually seen as an extension of that brutality so that after 1938, even those inclined to appease Hitler no longer believed it possible. There was some time lag before these perceptions became set in more distant America.
But that would change as well: the America First position, decidedly popular in 1939, was beginning to lose the battle for public opinion by the spring of 1940. The instinctive healthy reflex of steering clear of Europe’s affairs was overtaken by recognition that a Nazi-dominated Europe would change America. To maintain its independence in such a world, Washington faced the prospect of becoming a garrison state with a large standing army—something Americans had always resisted. The success of Hitlerism threatened, if not directly America, the American way of life.
The questions we ask today about Chamberlain, Churchill, and Munich may be too specific. Should Britain have fought Hitler in 1938 or waited a year or two until its crash program of fighter-plane production was well underway? This is not easy even for the specialist to answer. Nevertheless, the Munich deferral of war has become a potent symbol. In the 1960s, the American foreign-policy elite was in deep thrall to its lessons—and consequently tried to demonstrate how well they had learned them in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Today Munich is more an invented lesson—nearer to what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “boob bait for the bubbas”—used as propaganda for the Iraq War and for starting a fresh war with Iran.
The current Iraq morass is in part an outgrowth of the strategy the United States adopted without discussion at the end of the Cold War—that of seeking unilateral global hegemony. Making the United States stronger militarily in every part of the world than any regional power was deemed vital to American security. The neoconservatives were explicit in advocating this, but mainstream liberals hardly objected. Virtually the entire bipartisan Washington establishment now considers it normal that the United States spends as much militarily as the rest of the world combined.
In America’s own pursuit of world hegemony, historical analogies suggest themselves—but not Munich, when Britain and the United States were woefully under-armed compared to Germany. Look instead to German conduct in the prelude to the First World War, when the Reich, the most powerful state in the world, felt itself encircled, while its military and diplomatic leaders grotesquely exaggerated the threats they faced. If Germany didn’t confront tsarist Russia then, the opportunity would be lost: preventive war was the much discussed option. Learned men in the thrall of worst-case thinking were blind to the ways Germany’s outward thrusts of power were perceived by others.
Future historians will ponder the attitudes of the contemporary American establishment, leading a country armed to the gills, desperate to convince itself that it faces existential threats from minor powers, its spirit at once fearful and bullying. We might pray that analogies to Wilhelmine Germany never fit too well.
Thomas E. Woods Jr.
Patrick J. Buchanan deserves respect for blasting open an important historical question that the gatekeepers of allowable opinion probably assumed they had welded shut. According to the official version of American history, we are supposed to draw from World War II only a series of neat lessons about “appeasement” and our government’s unquenchable thirst for justice. Innocently wondering if there might have been some alternative to 50 million deaths and the most terrible war in history is enough to make you an object of suspicion—what are you, some kind of extremist?
Even from parts of the Right, the subject of World War II elicits the shrill denunciations, the smears, and the unchallengeable orthodoxies for which conservatives have traditionally condemned the politically correct Left. Buchanan may be wrong (though I do not think he is), but there is nothing wicked or perverse about considering contrary-to-fact scenarios in light of historical evidence. His prose is measured and non-polemical, and his judgments, which are shared by a great many historians and other figures of distinction, deserve to be considered on their merits. Claims that Buchanan’s version of history is politically motivated can hardly be taken seriously, especially coming from people who have made comfortable livings out of distorting the historical record on behalf of their own foreign-policy ambitions.
Munich is the most obvious example. Counting on popular ignorance, neoconservatives never weary of applying the “lessons of Munich” to modern American foreign policy. These so-called lessons turn out to be a decontextualized muddle of half-crazed maxims about the pointlessness of negotiation, the self-serving fraudulence of all enemy grievance claims, and the risk that unless the United States responds with overwhelming force to the slightest modification of the status quo—the justice or injustice of which is not up for discussion—we’ll soon be speaking Ruritanian. Cartoon history begets cartoon policy.
If only the matter had been as simple as modern propaganda about Munich would have it. In 1919, in defiance of the much heralded principle of self-determination, 3 million Germans had been consigned to what became second-class status in the new Czechoslovakia. German grievances, most of which were considered reasonable by just about everyone, had to be addressed one way or another if an endless cycle of war and punishment was to be avoided.
In other words, crushing Germany in a war over the Sudetenland would merely have returned Europe to square one: more punitive peace terms, further German resentment, and yet another episode of hyperpatriotic German politics aimed at revenge. Diplomats in the real world, denounced today as fools and appeasers, had a difficult situation on their hands as they approached this problem.
Buchanan makes a strong case against Britain giving a war guarantee to Poland rather than drawing a realistic line in the West that Hitler could not cross without risking war. George Kennan, as mainstream as they come, said so in a letter to Buchanan in 1999. And Ernest May, my old professor at Harvard, noted, “a government that a half-year earlier had resisted going to war for a faraway country with democratic institutions, well-armed military forces, and strong fortifications, now promised with no apparent reservations to go to war for a dictatorship with less-than-modern armed forces and wide-open frontiers.” A swashbuckling Polish regime was thus given the power to decide whether Britain would be drawn into war, a war Britain was absurdly unprepared to wage, much less win.
The number of politicians—and, later, historians—who considered Chamberlain’s war guarantee reckless and ill advised will surprise most readers. Lloyd George called it a “frightful gamble” and laughed out loud at the suggestion that it would deter Hitler. Even Churchill, in his official history, wondered (albeit disingenuously in light of his own position in 1939): “How could we protect Poland and make good our guarantee? … Here was a decision taken at the worst possible moment and on the least satisfactory ground, which must surely lead to the slaughter of tens of millions of people.”
Why should legitimate opinions like these be beyond the pale?
Probably the most important reason that free discussion of World War II—the diplomatic blunders, the Allied atrocities, all the what ifs—has been frowned upon or suppressed is that some people perceive an implicit disregard for the unspeakable fate of Europe’s Jews. Yet it was the war itself that put Europe’s Jewish populations in danger in the first place, an obvious point that has been missed by all but a few writers.
In February 1942, for example, Goebbels wrote in his diaries, “World Jewry will suffer a great catastrophe. … The Führer realizes the full implications of the great opportunity offered by this war.” A month later, after describing the deportations from Poland’s ghettos, Goebbels observed, “Fortunately, a whole series of possibilities presents itself for us in wartime that would be denied us in peacetime. We shall have to profit by this.”
“Because Britain issued the war guarantee to Poland and declared war on Germany,” writes Buchanan, “by June 1941 Hitler held hostage most of the Jews of Western Europe and the Balkans.” If he’s right, then with more sensible British diplomacy, the Jewish populations of Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Holland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, and Yugoslavia would have survived, just as the Jewish populations of Sweden, Switzerland, and the Iberian Peninsula did.
David Gordon, a (Jewish) scholar Buchanan thanks in his acknowledgments, has likewise wondered in light of all this: “Was it not a clear moral imperative to avoid the outbreak of war and, if possible, to secure the evacuation of the Jews from parts of Europe likely to fall under German control? Further, once war broke out, was it not imperative to end the war as soon as possible?” This, surely, is a morally serious position.
No one would have begrudged Buchanan a quiet retirement. He chose instead to re-examine a historical episode that all sectors of society treat with religious reverence, knowing full well how his work, which most of his opponents would not bother to read, would be received. But once the guardians of acceptable opinion have finished venting their spleens at what a scoundrel Buchanan is for not dutifully repeating the things he was taught in seventh grade, normal people may begin to evaluate his thesis rationally. The existence of this symposium suggests that that process may have begun.
Thomas E. Woods, Jr., is the New York Times bestselling author of eight books, including, most recently, Who Killed the Constitution?: The Fate of American Liberty From World War I to George W. Bush (with Kevin R.C. Gutzman).
For historians, World War II revisionism is likely to remain a tough sell. The process of enshrining the conflict of 1939-45 as the “Good War” has now advanced to the point of being all but irreversible. The war’s canonical lessons, especially those relating to the perils of appeasement, have permanently etched themselves in our collective consciousness.
The problem with this orthodox interpretation is not that it’s wrong but that it is inadequate. The reflexive tendency to see every antagonist as another Hitler (or Stalin) and every sensitive diplomatic encounter as a potential Munich (or Yalta) has produced an approach to statecraft that is excessively militarized, needlessly inflexible, and insufficiently imaginative. The remedy is not to engage in a vain effort to change the way Americans remember World War II, however, but to restore that conflict to its proper context.
Ripped out of context, the war, especially the struggle against Nazi Germany, has become a parable. Whatever their value as a source of moral instruction, parables offer less help when it comes to understanding international politics. Parables simplify—and to simplify the past is necessarily to distort it.
The neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz illustrates how this penchant for treating World War II as a parable yields distorted and even mischievous results. Since 9/11, he has insistently argued that the correct name for the conflict commonly known as the global war on terror is actually “World War IV.” Podhoretz’s logic runs like this: the Cold War was really “World War III,” essentially a replay of World War II, the threat posed by communism serving as a variant of the old threat posed by fascism. For Podhoretz, the horrific events of September 2001 thrust the West back to the days of September 1939. The imperative of the moment was to launch yet another crusade on behalf of freedom and democracy, this time against a third totalitarian ideology that Podhoretz labeled “Islamofascism.” All that was needed was a new Winston Churchill to lead this crusade, and Podhoretz found his man, however improbably, in George W. Bush.
Strangely absent from Podhoretz’s narrative is the event that actually touched off this sequence of global conflicts and without which World Wars II and III—not to mention IV—would never have occurred. I refer here, of course, to the epic bloodletting of 1914-18, for a time known as “the Great War.”
Podhoretz gets away with ignoring World War I because the vast majority of his fellow citizens are similarly predisposed. For present-day Americans, the enterprise once fervently, then derisively, referred to as “the war to end all wars” possesses about as much political and cultural salience as Shays’ Rebellion.
This marginalization of World War I is unfortunate. In fact, that conflagration and the peacemaking process that followed offer a mother lode of instruction for American policymakers today.
World War I does not easily reduce to a parable. Even a polemicist as talented as Podhoretz would be hard pressed to render it as a story pitting good against evil or freedom against totalitarianism. It was instead a vast, complex, and utterly avoidable tragedy, a war of empires on behalf of empire. A handful of naïve and stupid statesmen, who fancied that in war lay the solution to all manner of problems, inflicted incalculable moral and material damage upon Western civilization, while accelerating the decline of European power and leaving a poisonous legacy.
Doing his part to spread those poisons was none other than Winston Churchill, celebrated by Norman Podhoretz as the central figure in the reduction of World War II to a parable. As a member of the war cabinet, Churchill made contributions to British policy in World War I that are at least as worthy of study today as his contributions to World War II.
For example, as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, Churchill conceived of the Gallipoli campaign. To appropriate a term from our own day, this amphibious invasion of Turkey was expected to be a “cakewalk” opening up any number of additional opportunities. It turned out to be a disaster that consumed the lives of tens of thousands of British, French, and Anzac soldiers while accomplishing nothing. Gallipoli still stands as a warning to those who fancy that military power offers the means to transform the Islamic world.
After the armistice of 1918, as secretary of state for the colonies, Churchill played an important role in redrawing the map of the Middle East. The purpose of this exercise was not to advance the cause of freedom and democracy but to extend British hegemony and control of Persian Gulf oil. One result of this effort was to invent the nation-state of Iraq, which soon became and remains a source of instability and disorder, although these days the United States rather than Great Britain foots most of the bills.
So let us by all means venerate the Winston Churchill who warned of the threat posed by Hitler and who inspired Britons to make their lonely stand against Nazi Germany in 1940, thereby stirring so many American hearts as well. Yet let us also remember the Churchill who did so much to bollix up the Middle East and to create the conditions that gave rise to the utterly avoidable tragedy that is Podhoretz’s World War IV.
We can learn much not only from the Good Winston but from the Bad Winston as well.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is The Limits of Power, published by Metropolitan Books.
Where would we be without Hitler? He is the indispensable bad guy. If you want to unite people in hate, Hitler is your man. Five years ago, Saddam Hussein was the new Hitler. A couple of weeks ago in Parliament Square—where hard-core Marxists and clapped-out hippies were demonstrating against the farewell visit to London of the American president—George W. Bush was the new Hitler, again. Not so long ago, Ariel Sharon was the new Hitler. And Robert Mugabe actually refers to himself, with spiteful irony, as the “black Hitler,” as if being a regular Hitler were not good enough.
This obsession is a price we pay for Allied victory in World War II, though we might be equally obsessed, though less vocal about it, if we’d lost the war. In real life, Hitler was demoniac, a cruel and vicious tyrant and a racist of the most appalling depravity. One should not really need to make the point, but if you are going to bat for Patrick J. Buchanan, you really have no choice in the matter because Buchanan has challenged the postwar geopolitical consensus and by doing so has placed himself beyond the pale. Victor Davis Hanson and Sir Christopher Hitchens, two of civilization’s most formidable defenders, have expressed their grave displeasure.
The consensus Buchanan has challenged holds that World War II was the Good War, the necessary war, precisely because it was against Hitler. If, therefore, you suggest that the war was neither good nor necessary, as Buchanan does, you open yourself to charges of, at best, indifference to the suffering of Jews (and all other people murdered by Hitler) and, at worst, of Nazi sympathies. Or maybe, if you are lucky, of nothing more shameful than stupidity.
I like Pat Buchanan and I admire him. He is a brave and good man and a brilliant journalist. He is by no means the first to express skepticism about the propaganda of the victors, however. More than 40 years ago, in The Origins of the Second World War, A.J.P. Taylor observed that the Poles lost 6.5 million dead in World War II and the Czechs fewer than 100,000, and famously asked, “Which was better—to be a betrayed Czech or a saved Pole?” Only a Pole would be crazy enough to answer without hesitation: a saved Pole.
Most of Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War is devoted to a history of the origins and conduct of World War II, but Buchanan’s principal concern is with its long-term consequences. His message: the so-called lessons of the war years—that Munich was the ultimate betrayal and that you must never negotiate with bad guys—are a fraud, and a dangerous one, and it is because of that fraud that we are in Iraq.
If Bush’s enemies think he is the new Hitler, his friends—such as remain—think he is the new Churchill. There is a Churchill cult in the White House, writes Buchanan, which after 9/11 “helped to persuade an untutored president that the liberation of Iraq from Saddam would be like the liberation of Europe from Hitler. … In the triumphant aftermath of a ‘cakewalk’ war, democracy would put down roots in the Middle East … and George W. Bush would enter history as the Churchill of his generation, while the timid souls who opposed his war of liberation would be exposed as craven appeasers.”
It didn’t work out like that. Instead of a remake of “The Longest Day,” poor Bush got a horror movie. As Buchanan observes, “With all our braying about being the ‘indispensable nation’ and ‘Bring ’em on’ braggadocio, we exhibited an imperial hubris the whole world came to detest.”
So far so good, so far so true. But was World War II—the neocons’ all-time favorite war—a bad war in itself, as Buchanan maintains? It was, even though the destruction of Hitler and Hitlerism was an undoubted good. Not only did we reduce ourselves to the level of war criminals by killing hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians in our bombing raids, but, considered globally, the overall cost of the war was horrifying, and so were the consequences: 50 million dead, the triumph of Stalin in half of Europe and of the equally savage Mao in China.
Was it, as Buchanan insists, unnecessary? I can quite see that it could in theory have been avoided, but—and here’s the real question—so what if it could have been? It was not avoided. You can play “what if?” until the cows come home, and it will make no difference to what was, and what is, and what will be. Besides, the war does seem to me to have been necessary, at any rate, in the sense that it was unavoidable. It is hard to see how Hitler could in the end have been accommodated, which is not to say that the appeasers were wrong to have tried to avoid war. Chamberlain was hailed as a hero when he returned from Munich in 1938, and if I’d been living, I would have joined the cheering crowds.
It is, of course, possible—as Buchanan argues—that if there had not been a war in the West, many fewer Jews would have died: no war, no Holocaust is Buchanan’s line. And yet… There would have been a war in the East, come what may, and it might have been far bloodier than the one that brought us Stalingrad, with its 1 million dead. We can’t just shrug our shoulders at that possibility. Chamberlain behaved honorably in trying to avoid war, and he behaved honorably in going to war.
Buchanan has no doubt that the moral responsibility for the war rests with Hitler, but at times displays what seems like an obsessive hostility to Churchill and talks of the two world wars as “Churchill’s wars.” That’s not going to play well in my corner of England. As perhaps the only contributor to this symposium that Hitler tried to kill—I was a 2-year-old in London when the V2s were falling—I am forced to say, in my best Cockney: leave it aht, Pat.
That’s one difficulty I have with Buchanan. The other is that he remains a convinced cold warrior and has what strikes me as an unrealistically high opinion of Ronald Reagan. If you are going to oppose wars of choice—liberal imperialism, at any rate—you really ought to question the gung-ho, missile-wielding anticommunist rhetoric of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Buchanan believes we did not have to fight Hitler, but he sometimes seems upset that we did not fight Stalin.
As it happens, I was a keen cold warrior myself and still believe the communists presented a convincing threat: the Soviet Union, after all, really did have weapons of mass destruction. But Vietnam? It seemed a good idea to some of us at the time—I was a noisy supporter—but it now looks increasingly stupid and ugly. Over 58,000 American soldiers and 2 million Vietnamese civilians died, and the communists won. And the dominoes did not fall. Perhaps Vietnam should be chalked up as another success of the military-industrial complex Buchanan so rightly deplores. Perhaps Iraq is really the new Vietnam.
Stuart Reid writes from London.
Even with the passage of some seven decades, the events of the 1930s have the capacity to ignite the passions of historians and policy analysts. They—or at least Winston S. Churchill’s rendering of them—have provided the myths, metaphors, and images that still shape the discourse about American foreign policy: falling dominoes, insatiably aggressive dictators, and the folly of trying to “appease”—that is, conduct diplomacy with—non-democratic regimes.
In arguing that Winston Churchill helped bring on World War II, Pat Buchanan aimed at the wrong target. The perniciousness of Churchill’s role lies not in his contribution to the march to war but in the way he shaped historical memory of the events of that portentous decade.
During the 1930s, Churchill was sidelined politically and had no discernible influence on British policy. By the time he joined the cabinet in August 1939, the critical decisions that led Britain into World War II had already been made. But Churchill painted an infinitely more heroic picture of his role during the 1930s: that of a modern-day Cassandra. In The Gathering Storm, Churchill alleged that—except for him—British leaders were willfully blind to the German threat and failed to meet it by rearming. Had Britain followed a different—Churchillian—policy during the 1930s, he claimed, the disasters of 1940, and possibly war itself, might have been avoided.
Of course, Churchill did not aspire to write an objective history. As David Reynolds reminds us in his splendid In Command of History, Churchill’s dominant motive was “to show that he was right, or at least as right as it seemed credible to claim.” With respect to the events of the 1930s, Churchill wanted to prove that “the Second World War broke out because his policies were not adopted.” But when the British archives were opened in the late 1960s, historians realized that Churchill’s version of events was distorted.
British leaders—especially Chamberlain—were not blind to the German threat and rearmed against it by building up the Royal Air Force and Navy. Under Chamberlain’s direction, London adopted a sophisticated strategy that aimed to combine diplomacy and deterrence to avoid war while allowing Britain to retain its empire and hold on to world-power status. Reynolds observes that during the 1930s, “Churchill was broadly at one with Chamberlain” with respect to British strategic priorities. In a real sense, therefore, The Gathering Storm was a work of self-revisionism.
The one substantive policy difference between Chamberlain and Churchill was over a possible “Grand Alliance” with the Soviet Union to oppose Hitler. Churchill advocated this, but as Chamberlain knew from British intelligence reports—the accuracy of which has been confirmed by the opening of the Soviet archives—Stalin’s plan was not to have the Soviet Union stand up to Hitler, but to pass the buck to Britain and France. For a variety of reasons, Churchill’s proposed Grand Alliance was never a viable strategic option during the late 1930s.
Chamberlain was playing a weak hand because Britain’s position was a textbook case of strategic overstretch: London had too many enemies (Japan and Italy in addition to Germany), too few allies, and not enough resources to deal with its geopolitical challenges. As the archives show, Chamberlain was never an advocate of “peace at any price.” He made clear that Britain would resist direct German aggression in Western Europe but—like all post-1919 British governments—did not regard Britain’s vital interests as being at stake in East Central Europe.
Chamberlain and his colleagues had good reasons not to go to war over Czechoslovakia during the September 1938 Munich crisis. As early as March, following the Anschluss, Britain’s highest political and military leaders had correctly concluded that there was nothing Britain and France could do to prevent Germany from overrunning the Czechs. British leaders also understood that a conflict over Czechoslovakia would not remain a limited affair but would quickly escalate into a world war that would imperil Britain’s empire. Chamberlain, his foreign secretary Lord Halifax, and the British chiefs of staff understood that taking up arms on the Czechs’ behalf was nothing more than a pretext for fighting a preventive war—an option they rejected on the grounds that, as Halifax put it, there was no sense in fighting a certain war now to avoid a possibly uncertain war later.
Buchanan stands in good company with historians in arguing that the Polish guarantee was a mistake. Strategically, the arguments against going to war over Poland were just as strong—for the same reasons—as the case for not fighting over Czechoslovakia. The British guaranteed Poland not because the geopolitical picture changed but because the domestic political balance of power in London shifted between September 1938 and March 1939, when German troops marched into Prague. In issuing the guarantee, Britain fulfilled Stalin’s fondest wishes by entangling Germany in a war with Britain and France and deflecting its expansion from east to west; allowing the Soviet Union to make territorial gains in East Central Europe; and offering the prospect that the Soviet Union’s relative power would increase as the Western powers and Germany bled each other in another great European war.
Far from being the naïve appeaser portrayed by Churchill, Chamberlain was a hard-edged realist who was willing to sacrifice small countries like Abyssinia and Czechoslovakia to achieve his larger strategic objectives. He believed that his responsibility was to uphold British interests rather than to defend abstract principles like “collective security” or normative concerns about the fates of small nations. To be sure, Chamberlain’s strategy failed. But far from proving that his approach was bad, this failure demonstrated that Hitler was a unique phenomenon in international politics: a leader who could be neither deterred nor appeased. One of the great ironies of Churchill’s legacy is that a one-off event has been transmuted into a set of universal rules of statecraft.
Long after those who made it have died, history matters. The purported “lessons of the past” derived from the 1930s have been invoked to justify virtually every major American military intervention from the Korean War to the invasion of Iraq. But these lessons have been transformed from analogy into myth. Unlike analogies—the validity of which can be contested (if not definitively resolved) by normal modes of scholarly inquiry—myths are beyond question. When elites bring myths into play, they do so not to promote debate over policy but to silence dissent by delegitimizing their opponents.
The Churchillian narrative has acquired a myth-like status in America’s foreign-policy discourse and is invoked by U.S. elites to claim that there is no alternative to America’s expansive post-1945 world role and to discredit critics by equating grand strategic restraint with isolationism and appeasement. Since 2001, the Bush administration and its neoconservative supporters have regularly invoked this myth to gain support for, and shut down opposition to, their policies on Iraq, Iran, terrorism, and their uncritical support for Israel (which they compare to 1938 Czechoslovakia).
Debunking the Churchillian myth about the 1930s—getting history right—is a vital step toward restoring intellectual integrity to the ongoing debate about American grand strategy. By rekindling interest in this period of history, Pat Buchanan has performed an important service regardless of whether one agrees with all the details of his argument.
Christopher Layne is a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University’s George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service and is author of The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present. His article on Neville Chamberlain’s grand strategy will appear in the Fall 2008 issue of Security Studies.
Ted Galen Carpenter
The World War II experience is so pervasive in American culture that it’s nearly imprinted on the national DNA. People who know nothing about other periods of U.S. and world history know—or think they know—the lessons of World War II. The pop-culture version is roughly as follows: Weak and naïve Western leaders, especially British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, foolishly attempted to appease Adolf Hitler at Munich, but their supine behavior merely emboldened him, and Nazi aggression soon engulfed Europe. The heroic Franklin Roosevelt tried to rouse the American people to join the fight before it was too late, but he had to overcome the resistance of shortsighted isolationists. Ultimately, Japan—Germany’s ally—forced the issue of American involvement by launching an unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. then assumed its essential role as world leader, which apparently it must continue to play forever.
Three generations of American policymakers and pundits have regarded the war’s lessons as indisputable. First, aggression must always be halted at the outset, wherever it surfaces. Appeasement merely whets the appetites of aggressors and leads to larger, more destructive conflicts under less favorable circumstances for peace-loving nations. Second, no adverse development anywhere in the world is entirely irrelevant to the security and well-being of the United States. Arguments to the contrary reflect flawed isolationist thinking and risk repeating the strategy that nearly produced a totalitarian-dominated planet.
A few brave souls occasionally question this orthodoxy. They invariably receive torrents of abuse. Pat Buchanan has experienced that response twice: in 1999, with the publication of a chapter on World War II in A Republic, Not an Empire, and now with the appearance of Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War.
The argument that the United States could and should have remained on the sidelines in World War II is not entirely convincing—at least with respect to the European theater. It assumes that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would have exhausted themselves in a stalemated struggle, and the United States and other Western powers would then have been well positioned to pick up the pieces after the collapse of the two totalitarian giants. The situation might have worked out that way, but such a strategy would have been high-risk. It is equally possible that either Germany or the USSR would have scored a decisive victory and then dominated all of Europe. A Soviet-controlled continent would have been catastrophic; a Europe dominated by Nazi Germany and its volatile, extremely aggressive dictator would have been even worse. Roosevelt deserves criticism for the deceitful way in which he maneuvered America toward war, but his alarm at the danger a totalitarian Europe could pose to America was not misplaced.
The Pacific theater was different. Japan’s expansionism, while brutal, was not dramatically worse than some European empire-building in the 19th century. With better diplomacy, America probably could have reached a modus vivendi with Japan and avoided war. Instead of seeking pragmatic solutions, however, the Roosevelt administration presented Tokyo with a laundry list of unrealistic and humiliating demands—couched in moralistic, sermonizing terms worthy of the Democratic Party’s sainted hero Woodrow Wilson. When the Japanese government did not capitulate, Washington ratcheted up the pressure through economic sanctions, including an oil embargo that threatened to strangle Japan’s economy and military. The predictable result was war.
Whether or not America’s entry into World War II was wise, the supposed lessons of the conflict have distorted U.S. foreign policy and suffocated prudent strategies for more than six decades. American officials and pundits have portrayed an array of tin-pot dictators as the reincarnation of Hitler: Kim Il-Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld even tried to equate the clownish Hugo Chavez with Hitler. The notion that decrepit, third-rate powers such as North Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq, and Venezuela could ever compare to Nazi Germany—which had the world’s second-largest economy and a modern, extremely capable military—would be humorous if U.S. leaders did not base policy on that fallacy.
Overuse of the Munich analogy impelled U.S. policymakers to intervene in Vietnam. The argument was that failure to block Hanoi’s bid to reunify the country under a communist regime would lead to a cascade of “wars of national liberation” and produce a third world war. The Clinton administration similarly invoked the specter of Europe degenerating into chaos to justify meddling in the Bosnian civil war. And the image of Saddam Hussein as rapacious aggressor became the rationale for the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
This habit of applying the World War II template to U.S. policy in vastly different circumstances has led to threat inflation and strategic overextension. In just the past two decades, the United States has used significant military force on ten occasions, in places as diverse as Panama, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf. That record belies President Bush’s soothing assurances that the United States regards the use of force as a last resort. Equally worrisome, Washington extends security commitments to more and more small, militarily useless client states that have parochial quarrels with large neighbors. America is now on the hook to defend Taiwan from China and the tiny Baltic republics from Russia. We are on the brink of interfering in the spat between Russia and Georgia over the political status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Basic prudence should scream a warning against incurring such risks.
But the fear that even the most mundane and obscure conflicts could trigger another global conflagration has rendered American policymakers incapable of distinguishing serious threats from lesser problems—or even trivial developments. To hawks, it is always 1938, and every adversary is the next Hitler.
Americans must get beyond such thinking, or our country risks an endless series of Vietnam and Iraq-style debacles—if not something even worse. World War II was an exceptional situation, not the norm in international affairs. We should give the Munich analogy a long overdue burial.
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.
Just saying “World War II” is like scratching extra opinion on some great basalt stele. World War II was not a great event: rather, it is the American sacred. Invoking it is not retelling history but repeating homily. Its spare and tight four-year story is the heart of our national narrative.
The power of the World War II sacred comes across like a jolt: just feeling the passion from readers’ comments on Patrick Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War and the review here by John Lukacs is like underscoring with a razor.
We have seen the World War II sacred trumpeted in full during the 9/11 war. Its ancient rhetoric has been this administration’s neon rod and staff, its fire and brimstone: Munich, Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge. For seven years, political opposition has simply withered before the stainless authority of World War II.
This is the power of American holy war. Our great wars are crystallizing moments along the path of our religious nationalism: defining, reinterpreting, and celebrating ourselves.
But so it has been for all modernity. In the world of religious nationalism, war has operated like a liturgy. Its narrative cycle has been a touchstone story in which a people struggle, sacrifice, and transcend. The form of the rite—shared by so many cultures—should look familiar:
A threat to existence suddenly looms … the evil face of the enemy (that we had refused to see) is at once revealed … there is a national awakening … the Oath is sealed as the nation’s pledge … the Leader arises … and then comes the sacrifice of the pure, the pious, the young … there is a culminating moment of sacrifice and then national transcendence … the enemy is laid low and forever vanquished … and, in triumph, the nation is reunited and a world delivered from darkness.
This is the liturgy of religious nationalism; the grand creation of Western modernity. At its cresting, it was the world of Churchill’s young manhood. The great struggle of nations—and its irresistible, sacred promises—became his personal emotional focal point. Churchill knew the power of the ritual sacred as well as any man in modernity, and he knew how to invoke the juju of its anointed language.
This was not idle fantasy. In the formative zeitgeist of Churchill’s political rise, looming German power merged into existential threat. This was an almost atavistic British storyline going back to Napoleon. For Churchill, it instantly overturned the easy, dreamy narrative of Victoria’s empire resplendent, fearing nothing more than French Third Republic ironclads and tsarist commerce raiders. Now came the hard light of the 20th century.
So Kipling’s loving carapace was thrown off in many deep ways as insufficiently mythic for Kipling’s pupils—England’s earnest boys. As Churchill emerged from the compleat Victorian, he sought the far grander literary realization that a rising hard heroic promised.
We need to position Churchill in the new century’s framing of British sacred narrative—the story that consumed his mature life from Kaiser to Nazi to Commissar. Lurid as his historical recounting of evil nemeses became in branded prose, their persona nonetheless in his rhetoric represented the agents of glorious epiphany: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” His vision of Britain’s eternal greatness—his own apotheosis—desperately needed threats darkly mythic and heroic.
Paradoxically, when World War I crushed so much of the British spirit, it drove him on. Churchill’s life mission became exhuming and reanimating his mythical British Empire and restoring its true “Crown Imperial.” Above all, Churchill was attuned to the limitless opportunity his insight and its messaging power gave him. With every book he wrote, he enlarged the electric perimeter of English sacred war.
Because he so authentically inhabited this world, he could effortlessly step into the heart of its liturgy. So his own personally transcendent act—that leap of faith in 1940—instantly remade the awkward and doomed war of Chamberlain and Halifax. He saved Britain with sacred language that would have been laughed out of court just months before.
But he did something more, too. He began to script a new and bigger narrative—that of the Churchillian Mahdi. It is this that so heaps and tasks us Americans, and for good reason. This is what he did:
The Second World War became indistinguishable from his same-titled six-volume epic. Our American sacred narrative became The History of the English-Speaking Peoples. And our world-historical task became the dutiful discharging of his Fulton, Missouri charge of Iron Curtain and the Cold War—his Cold War.
Churchill’s rhetoric, so centrally mythic for Britons in 1940, became the organizing rhetoric of America in the Cold War, and he became The Man.
There was never any question that this man would be at the center of history. Samuel Hoare quipped, “Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it ‘The World Crisis’”—and he could pull this off in World War I. But he was bigger and smarter than narcissism.
Beyond even his worshipful acolytes today, Churchill achieved this: through his reification as American Mahdi—greater even than FDR—he effectively inserted himself and threaded his personal vision into American sacred narrative in the 9/11 war.
This status is not inconsiderable. Furthermore, it birthed no vague convening of cigar-circling puffers but rather a living brotherhood. The Churchillian Fraternity in America comes so much closer than, say, “neocon,” to revealing the inner reality of the 9/11 war.
The grand success of Winston Churchill was his interweaving of Victorian Imperial narrative—and all of its propaganda tropes—into the contemporary consciousness of American national identity after 1945. The proud fulfillment of his handiwork was that after 9/11, the Churchillian narrative instantly took over. In improbable and yet essential ways Winston Churchill has owned the 9/11 war. Moreover, he achieved this legitimacy because he truly understood the American mythic narrative cycle.
But here is the downside: most Americans do not want a “Crown Imperial” in their sacred story. Yet a boisterous minority still yearns. Indeed, we have watched them aggressively make it so these past seven years. Churchill’s success is thus a discordant visitation on America, helping to divide us as a nation.
In a sense, the battles on these pages represent Churchill’s real legacy and lesson for Americans. You cannot force an alien vision—even anointed by mythic provenance—on a people who want something different for humanity, whose national identity is rooted not in imperial destiny but in altruism here and salvation hereafter.
Michael Vlahos is principal professional staff at the National Security Analysis Department of The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. His latest book, Fighting Identity: War’s Liturgy and World Change, will be published in November.