I thought subscribers and more casual readers might want some comment about the decision to publish John Lukacs’s critical review of Pat Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War. The treatment of the book presented a dilemma. I and most of those seriously involved with TAC are admirers of Pat Buchanan: I believe he was more often correct on the major issues facing the country since the end of the Cold War than any other significant public figure. I admired his campaign of 1996, the fact that he—almost alone among Republican leaders—recognized that the American working class, a bulwark of the country’s democracy and social stability, was getting shafted in the hasty lurch toward globalization. I admired his sense of the limits of American power and of the dangers of hubris and overreach. I, too, was an immigration restrictionist. Pat’s tone on these issues was sometimes different from my own, sometimes the best I could imagine anyone’s could be. His challenge to the Israel lobby, first put forth during the run-up to the first Iraq war in 1990, was seen by many as overstated and reckless. But as I did with many of Pat’s other positions, I eventually came to think he was fundamentally correct.
I haven’t come to that opinion about his World War II views, which seem to me a reflection and a variant of the America First attitudes Pat grew up with. Indeed, I have long thought that the chances of some form of “conservatism of the heart” emerging as the dominant or at least a highly influential school of American conservatism—as it deserves to be—would have been far greater if Pat had published nothing whatsoever about World War II—not in his books, not in his newspaper columns. Indeed, I wonder if any serious person can doubt this.
History by its nature is subject to reinterpretation and revision because each new generation uses new lenses to examine how the world got the way it is. Nevertheless, few people who have spent much time looking at the primary source material of the 1930s can doubt that Hitler and his regime were the major cause of the massive suffering of World War II. Events could have taken different courses: the Western democracies were torn between appeasement, which they tried first, and deterrence, which they tried second. Neither worked. Perhaps if deterrence had been tried earlier, perhaps if appeasement was pursued more systematically, the destructive war could have been avoided. But at the time of the crucial decisions in the late 1930s, every statesman in Europe viewed Hitlerism as a dynamic, outward thrusting, revolutionary movement of extraordinary power, which had the potential to reshape Europe completely.
In several weeks, TAC will run a symposium dealing with some of these issues in a broader context, and the arguments made by Pat Buchanan will be at the center of several of the contributions. For now it suffices to say that Pat’s book is not the “monumental history” that his publisher claims but a provocative essay, following the lines that A.J.P Taylor and others forged earlier.
But provocative doesn’t necessarily mean persuasive. It is well outside of the scholarly consensus about the origins of World War II (though Pat’s views about World War I are much nearer to the mainstream). And outside of the consensus doesn’t necessarily mean correct.
Moreover, though this was plainly the furthest thing from Pat’s mind when he wrote the book, its thesis is devastating for antiwar conservatives. What of those of us who have spent the last five to ten years arguing that not every tinpot Balkan or Middle Eastern dictator whom The Weekly Standard decides to label “The New Hitler” is a serious threat to America? Are we now supposed to embrace the idea the real Hitler was not a great problem either? If one wanted to concoct a recipe for making antiwar conservatives completely irrelevant to contemporary America, this would be hard to improve upon.
One road TAC could have taken was to produce a gentle and tactful review, where disagreement is cushioned by pillows of paragraphs praising Pat Buchanan, encouraging every American read this provocative essay. Tom Fleming of Chronicles accomplished this elegantly: one has to read deeply and carefully into his review to realize that Fleming does not have an especially high opinion of the book. Instead, we decided to give The Unnecessary War to a major historian, an expert in this field, a man respected by Pat and quoted extensively in the book, and a man whose views of Churchill and Hitler and the war correspond more closely my own and those of most, but not all, of TAC’s editors.
Our readers and the wider world deserved to know where the magazine stood with regard to the stark choice Great Britain faced in the spring of 1940, when it chose to continue the war rather than seeking terms: Would it have been better for Hitler to have conquered Europe, yes or no? I believe that an argument forthrightly expressed was, in its own way, a show of respect for Pat and his case. It’s not a choice I would make differently, had I a do-over.