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Necessary Evil

Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, Patrick J. Buchanan, Crown, 501 pages

Patrick Buchanan’s new book contains two themes under one cover. One is addressed to the present, the other to the Second World War. One is his declaration that the American empire is in great and deep trouble—that, like the British Empire two thirds of a century ago, it is overextended and weak. The other is that the Second World War was a grievous mistake—that Britain (foremost: Churchill) and America should not have fought Hitler’s Germany. The two themes are not equivalent, and their treatment in this book is uneven. The vast majority of pages are about World War II. But in Buchanan’s mind the two themes are obviously inextricable, indeed, dependent on each other. For the purpose of a review, however, I must separate them.

That the present American empire is much overextended, overgrown, and at risk of all kinds of dangers, most of them willfully ignored by the American people and their politicians, is so. Buchanan deserves credit for having pointed this out, again and again, in his articles and books. But, alas, in his discussion of his larger thesis, his arguments are stamped by what we might call selective indignation or, more accurately, special pleading. (Indignation, after all, is almost always selective, while not every pleading is necessarily special.)

He claims that the transformation of the United States from a Republic to an empire was started by George W. Bush. What Bush has done and is still doing is, of course, lamentable. But the reaching out of American power all over the world, the fact that there are now American bases and missions in more than 700 places around the globe, the building of a 600-ship Navy, etc., began with Eisenhower and Dulles. It went on with Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and especially with Buchanan’s hero, Reagan, and then under Clinton. Already in 1956, Section Nine of the Republican Party platform called for “the establishment of American air and navy bases all around the world.” This was the party that so many liberal commentators still wrongly called “isolationist.” This was the party to which Patrick Buchanan adhered and the American foreign policy that he vocally thumped for until very recently.

The other trouble with Buchanan’s anti-imperialist thesis is his argument that what happened to the British Empire applies obviously to the present American one. There are two points against this. One is that history does not repeat itself, and the rise and decline of Britain’s empire was and remains quite different from the American situation. Buchanan’s argument is that the Second World War—more precisely, Churchill’s decision to resist Hitler, no matter what the cost—was a disaster for Western civilization but, more directly, for the British Empire itself. Yet the gradual liquidation of the British Empire, and the piecemeal acceptance by the British people of that, long preceded World War II.

The further and perhaps deeper problem is Buchanan’s sincerity. Since when has he been an admirer of the British Empire? There is no evidence for such an affection in his public or writing career until now. To the contrary, there is ample evidence of his conviction that the United States should not have supported Britain and its empire either in the First or in the Second World War.

Here I arrive at the main theme of this book. How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World is only its subtitle, its main title being Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War. This emphasis accords with what is—and has been for a long time—Buchanan’s view of history. The Second World War was an unnecessary war; a wrong war, especially involving Europe; it was wrong to fight Hitler; and Churchill was primarily, indeed principally, responsible. A man has, or more precisely chooses, his opinions. The choice, ever so often, depends on his inclinations. In this review it is not my proper business to speculate about Buchanan’s inclinations. I must restrict myself to questioning his arguments.

The British decision to offer an alliance to Poland in 1939 was a hasty one, replete with unintended consequences. Partly true. Hitler did not wish to destroy the British Empire. Partly true. He did want to destroy Communism and the Soviet Union. Partly true. Churchill was a warrior; he was obsessed with the danger of German power. Partly true. Hitler wanted to expel Jews from Europe but not to exterminate them, at least not while the former policy was still possible. Again, partly true. Or in other words, true but not true enough. Here is a difference between Patrick Buchanan and David Irving. The latter employs falsehoods; Buchanan employs half-truths. But, as Thomas Aquinas once put it, “a half-truth is more dangerous than a lie.”

The Second World War began in September 1939, with Hitler’s armies invading Poland. Buchanan writes that the British commitment to Poland was a stupid mistake and that the Poles should not have fought Hitler. Now here is an example of a special pleader’s method: selective quotation. Buchanan will quote A.J.P. Taylor when this suits him, as when Taylor wrote, “Only Danzig prevented cooperation between Germany and Poland.” (Taylor was wrong: all evidence shows that what Hitler wanted was a Poland bereft of any independence from Germany.) Of course, Buchanan will not cite Taylor’s four words describing Churchill: “The savior of England.”

Let me now raise the question: What would have happened if Britain and France had allowed Hitler to conquer Poland? After that he would have gone further east and then conquered the Soviet Union, with the acquiescence of the West. All to the good, Buchanan writes, since Communism was evil, more dangerous than German National Socialism. But there is—and there ought to be—no comparison here. Germany was part and parcel of European culture, civilization, and tradition. Russia was not. Stalin had a predecessor, Ivan the Terrible. Hitler had none. German National Socialist brutality was unprecedented. Russian brutality was not. Nationalism, not Communism, was the main political force in the 20th century, and so it is even now. When the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, perhaps as many as 10,000 Germans killed themselves, and not all of these had been Nazis. When the Soviet Union and Communist rule in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989, I do not know of a single Communist, whether in Russia or elsewhere, who committed suicide.

There was a consistency in Churchill’s view of Europe and of the world. To him, and for Britain, there were only two alternatives: either all of Europe dominated by Germany or the eastern half of Europe dominated by Russia, and half—especially the western half—of Europe was better than none. Besides, Churchill said that the Russians could swallow Eastern Europe but not digest it and that Communism would disappear from Eastern Europe before long. If Hitler had won the war, German rule would have been much more enduring.

This is not the first of Buchanan’s many expressions of his visceral and intellectual antipathy to Churchill. Irving’s main method in defending Hitler is to blacken all of Hitler’s opponents, foremost among them Churchill. But then he is obsessed with what is and what is not true of the Holocaust. Buchanan is not. In this book, Buchanan deprecates Hitler: in 1942 “he was absorbed in self-pity: and he was condemning his own people.” On page 383: Hitler’s was “an evil and odious regime.” But there is a fatal contradiction in Buchanan’s theses: Hitler’s regime—including, one may think, its expansion—was evil, but warring against him was unnecessary and wrong. Either thesis may be argued, but not both.    


John Lukacs is author of a number of books, including George Kennan: A Study of Character and Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning: Churchill’s First Speech as Prime Minister.



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