In the Battle Between Pat Buchanan and Winston Churchill, Churchill Wins
NB: This article was first published at TomPaine.com in 1999.
Pat Buchanan, who could soon become the Reform Party's candidate for president of the United States, has published a book containing a shocking thesis: it was a terrible tragedy that Britain and the U.S. were drawn into World War II against Hitler's Germany. The British and French should never have given their guarantee to Poland in March 1939. Had they refrained from doing so, "there might have been no Dunkirk, no blitz, no Vichy," but presumably a more effective and perhaps more successful German attack on communist Russia.
Buchanan is a man of the right with a restless mind that constantly strains at the limit dividing ordinary American conservatism from the ideological passions of the European authoritarian and fascist right. In his childhood he admired Senator McCarthy and General MacArthur, but also Charles Lindbergh and Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Later he defended accused Nazis and cast doubt on the idea that 800,000 Jews could have been killed at Treblinka. He says many things that stimulate and provoke, but also many things that disturb and even frighten. He speaks about Hitler's racism and capacity for murder and genocide, but couples his remarks with a curious admiration for Hitler's courage, his war record, his oratorical powers.
All the same, Buchanan's latest views about World War II were not prompted by a fax sent to him by some crackpot, but by his reading of the state-of-the-art revisionist scholarship on Churchill, Chamberlain and the policy of appeasement, scholarship produced mostly by British historians, Tory and other, over the last several decades.
At one time in a not too far distant past, no one challenged Churchill's critique of Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. Those who fought in the war were told that fascism should even have been taken on sooner, maybe as early as 1931, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria. As Norm Goda says elsewhere in this magazine ("America's Moral War"), "World War II is the one conflict about which Americans have no moral doubts."
Yet British historians have had their doubts. On the one hand they could take pride in Britain's having been the one country to fight the war from start to finish, even alone in 1940. On the other, there was always the feeling that coming to terms with Nazi Germany was Europe's last chance to avoid losing its world leadership. To fight the "European civil war" to a finish meant in the end that Europe would be run by the Yankees and the Bolsheviks.
These moods were first given voice by A.J.P. Taylor in his 1961 book, The Origins of World War II. Taylor's book thrilled American revisionist historians like Harry Elmer Barnes who had supported the America First Committee and written after Pearl Harbor of Roosevelt's having tricked the country into war. Buchanan tells us in his 1988 memoir that his father raised him to admire and sympathize with the isolationists, Charles Lindbergh and the America Firsters.
As the British published more archival material in the seventies and eighties, scholars began a rehabilitation of Chamberlain. They stressed the parlous condition of Britain's defenses, the unreliability of both America and Russia, and even the lack of good will on the part of the future superpowers who stood like impatient heirs at the deathbed of the British Empire. The tempting corollary was that, since Hitler's aims centered on lebensraum in Russia, Britain might have saved the Empire by letting him have his way. Different variants of this view slowly took hold. One sympathetic historian of appeasement remarked, not without reason, that "Revisionism has become the new orthodoxy." The clearest revisionist statement was in the work of John Charmley, especially his two books, Churchill: The End of Glory (1993) and Churchill's Grand Alliance (1995). In the latter, Charmley chided Churchill for his steadfastness in England's Finest Hour, 1940, insisting that "peace could have been made" on the presumption that Hitler "would be bound to come into conflict with Stalin" with the possible result of "both powers finishing up exhausted." That is more or less Buchanan's point.
Revisionist history is legitimate, of course, in a sense that, say, Holocaust Denial is not. Historians are going to change the opinions held by previous generations. But are they right in this case? Suppose Britain and the U.S. had stood by as Hitler attacked Russia? Appeasers at the time thought, as Charmley does now, that a war in Russia would be an exhausting struggle on the scale of World War I with both sides ruined at the end. But this reckons without the tank and blitzkrieg. Someone was bound to win in the East. If it had been Russia, then Russia would have organized Europe around a communist Great Germany. To oppose this, the U.S. would have had to come to Hitler's aid! If it had been Germany, then Hitler would have organized Europe.
In that case the German nuclear program would not have been inconvenienced by British and American bombing. There would probably have been no Manhattan Project at all. The British program, started only in 1940 under the spur of war, might not have existed, but if it did, would be no further along toward the production of a bomb than the Japanese who understood the physics but puzzled over the engineering. It would have been possible, in my view most likely if you assume a German victory, that Hitler eventually would have enjoyed the first atomic monopoly, alongside his trailblazing missile program.
War against Hitler was certainly terrible, but perhaps not unnecessary.
Donald Trump and the others who oppose the Buchanan candidacy will surely have their fun with his revisionist history in the coming months. Will any of the revisionists who led Pat into this mess come to his aid?
comments powered by Disqus
Randll Reese Besch - 9/4/2009
I would like to see them try. Philip Roth's book has Lindberg as a one term president in 1940 but we don't stay out of it for long and the history line is back on track by the end of it. The major aspect of it, USA on the Allies side remains. With minor differences from our own set of A-lines.
- David Rosand, an Art History Scholar Whose Heart Was in Venice, Dies at 75
- NYT interviews Rick Perlstein about his book
- OAH issues a statement in support of the AP standards