Buchanan's Unwarranted Conclusions


Alexander DeConde is emeritus professor of history, University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of A History of American Foreign Policy.

In April of last year, at the suggestion of the distinguished historian and my friend of many years, Robert H. Ferrell, Patrick J. Buchanan asked if I would read two or more chapters in the first draft of a book on American foreign policy he just completed. He sent me copies of chapters dealing with the Spanish-American War and American isolationism, requesting that I check his writing for accuracy, fairness, and balance and offer suggestions to flesh it out. He mentioned using my text, now out of print, for facts, quotes and anecdotes.

Even though I consider myself a liberal Democrat with views on most issues that differ from Buchanan's, I read the two essays he sent and responded. I liked his writing because of its pace that kept a reader interested, a quality academic historians such as myself often lack. On the isolationist essay, I indicated agreement with Professor Wayne Cole's assessment of the ambiguous concept of isolationism. Nonetheless, I urged Buchanan at least to take into account perspectives other than the isolationist thesis he had adopted in explaining Franklin D. Roosevelt's role in the intervention in the Second World War and suggested he should include the Nazi and Japanese contributions to the intervention. I added that while he should stick to his own analyses, he should look carefully at both the "great men" and "impersonal forces" approaches to history, particularly in producing wars. I pointed out some contradictions in his treatment of what constituted national interest and suggested he acknowledge interpretations that differed from his own.

Since I would undergo major surgery, I informed Buchanan that probably I could not critique other portions of the manuscript in keeping with his publication schedule. He thanked me. I did not hear from him again until a few weeks ago when he sent me a copy of his provocative book, A Republic, Not an Empire, graciously inscribed.

I do not judge the book as original scholarship but as a campaign document that uses history to influence next year's presidential election. It is based on secondary sources, including textbooks, such as my own. This is not unusual for a sweeping synthesis, even by professional historians, where the contribution to knowledge should come from the author's interpretations and insights rather than new data or manuscript sources. To his credit, Buchanan acknowledges that the book contains little that is new except in the way of his own take on history.

That "take" diverges often from mainstream literature on the history of American foreign policy and has in it enough off-beat judgments to raise the hackles of many who will read it or just hear about it. While Buchanan uses as sources the works of historians of various persuasions, conservative and liberal, in his interpretations of American intervention in the two world wars, for instance, he resurrects old-fashioned revisionist assumptions. His views reflect the thinking of historians and writers such as Harry Elmer Barnes, Charles C. Tansill and Charles A. Beard, as in his chapter "Back Door to War," dealing with intervention in the Second World War.

Whether as scholar, journalist or politician, Buchanan has the right to expound those views with his own twist. He also has an obligation to use evidence carefully, to base his judgments on verifiable data and to craft his interpretations on circumstantial evidence of substance. As have other politicians who employed history to advance an agenda, he frequently does not meet these criteria, in part because he regards arguing his case more important than his role of historian. I believe that is his privilege. I believe also that historians and others should exercise their right to dispute his arguments.

I, for one, do not see the evidence for Buchanan's assumption that the nation has "unthinkingly embarked on a neo-imperial policy that must involve us in virtually every great war of the coming century" (p. 46). I also question his judgments that Manifest Destiny was not imperialism but "about extending the frontiers of American liberty and freedom" and that war came because Mexico fired the first shot (pp. 120-22). His criticism of Woodrow Wilson's response to the U-boat attacks on American shipping as a cause for war have been voiced by many capable scholars but to condemn the war as involving no vital American interest and the Versailles peace as unjust, dishonorable, and "a historic crime," strikes me as rash (p. 215).

Buchanan's judgements on Adolf Hitler's racial horrors inflicted on Jews and others in Western Europe, on his imperial ambitions as lying in the east, and on the British-French declarations of war as saving Russia for communism are ill-founded and do not fit with verifiable research on the subject. Neither do his assessments of Franklin D. Roosevelt as maneuvering the nation into war (pp. 266-8, 279), as making"Europe safe for Stalinism and Asia safe for Maoism" (p. 297), and as committing blunders that "cost millions their freedom and led to a half century of Cold War" (p. 307). I find Buchanan's praise of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan understandable, given his political views, but unwarranted. Most students of foreign policy, I believe, will see his view of the Vietnam conflict as a "legitimate war of containment" serving a vital national interest (p. 321) as quite a stretch, especially when contrasted with his appraisal of the interventions in the two world wars. I question as well his assessment that "Jewish influence over foreign policy became almost an obsession with American leaders" (p. 336) and that ethnic groups are increasingly dominating American foreign policy (p. 353).

On the other hand, I believe Buchanan's concerns over what he terms "benevolent global hegemony" (p. 360) have a substantive basis and merit being brought up as campaign issues. Also, his complaint that his opponents' use of isolationist as a "term of abuse intended to silence an adversary, end an argument, and stifle debate" strikes me as plausible (p. 48). He has studied history, thought about it seriously, written a wide-ranging book on his own without a ghost writer, and has defended his perspective on foreign policy in detail. This has not been an easy task. We need not accept any of his ideas at face value but we should criticize and debate them openly rather than dismiss them by epithet.

This article was first published at TomPaine.com in 1999.

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