Jeet Heer: Challenging the cult of Churchill

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jeet Heer is writing a doctoral thesis on the cultural politics of Little Orphan Annie at York University in Toronto.]

The cult of Winston Churchill, although strong among Anglo-American conservatives since the end of the second world war, flourished as never before in the United States after the attacks of 9/11. To show his resolve in the war on terror, President Bush asked the British embassy to supply him with a bronze bust of Churchill, which now comforts the commander-in-chief in the Oval Office. Republican leaders like Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani worship Churchill with a devotional intensity that would embarrass a medieval peasant on a pilgrimage.

These political figures pour over Churchillian anecdotes (some of which are as apocryphal as any saint's tale) in search of wisdom and guidance, and take comfort in the stock phrases of the Churchill legend: the folly of Munich-like appeasement; never surrender; finest hour; blood, sweat and tears. For wartime leaders, the appeal of invoking Churchill is clear, especially if you accept the standard account of his career: he was a scorned Cassandra who accurately prophesied the dangers of Hitler, stood alone as leader against Nazi-occupied Europe in the lonely aftermath of the French defeat and ultimately led his country to a great victory. What leader wouldn't want to be labelled the new Churchill?

This view of Churchill's achievement has been so often reiterated that it seems self-evidently true, but Pat Buchanan, long a maverick on the American right and the publisher of the American Conservative, hopes to challenge it in his new book Churchill, Hitler and "The Unnecessary War": How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World.

Churchill, Buchanan contends, was a disaster for western civilisation. Instead of fighting Hitler, Britain should have followed a policy of "dual containment" keeping out of Europe to let Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia fight among themselves. This policy would have allowed Britain to maintain its empire for generations to come, rather than become a shrivelled post-war welfare state at the margins of the European Union. In sum, Buchanan's Churchill is an epic failure.

It's easy to dismiss Buchanan as a crank. His alternative history scenario is built on the type of half-baked speculations that make scholars wary of counterfactual history: What if Napoleon hadn't attacked Russia? What if Abraham Lincoln had allowed the South to secede? What if Superman had been a Nazi? These are questions for an undergraduate bull session or a pub argument, not serious scholarship.

Laughable as a historian, Buchanan is interesting as an ideological symptom. Buchanan's thinking on this is hardly a personal eccentricity and reflects the larger worldview of the anti-communist right, both in the distant past and the present. If you listen to Bush and Cheney, Churchill worship seems like an inherit part of conservatism. But the fact is that both in the past and the present, many right-wingers have hated Churchill. Buchanan is both a throwback to an earlier conservatism and perhaps the harbinger of coming trends...
Read entire article at Guardian (UK)

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