Buchanan and Churchill
Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, by Patrick J. Buchanan. New York: Crown. 544 pp. $25.95
A Review published in The Wanderer . Since this is my unedited text, any errors are the fault of the author and not of The Wanderer. Check out their website at http://thewandererpress.com/.
In his latest book, Patrick J. Buchanan has confronted one of the dominant historical myths of the 20th century, the myth of “the last good war” and the heroic British Prime Minister who not only rallied his nation to victory but, unlike Franklin Roosevelt, refused to be taken in by the schemes of Joseph Stalin. In describing this consensus of history teachers, editorialists, and History Channel watchers as a myth, I do not mean to say that it is entirely or even predominantly untrue. Myths usually include more than a little truth, but myth-makers whittle and polish the rough edges of reality in order to produce a fable that can be easily learned and repeated. Inevitably, reality is further distorted with every retelling until we are left with a simplistic morality play in which virtuous Yankees defeat wicked Confederates, or high-minded cowboys and frontiersman defend their women from murderous thieving redskins—though this latter example, like so many American myths, has been turned upside down, converting the thieving redskins into peace-living Native Americans, whose superior civilization was destroyed by greedy and violent capitalist exploiters.
[amazonify]030740515X[/amazonify]According to the myth of the World Wars, the United States entered World War I to stop two evil and militaristic German Empires from conquering and subjugating the peace-loving peoples of Europe. The noble Woodrow Wilson, at the end of the war, proclaimed the lofty principles of world peace and self-determination that were invoked to destroy the Prussian war machine and break up the Austro-Hungarian Empire into happy little states inhabited by contented peasants. Ignored in the blissful recitations of the myth are several inconvenient facts: Neither Slovak nor Croat peasants were especially content to be included in states run, respectively, by Czechs and Serbs; the Prussian war machine was no more a threat to world peace than the war machines created by their enemies; and many European and American statesmen viewed the Versailles Treaty as the direct cause both of the rise of Hitler and the second World War. Equally ignored is the Wilson administration’s shaky legal basis for entering into a conflict that appeared to concern the United States very little and in which both sides were guilty of violations of international law.
In this wonderful book, which should be read by all Americans who love their country, Patrick Buchanan has launched a devastating attack on the myth. Because the author makes no assumptions about the historical literacy of the United States, people who have not recently boned up on the history of 20th Century can use this volume as a refresher course that narrates the big events and portrays the leading figures. Buchanan makes the period come alive, as he highlights the ambiguous character of many eminent statesmen of the 20th century. The central figure, of course, is the brilliant and mercurial Winston Churchill, who changed sides so often that hardly anyone trusted him. Rejoining the Conservative Party in 1924, which he had abandoned for the Liberals 20 years earlier, Churchill quipped, “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.” Churchill was nothing if not ingenious.
Buchanan is quite right to emphasize the political influence of Churchill’s family—he was directly descended from John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough--but he might well have devoted a few pages to pointing out that Marlborough was a glory-seeking general and statesman, who betrayed the king who had relied on him and spent much of his career jockeying for power. Winston, who wrote a massive biography of his famous ancestor, modeled his own career on Marlborough’s.
The Churchills tended toward melancholy and dissipation: Winston’s father Randolph was like his son an unreliable maverick, whose irregular habits may have caused the illness (probably syphilis) that took his life at an early age. Winston’s son Randolph is best remembered as the binge-drinking companion we meet in Evelyn Waugh’s diaries. It is remarkable that Winston, who suffered from his family’s predilection for alcoholism, accomplished as much as he did.
Unlike many revisionist historians, Buchanan does not demonize Winston Churchill or deny his excellent qualities: the keen intelligence that early on discerned the Soviet menace, the battlefield valor that would be translated into the moral courage to take unpopular positions, and the political astuteness that enabled him to hold the reins of power throughout most of the War.
He does, however, draw up a formidable set of charges against him: recklessness as the First Lord of the Admiralty who clamored for war with the German empires, folly in arguing for military retrenchments in the dangerous period between the two wars and in urging capitulation to U.S. demands to put and end to the alliance with Japan, an action that served to justify the Japanese attack on Britain’s far-eastern passions, arrogance in securing sanctions that gave Mussolini, by now fearful of Hitler, no choice but to cement his alliance with Germany, obtuseness in writing the entirely unnecessary blank check to Poland, guaranteeing her security and making the Second World War inevitable and giving international legitimacy to Stalin, and finally, his stubborn intransigence toward Nazi Germany that prevented any possibility of a negotiated settlement that would have eliminated or reduced the slaughter of the war and possibly saved the lives of millions of European Jews. When these charges are added to Churchill’s apparent inability to understand Stalin’s plans to take over Eastern Europe, they make a serious indictment of an allegedly great statesman’s career.
The net result of Churchill’s blundering and blindness was the loss of the British colonial empire, the enslavement of Eastern Europe, and a Cold War the weighed heavily on American taxpayers for four decades. Churchill does not bear the burden alone. It goes without saying that equally grave mistakes were made by colleagues like Anthony Eden and by Franklin Roosevelt and his successive cabinets, but the debunking of Churchill’s infallibility is an important step toward recovering a sane and balanced view of the world wars.
Buchanan has made a strong case for the prosecution, though he may not have quite secured a conviction. It is not easy to evaluate Hitler’s motives, and, while he might have been content to have left Britain alone, it is in the nature of ideological empires to expand. One emergency after another is required to justify the assumption of so much power, and the wealth brought by conquest is the fuel that permits the total state to continue functioning. Mussolini may have allowed himself to be driven into the Fuhrer’s arms, but he had his own imperial ambitions that would have sooner or later dragged Italy into imperial adventures the Italian army was not prepared to sustain.
Sober or drunk, Churchill made more than his share of mistakes, and while his admirers have painted altogether too flattering a picture of their hero, one should beware of trusting too much to the judgment of his sometimes envious rivals. David Lloyd-George and Stanley Baldwin had good reason to be suspicious of Winston, but neither Lloyd-George’s hysterical bellicosity nor Baldwin’s pacifism, in retrospect, evince much deeper wisdom or patriotism than Churchill’s own ad hoc approach to foreign affairs, as helter-skelter as his policies sometimes seems. In his diary Count Ciano, who was Mussolini’s son-in-law and foreign secretary, compared the Duce with Churchill, and envied the British their possession of a prudent diplomat who (unlike his own boss) did not make a fool of himself in his public performances.
Mr. Buchanan’s title would suggest that the scope of his book is limited to what historian John Lukacs has called “the duel” between Churchill and Hitler. In fact, half of the book is devoted to events that took place before the outbreak of the war and nearly one fourth to the origins of World War I, the conduct of the war, and its aftermath. While this broader canvas permits the author to paint his anti-myth with broader strokes, it means that he cannot go into the documentary details that would render his arguments more persuasive to careful readers of history. On the other hand, by beginning his tale in the early 20th century (apart from a few broad references to earlier decades), he is unable to set the Great War in its proper context, which certainly includes France’s burning desire to get revenge for her defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.
These are minor quibbles. Buchanan is not an historian but a journalist and polemicist, using an historical backdrop for contemporary political debate. He states his aim directly, even bluntly in the introduction:
"There has risen among America’s elite a Churchill cult. Its acolytes hold that Churchill was not only a peerless war leader but statesman of unparalleled vision whose life and legend should be the model for every statesman, To this cult, defiance anywhere of U.S. hegemony, resistance anywhere to U.S. power becomes another 1938. Every adversary is “a new Hitler,” every proposal to avert war “another Munich.” Slobodan Milosevic, a party apparatchik who had presided over the disintegration of Yugoslavia—losing Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia—becomes the Hitler of the Balkans for holding Serbia’s cradle province of Kosovo. Saddam Hussein, whose army was routed in 100 hours in 1991 and who had not shot down a U.S. plane in forty thousand sorties, becomes “an Arab Hitler” abut to roll up the Persian Gulf and threaten mankind with 'weapons of mass destruction.'"
So, to undermine the neoconservative campaign for U.S. global hegemony, Buchanan has set out to destroy the myth of the “necessary war” that justifies our latter-day imperialism. It is a bold thesis, one that needs stating, and it would be churlish, probably, to point out that when Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia in June of 1991 and Croatia in September, the President of the Federal Executive Council was a Bosnian Croat Ante Markovic, not Milosevic, who was then only Prime Minister of Serbia. And, while Sadddam’s war machine may not have amounted to much in the second Gulf War, he had provoked the Iran-Iraq War in which he used chemical weapons that killed vast number of Iranian civilians. If Saddam represented no direct threat to the United States, he was, nonetheless, a violent dictator who threatened not only Iran but also Israel.
I cite these two examples, especially the former, to give some idea of the difficulty of writing historical essays without a very firm grasp of the evidence. If there is a serious flaw in Buchanan’s book, it is the heavy reliance on secondary sources—recent biographies and history books—and the neglect of primary sources, even when they are easily available in published form. An egregious omission is Warren Kimball’s edition of the Churchill/Roosevelt correspondence, but the correspondence and papers of most of the major statesmen he discusses are accessible. These are minor matters, perhaps, and they should not distract us from Buchanan’s accomplishment.
In examining the career of Winston Churchill, Patrick Buchanan has made a highly valuable contribution to American political debate. In praising and recommending the book, I should be less than candid if I did not acknowledge my friendship with the author and my profound agreement with his overall point-of-view. When Christian conservatives seek to understand the revolution that has devastated the world of their fathers, they cannot do better than to turn to Pat’s spirited defense of old republican principles and his relentless attack on the sacred cows who have too long monopolized the pastures of the American conservative mind.