In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, traveled to Munich in an attempt to negotiate a settlement with Adolf Hitler, who for the past months had been pressuring Prague to cede to him the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia. “Peace for our time,” Chamberlain announced to near-universal acclaim upon his return—having agreed to the dismemberment of the Czechoslovak democracy. Hitler for his part offered the assurance that “this is the last territorial claim which I have to make in Europe.”
Six months later, he proceeded to swallow the residuum of Czechoslovakia. After a half-decade of concessions and complacency, public opinion in Britain woke up. “Is this the last attack upon a small state or is it to be followed by another?” Chamberlain wondered aloud. “Is this in fact a step in the direction of an attempt to dominate the world by force?” Resolving to defend the next small state, he told the British parliament that “In the event of an attack on Poland, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish government all support in their power.”
Britain’s decision to guarantee Poland’s security ranks among the more fateful of many fateful steps taken in the fear-filled year of 1939. In retrospect, and with full knowledge of its far-flung consequences, was it wise? This has been the subject of more than a few historical debates over the past 60 years, and it is now once again generating controversy. In his new book, A Republic, Not An Empire1 and in a flurry of op-ed columns, letters to the editor, and press interviews, Patrick J. Buchanan, a candidate for the presidency of the United States, has called the British guarantee a “monumental blunder,” one “far greater than Munich,” and has attributed a whole series of historical disasters to Chamberlain’s action, among them America’s eventual decision to enter the world war.
For enunciating this position, Buchanan has attracted a fusillade of ridicule and opprobrium. “Absolving Adolf” and “Buchanan’s Hitler Problem” were the headlines of two articles in the New Republic earlier this fall. “A Blame America Firster” was how Michael Kelly of National Journal skewered Buchanan in his syndicated column. “Hitler Endorses Buchanan” mockingly reported Slate. A spirited debate also erupted among Republican candidates for the presidency, with George W. Bush expressing his disapproval of Buchanan’s thesis along with his hope that Buchanan himself would not bolt from the Republican party (which he did shortly thereafter), while Senator John McCain declared it “beyond the boundaries of what the American people and the Republican party are willing to agree to or accept.”
But even as Buchanan’s interpretation of World War II has been dismissed, and Buchanan himself labeled a crackpot with a Hitler complex, a number of figures have stepped forward in his defense. On the op-ed page of the New York Times, Christopher Layne, a scholar at the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California, and Benjamin Schwarz, a correspondent for the Atlantic, pointed out that diplomatic historians have “long made similar arguments” to those advanced by Buchanan, and that his view that America should have stayed out of World War II is “hardly beyond the pale of respectable discourse.” In the end, they asserted, it is Buchanan’s critics whose “statements seem inflammatory, not his.”
Their last point aside, Layne and Schwarz are certainly right about one thing: Buchanan’s arguments are not novel. Revisionist accounts of World War II may not be a growth industry, but more than a few have appeared over the years, and it is easy to locate historical authorities making either a direct or indirect case that both Britain and America should have stayed out of the war. The eminent British historian A.J.P. Taylor is one, and Buchanan cites him extensively in his various writings. Others include Bruce Russett, a professor of political science at Yale, to whom Layne and Schwarz point approvingly, as well as a number of British historians of whom the most prominent is the Holocaust denier David Irving. Though Buchanan’s thesis should be accepted or rejected on its merits, it is worth paying heed to its intellectual lineage.
A.J.P. Taylor was much more than an Oxford don and prolific author of diplomatic histories of Europe; he was also a brilliant polemicist, street-corner speaker on behalf of Labor-party candidates, and a tireless supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; “a life-long socialist,” he called himself. By his admirers, he was regarded as a marvelously high-toned rabble-rouser/muckraker. To his detractors, he was an apologist for appeasement, and not only of the Soviet Union but also of Nazi Germany. Along the way, he necessarily became something of an apologist for Hitler himself. In his most famous and controversial book, The Origins of the Second World War (1961), his apologetics are on vivid display.
The dismemberment of Czechoslovakia agreed to by Chamberlain at Munich, Taylor wrote in that work, was “a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life; a triumph for those who had preached equal justice between peoples; a triumph for those who had courageously denounced the harshness and shortsightedness of [the Treaty of] Versailles,” which had prohibited German rearmament. The outbreak of World War II, Taylor continued, could hardly be pinned on Nazi Germany; “far from being premeditated, [it] was a mistake, the result on both sides of diplomatic blunders.” Nor was Hitler himself a “modern Attila, loving destruction for its own sake and therefore bent on war without thought of policy.” Rather, he was more a statesman in the “traditional” German mold, bent on restoring Germany to its “natural” position in Europe and the world.
If Taylor arrived at these views in part out of an iconoclastic temperament, in part out of a deterministic view of the historical process, his most important transatlantic counterpart, Bruce Russett, answers to a very different intellectual tradition. Though it never gained a wide audience, Russett’s No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of United States Entry into World War II (1972) is a minor classic in the library of appeasement.
Russett’s central thesis is that “[j]ust possibly the isolationists were right in their essential perspective”: that the United States could have stayed out of the war to stop Hitler and saved itself a great deal of blood, sweat, toil, and tears. Without the U.S., Russett conjectures, the war might have ground on in Europe, ending in a stalemate, with Germany having conquered all of Western Europe and a large portion of the USSR, but with Great Britain, though economically enfeebled, retaining its independence. The United States itself was immune from German attack; the prospect of a Nazi assault on American shores, writes Russett, was a “bogeyman.”
Russett admits that an isolationist stance would have entailed potential peril to the United States. Germany might have ultimately succeeded in defeating Britain or conquering all of the USSR, which would have left the United States to face Hitler completely alone in the world. But if that seemed on the horizon, “the United States could still have intervened then” (his emphasis). There was also the prospect of the Germans’ acquiring the nuclear bomb. But this, in Russett’s view, was not so worrisome as it might seem on its face: “there are very few examples in modern warfare between industrial nations where one state achieves a decisive military advantage over the other with a new weapon.”
In any case, against the hypothetical dangers attendant upon staying out of the war, one must, writes Russett, weigh the very real price we paid for going in. Not only did the United States suffer several hundred thousand casualties, but it also experienced a range of other ill effects. For one thing, the war did away with a tradition of restraint in military spending, leaving Americans “somewhat poorer, more ignorant, and less healthy than they would [have been] if the military spending had not been necessary, or deemed necessary.” For another thing, the United States “used up important natural resources, especially oil and metals, that can never be replaced.” Finally, fighting Germany and Japan had a morally “corrupting effect” on America, particularly manifest in our conduct of subsequent wars like the one in Vietnam, a conflict at its height when No Clear and Present Danger was published.
Taylor and Russett are both men of the Left, but the position they adumbrate has long found its advocates on the Right, especially at its far margin. When Taylor’s reassessment of Hitler first appeared, it led to considerable jubilation in Nazi and neo-Nazi circles in West Germany. Today, in the person of David Irving, the neo-Nazis have an author positively eager to champion their cause.
Irving’s understanding of the origins of World War II is also largely congruent with Patrick Buchanan’s. Insofar as England was concerned, he maintains, Hitler was less belligerent than many have assumed: “he originally had neither the intention nor the desire to harm Britain or destroy the empire.” A modus vivendi was thus possible as late as 1940, but it was sabotaged by statesmen like Winston Churchill who were determined to “save face, even if it meant dragging their country and the empire into financial ruin.” Hitler himself was “perplexed” by Churchill’s continued “intransigence”; had the British been willing to consider a peace offer, one can only wonder “how much suffering the (Western) world might have been spared.” In the end, writes Irving, “British readers . . . must ask themselves: What, then, were we fighting for?”
Just as World War II revisionists differ among themselves on some fine points, Patrick Buchanan, who falls squarely within their camp, has his own set of inflections and emphases. Castigating Britain and the United States in uncompromising language, he conveys, first of all, the sense that it was the leaders of the Western democracies rather than the German dictator who lit the fuse that led to Europe’s most terrible war.
Thus, in Buchanan’s view, Chamberlain’s monumental error in guaranteeing Poland’s security virtually forced Hitler to conclude a nonaggression pact with Stalin and thus to attack first westward into the Low Countries and France rather than eastward into the USSR. This doomed the democracies of Europe while saving totalitarian Russia. Were it not for Chamberlain’s blunder, writes Buchanan, there might have been “no Dunkirk, no blitz, no Vichy, no destruction of the Jewish populations of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, or even Italy.” At the same time, we might have had “the eradication of Bolshevism in Russia and China, no cold war, no Korea, and no Vietnam.”
Chamberlain’s mistake was compounded by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s crime: the American President “began to maneuver the U.S. into the war, even as he assured his countrymen he was taking every step to keep America out.” In this, FDR relied on forged documents and other forms of trickery. Yet after Hitler’s airforce lost the Battle of Britain in 1940, he no longer posed the faintest danger to American shores: “If Hitler could not put a soldier into England, the notion that he could invade the Western Hemisphere with no surface ships to engage the United States and British fleets and U.S. air power dominant in the west Atlantic was preposterous.” Our country, Buchanan concludes, would have been far better off staying out of the war, as members of the America First Committee and other isolationists had urged. Indeed, by 1950, with Stalin enslaving the very territories U.S. soldiers had died to liberate, “Americans were asking what it had all been for.”
What is one to say about this? As with the work of his predecessors and peers, some of Buchanan’s assertions are false on their face; some are plausible but also false; and the remainder are either trivial or irrelevant.
In the category of the simply false is Buchanan’s last point: neither in 1950 nor at any time since then have Americans (aside from a small handful of hard-core isolationists, Hitler worshipers, and militant pacifists) questioned their country’s participation in a conflict that above all others successfully married the cause of justice with strategic necessity.
In the plausible-but-false category fall Buchanan’s animadversions against the British guarantee of Poland. It is hardly clear that this step led to the decisive turning point in Hitler’s policy.2 Only six months earlier, after all, Chamberlain had issued a similar guarantee to Czechoslovakia, but after Hitler swallowed the remainder of that country he made no effort whatsoever to keep his government’s promise, declaring that the guarantee “remained the position until yesterday.” Given this record, Hitler could hardly draw firm conclusions about the exact meaning of Britain’s Polish guarantee.
Moreover, as we now know from private correspondence, Chamberlain remained eager to strike a deal even after Hitler had digested what was left of Czechoslovakia. He set forth his thinking in a letter to his sister not long after issuing the guarantee to Poland:
[I]t is very difficult to see the way out . . . but I don’t believe it impossible to find, provided we are given a little time and also provided that Hitler doesn’t really want war. I can’t help thinking that he is not such a fool as some hysterical people make out and that he would not be sorry to compromise if he could do so without what he would feel to be humiliation.
Right up until the very outbreak of war, and even beyond, uncertainty persisted throughout Europe about whether Britain would follow through and actually rise in arms to Poland’s defense. Indeed, the pitfalls of Buchanan’s mode of historical inquiry are nowhere better illustrated than when he ties himself in knots to acknowledge this very fact. “Not unreasonably,” he writes at one juncture, “Hitler concluded the Allied war guarantee to Poland was a bluff.” Yet everywhere else he cycles backward, insisting the guarantee was taken so seriously that it “impelled” Hitler to seek a deal with Stalin.
If the small pieces do not fit together, neither does the bigger picture. Buchanan contends, for example, that if Hitler could somehow have been steered to attack the Soviet Union first, the United States and Western Europe would have been spared his depredations. Although the what-ifs and what-might-have-beens of history are impossible to refute, the scenario Buchanan posits—Germany and Russia bloody themselves to a stalemate, while Western Europe and America watch from the sidelines—is exceptionally far-fetched.
To begin with, in 1939 the Soviet army was weaker and the German army stronger than either would be respectively in 1941 when Hitler finally invaded the USSR. If he had not attacked westward first, in all likelihood he would have triumphed over the Soviets with ease. Even as things were, moreover, the Nazis nearly won. The Russian path to victory that began in Stalingrad and ended in Berlin could have been cut at any number of junctures; success depended in no small part on the fact that both Britain and the United States were supplying the USSR with essential goods while also fighting the Germans in other theaters.
What this suggests is that a Nazi attack on Russia in 1939, far from leaving Germany “crippled,” as Buchanan suggests, would have put Hitler in possession of vast resources, material and human, that he could have applied at a moment of his choosing, first against the remaining free countries on the continent, then against Great Britain, and finally against the United States.
Buchanan is correct to assert that after England won the Battle of Britain over the skies of London in 1940, it no longer faced the immediate prospect of a German invasion. But what he seems to have forgotten, or more likely remembers but will not say, is that while the Battle of Britain was itself a close affair, the far more serious threat to London came not from the air but from the sea. In the Battle of the Atlantic, German submarines were sinking ships at a rate faster than Great Britain could build them. Only with America’s entry into the war did the ratio begin to change, crossing over to the Allies’ favor by 1943. Had the U.S. not joined in, a Britain deprived of its vital lifeline of imports would have been strangled.
Nor would the danger have ended there. By this point Germany would have had at its disposal the French, the Russian, and the Italian fleets, and perhaps also those vessels of the British Royal Navy that were still afloat. Japan, Germany’s ally, had a major fleet already pounding the United States in the Pacific. How, under those circumstances, would the United States have fared?
An invasion of American shores by Nazi troops may not have been in the cards—Buchanan says the idea is “preposterous” and Russett calls it a “bogeyman”—but of some relevance is the fact that in 1942, German submarines, operating within view of the Atlantic shore, sank 485 merchant ships and inflicted what the military historian Gerhard Weinberg has called “the most disastrous defeat ever suffered by American naval power.” Nor would invasion have been the only or the gravest danger presented by a Nazi-controlled Europe.
Two years before the outbreak of war, Hitler had already ordered work to begin on the “New York” bomber, which was to have intercontinental range. As early as 1940, German scientists were developing a two-stage rocket designed to reach the United States in 35 minutes from a launch pad in Europe. A shorter-range version was to be deliverable by submarine. And there was also the German attempt to build an atomic bomb.
None of these wonder weapons, it is true, came to fruition, but that is largely thanks to the fact that the United States and Britain were in the war and hurling everything they had against Germany, forcing painful choices between investing in the development of weapons that could be fielded in the near term and those that could not. Without the United States, the German arsenal would have become more lethal than it already was, and over time it would have presented perils to the United States far beyond the merely alarming.
New weapons, according to Bruce Russett, rarely confer a decisive advantage in modern warfare. But what if this instance were one of the exceptions? A Hitler dominating Europe and armed with nuclear weapons would have been a strategic nightmare; no sane American leader could have taken even a small chance allowing this to become a reality. In his own isolationist reading of history, Buchanan’s method of smoothing over the nuclear bulge is cleverer than Russett’s, but even less convincing; he simply does not mention it.
In arguing that Hitler’s ambitions lay primarily in the East and that he had no designs on the West, Buchanan relies heavily not only on A.J.P. Taylor but on the testimony of the Fuehrer himself, citing, for example, Hitler’s pronouncement of August 1939: “Everything I undertake is directed against Russia.” But while taking the Nazi leader’s words at face value, Buchanan relentlessly attacks the credibility of Franklin D. Roosevelt, charging him with “fraud,” “forgery,” “deceit,” and “lying to incite national hysteria.”
In so doing, Buchanan brings to mind why the isolationists of the America First Committee whom he so vigorously defends were regarded as a potential fifth column in the United States and placed under investigative scrutiny when we found ourselves at war following the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor (an attack that Buchanan contends was provoked by the United States). That it was not Roosevelt who declared war on Germany but Hitler who declared war on the United States is a fact Buchanan finds it difficult to integrate. Although elsewhere Hitler is to him a model of rationality, on this point all he can say is that this was
the great, inexplicable act of insanity on Hitler’s part, I think, that no one has yet understood why, in heaven’s name, he declared war on the United States, which brought all that weight in against him, for no gain at all.3
But Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States is not the only thing Buchanan finds “inexplicable.” He is also at a loss to comprehend why the U.S. and Great Britain should have made common cause with Stalinist Russia to defeat Nazi Germany. “Both regimes,” he writes, “were totalitarian, both were aggressors, both were hostile to Western values, both had innocent blood on their hands”—but the USSR was “a far greater long-term threat than Hitler’s Germany.”
There is, however, no great mystery here. The USSR did indeed emerge from the war to become a greater long-term threat than Germany—but that is only because the United States defeated Germany in the war. If Germany had been permitted to prevail over the USSR, it would have been the greater long-term threat. Much greater: one need only contrast Hitler’s bouts of irrationality, his impetuosity, and his naked blood lust with the slow, brutal, risk-averse accretion of power that was the leadership style of the Soviet Union to grasp the far deeper peril represented by a victorious Nazi Germany.
Yes, both regimes were moral abominations. Yet once again Buchanan wraps an incontestable truth in a larger falsehood, insisting there were no reasons to prefer a Soviet to a Nazi victory. Even apart from the fact that it was Hitler and not Stalin who unleashed an aggressive war against the entire world, there were many such reasons.
One was the Nazi concentration camps. Though it is true, as Buchanan says, that more people perished in the Gulag, the Soviet system labored for decades to achieve its total of 40 to 60 million murdered. If one were to compare the annual rate of killing, the Nazi death factories would win hands down in speed and efficiency, taking the lives of six million Jews and another five million non-Jews in four short years, not to mention the tens of millions of additional civilians who perished not in the camps but in the war Hitler ignited.
And these ungraspable numbers are only part of the story, for the Nazis had only just begun their work before the Allies interrupted the broader demographic revolution Hitler intended. In Germany itself, this revolution comprised the elimination first of the Jews but also of a broad range of groups deemed unfit to live, including the mentally infirm and the handicapped, a category encompassing even disabled German veterans—“useless mouths,” they were called. Abroad, in the conquered lands that were to serve as lebensraum for the master race, it meant eliminating entire peoples and enslaving others. Again the Jews were first on the list, but the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe and Russia were also marked for destruction. Even before German techniques of compulsory sterilization could be implemented on a mass scale, huge numbers of civilians along with prisoners of war were murdered or deliberately starved to death or left to die from disease after being dragooned into slave labor in the service of the German wartime industrial machine.
Although Buchanan argues that Hitler and Stalin were Tweedledum and Tweedledee, even Stalin’s victims, among them millions of peasants forced at gunpoint into the misery of collectivized farming, understood what was at stake. Many of them, having had a chance to experience the brutalities of both sides at first hand, chose accordingly, fighting desperately to stave off the Nazi onslaught.
To all of this, Buchanan is indifferent, or worse than indifferent. Arguing in behalf of a strategy that would have allowed Hitler to carve out an empire in the East while the Allies secured themselves behind their own frontiers, he opines that eventually, “[i]f the revealed horrors of Nazism in the East mandated a war, the Allies could have chosen the time and place to strike.” After page after page denouncing America’s entry into the war, this carefully hedged assertion is disingenuousness at its height. The “horrors of Nazism,” in all their mind-numbing detail, have been “revealed” for a full half-century now—but evidently they have yet to have the slightest effect on Patrick J. Buchanan’s conceptions of either history or morality.
It is tempting to attribute those conceptions to the same species of political blindness that affects Bruce Russett when he writes that “[c]oncern with the morality of others’ domestic politics is an expensive luxury.” But this is too charitable. A more likely source is the same, well-documented corner of Buchanan’s mind that has caused him in the past to defend Nazi war criminals; to praise Adolf Hitler as “an individual of great courage, a soldier’s soldier in the Great War, . . . [a] genius”; and to assert that diesel engines of the kind used by the Nazis to exterminate Jews “did not emit enough carbon monoxide to kill anybody.” In short, Buchanan’s World War II revisionism is part of a larger and even more ominous package, a package that he now carries on his journey to the political fringe.
1 Regnery, 437 pp., $29.95.
2 The guarantee’s impact on Soviet foreign policy is another matter entirely: to Stalin, Chamberlain’s step was a watershed. But Buchanan steps over this.
3 This is from a television interview.