Patrick Buchanan is a conservative--and more a social or cultural one than an economic one. He makes no pretense to be a libertarian, still less an anarchist; he is or was a Washington “insider” to the extent of being on the staff of Tricky Dick Nixon, and to that of being a regular on prime-time talk shows like “The McLaughlin Group.” He is, furthermore, actually opposed to the principle of Free Trade, contrary to almost every economist breathing. So how come that I offer this favorable review of his book Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War (CHUW)?
My excuses: Buchanan is also a maverick and a gadfly, way out of sync with his own party, who says what he believes heedless of Republican opinions. He believes in non-intervention abroad, and he's a darn good historian who normally gets it right. The first two of those are libertarian qualities, and the third is a very rare and valuable characteristic from which we can learn plenty. In recommending CHUW, I'm endorsing none of his unrelated views, just telling you it's a very, very good read that cannot fail to expand the mind.
Buchanan's cultural conservatism appears at once, in the preface. He says nice things about the pre-1914 British Empire as the promoter of Christian virtues: “For four hundred years, explorers, missionaries, conquerors, and colonizers departed Europe for the four corners of the Earth to erect empires that were to bring the blessings and benefits of Western civilization to all mankind”--and he deplores its demise. I think that makes him a member of the Old Right, to which Ron Paul would also belong – except Paul has a far better handle on economics.
The book is about the origins of World War II, and there are very few who have no need of intense interest in that subject, for it affected hundreds of millions of lives and ended 50 to 80 million of them prematurely. My own ne plus ultra on the subject is A.J.P. Taylor's masterpiece of that title, but CHUW is a welcome and worthy augmentation. Interesting, that Buchanan often quotes from that work and clearly admires it; yet he is an Old Right conservative while Taylor was a socialist. Their common ground is to demolish the conventional wisdom that still infests government school classrooms and The History Channel. Buchanan, more than Taylor, begins by detailing the origins of the First World War, because that was the true, basic origin of the Second due to the vicious terms imposed on Germany at Versailles.
So the first two chapters of CHUW deal with the end of the 19th Century and the disastrous blunders of the European government leaders in the first decade and a half that followed it. Those chapters are worth the price of the book on their own, and far exceed in value the standard textbook on the subject, Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, which to my mind is hardly a history at all, rather a mere chronology.
Of particular interest to me was how Buchanan brings out the fact that there was no treaty obligation on the British government to take part, because the Anglo-French entente of 1905 was just that – an understanding, not a formal obligation. Thus, while all the other participants did have treaty obligations in that early form of Mutual Assured Destruction, the UK could have opted out – but for one factor: the Germans chose to attack France via Belgium, and there was in effect a 75-year-old treaty to guarantee Belgium's neutrality. Buchanan suggests that this was used in London as an excuse to join the war, the real motive being that without her participation, a German-Austrian victory was very probable, and domination of Europe by a German empire would have upset the stability of the worldwide British one. So entry hadn't much to do with pity for “little Belgium” as advertised, but a great deal to do with its centuries-old policy of opposing whichever nation in Europe stood poised to dominate the others.
At any rate, Buchanan analyses the moves in that terrible summer of 1914 and allocates blame – there was plenty to go around – and while a lot of mud sticks to the Brits, notably to Churchill who could ill restrain his enthusiasm for war, he shows that the Germans were the most eager to avoid a conflict if possible, and tried hardest to do so. Yet five years later, savage punishment for having started it was loaded on to them, the losers.
That fundamental injustice was forced by Clemenceau of France and Lloyd George of Britain, with US President Wilson ineffectively opposing and eventually concurring. Later, American public opinion correctly judged that the “treaty” had betrayed all the reasons Americans had had for joining the War, and turned away from European affairs in disgust.
Germans, of course, could not turn away, and the injustice rankled, and inevitably a leader emerged with promises to shred the treaty and reverse its provisions. By then – the 1930s – even most French and British pols had concluded that they were too harsh by far, so when Hitler skilfully reclaimed territory occupied mostly by German speakers who desired to live in a restored Germany, there was no wholehearted opposition. Not until Prague, that is, as Pat Buchanan shows; that was the turning point, on March 15th, 1939. Prague was not a Germanic city. Its part of Czechoslovakia was taken as a conquest by Hitler, and that was something up with which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did not feel able to put. So from that date, Buchanan says, he changed his mind; from appeaser, he became an opposer.
So he leads us to his Chapter 9, dealing with the pivotal, infamous “Polish Guarantee.”
I've been puzzled by that for many years. Everyone now agrees that it was by far the biggest blunder ever made in British foreign policy; on March 30th 1939, after a brief Cabinet discussion, Chamberlain announced that Britain would intervene if Polish integrity were violated. No quid pro quo, no prior discussions, even; it came as a surprise to all, including Polish Foreign Minister Beck, and to Hitler, who was furious. Just a blank check, out of the blue. Who suggested this catastrophic error, which did indeed prove, five months later, to be the trigger for World War II? That's the mystery, which I'd hoped CHUW would reveal.
It does not. Buchanan's treatment of the motivation is reasonable, but comes down to the theory that Chamberlain was a gentleman statesman who had accepted Hitler's word six months earlier in Munich, but who now felt betrayed and humiliated by the latter's grab of Prague and his demand for access to Danzig, a Germanic port in Northern Poland. So (it's alleged) he strung that trip wire for war in a fit of pique, as the quickest way to express anger.
Well, maybe. That says Chamberlain was naïve; for he knew full well in Munich in 1938 that he was accepting the word of a man who had systematically murdered some 200 of his own supporters in 1934, to foil an intra-party coup; so he was or should have been well aware that Hitler was no gentleman whose word could be trusted.
An alternative theory is that someone put him up to it. Paul Craig-Roberts, in this recent article on some “What-Ifs” of modern history, names Churchill as the villain, and it's true that he had in the late 1930s been calling on the government to oppose Hitler more firmly. But there is no hint in CHUW of any phone call or meeting between Churchill and Chamberlain, in which the former urged the latter to issue the Polish Guarantee--nor mention of any newspaper article to that effect. Churchill did applaud the announcement at once, but a few days later he backpedalled fast, having recognized with almost everyone else that it was a colossal blunder that left the fate of the British Empire in the hands of a Polish politician.
My own theory is that FDR is the one who put Chamberlain up to it, through his London Ambassador Joseph Kennedy. I've held that view for some years, but have seen no evidence to support it. The motive would be that FDR wanted a new war in Europe, which he could lead the US to join and win, as in 1917-18, bringing huge additional worldwide influence to the USA while diminishing that of Britain. He would have persuaded Chamberlain that the time had come to stand up to Hitler, and promised that if the outcome should be war, America would under his leadership once again come to pluck England's chestnuts from the fire.
CHUW gives me no support, either; Buchanan evidently found no trace of such a meeting. However, coincidentally, another recent publication does. It's a posthumous one by Herbert Hoover, a close friend of Joe Kennedy. The key passage from his Freedom Betrayed is revealed here, and confirms that Kennedy did indeed deliver that message to Chamberlain, at FDR's behest, in spite of his own personal disinclination; he was (or said he was) much in favor of appeasement throughout his London appointment. Hence, not only did FDR provoke Japan to attack Pearl Harbor, not only did he leak the Rainbow Five plan to stimulate Hitler to declare war on the US a few days later, but from the London Ambassador himself we have evidence that he even arranged for the European war to begin in the first place. And this is the President most lauded by every Statist in the land--unless it be that other mega-murderer, Abraham Lincoln.
Buchanan seems to have missed that one, but so had everyone else until Hoover's book emerged. Blame government restrictions on what can be published about its “statecraft.”
That's one of the few disappointments in CHUW, the other being a characteristic absence of relevant economic analysis. For example, Buchanan fails to expose the alleged German prosperity of the 1930s as a complete myth, being based on well-doctored statistics. However, I did learn one thing under this subject head: before FDR authorized the famous “lend lease” program in 1941, to supply the UK with badly needed materiel, he obliged Churchill to part with all the British government's gold. Not quite as altruistic as I'd thought.
Otherwise, it's a thrilling read, certain to invert many long-held suppositions. Churchill's contribution to his era is soberly analyzed, and he comes up very short. When he entered public life, Britain was astride the world, and when he left it, Britain was a second rate power, and nobody had contributed more than Churchill to the decisions that produced that decline. Time and time and time again, he blundered, and at no time more than in the early days of WWII. He had many opportunities to withdraw from that devastating conflict, but spat on them, every one. He helped achieve the destruction of one totalitarian monster, but at the cost of sicking a worse one on the whole world, as well as bankrupting his own country. Buchanan asks: “...we cannot ignore the costs of Churchill’s wars... Was it truly necessary that fifty million die to bring Hitler down? For World War II was the worst evil ever to befall Christians and Jews and may prove the mortal blow that brings down our common civilization.”
He treats Hitler impartially too, though is by no means an apologist for the Nazi liquidator of six million Jews. But he acknowledges superior statecraft when he sees it, and he sees plenty. Hitler would have waged war on the Soviets, without doubt, but at every turn in the preamble to the war with France and Britain, Hitler tried hard to avoid it. That part of World War II was completely unnecessary – and but for that part, the US would have stayed out.
There is one huge weakness of this highly readable work: its author totally fails to see the wood for the trees. He brilliantly shows that all the governments and players in the megadeath drama of two world wars committed multiple, massive and culpable errors and deliberately chose to dispose of human lives like chess pawns; yet he never once even poses the obvious question “Should human beings, therefore, be ruled by governments?”
Buchanan is hardly alone in that failure, but failure it is nonetheless. It is a failure of honest intellectual enquiry. In CHUW, Buchanan asks and answers nearly every key question relating to his story . . . except that one, the biggest of them all.
Here on STR we certainly do pose it, and respond emphatically in the negative.