Sunday, June 15, 2008

World War II: The War Worth Fighting

Christopher Hitchens has a masterful take-down of Pat Buchanan's World War II revisionism, at Newsweek:

Is there any one shared principle or assumption on which our political consensus rests, any value judgment on which we are all essentially agreed? Apart from abstractions such as a general belief in democracy, one would probably get the widest measure of agreement for the proposition that the second world war was a "good war" and one well worth fighting. And if we possess one indelible image of political immorality and cowardice, it is surely the dismal tap-tap-tap of Neville Chamberlain's umbrella as he turned from signing the Czechs away to Adolf Hitler at Munich. He hoped by this humiliation to avert war, but he was fated to bring his countrymen war on top of humiliation. To the conventional wisdom add the titanic figure of Winston Churchill as the emblem of oratorical defiance and the Horatius who, until American power could be mobilized and deployed, alone barred the bridge to the forces of unalloyed evil. When those forces lay finally defeated, their ghastly handiwork was uncovered to a world that mistakenly thought it had already "supped full of horrors." The stark evidence of the Final Solution has ever since been enough to dispel most doubts about, say, the wisdom or morality of carpet-bombing German cities.

Historical scholarship has nevertheless offered various sorts of revisionist interpretation of all this. Niall Ferguson, for one, has proposed looking at the two world wars as a single conflict, punctuated only by a long and ominous armistice. British conservative historians like Alan Clark and John Charmley have criticized Churchill for building his career on war, for ignoring openings to peace and for eventually allowing the British Empire to be squandered and broken up. But Pat Buchanan, twice a candidate for the Republican nomination and in 2000 the standard-bearer for the Reform Party who ignited a memorable "chad" row in Florida, has now condensed all the antiwar arguments into one. His case, made in his recently released "Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War," is as follows:

  • That Germany was faced with encirclement and injustice in both 1914 and 1939.
  • Britain in both years ought to have stayed out of quarrels on the European mainland.
  • That Winston Churchill was the principal British warmonger on both occasions.
  • The United States was needlessly dragged into war on both occasions.
  • That the principal beneficiaries of this were Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.
  • That the Holocaust of European Jewry was as much the consequence of an avoidable war as it was of Nazi racism.

Buchanan does not need to close his book with an invocation of a dying West, as if to summarize this long recital of Spenglerian doomsaying. He's already opened with the statement, "All about us we can see clearly now that the West is passing away." The tropes are familiar—a loss of will and confidence, a collapse of the desire to reproduce with sufficient vigor, a preference for hedonism over the stern tasks of rulership and dominion and pre-eminence. It all sounds oddly … Churchillian. The old lion himself never tired of striking notes like these, and was quite unembarrassed by invocations of race and nation and blood. Yet he is the object of Buchanan's especial dislike and contempt, because he had a fondness for "wars of choice."

This term has enjoyed a recent vogue because of the opposition to the war in Iraq, an opposition in which Buchanan has played a vigorous role. Descending as he does from the tradition of Charles Lindbergh's America First movement, which looked for (and claimed to have found) a certain cosmopolitan lobby behind FDR's willingness to involve the United States in global war, Buchanan is the most trenchant critic of what he considers our fondest national illusion, and his book has the feel and stamp of a work that he has been readying all his life.

Read the whole thing.

Hitchens is exceedingly fair to Buchanan, and note that the arch paleoconservative is hardly the first to make the revisionist argument on the origins of World War II (although A.J.P. Taylor's a much more credible source).

For more on American foreign policy and paleoconservative thought, see David Frum, "Unpatriotic Conservatives: A War Against America."