June 02, 2008

The following is the first installment in a three-part critical symposium on Patrick Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler, and the “Unnecessary War.” 

It is not surprising that Pat Buchanan’s new book, exploring the collapse of the British Empire and the connection of that disaster to England’s involvement in two world wars, should have received a strong endorsement from George F. Kennan, written (it might be surmised) shortly before this luminary’s death at the age of a hundred and one. Although Kennan praises Pat specifically for taking over and developing his argument that “€œthe British guaranty to Poland [in 1939] was neither necessary nor wise,”€ there is little in Pat’s work that is not traceable to this once celebrated American exponent of political realism. There are other historians whom Pat cites, such as Giles MacDonogh, Thomas Fleming, John Charmley and my close friend Ralph Raico, all of whom have written critically about Churchill. But his main guide to enlightenment is Kennan. Moreover, the work by this author and onetime American ambassador to Russia that fuels Pat’s “€œrevisionist”€ arguments, concerning the misuse of British power, the overly close connection between the U.S. and Britain, and the overextension of English participation in continental European conflicts, is Kennan’s American Diplomacy 1900-1950, a work that was first published in 1951.

When I was in college and later graduate school in the 1960s, this book was regularly assigned to undergraduates as an authoritative introduction to America’s role in international affairs in the 20th century. As Lee Congdon will surely explain in his forthcoming monograph, Kennan then enjoyed a certain cachet on the academic left as a critic of Cold War hawks, and he was even allowed to publish in the “€œanti-anti-Communist”€ New York Review of Books a tribute to the Prussian aristocracy that had tried to overthrow Hitler in 1944. By the 1980s Kennan had predictably come to rattle the neocons as someone who had never been particularly favorable to Israel and who had even shown the effrontery to warn against weakening the white minority government in South Africa. Despite Kennan’s mostly accidental association with the Left, the neocons, led by the sociologist Paul Hollander, correctly reminded us that Kennan was a reactionary”€”and certainly no friend of progressive democracy.

I bring this up because Pat’s discovery of Kennan indicates a union that was perhaps inevitable. Once their differences over the Cold War had begun to recede, paleoconservatives were bound to rediscover Kennan as a thinker of choice. How many true conservatives would disagree with these lines from his American Diplomacy?:

Today if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913″€”a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists, a vigorous Germany, united and unoccupied, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe”€”well, there would be objections to it from many quarters, and it wouldn”€™t make everyone happy, but in many ways it wouldn”€™t sound so bad, in comparison with our problems today.

Although Kennan’s wistful observation is essentially sound, one could not imagine a “€œrespectable”€ publication these days that would allow it to be printed on its pages. (Try for example the raging Teutonophobic Weekly Standard!) In the immaculately antifascist democracy that we bestowed on the Germans in 1947, moreover, anyone expressing Kennan’s views in print could conceivably face criminal prosecution for “€œrightwing extremist”€ verbal assaults on the “€œGerman liberal democratic order.”€ Indeed German journalists and scholars have been hounded by the “€œdemocratic” German government for saying far less than what Kennan and Buchanan have written.

On the less positive side, I am not particularly impressed by the arguments offered against England’s decision to guarantee the security of Poland. According to this view, stated by Buchanan and at least intimated by Kennan, without the empty British guarantee, which England was in no position to uphold militarily when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the war would not have turned out in such a way as to ruin the British as a world power. The Soviets would have had to take the “€œbrunt”€ of the German attack earlier, since a Soviet-Nazi pact would not likely have come about in 1939, setting up the division of Eastern Europe between two mass-murdering regimes.

But it is hard to see why such an alliance would not have come about, no matter what the British did by guaranteeing Poland’s territorial integrity. It was to the advantage of both the Soviet and German tyrants in 1939 to make a pact for territorial gain. And there is no reason to believe that Hitler would not have moved his armies westward after bringing down Poland, with or without a British guarantee to the then beleaguered Poles. A wealth of evidence, including broad hints in the Hossbach Denkschrift (November 1937), in which Hitler had revealed his plans for territorial acquisition to his generals, indicate that German westward expansion was in the cards even before the Anschluss with Austria in March 1938.  

Another detail gets in the way of Buchanan’s imaginative reconsideration of the outbreak of World War Two. Nazi Germany failed over the long term to control European Russia, because it was fighting a two-front war. Buchanan’s wish for a great war, between Russia and Germany that would have spared “€œtens of millions”€ in Western Europe, is not based on convincing evidence. The only way Hitler was driven from power was in a two-front war, and tens of millions necessarily died to achieve that end. Although actions might have been taken to end that war sooner, and in a less unconditional and more humane fashion, without conceding Eastern Europe to Stalin, England could not have gotten rid of the Nazi government without taking up arms. Certainly the U.S. could not have afforded that luxury.

I am also not convinced by Buchanan’s suggestion that since Stalin exterminated more people than Hitler that Churchill made the wrong decision, in effect, using Stalin to deal with Hitler. In terms of England’s geopolitical interests, Nazi Germany represented a much greater threat than Soviet Russia, particularly after Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa. Furthermore, once Hitler had sent armies into Russia, the Soviet Union and England, which had been at war with Germany since September 1939, were on the same side militarily. Pointing this out, however, is not to justify what Churchill later did, in order to remain in good odor with the Soviets or such brutal acts as Operation Keelhaul, in which the British and American governments actively assisted Soviet crimes against refugees who had fled Stalin’s tyranny. Such misdeeds, including the firebombing of defenseless German civilians, were certainly reprehensible but they were not necessitated by the fact that both the British and Soviets had fought Nazi Germany at the same time.

Having noted my areas of disagreement with Buchanan (or Buchanan/Kennan), it also seems necessary to note that generally I agree with almost everything else in this book. Whether the theme is Churchill’s critical role in unleashing the First World War, the disastrous consequences of England’s entry into that struggle (which helped to widen it into a World War), the folly of the Congress of Versailles, or the mistake of the British in exchanging their naval alliance with Japan for one with the U.S. in the 1920s, Buchanan’s book is on the mark. Although not likely to influence our neo-Wilsonian political class, his reassessment should cause some intelligent Americans somewhere to rethink our country’s role in the world. Moreover, unlike his questionable interpretations about the Second World War, his conclusions about World War One are so self-evidently correct that one must wonder why they are not more widely represented. The passages about World War One from Kissinger and other diplomatic historians whom Buchanan cites sound like the most hysterical propaganda manufactured by Wilson’s Department of Information. There is little to no evidence known to me that would justify this one-sided interpretation of Germany’s sole responsibility for the War or the soundness of the Treaty of Versailles. Although Buchanan, for the sake of comprehensiveness, should have gone into the now fashionable theories about exclusive German blame for the War, what Buchanan does present is enough to show us the dubious nature of all such anti-German views about the events of July and August 1914. 


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