May 29, 2008
Neocon. Crank. Appeaser. Such are the terms that my colleagues have lately been heaping on John Lukacs in response to his review of Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War. There is something powerful strange about complaints of oversimplification, tendentiousness and axe-grinding expressed through the use of such labels. While I must defer to Paul Gottfried’s testimony, since I know neither man personally, I don’t think it necessary to accept the excessive and rather frustrating attacks on Lukacs’ broader body of work and, indirectly, on those who agree with his critiques of nationalism and popular anticommunism. There were problems with the review and claims that I think can and should be challenged, but to say, as Richard does, that Lukacs “avoids seriously evaluating any of Buchanan’s historical arguments, preferring instead to rely on vague gesturing towards Buchanan’s propagating of “half truths” ” is not really true, unless by “seriously evaluate” we mean “agree with.” Understandably put off by the gratuitous David Irving references, Lukacs’ respondents have been doing most of the avoiding of serious evaluation with regrettable results. First, I will consider some of the problems with Lukacs’ review, and then turn to the responses in a later post.
He [Buchanan] claims that the transformation of the United States from a Republic to an empire was started by George W. Bush. What Bush has done and is still doing is, of course, lamentable. But the reaching out of American power all over the world, the fact that there are now American bases and missions in more than 700 places around the globe, the building of a 600-ship Navy, etc., began with Eisenhower and Dulles. It went on with Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and especially with Buchanan’s hero, Reagan, and then under Clinton. Already in 1956, Section Nine of the Republican Party platform called for “the establishment of American air and navy bases all around the world.” This was the party that so many liberal commentators still wrongly called “isolationist.” This was the party to which Patrick Buchanan adhered and the American foreign policy that he vocally thumped for until very recently.
Is 20 years ago the same as “very recently”? In any case, having read A Republic, Not an Empire, which Mr. Buchanan wrote prior to Mr. Bush’s first term, I would be extremely skeptical about this first claim even without consulting the new book, since much of the first book’s critique focuses on U.S. foreign policy since 1898, U.S. entry into WWI and WWII and the more recent interventions of the 1990s. George W. Bush was still referring to “Grecians” on the campaign trail when that book first came out, so clearly the anti-imperialist thesis predates this administration and the arguments in it locate the origins of empire before 2001. Does Mr. Buchanan make that claim in the new book? In fact, Mr. Buchanan says on page 421, “After seven years of a foreign policy rooted in such “moral clarity,” the world of 1989 has disappeared and America has begun to resemble the Britain of Salisbury and Balfour, a superpower past her prime, with enemies rising everywhere.” This is a fair assessment of the state of affairs, which does not necessarily entail any claim that American empire or projection of power around the world was some new invention of the Bush Era, and indeed there is no such claim. This was an exaggeration and wrong. So here a calm reading of the review discovers this seemingly significant point to be quite off the mark.
But then Lukacs makes a reasonable objection:
The other trouble with Buchanan’s anti-imperialist thesis is his argument that what happened to the British Empire applies obviously to the present American one. There are two points against this. One is that history does not repeat itself, and the rise and decline of Britain’s empire was and remains quite different from the American situation. Buchanan’s argument is that the Second World War”more precisely, Churchill’s decision to resist Hitler, no matter what the cost”was a disaster for Western civilization but, more directly, for the British Empire itself. Yet the gradual liquidation of the British Empire, and the piecemeal acceptance by the British people of that, long preceded World War II.
Of course, it’s true that history does not repeat, and the empires and their histories are not the same. It is true that the Empire had begun to deteriorate before WWII (in some ways, its grave had been dug during WWI), but it does not necessarily follow that WWII was not the catalyst for its more rapid and complete dissolution. Indeed, if one wanted to square hostility to FDR and his efforts to involve America in WWII with an appreciation of the British Empire, which Lukacs seems to find irreconcilable, one might dwell on FDR’s insistence on the weakening of the Empire as part of the cost of American aid and support. Like Wilson before him, his sort of crusading anti-imperialism (i.e., his opposition to the imperialism of other peoples) unleashed a later cavalcade of horrors from which many millions still suffer. Here I should note that I agree with Marcus that there is no question that Mr. Buchanan has made a point on more than one occasion of regretting the dissolution of the British Empire, in no small part because of the terrible misrule that has often arisen in the wake of decolonization, and it is worth noting this again because it was Churchill who wished to preserve the Empire and FDR the one who wished to see it break apart. Of course, it was not Churchill, but Chamberlain, who honored a war guarantee to Poland, as Mr. Buchanan notes in his ninth chapter, in which he describes Churchill’s initial enthusiasm for the action giving way to doubt and uncertainty. Churchill continued the war to which Chamberlain had committed Britain, but he was not directly responsible for giving the guarantee (though he applauded it at the time), and that seems worth bearing in mind, as much as I have no time for what I call Churchillolatry.
Meanwhile, one of the most important modern-day connections that Mr. Buchanan made between the situation in the late 1930s and today, which has gone missing from this discussion entirely, is between unenforceable security guarantees to countries one has no intention of defending, or at least no ability to do so, and the spate of NATO guarantees that Washington has been making and keeps making.
Mr. Buchanan writes:
As Chamberlain gave a war guarantee to Poland he could not honor, the United States began to hand out NATO war guarantees to six Warsaw Pact nations, the three Baltic republics, and, soon, Ukraine and Georgia. Should a hostile regime come to power in Moscow and reoccupy these nations, we would have to declare war. Yet no matter how much we treasure the newly free Lithuania, Latvia, ad Estonia, their independence is not a vital U.S. interest, and never has been. And the threatened loss of their independence cannot justify war with a nuclear-armed Russia.
This is the heart of the issue—vital interests—and it is a shame that there is this oversight in the review, which I have noted before, that prevents the consideration of whether it was, in fact, in the British interest to commit to a war for Poland, especially before it had fully rearmed and when Poland was basically indefensible. Making guarantees your government cannot honor is worse than not making any guarantees, and committing to a war to which you do not yet have to join and before you are prepared, and all for the sake of a country whose sovereignty is not your responsibility, is reckless folly. Persisting in that war may be less avoidable, but it is not obviously any less foolish. Critically, the claim that Churchill is the “savior of England” assumes that it was to the benefit of the United Kingdom to persist in the war rather than see the rise of a pan-continental power, even to the point of hastening the demise of the Empire and inviting two different rival powers into Europe, yet this takes for granted that the traditional balancing policy of successive British governments has been wise, when by and large it has drawn them into war after war that was properly none of their affair. It is not certain that once the war began Churchill could have left Britain with more than it ended up having, but then this would seem to be the essential point: the war was ruinous and was unnecessary for Britain.
As for the claim that German rule would have proved more enduring than that of the Soviets, I have answered it before, but I would add again that this is an assertion strangely at odds with Prof. Lukacs’ appreciation for the power of nationalism, since every country in eastern Europe they occupied saw the rise of national liberation movements that worked to expel them and the “New Order” was designed explicitly to exploit subject peoples for the benefit of Germany. German occupation turned the otherwise pro-German Greeks into dedicated enemies, and turned many of the peoples whom they briefly brought out from under Soviet control against them almost as quickly as they had arrived. Some self-deluding nationalist collaborators existed in every puppet regime, such as Gotzamanis, the embodiment of the anti-patriotic nationalist type, who persuaded themselves that anticommunism justified their treason, but who were ultimately vastly outnumbered by and alienated from the majority of their fellow citizens who hated the collaborationists—these are points that might be profitably advanced against the thesis of enduring German postwar rule and in favor of anti-anticommunism. That is the sort of conversation that might actually be interesting to have, rather than flinging epithets and denunciations.