The Good War: A Cautionary Tale

June 09, 2008

The Good War: A Cautionary Tale

Opinions vary with respect to the ongoing conflict in Iraq, but we can all agree that the struggle for Europe, 1939-45, was “€œthe Good War.”€  Or can we?  Not if Pat Buchanan is right, and he presents a serious argument in Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, one of the finest achievements of his career.  His principal thesis is that the war guarantee given to Poland by the British government on March 31, 1939, turned a German-Polish confrontation into a general European war, one that led to the death of millions (including victims of the Holocaust) and to destruction on an unimaginable scale. Placing the decision for war in the hands of the Polish government was all the more inexcusable and inexplicable because the dispute in question revolved around Hitler’s reasonable demand that Danzig, an ethnically German city, be joined to the Reich and because the British were in no position to back up their guarantee.

This is an argument that Buchanan made in A Republic, Not an Empire, and it won the approval of George F. Kennan. The British government, Kennan wrote in a personal letter to the author, “€œwould have been better to shut up, to rearm as speedily as possible, and to avoid further formal commitments of any sort, while waiting the further turn of events.”€ As usual, he was right, but Buchanan was left with an obligation to sketch out a counterfactual history. It is this. Had Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain not acted precipitously in presenting the war guarantee, Hitler, who did not want war with Britain, might never have waged war against the West; he would have satisfied himself with Danzig, or swallowed all of Poland before turning on Soviet Russia. The war, if it came at all, would have been restricted to the East.

This, of course, must remain a matter for speculation. The impression one gains from this thoughtful book is that Hitler, though an evil man, was, at least in his conduct of foreign policy, reasonable and relatively restrained in his objectives. Buchanan is certainly right to insist that the Nazi Führer had no serious plan to conquer the world; his was a European universe. Nevertheless, I think it a mistake to approach him as if he were a crude Bismarck; he was a reckless adventurer and, unlike Stalin, he posed a clear and present threat to the entire continent. Driven as he was by a demonic will, I doubt that he would have contented himself with Danzig, or even with domination of the European East.

And something more. Buchanan rightly observes that the Treaty of Versailles was a monument to stupidity and vengeance. While the Germans bore some responsibility for the coming of the Great War, they were not alone guilty”€”far from it. And despite Woodrow Wilson’s endless prattle about “€œself-determination,”€ he, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George never permitted Germans to choose the state under whose authority they wished to live. As a result, Hitler could make a compelling case for the Reich’s claim to the Sudentenland, Memel, Danzig”€”even Austria. 

But as Buchanan knows, “€œself-determination,”€ even if music to American ears, is a recipe for endless conflict. What people want matters, but their will must always be weighed against competing and equally important considerations, including historical claims, militarily-defensible frontiers, rational boundaries, and political stability. The Sudeten Germans wished to live in the Reich, but the victorious Allies had, however unwisely, awarded the Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia, in part because the new state required a defensible border to the west. It was territory belonging to what was, after all, a sovereign state.

Buchanan has little difficulty convincing us that the war produced unspeakable evils and, like a growing number of historians, he does not attempt to relieve the Allies of moral responsibility. The fire bombing of German cities, filled with men, women, and children who were noncombatants, marked what Paul Johnson has called “€œa critical stage in the moral declension of humanity in our times.”€ So did the forced repatriation of Russians and the expulsion from their homes of millions of Germans.

Buchanan places much of the blame for these crimes on Churchill, whose reputation, particularly in recent years, has suffered blows from which it may never recover.  The war seemed to bring to the surface the dark side of his character. Certainly his visceral hatred of the Germans, as a people, dulled his moral sense and clouded his judgment. As A. C. Grayling points out in Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, the bombing campaigns that Churchill authorized, had they continued much longer, would have opened the Allies to a charge of waging a war of annihilation.

And what of Churchill’s fawning but apparently genuine admiration for Stalin?  It is one thing to recognize that the war could not be won without the Red Army, but another to pretend that the Man of Steel was other than a coldly calculating mass murderer. When the United States entered the war, Kennan gave it as his opinion that, insofar as American interests were at stake, material aid might be extended to the Soviets, but that “€œwe should do nothing at home to make it appear that we are following the course Churchill seems to have entered upon in extending moral support to the Russian cause.”€ Nor in Kennan’s view, should aid have continued once the last German soldier had been driven from Russian soil. That was not a view shared by FDR, who was, if anything, even more ready than Churchill to be deceived by “€œUncle Joe.”€

Buchanan’s subtitle, How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, points readers to another important thesis, namely that Britain lost its empire and Great Power status as a result of foolish decisions to wage wars”€”against the Boers, the Kaiser, and Hitler. British decline should, he believes, serve as a cautionary tale for the United States, the imperial successor. 

Thanks in no small measure to the wisdom of George Kennan, the U.S. won the Cold War without leading its citizens and the world to Armageddon. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country began to pursue a foreign policy all too reminiscent of that which led to Britain’s decline; it reached its nadir when, in response to the 9/11 attacks, President Bush sent the nation on a quixotic mission to democratize the Middle East”€”if not the world. Like British statesmen before him, he led his people into an ill-advised war”€”and began to imagine himself the Churchill of his generation. And so, according to Buchanan, he is.

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