The Past Is Another Country—Counter-factual History and the Buchanan Controversy

Patrick Buchanan’s new book, Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World is a must-read for anyone interested in international affairs, world history, World War II, and Winston Churchill. It’s not a standard history book but a long essay that utilizes secondary sources, mostly published books and articles and that promotes several intertwined theses with certain implications for current U.S. foreign policy.

As Buchanan sees it, both W.W.I and W.W.II were “unnecessary” wars that led to the erosion in the political, economic and military power of Europe and the British Empire, and by extension that of the West. If certain crucial policy choices, including the decision by Britain and France to offer guarantees to Poland, would not have been made, the conflict between the European powers could have been averted. Germany and Britain share responsibility for the series of decisions that led to the two wars. And Churchill played a leading role in creating the conditions for the entry of Britain into the Great War (doing that indirectly through his supportive rhetoric and political maneuvers) and into the Second World War (by mobilizing the elites, press, and public opinion to go to war, not unlike the neocons before and after the Iraq War).

Americans should recognize that by pursuing such Churchillian-like policies and overextending and overstretching their military and economic resources around the globe, the U.S. could find itself in the same position into which Britain was forced into after W.W.II—a has-been global power. Churchill’s central role in these developments—the two world wars, the collapse of the British Empire, the decline of the West—suggests that he was, indeed, the Man of the (20th) Century, but deserving of this designation more for his warmongering, poor judgment, and blundering than for his being the savior of western civilization (for which the neocons love to eulogize him).

Although I’ve read many, many books about W.W.II and several biographies of Churchill, including most of those listed in Buchanan’s bibliography, I enjoyed his book and found it very thought provoking. I’ve always liked revisionist studies that challenge our basic philosophical assumptions and our conventional wisdom about history. I also thought that in his review, John Lukacs doesn’t actually refute Buchanan’s main arguments regarding the events that led to W.W.II. Instead, he suggests that there is not enough historical evidence to support them and that your perspective on all this depends very much on our estimation of Churchill’s personality and modus operandi. Clearly, Lukacs’s and Buchanan’s are very different.

While I agree that the David Irving analogy was a cheap shot, Buchanan’s book is meant as a provocation, and I’m certain that he expects and, in fact, welcomes critical reviews and is ready to respond to them. Also, one of the reasons that I enjoy reading and writing for such publications like Chronicles, TAC, and Takimag is that unlike, say, The Weekly Standard, a lot of what they publish is unpredictable, contrarian, doesn’t follow a certain “party line” and challenges the powers that be. And that even “cranks” are welcomed to contribute.

I’d also warn against the tendency to search for certain continuities in political history that reflects our current biases and leads us sometimes to apply faulty historical analogies. We don’t like it when the neocons do it: every conciliatory diplomatic move is compared to “Munich,” every leader they want to depose in a “Hitler,” every civil war in which they want the U.S. to intervene is the first stage is in genocide, and all their critics are “appeasers,” “isolationists,” etc. And I’m not so sure that is makes a lot of sense for us to turn the tables on them and mirror image their dubious intellectual exercise and ironically end up doing exactly what the neocons are doing: comparing Churchill to Bush, and the strategic choices that America faced after 9/11 to those that Britain had to confront in the late 1930’s. Hence I don’t buy into the notion that since George W. Bush and The Weekly Standard worship Churchill, then ipso facto those of us who oppose them and their policies should regard Churchill as The Villain in the narrative of “the short twentieth century.”

In terms of his upbringing and personality, Churchill was like de Gaulle and Adenauer, a traditional conservative whose ideological roots go back to the 19th Century. If you apply the standards of our age, he was a “racist” and an “anti-Semite” (and by the way, for many of his contemporaries there was no contradiction between his occasional criticism of Jews and his support for Zionism). Like Teddy Roosevelt, he apparently suffered from some sort of depression, and like TR, he was attracted to violence and war which seemed to serve as a kind of Prozac for him. Poor Teddy didn’t get his big war. Moreover, Churchill, like his archrival Neville Chamberlain, was a British nationalist, imperialist, Realpolitik type in the tradition of Disraeli, and not in that of William Gladstone whose views were more characterized by the kind of liberal idealism that was later embraced and extended by President Woodrow Wilson. It’s this latter foreign-policy tendency, and not so much Churchill’s, that has been the hallmark of the neoconservative agenda as well as that of the humanitarian interventionist on the political left. And to demonstrate how even this “realist vs. idealist” dichotomy can be confusing, recall that Buchanan’s old boss, Richard Nixon—who is considered by many to be a flaming realist (China, Détente)—was an admirer of Wilson. One could be critical of both Chamberlain and Churchill for many different reasons, but it’s important to stress that both of them were pursuing classic forms of realist foreign policy and weren’t motivated by any sense of spacey idealism, like trying to make the world safe for democracy, nation building, etc.

Moreover, while it’s necessary to study the role of personalities in determining the course of history—interestingly enough, both Lukacs and Buchanan seem to apply that level of analysis in their work; hence, their preoccupation with Churchill and Hitler—we need to consider the impact other factors—geo-strategic, economic, demographic, geographical, and environmental—on historical processes.

W.W.I and W.W.II as well as the Cold War resulted from changes in the balance of power in Euro-Asia, and in particular the response to the rise of Germany as a leading European power and the strategic maxim that was central to British policy, and by extension Anglo-American policy: that no one great power should be allowed to control the Euro-Asian center of gravity—western and central Europe.

From that perspective, the debate between the British leaders was on the means to deal with Germany—military force, diplomatic accommodation, or a combination of both. (And by the way, the same kind debate took place in Washington after W.W.II with regard to the U.S. strategy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, with containment ending up as the consensus strategy.

It’s possible to envision a scenario in which the German and British Empires could have pursued policies that would have led to mutual accommodation and that would have prevented the Great War. Niall Ferguson makes such an argument in The Pity of War, suggesting that the British Empire could have lived side-by-side with a German-dominated Europe. And in any case, a military stalemate between the warring powers would have been the best-case scenario. Hence, American military intervention was in retrospect a historic blunder, and in that context, we should regard the idealist scheming Wilson as the main Villain in the narrative. In fact, Lukacs has drawn the outline of a What If? scenario in which President Teddy Roosevelt succeeds in pressing the two sides to negotiate a fair and stable conclusion to the war. And, yes, it would have been great if all the pre-WWII Empires of the time wouldn’t have been shattered (although while I imagine that at Takimag many readers and contributors are nostalgic for the good old days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I doubt that they miss the not-so gemütlich Ottoman Empire, which was defeated by the Brits).

It seems to me that against the backdrop of rising nationalism and the spread of liberalism and popular mass democracy, such an outcome was inevitable sooner or later (which explains why the notion of establishing an American Empire and spreading democracy at the same time doesn’t make much sense). The Great War may or may not have been inevitable, but it was Wilson’s postwar policies that were responsible for the mess that eventually led to the next war. He was the villain in the story.

Now to Hitler and Churchill. Much of the historical debate centers on whether Hitler would have accepted the kind of deal with Great Britain that John Charmley, Buchanan, and others believe had been possible. In fact, would Hitler have accepted in the late 1930s a Yalta-like accord with Britain (and France)—a division into spheres of influence?

Buchanan provides some evidence to support the view that Hitler would have accepted such a settlement that would have given him a yellow light to invade the Soviet Union. We’ll never know. The counter-argument, based mostly on Hitler’s modus operandi, the notion that he was a realist, is that that after achieving his strategic goals in the East, nothing would have prevented Hitler from taking steps to challenge the Brits in the Middle East and India and turn Britain into a German satellite or vassal state (like Finland vis-à-vis the Soviet Union).

I think that the preoccupation with the treaty with Poland misses a point. Chamberlain was really not interested in a “treaty with Poland” because he admired or was seduced by the Poles etc., and was more concerned about the balance of power in Europe that was successfully challenged by Berlin as a result of Munich and its aftermath. The British and the French needed a “tripwire” as a way of counterbalancing the German moves, and that tripwire was Poland.

Was setting up this tripwire was a mistake? Perhaps. But my guess is that at some point the British and the French would have been forced to respond to other aggressive German moves in the Balkans, the Middle East, etc. In any case, it’s not clear to me whether Buchanan shares Charmley’s view that London should have made a deal with the Germans after Hitler had invaded France (which Hitler was hoping to get).

Many revisionists also criticize the demand of “unconditional surrender” by the allies that, they argue, weakened the opposition against Hitler inside Germany. Perhaps the allies could have tried at this or that stage of the war to reach a deal with some of the more pragmatic figures in the German military and government that would have deposed Hitler and cooperated with the Americans to defeat the Soviets?

Both Alliance of Enemies: The Untold Story of the Secret American and German Collaboration to End World War II and Plotting Hitler’s Death: The Story of German Resistance speculate and provide some sketchy evidence that that could have happened. But as Thomas Fleming points out in The New Dealers’ War: FDR and the War Within World War II, it was FDR that was the driving force behind the strategy of unconditional surrender. Indeed, after a certain point in the war, it was FDR and his advisors whose goals were to both defeat the Axis powers and to destroy the British Empire—and eventually create the foundations for a post-war American-Soviet alliance (which took the form of a condominium in Yalta, who were making the critical decisions in the war).

And apropos the collapse of the British Empire. As Buchanan examines the events of the 20th century from his current vantage point, he seems to suggest that those who are concerned about the erosion in the power of the U.S., and by extension about the decline of the West, should observe the direct line that runs from W.W.I and W.W.II to the fall of the British Empire to the Iraq War. First, I do think that Lukacs is getting at something when he mentions his surprise over Buchanan’s sense of nostalgia for the British Empire. After all, going back to the debates that preceded U.S. entry into both W.W.I and W.W.II, one of the common threads that brought together the forces of the respective antiwar coalitions on the political left and the political right—Irish- and German-Americans, “isolationist” mid-westerners, etc.—was a strong opposition, if not hostility towards the British Empire, a staunch anti-imperialist attitude, and the suggestion that the Americans would end up saving the crumbling empire.

Moreover, the British Empire started to show signs of overstretch and overextension long before the two world wars. In a way, if one is searching for historical analogies, it’s the British role in the Boer War that is the appropriate analogy to apply to the American policy in the Iraq War (and interestingly enough, many Americans stood by the side of the Boers and against the Brits). We could debate forever whether the imperial project had benefited Britain (and the other European powers) or not. But I really don’t see any reason why an American, and especially an America First nationalist that was considering his nation’s long terms strategic and economic interests (forget the ideals of freedom and liberty) at any point in the 20th century would have argued that the U.S. should have backed the efforts by the British leaders to perpetuate their empire (assuming that that was even a realistic proposition). If anything, many historians who criticize U.S. policy during the Cold War fault it for the efforts to shore up the crumbling British and French empires after W.W.II (Vietnam being the best example).

From their perspective as British nationalists/imperialists, Churchill and his contemporaries were operating based on what they considered to be their national interest when they successfully brought about U.S. military intervention on their side during the two wars. Buchanan and other revisionist historians have some evidence on their side to counter with the thesis that the British would have been better off by making a deal with Germany that would led eventually to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Unfortunately, since the British government has yet to provide access to the entire collection of their official documents from the era, that the Russians would probably never do that, and that most of the German documents have been destroyed, we will probably never know what would have happened if the British had followed the policies advocated by Churchill’s critics.

In any case, while these kind of counter-factual scenarios are very intriguing, history doesn’t flow in some linear fashion that leads from X to Y, and that assumes that if only we had taken this road as opposed to that road, we would have reached our destiny. The benefits of a realist perspective in foreign policy is that is makes it easier for us to develop specific policies based on the consideration of our concrete national interests—preserving the security of the nation-state is a top priority—and the military, economic and other means that are available to us. In that sense, both Churchill and Chamberlain were realists—while differing on the means to achieve the same goals.

The overall goals that both Stalin and Hitler set for themselves were based on religion-like ideologies and fantasies that challenged the entire nation-state system of the time. Stalin (very much like Franco, and at an earlier stage, Mussolini) ended up embracing realist strategies, including the agreement with Hitler and later the alliance with the capitalist West. Hitler’s decision-making and behavior during the war—his decision to abrogate the treaty with Stalin and attack the Soviet Union as well as his declaration of war on the U.S.—raises doubts whether he was a “rational actor” in the same way that Stalin proved to be. My main criticism of the decisions made by President Bush and his aides in the last eight years is that they were based on religion-like ideologies and fantasies and that unlike Stalin, they have never been able to cut their losses and take steps to secure long-term U.S. interests.

I’m not sure whether a President Obama or a President McCain will be able to do that. But unlike our “What If?” questions about Churchill, we’ll be able to find out very soon how that scenario will evolve, how they will do things in the future.

Dr. Leon Hadar is a Washington-based journalist, author, and global affairs analyst. His most recent book is Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.

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