Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World by Patrick J. Buchanan (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008); 518 pages.
Of all the wars the United States has fought, World War II is the most universally celebrated. It was the “Good War,” despite being the bloodiest in world history. Only in the Civil War did more Americans perish. But World War II is seen as the best example of the nation mobilizing completely and righteously to combat evil itself.
In Britain and America, many consider Winston Churchill the greatest Englishman ever, perhaps the Man of the 20th Century, because he pushed for war against the Nazi regime when others favored appeasement. In America, Churchill’s belligerent foresight, in stark contrast to the “isolationist” Americans who wanted to avoid war, is treated as a lesson about the limits of nonintervention and the need sometimes to wage war, sometimes ruthlessly, sometimes before national interests are directly threatened. Had Adolf Hitler not been defeated, civilization throughout Europe and perhaps more of the world would have expired. Had Britain and the United States not been bold, Hitler would not have been defeated.
World War II acclimated the American Left to foreign interventionism. Eventually, the Left got an anti-war reputation by turning sour on the Cold War. But initially, among leftists it was mostly communists who strongly opposed the Cold War as inaugurated by Democrat Harry Truman when the dust was still settling from the war against the Axis Powers, a war they had backed once Hitler and Stalin had their falling out. Democrats today point to World War II as a just war, as the pinnacle of American power used properly to secure human rights abroad. Bill Clinton invoked the specter of Hitler when waging war on Serbia, although Slobodan Milosevic’s crimes, while severe, paled in comparison with those of the Nazis.
On the Right, the Second World War is similarly popular, and there is precious little remorse about the crimes committed by the U.S. government, from bombing civilians abroad to interning them at home. Franklin Roosevelt, who foisted upon America the most collectivist economy America had ever seen at peacetime, will remain a hero among conservatives as long as he is perceived as one of the greatest commanders in chief in U.S. history.
The narrative that Hitler was defeated because Churchill’s resolute belligerence won out over Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s acquiescence to Hitler — and, from a U.S. perspective, because the American isolationists lost the day — has become a staple neoconservative talking point. Capitulating to Saddam Hussein or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be reliving 1938, when Chamberlain sold out Czechoslovakia at Munich. (Paradoxically, Hitler is both an unparalleled evil and the equivalent of every foreign dictator the U.S. faces today.)
Does this narrative give the whole picture? Some American historians have argued that the United States could have avoided the war and it would have been better for America and, on balance, no worse for the world. In Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, Patrick Buchanan goes further and argues Britain could have stayed out and spared much of Europe from the war’s reaches. Tens of millions of lives would have been spared. The Germans and Russians would very likely have met on the battlefield, but the Holocaust could have been avoided and Stalin’s empire might have never grown to enslave half the continent.
Britain would have retained its empire. As with all empires, Buchanan believes, “the fall of the British Empire was inevitable.” However, “the suddenness and sweep of the collapse were not. There is a world of difference between watching a great lady grandly descend a staircase and seeing a slattern being kicked down a flight of stairs.”
Buchanan traces Britain’s participation in World War II back to the origins of World War I. Calling the two conflicts “The Great Civil War of the West,” Buchanan argues that had not World War I occurred and concluded the way it did, there would have been no World War II. Indeed, World War I “destroyed the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires and ushered onto the world stage Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler.”
This thesis is not unique but Buchanan’s treatment of World War I is particularly worth reading. Watching diplomatic bungling transform a border dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia into a bloodbath that killed 20 million and produced nothing good made a generation hate and distrust war. The popular interpretation of the Second World War has unfortunately obscured this lesson in peace.
Buchanan summarizes the diplomatic tragedy:
Had the Austrians not sought to exploit the assassination of Ferdinand to crush Serbia, they would have taken Serbia’s acceptance of nine of their ten demands as vindication. Had Czar Nicholas II been more forceful in rescinding his order for full mobilization, Germany would not have mobilized, and the Schlieffen Plan would not have begun automatically to unfold. Had the Kaiser and [Chancellor Theobald von] Bethmann realized the gravity of the crisis, just days earlier, they might have seized on [Sir Edward] Grey’s proposal to reconvene the six-power conference that resolved the 1913 Balkan crisis.
Allied propaganda at the time put all blame on Prussian militarism. Hawkish Allies felt vindicated when Germany invaded Belgium, although Britain had secretly planned to invade had Germany not done so. Were the Germans particularly militaristic? As Buchanan points out, in the century before World War I Germany and Austria had been in three wars, compared with France’s five, Russia’s seven, and Britain’s ten.
Buchanan’s thesis on World War I: Germany was far from faultless, but it was Britain that bears most responsibility for turning the war into a world war and laying the groundwork for another world war:
For it was the British decision to send an army across the Channel to fight in Western Europe, for the first time in exactly one hundred years, that led to the defeat of the Schlieffen Plan, four years of trench warfare, America’s entry, Germany’s collapse in the autumn of 1918, the abdication of the Kaiser, the dismemberment of Germany at Versailles, and the rise to power of a veteran of the Western Front who, four years after the war’s end, was unreconciled to his nation’s defeat. “It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain,” cried Adolf Hitler in 1922. “No, we do not pardon, we demand — vengeance.”
Suffering under Britain’s starvation blockade, which had claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and continued long after the Armistice, Berlin capitulated to the strict conditions of Versailles. “Germany faced invasion and death by starvation if she refused.” The victors carved up much of the world, and not only to Germany’s detriment. Hungary was
reduced from an imperial domain of 125,000 square miles to a landlocked nation of 36,000. Transylvania and the two million Hungarians residing there went to Romania as a reward for joining the Allies. Slovakia, which a predominantly Catholic Hungary had ruled for centuries, was handed over to the Czechs [forming Czechoslovakia]. Other Hungarian lands went to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. A slice of Hungary was even ceded to Austria…. Of the 18 million under Hungarian rule in 1910, 10 million were taken away.
Such mass displacements were a conspicuous deviation from Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination that had inspired Americans in their entry into the war. In one section, Buchanan shows how many of Wilson’s lofty Fourteen Points were ditched in the war’s aftermath.
As for Germany, the nation lost contiguous territories: Northern Schleswig to Denmark, Eupen and Malmdy to Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine to France, and the Polish Corridor and other lands to the newly recreated Poland. Colonies were also stripped away:
Germany’s islands in the South Pacific had been mandated to Australia and New Zealand. German South-West Africa had gone to South Africa. German East Africa (Tanganyika) had become a British mandate. The Cameroons and Togoland were divided between Britain and France.
Britain was the great victor. “Out of the war fought to make the world safe for democracy, the British Empire had added 950,000 square miles and millions of subjects.”
Germany was forced to accept full guilt for the war, give up trade privileges, and accept the massively crippling liability of paying off the Allies’ war debts, including the pensions of retired British soldiers. The “war to end all wars” weakened Germany and the old Russian Empire, making them susceptible to Nazi and Bolshevik takeover. “A poisonous spirit of revenge” plagued the close of the world’s greatest conflict and the seeds were planted for another, far greater one in two decades. But as Buchanan argues, World War II would have still not occurred if not for the diplomatic folly, especially on Britain’s part, in the intervening years.
Europe did not want another European war and was cynical and tired when the high goals of the Great War never materialized. Early in the 1920s, Churchill, one of the most vocal proponents of war with the Kaiser, saw a grave new threat budding, not in defeated Germany, but in Lenin’s terror regime in Russia. Almost two decades would pass before the British would again see Germany as the enemy.
The same was true of Japan, which had been a loyal British ally in World War I. The two nations continued their alliance with an important naval treaty: the British navy would protect Japan’s sphere of power in the East and for Britain “the benefits of the alliance were apparent. With the Bolsheviks in power in Russia, Britain had as an ally and codefender of India, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Singapore, the greatest naval power in the western Pacific.” Under financial hardships and at the urging of the United States, Britain abandoned this crucial treaty. Japan, the United States, Britain, and France replaced it with the Four-Power Treaty, which had “no enforcement provision.”
In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. What was Britain to do?
Had the Anglo-Japanese alliance not been terminated, a modus vivendi like the British-France entente of 1904 could have been negotiated. As Britain had recognized France’s primacy in Morocco, and France had given up all claims to Suez, Britain could have accepted Japan’s special interest in North China, and Tokyo could have resolved the crisis.
And “[where] were the Americans for whose friendship Britain had sacrificed Japan? [President Herbert] Hoover believed Japan’s move into Manchuria was defensive, to protect its empire against a rising China and encroaching Soviet Union.” In 1933, the League of Nations voted to condemn Japan’s occupation of Manchuria and demand that it be returned.
Britain voted in favor. Japan walked out. With Hitler now in power in Germany and the specter of a two-front war against Germany and Japan emerging, the British cabinet began to reconsider the wisdom of having thrown over Japan to appease the America that was now isolationist and indifferent, if not hostile, to British imperial interests.
Japan would soon pursue an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy Britain might have served to temper under the old treaty.
Britain’s poor diplomacy in the 1930s also helped bring about Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler. Upon taking power, Hitler attempted to win Mussolini over by offering South Tyrol to Italy. Mussolini did not reciprocate the fondness. He condemned Hitler, thought him a thug and buffoon, and threatened war against him over the incomplete Nazi coup in Austria that killed Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, whom Mussolini respected considerably more than he did Hitler. In 1935 Mussolini agreed with Britain and France at the Stresa Front to uphold the principle of an independent Austria and to oppose German violations of the Versailles Treaty.
But Britain itself capitulated to Hitler’s next major move against the terms of Versailles, thus betraying the Stresa Front.
On June 18, 1935, an Anglo-German Naval Agreement was signed permitting Germany to construct a fleet 35 percent of the Royal Navy and a submarine force equal to Great Britain’s…. In coming years, British denunciations of Hitler’s moves into the Rhineland and Austria as violations of Versailles would ring hollow in light of her own naval agreement that authorized Hitler to ignore the Versailles limits on warships. British diplomacy would … drive Mussolini straight into the arms of Hitler.
Britain lost Mussolini for good over Ethiopia, which Italy had failed to conquer in the late 1890s. “Mussolini was determined to avenge the humiliation and append to his new Roman empire the last great uncolonized land in Africa.” He seized on a border dispute between Italian Somali-land and Ethiopia in December 1934 as a pretext for invasion. In response, Britain threatened sanctions to uphold the principles of the League of Nations, despite Ethiopia’s being of no strategic interest to Britain. Mussolini invaded and “Britain led the League in imposing limited sanctions on Italy.” Being limited, they produced “the worst of all worlds. The sanctions were too weak to compel Mussolini to give up a conquest to which Italy’s army had been committed, but they were wounding enough to enrage the Italian people.” In 1936 the League lifted the sanctions and in 1938 Britain and France recognized Italian rule of Ethiopia, but “[by] then it was too late. Mussolini had cast his lot with the Hitler he had loathed.”
The facts Buchanan relies on in his treatment of the buildup to the war are from conventionally accepted history, but his interpretation will still be controversial. He gives many examples of Britain’s trying, throughout the late 1930s, to avoid war with Germany, basically believing Germany’s grievances were legitimate, that indeed most of Hitler’s territorial ambitions were expectable, fair, even moderate given the losses at Versailles, which the British had come to believe had been unduly harsh. It was still widely held that the German power, for all its national-socialist idiosyncrasies, anti-Semitic excesses, and reliance on murder to deal with political opponents, could nevertheless be a respectable member among nations and a check against the far more murderous totalitarian regime in Russia. (At this point in history, Hitler had murdered probably hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. Stalin had starved and purged millions. Hitler’s Nuremberg laws and virulent anti-Semitism were a concern to some, but Stalin had by then slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Jews himself.) British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin declared that if there was “fighting in Europe to be done … [he would] like to see the Bolshies and Nazis doing it.” Given that the two totalitarian regimes were going to go to war, the two’s destroying each other seemed like the best likely outcome.
France, however, sought out an alliance with Russia. In 1936, France approved a pact with Stalin’s regime against Germany. French opponents of the deal, as well as Hitler, saw this as a violation of the Locarno Pact, to which France, Belgium, and Germany had voluntarily acceded in 1925.
Hitler responded by marching into the demilitarized Rhineland, in violation of Versailles. He was prepared to retreat if he met French resistance but he did not. Britain did not see it as cause for war. Lloyd George, the former prime minister, commended Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, saw it as defensive, and, after meeting Hitler to discuss the conquest, said, “‘He is indeed a great man’ … as he compared Mein Kampf to the Magna Carta and declared Hitler ‘The Resurrection and the Way’ for Germany.”
Churchill also admired Hitler. “In 1937, three years after the Night of the Long Knives murders of [Ernst] Roehm and his SA henchmen, two years after the Nuremberg Laws had been imposed on the Jews, one year after Hitler had marched into the Rhineland,” Churchill published a book containing his 1935 essay calling the Nazi leader “highly competent, cool, well-informed” with “an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and … personal magnetism.”
Churchill mused that Hitler might be one of those “examples of men who have risen to power by employing stern, grim, and even frightful methods but who, nevertheless, when their life is revealed as a whole, have been regarded as great figures whose lives have enriched the story of mankind.” He thought Hitler should give up the Rhineland voluntarily as a show of good faith, but the British did not urge war. Many saw the occupation as just. And Paris, devoted to its Maginot Line strategy and reluctant to wage war over a no man’s land that could have turned world opinion against France, did not respond militarily to Hitler’s occupation. Hitler began massively fortifying a defensive West Wall, underscoring his victory and indicating his likely intention to focus eastward from then on. Prime Minister Baldwin maintained, “With two lunatics like Mussolini and Hitler, you can never be sure of anything. But I am determined to keep the country out of war.”
Hitler continued expanding his territory, next into Austria, his place of birth. By 1938, “Hitler had not abandoned his plan to convert Austria into a satellite, but believed this should and would come about through an ‘evolutionary solution.’” When Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg called for a plebiscite to determine Austria’s independence, Hitler responded by invading the country. With Italy no longer committed to the Stresa Front, Hitler got Mussolini’s approval, although the latter was irritated by his decision to annex the country outright. It was a “clear violation of Versailles” but the British, who had acceded to the Anglo-German naval treaty in 1935 and refused, along with France, to protect the Rhineland, saw no cause for war: “if Austria and Germany wished to unite — 99 percent of each nation would vote in favor of unification in April.”
Lord Halifax and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain “had come to believe that Germany had been wronged and peace required the righting of those wrongs.” Once again, they allowed Hitler to violate Versailles, thinking his land grab generally just. Nevertheless, they also realized that a Germany unified as it was in 1914 would be the dominant power in Europe. But the ruler of Germany was now Adolf Hitler, and should he turn aggressor, as his words in Mein Kampf portended, he would be a graver threat than the Kaiser, who had almost conquered Europe, had been. Italy, Japan, and Russia, Britain’s allies in the Great War, were all now potential enemies. And America was gone from Europe.
Churchill looked on with deep concern, and on Hitler’s next power grab he would split with the appeasers.
So we arrive at the infamous appeasement of Hitler at Munich that has since branded Chamberlain a disgrace in British history and supposedly proven the prescience of Churchill, who considered Munich a “total and unmitigated defeat.” But the British and American media at the time saw the Munich agreement as a great triumph for diplomacy. Chamberlain was widely hailed by his compatriots for avoiding war. President Franklin Roosevelt took credit for pressuring the peace accord.
Hitler had wanted the Sudetenland back under German control, and, as Buchanan estimates, so did probably 80 percent of the Sudeten people. But the proximate cause of Hitler’s belligerence toward Czechoslovakia came in a wave of rumors that he was poised to invade. He had no immediate plans to invade and when he affirmed that, “the Czechs bragged and brayed about how they had forced Hitler to back down, showing the world how to face down the bully.” Enraged, Hitler drew up invasion plans. In the midst of all this madness, Chamberlain met with Hitler and signed over the fate of the Sudetenland.
As with Hitler’s earlier land grabs, “[many] British believed justice was on the German side.” Chamberlain wrote to his sister that he “‘didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetens were in the Reich, or out of it.’ He did not believe that maintaining Czech rule over three million unhappy Germans was worth a war.” Some were encouraged that Hitler claimed he was done with expansion, but his long-declared intentions toward Danzig in Poland should have clued people in.
Although the Nazi absorption of the Sudetenland weakened France’s ally, France did not come to rescue Czechoslovakia. It did not want to enter a bloody war to defend its allies in the east, which could prove more a liability than an asset to France’s security. Although Churchill wanted to wage war rather than see Hitler take the Sudetanland, Britain did not have the military means to effectively prevent Hitler from taking it.
Buchanan argues that it was not Chamberlain’s appeasement that made another world war inevitable.
With Austria and Sudeten-land now his, Hitler in 1938 had added ten million Germans to the Reich without firing a shot…. Yet it is a myth to say Munich led directly to World War II. It was a diplomatic debacle, but it was not why Britain went to war.
In diplomacy and at home, the Nazis were becoming more aggressive. In late 1938, they foreshadowed the genocidal character their savage regime would adopt during wartime.
On the night of November 9—10, Nazi storm troopers went on a rampage, smashing windows, looting Jewish shops, burning synagogues, beating and lynching Jews. Scores perished. Hundred were assaulted in what would be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, the greatest program in Germany since the Middle Ages.
About half the Jews in Germany had already fled their country and Hitler’s repressive Nuremberg laws. Of those remaining, about half fled upon the spectacle of Kristallnacht, Buchanan estimates.
In March of 1939, after Czechoslovakia broke up, Slovakia declared independence, and Hitler occupied Prague, an act that “[historians] mark … as the crossroads where he started down the path of conquest by imposing German rule on a non-Germanic people.” As Czechoslovakia no longer existed, Britain considered the Munich agreement void and no longer felt obligated to come to its aid. But Chamberlain felt betrayed and he would soon adjust his diplomatic poise toward Hitler.
As well as enriching the Reich, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia
appeased four nations. Hungary had the Vienna Award of the Hungarian lands and peoples in Slovakia and regained control of Ruthenia. Slovakia had independence and freedom from Prague and a promise of German protection from Hungary. Poland had gained the coal-rich region of Teschen and a new border with friendly Hungary. And Hitler had done Stalin a huge favor, for Ruthenia was ablaze with Ukrainian nationalism and [Hungarian leader Mikls] Horthy would put the fire out.
This “favor” portended Hitler’s pact with Stalin. Buchanan believes it also showed there were limits to Hitler’s territorial ambitions.
Amid all this and unsubstantiated rumors of Hitler’s intention to invade Romania, Chamberlain was disgusted and began considering a defensive pact with France, Russia, and Poland against Germany.
Poland was stuck between hostile nations. Hitler wanted Danzig, which was 95 percent German, and the Polish Corridor, to which the Poles were more attached. The Soviet Union was even more intimidating. Hitler’s immediate goal was an alliance with Poland, ultimately against Bolshevik Russia and to negotiate the return of Danzig. In response to Germany’s ambitions, Chamberlain, now convinced by Churchill’s warnings, preempted any possible deal between Germany and Poland.
On March 31, 1939, he rose in the House of Commons to make the most fateful British declaration of the century: “[In] the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power.”
And it was this war guarantee to Poland, Buchanan argues, that sealed the fate of the Western world. Poland, a dictatorship that had benefited from the divvying up of Czechoslovakia, was far less a strategic interest to Britain and France than the Rhineland and Sudetenland. By guaranteeing to defend Poland against Nazi aggression — which Britain could not do directly, and in fact did not do throughout the war — Britain guaranteed there would be war with Germany. The only way it could back up its guarantee was by declaring war on Germany from the west, ensuring the Nazis would attack the Western democracies.
Chamberlain thought the war guarantee “might block a Polish-German deal, force Hitler to think about a two-front war, give Britain an ally with fifty-five divisions, and enable Britain to avoid the alliance with Stalin being pressed upon him by Churchill, Lloyd George, and the Labour Party.” This is not what ultimately happened.
Emboldened by the war guarantee, the Polish refused to negotiate with Hitler, and so Hitler sought an alliance with Stalin. The two totalitarians would invade Poland in September 1939, meet in the middle, and partition the country, and Britain and France would indeed declare war from the west.
Buchanan’s main thesis: Had Britain kept itself armed and neutral instead of giving a guarantee to Poland it couldn’t meaningfully fulfill, it could have avoided a war in Western Europe.
Had Hitler made his deal with Poland, he would have eventually gotten around to attacking Russia. But it’s hard to imagine that Eastern Europe, which bore the majority of fighting, would have been any worse off than it was. Poland, occupied by Nazis throughout the war and by Soviets for decades to come, was hardly saved by the war guarantee, which did not even ostensibly extend to defending the nation against the Soviet invasion that followed shortly after Germany’s.
Once Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the British sought out an alliance with the Soviet leader, the man who had murdered perhaps a thousand times as many people as had Hitler as of 1939, when Chamberlain established the Polish war guarantee.
World War II consumed the lives of 50 million people, mostly civilians. The European Jews were nearly exterminated, a genocide for which “Hitler and his collaborators in the unspeakable crimes bear full moral responsibility.”
“But was the Holocaust inevitable?” asks Buchanan. “Could it have been averted?” As he argues, the Nazi regime had not been outright genocidal until the outbreak of the war. “The mass deportations and destruction of the Jews of Europe … did not begin in 1939 or 1940. They began after Hitler invaded Russia, June 22, 1941.” War was the health of the Nazi state, amplifying and accelerating its evils. Two and a half years into the war the Wannsee Conference was held and implementation of the Final Solution commenced.
“From this chronology, the destruction of the European Jews was not a cause of the war but an awful consequence of the war.” Without the Polish war guarantee, Hitler might have never invaded France (as his defensive West Wall seemed to indicate). “With no war in the west, all the Jews of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece might have survived a German-Polish or Nazi-Soviet war, as the Jews of Spain, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland survived.” Because of the war, Hitler “held hostage virtually the entire Jewish population of Europe.”
In response to Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s calls for “unconditional surrender” in 1943 at Casablanca, and in reaction to the American Morgenthau Plan prescribing the total destruction of German industry and the country’s forced transformation into an agricultural state, the Germans, who had remembered what the mere conditional surrender in 1918 had meant, fought on, harder and longer than they were likely to have done. The western war was made possible, and extended, by Allied belligerence. Hitler would very likely have murdered many Jews in the east, and indeed did, but with a considerably smaller war, there would have been far more sanctuaries. As it turned out in Eastern Europe, almost all Jews and millions of others were murdered, followed by a half century of Soviet tyranny. How could it have been worse?
Buchanan does well in responding to the argument that Germany was determined to conquer Britain and the West and able to do it. Hitler consistently admired the British Empire, saw it as a natural ally, and made no moves, even at war, to challenge its global naval dominance. He had no military means to conquer Britain, as was shown by his failure to cross the English Channel and win the Battle of Britain. His military plans and armament patterns showed no indication of a serious intention or ability to conquer the island nation. As for America, he had no plans drawn up for a North American invasion, had nowhere near the sufficient navy to ever seriously consider it; stories of Nazi bomber and flight technology have been wildly exaggerated. “German bombers flew at less than three hundred miles per hour. A trip over the Atlantic and back would require twenty hours of flying to drop a five-ton load on New York.” Germany presented no existential threat to the United States. Buchanan quotes the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (1946): “The world greatly overestimated Germany’s [air] strength.”
Meanwhile, the Allies had befriended Stalin, going to great pains to call him “a man of massive outstanding personality … [and] deep, cool wisdom.” At Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam, and Moscow, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Truman carved up the world. Stalin, whose Red Army had taken the most combat losses against Hitler and sapped Nazi power far more than the battlefronts on the West, emerged triumphant, the greatest victor of the war.
Having annexed Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Stalin, with British and American acquiescence, took Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. His empire now had 100 million more subjects than before the war. If Western Europe fought the war to protect Eastern Europe from totalitarianism, it failed, only bringing a war of genocide and terror bombing to its backyard, while leaving Poland, the nation it entered the war to protect, defenseless against Nazi and Soviet tyranny.
During the war, Britain and then America would wage war against the civilian infrastructure and people of Germany and Japan, slaughtering many hundreds of thousands instantly in firebombings and mushroom clouds. As the war closed, the Allies colluded with Stalin to forcibly repatriate millions who had escaped his grip, all of whom faced death or the gulag, and they planned and conducted a mass forced migration of millions of Germans.
Buchanan has a critical eye for the diplomatic bungling of the Allies, while extending sincere admiration to those efforts, such as those of the Poles, of resisting Nazis and Communists. As to the British, “the question … is not whether the British were heroic. That is settled for all time. But were their statesmen wise?” No, Buchanan concludes.
Churchill’s faults as a racial supremacist, imperialist, and belligerent with shockingly favorable words for both Hitler and Stalin are well documented by Buchanan, but even measuring the Briton by his main goals in political life — to ward off communism, to prevent a single regime from dominating Europe, to protect the integrity of Britain’s empire — renders the man a failure. It was he who, in retrospect, called World War II “the unnecessary war” and confided that, should he be judged by his long-term accomplishments, history would not judge him well. So far, he was wrong about that, too.
For America, World War II meant the loss of 400,000 men, most conscripted, the destruction of civil liberties, and the imposition of a fascist wartime command economy that shoveled 40 percent of the nation’s wealth to the war effort. America’s entry was, however, a triumph for its empire and military-industrial complex, a warfare state that did not retract into near-nonexistence, as after other major American wars, but continued to dominate the world and soak the American taxpayer, first with the pretext of containing former ally Russia and now to wage a global war on terror.
As Buchanan argues, late entry into World War II was why America did so well in its aftermath, adopting Britain’s satellites and taking its place as the world’s superficially liberal empire. But now America faces some of the paradoxes Britain did in the twilight of its own empire.
The United States must bring back restraint in foreign policy. Another world war could also mean the end of the U.S. empire but a conflict that would bring the violent collapse of American hegemony is unlikely to produce anything much better than the conditions after World War I that led to Stalin, Hitler, and World War II; or the conditions after that war, which saw the rise of Mao Zedong, perhaps the greatest killer of all time, and a 40-year Cold War that held the world hostage under mutually assured destruction.
Buchanan is not a libertarian, and in an effort to compare U.S. prudence in the Cold War to British diplomacy surrounding the world wars, we might say he overstates his case somewhat. From a radical libertarian perspective, he might be seen to minimize the evil and destruction of the proxy wars between U.S. and Soviet satellites, and perhaps to downplay the horror of Korea and Vietnam. However, his point is an important one: Had the supposed lessons of Munich been applied in the Cold War, America would have confronted the Soviets head on. Liberals successfully opposed such a policy, thank goodness, even as some of them have still defended and idolized the world war that brought the U.S. empire, nuclear warfare, and the U.S.-Soviet standoff into existence. They easily forget that the man who nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki also launched the great crusade against communism in Korea.
World War II is the most sacred of wars in American history, even more revered than the Civil War. It is invoked by the Left to argue for the success of national governmental mobilization, for the possibility that massive collectivist undertakings can leave the nation much better off. It is upheld as an example of the greatness of democratic wars. On the Right, World War II affirms the greatness of the U.S. military state, the morality of killing civilians even in large numbers, and suspending civil liberties for a Greater Good. It is seen as a reason to abandon the anti-interventionist heritage of the Old Right, to engage enemies abroad before they strike or even, in many cases, threaten to strike. It alone proves that sometimes even the most socialistic leader is preferable to one who will keep the country out of war.
Libertarians, too, often have a blind spot for this war. The war against Hitler alone supposedly refutes the classic libertarian principle of peace, nonintervention, and free trade. Were it not that the bloodiest of all wars was the “Good War,” there would be less enthusiasm all around for America’s role abroad over the last half-century as the “one indispensable nation,” the “shining city on a hill” that must “promote democracy” and conduct regime change through the barrel of a gun and the deployment of horrible bombs everywhere.
But World War II was not a “Good War.” It was the worst war. It did not stop the Holocaust; in fact, without the war, the Holocaust as we know it would have probably not happened. It did not stop imperial totalitarianism from conquering Poland and Eastern Europe; it led to such conquest. It did not protect Britain and France from a belligerent Germany; it guaranteed they would face its wrath.
The question remains: “Was the war necessary?” Looking back at what he had done, looking east at Stalin’s burgeoning empire, Churchill concluded, “We killed the wrong pig.” He concluded it was an “unnecessary war.” Well versed in the conventional narrative, drawing on hundreds of works by respected historians, Buchanan makes the argument very well that, in this at least, Churchill was right. Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War is a great achievement, documented with detail and narrating in striking, elegant prose the story of how, guided by grand principles and poor foresight, British diplomatic blunders were decisive in bringing about a century of unprecedented bloodshed and despotism. Now that the United States has inherited Britain’s empire and its leaders are making similar mistakes, taking on foreign commitments they can’t manage, it would behoove all concerned Americans to read Buchanan’s newest book.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute and editor-in-chief of the Campaign for Liberty. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.