A New Look at How World War II Happened


Nicholson Baker’s new book Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, is one of the most unique nonfiction books you’ll ever read. Based on voluminous research of newspaper and magazine articles, radio speeches, memoirs, diaries, and biographies, Baker’s 566-page book gives the reader an extraordinary look into the mindsets of all the major actors in the lead-up to the war.

Each paragraph of the book is written like a press release of an important event on a particular day, and is not necessarily related to the previous or succeeding paragraph. At first I thought this would be an extremely boring read, kind of like looking through old newspapers. But the information in the book is so interesting (and sometimes astounding) that I read it in one sitting (admittedly a forced "sitting" on a 9-hour flight from Vienna to Washington, D.C.).

Many of the icons of "the greatest generation" are portrayed not quite as heroically as they are by their hagiographers and government-school textbook writers. Perhaps the most striking facts in this regard is how Baker portrays the real Churchill.

Winston Churchill is shown to have been consumed by an extraordinary hatred of the German people from an early age. "The British blockade" of Germany, Churchill is quoted as saying approvingly in 1914, "treated the whole of Germany as if it were a beleaguered fortress, and avowedly sought to starve the whole population — men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound — into submission." General Sherman could not have said it better if one transposes "Germany" for "the South."

In 1918 Eleanor Roosevelt complained about being invited to a party by financier Bernard Baruch, saying "I’d rather be hung than be seen at" the party because the attendees were "mostly Jews." Her husband Franklin, noticing in 1922 that one-third of the freshman class at Harvard was Jewish, "went to the Harvard Board of Overseers, of which he was a member," leading to a change in admissions policy such that "over a period of years the number of Jews should be reduced one or two percent a year until it was down to 15%."

Churchill published a newspaper article on February 8, 1920, in which he apparently took a break from his unbridled hatred of everything German to declare that his "real enemy" was "the sinister confederacy of international Jewry," which he blamed for communism.

He then turned his talents to India, Iraq, and other recalcitrant parts of the British empire. Being given responsibilities for developing British air power, he advised a subordinate that "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes." Subsequently, the British air force "bombed and strafed rebellious tribes" in Iraq, "fired on them with gas-filled shells, burned villages . . ." Churchill congratulated the British commander "upon the distinct improvement in the situation" in Iraq. If there was a British Fox News Channel at the time, it would have spent months celebrating the success of Churchill’s "surge" policy.

Meanwhile, the "Royal Air Force dropped more than 150 tons of bombs on India" in 1925 to tame the "rebellious tribes" there. War is hell for those who wish to secede from exploitative empires.

In the 1920s Churchill admired Mussolini as much as he admired any man. "I could not help being charmed by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing, and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers," he said on January 20, 1927.

As late as the mid 1930s Churchill was also heaping lavish praise on Hitler. "Those who have met Herr Hitler," he said, have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism." Has there ever been a worse judge of character than Winston Churchill?

The man who just recently had a statue erected in his honor at Hillsdale College was a highly paid "consultant" to the munitions industry during the 1920s and ’30s, fetching $12,500 per speech, paid for by such people as Sir Harry McGowan, deputy chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries, which manufactured TNT, bombs, ammunition, and poison gas. He went on multi-city tours warning of dire consequences if the nation did not become "strongly armed." He was an early 20th century Richard Perle, Bill Kristol or Dick Cheney, to make an America analogy.

As soon as Gandhi began influencing millions of Indians, he and some 60,000 of his followers were imprisoned in 1930. This led Churchill to declare that "Gandhi-ism and all it stands for [peaceful resistance to tyranny] will, sooner or later, have to be . . . crushed." "Gandhi had replaced Lenin as Churchill’s arch nemesis," writes Baker.

Baker discusses how the diabolically-evil Stalin, bosom buddy of FDR and Churchill, intentionally starved to death millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s, forcing survivors to eat field mice, insects, and dead children.

Baker also provides chapter and verse of the evidence that FDR knew how horrifically the European Jews were being persecuted in Germany and elsewhere, but steadfastly refused to lift a finger to help them. When a reporter asked him if there was any place in the world where the persecuted European Jews should be able to seek refuge, FDR answered "No, the time is not ripe for that." As far as allowing Jewish refugees into the United States, FDR said in 1938 that that would be impossible because "We have a [immigration] quota system."

Baker provides additional information in support of the well-documented book by Robert Stinnett, Day of Deceit, that FDR not only knew in advance about the attack on Pearl Harbor, but had been orchestrating an effort to get the Japanese to attack the U.S. for years. He correctly anticipated that it would be the best excuse to get the U.S. involved in the European war. He cites Henry Stimson’s diary where he talks about a White House meeting with FDR on November 25, 1941 where Stimson said: "The question was how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves."

Once the war was on, Churchill gleefully waged total war on German civilians as well as its military. When asked why he was not bombing more German cities populated mostly by civilians, he said "My motto is business before pleasure."

British subjects were sacrificed in order to heat up war fever, just as some 2000 Americans were sacrificed for the same purpose at Pearl Harbor. Knowing about a planned German air raid on Coventry, Churchill made sure that the city was not warned. Five hundred people died in the raid and much of the city was destroyed. Churchill did not visit Coventry after the raid, but "asked for heavy publicity to be given to the Coventry raid."

Baker also cites some first-hand accounts from people who had met with Hitler and came away with a very different opinion of him than the one Churchill had formed in the 1930s. They said things like, his eyes bulged out from his head in a most un-natural way; he had a maniacal, unstable temper; he was clearly insane; etc. Most Americans of my generation have always held such opinions, but it is interesting to read these first-hand accounts of unmitigated evil.

The words of war opponents are also chronicled in Human Smoke, and the book is worth the price for these facts alone — facts that are always ignored and dismissed as the rantings of "isolationists." The book is dedicated to them for their heroic but unsuccessful efforts "to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening."