A Republic, Not an Empire,, by Patrick J. Buchanan, Washington: Regnery Publishing, 300 pages, $29.95
Five Days in London, May 1940, by John Lukacs, New Haven: Yale University Press, 288 pages, $19.95
Wars almost never turn out as they were intended. NATO was the latest to learn that lesson in its bombing of Serbia, and is learning it anew while occupying Kosovo.
Consider this warning delivered in 1901 by Winston Churchill, then a 27-year-old member of Parliament recently returned from the Boer War, who lectured his elders on the folly of glibly contemplating a general European conflict: "A European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors. Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings....We do not know what war is. We have had a glimpse of it in South Africa. Even in miniature, it is hideous and appalling." Yet we end this bloody century, "the American Century," led by a president with the same proclivity as his foreign-policy godfather, Woodrow Wilson, for placing Americans in harm's way without clearly articulated principles for determining when the use of force is in our national interest.
Historian John Lukacs suggests in his new book, Five Days In London, May 1940, that the 20th century did not begin until the onset of World War I in 1914, and that it effectively ended with the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989. If he's right, Bill Clinton has taken the United States 10 years into a new epoch with the same Wilsonian foreign policy it had 85 years ago. Is this a good thing?
No, says Patrick Buchanan in A Republic, Not an Empire. He calls the current approach "global democracy as panacea." Buchanan compares this neo-Wilsonian foreign policy with the approach of Republican internationalists who, he claims, advocate a "benevolent global hegemony." He condemns both policies, contrasting them with his own noninterventionist views, which he terms "enlightened nationalism."
Although Buchanan makes a good case for nonintervention, most of the attention given his book has focused on his views of World War II: that Hitler posed no threat to U.S. national security and that we should have let the Nazis and the Soviets fight it out. Is Buchanan right? Equally important, can you advocate a noninterventionist foreign policy today without also concluding that American participation in World War II, at least with respect to Nazi Germany, was unnecessary? Buchanan and other revisionists would probably say no.
Ironically, Buchanan uses Wilson's protégé, Walter Lippmann, to define a foreign policy of "enlightened nationalism." As Lippmann wrote in 1943: "We must consider first and last the American national interest. If we do not, if we construct our foreign policy on some kind of abstract theory of our rights and duties, we shall build castles in the air. We shall formulate policies which in fact the nation will not support with its blood, its sweat, and its tears." "Castles in the air" aptly conveys the core of Clinton's foreign policy.
Buchanan's chilling Chapter 3 preview of "America's Future Wars" is excellent, as is his subsequent revisionist survey of American foreign policy through the 1920s. Those are the "good" parts of his book. Unfortunately, there are also "bad" and "ugly" parts, the former being his protectionist trade policies and the latter his restrictive and implicitly racist immigration policy. You decide what this means: "One-tenth of the population of Mexico, the Caribbean islands, and Central America is already here--and more are coming. If immigration continues at present levels, America will cease to be a First World nation by 2040. A majority of Americans will no longer claim Europe as their ancestral home."
Buchanan is much better on other matters. His treatment of World War I, for example, while derivative and often third-hand, is very good. Buchanan correctly complains about the airy and imprecise goals enunciated by Wilson in his 1917 war message to Congress: "But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest to our hearts, for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free." Precisely the kind of empty rhetoric that again animates American foreign policy.
Buchanan's criticism of the Versailles Treaty is extensive; he cites a scathing contemporary editorial from the progressive, pro-Wilson New Republic: "Americans would be fools if they permitted themselves now to be embroiled in a system of European alliances. America promised to underwrite a stable peace. Mr. Wilson has failed. The peace cannot last. America should withdraw from all commitments which would impair her freedom of action."
Addressing the 1920s, Buchanan debunks the alleged "isolationism" of the Harding-Coolidge administrations, quoting British historian A.J.P. Taylor in support of his case. "American policy was never more active and never more effective in regard to Europe than in the nineteen-twenties," Taylor wrote in 1961. "Reparations were settled; stable finances were restored; Europe was pacified: all mainly due to the United States."
Buchanan gives due credit to the foreign policy of the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations for their determined pursuit of naval disarmament treaties and their attempts to ease the crushing reparations imposed on Germany at Versailles. Buchanan correctly acknowledges that, ultimately, the naval disarmament treaties of the 1920s did no more to prevent World War II than did the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war as an instrument of national policy.
But he does not call the Republicans to task for failing to use the enormous leverage of $10 billion in Allied war debts to remove completely the reparations imposed on Germany at Versailles. Britain would have agreed to do so, but only if the U.S. in turn forgave its loans to the Allies. Together, the two countries would have been a force that the French would have been unable to resist. Thus, the U.S. failed to do the one thing within its power that might have removed a primary cause of World War II. It's not as if they weren't warned. John Maynard Keynes' The Economic Consequences of the Peace forecast in 1919 that the drastic penalties imposed on Germany would lead to another war.
Any analysis of our involvement in World War II--and whether the 1930s have a foreign policy lesson to teach --must begin with the Great War and its aftermath. While the United States had no responsibility for starting World War I, its financing of the Allies and its subsequent intervention had everything to do with what happened after.