The Cogs of War


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.

Would the century have been different had we kept our boys over here? Buchanan thinks so, and he's in good company. Here, for example, is a revisionist observation from Churchill, a 1936 quote resurrected by Frank Johnson of Britain's Spectator in response to the negative reaction to Buchanan's work: "America should have minded her own business and stayed out of the world war. If you hadn't entered the war the Allies would have made peace with Germany in the spring of 1917. Had we made peace then there would have been no collapse in Russia followed by communism, no breakdown in Italy followed by fascism, and Germany would not have signed the Versailles Treaty which has enthroned Nazism in Germany. If America had stayed out of the war all these isms wouldn't today be sweeping the continent of Europe and breaking down parliamentary government, and if England had made peace early in 1917, it would have saved over 1 million British, French, American and other lives." Buchanan makes the same point: "The war to make the world safe for democracy made the world safe for Bolshevism, fascism, and Nazism. Such were the fruits of U.S. intervention, victory, and Versailles."

Why, then, does Buchanan avoid drawing the obvious conclusion that Wilson's policies were an indispensable factor in the origins of the next war? Probably because Buchanan wants to distance the U.S. from any responsibility for the onset of World War II, so as to better advance what have become his most controversial arguments. These are, first, his condemnation of the foreign policy of Franklin Roosevelt, which involved us in World War II, and second, his effort to resurrect what he believes to be the unfairly tarnished reputation of the leaders of America First in the 1930s.

Buchanan's arguments and those of many other World War II revisionists share the same problem: Their understandable dissatisfaction with FDR's duplicitous foreign policy leads them to conclude, erroneously, that U.S. vital interests were not threatened by Nazi Germany and that, accordingly, Roosevelt led us into an unnecessary war. But one doesn't necessarily follow from the other.

Here is Buchanan's rationale on Hitler: "If Hitler could not put a soldier into England in the fall of 1940, the notion that he could invade the Western Hemisphere– with no surface ships to engage the United States and British fleets and U.S. air power dominant in the west Atlantic–was preposterous."

Buchanan underestimates Hitler. In September 1940, when Buchanan says we were safe, Hitler concluded a formal military alliance with Japan, an overtly hostile act. And as historian Norman Goda demonstrates in Tomorrow the World: Hitler, Northwest Africa and the Path Toward America (1998), in early 1940 Hitler awarded a contract for the Messerschmitt 264, known as the "Amerika Bomber." Its range enabled it to fly to the East Coast of the United States, deliver five tons of bombs, and return without refueling.

As for a navy, in January 1939 the Germans awarded contracts for six H-Class battleships of 56,000 tons each, all to be completed by 1944. Goda also shows that Germany made plans in 1940 to seize the Azores and Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic from Portugal for use as bases for their long-range aircraft and their blue-water navy. Also in 1940, German diplomats negotiated extensively with Spain and Vichy France to attain bases in Casablanca, Dakar, and the Canary Islands. Hitler didn't need the Amerika Bomber, the six battleships, or the Atlantic bases to defeat England and Russia.

Even if Buchanan is wrong when he says Hitler had no designs on the Western
Hemisphere, however, he could still argue, as did those in America First, that the U.S. simply should have spent more on military deterrence rather than go to war against Germany. Like America First, Buchanan also argues that "Stalin's Russia…was a far greater long term threat than Hitler's Germany." Republican Senator Robert Taft said as much in a speech in June 1941.

John Lukacs disagrees. A conservative and staunch anticommunist, Lukacs emigrated from Hungary in 1946 at the age of 23, a few steps ahead of the Soviet takeover. He explained in his 1992 book, The Duel: 10 May-31 July 1940: The Eighty Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, why communism was a lesser threat in 1940: "In spite of its international pretensions and propaganda, Communism did not go very far outside the Soviet Union. …Alone among the great revolutions of the world –consider only how the American and French revolutions had soon been emulated by a host of other peoples, in Latin America and in Western Europe, often without the support of American or French armies–Communism was unable to achieve power anywhere outside the Soviet Union until after the Second World War."

Lukacs then explains why, even before Hitler, authoritarian dictatorships posed a greater threat to market democracy. Specifically, in the 20 years before 1940, liberal parliamentary democracy had failed and been abandoned in scores of countries all over the world. As Lukacs writes: "These changes were not the results of external pressure. They were the results of spontaneous developments. As early as 1930 it seemed (and this was three years before Hitler's coming to power in Germany) that the rise of authoritarian dictatorships in the wake of the failure of parliamentary and capitalist democracy was a natural and worldwide phenomenon."

Lukacs' theme in The Duel was that during the summer of 1940, "Hitler came closer to winning the war than we had been accustomed to think." In Five Days in London, May 1940, he narrows his focus to May 24-28, when Churchill faced down his opponents in the British War Cabinet, primarily Foreign Secretary Halifax, and persuaded the full Cabinet that Britain should not seek peace terms from Germany through the good offices of Italy. (Hitler's terms would have been quite generous at that point.)

The War Cabinet debate was bitterly fought. A Liberal Party member for most of his career before 1924, Churchill was mistrusted by most Conservatives, and Halifax's not indefensible position was that Britain should at least ask what peace terms would be. It is for this reason, Lukacs explains, that "Hitler was never closer to his ultimate victory than during those five days in May, 1940."

Lukacs empathizes with the anticommunism that motivated many of those in America First. As he acknowledged in The Duel, "Most people who opposed the struggle against Hitler were not necessarily his sympathizers." Instead, like Taft, they had convinced themselves that communism and the Soviet Union were a greater danger than Hitler. The prime reason that Taft–a brilliant man about whom there is much to admire–advanced for this view was that communism appealed to the many, fascism to the few.

Lukacs says this is plainly wrong. The author of The Hitler of History, Lukacs modestly claims in his preface to Five Days that he has "an advantage" over others who in the past 20 years have written on Churchill, Halifax, and the politics of war: his "knowledge about Hitler–or rather my familiarity with documents and other materials relating to him." The Hitler of History supports his claim. His insight into Hitler–and the threat he posed to Western civilization beyond military aggression–is compelling. That a dedicated anticommunist like Churchill also had such an insight on Hitler goes far to explain why, to the dismay of revisionists like England's John Charmley or Americans like Buchanan, Churchill didn't do the prudent, logical thing in May 1940 and seek peace with Hitler. It also explains Churchill's agreeing to a temporary alliance with Russia.

As Lukacs writes: "At the end of May 1940 and for some time thereafter, not only the end of a European war but the end of Western civilization was near. Churchill knew that, inspired as he was by a kind of historical consciousness that entailed more than incantatory rhetoric…. If Hitler wins and we fall, he said, "then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and care for, will sink into the abyss of a New Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science." (The italics are mine.) Churchill, argues Lukacs, "understood something that not many people understand even now. The greatest threat to Western civilization was not communism. It was National Socialism. The greatest and most dynamic power in the world was not Soviet Russia. It was the Third Reich. The greatest revolutionary of the twentieth century was not Lenin or Stalin. It was Hitler. Hitler not only succeeded in merging nationalism and socialism into one tremendous force; he was a new kind of ruler, representing a new kind of populist nationalism…It was thus that in 1940 he represented a wave of the future."

A problem with World War II revisionists is that, as Lukacs observes, "had Hitler won the Second World War, we would be living in a different world." What kind of world? Revisionists need to answer that. Lukacs makes a good case that Hitler, as "the greatest revolutionary of the twentieth century," would have inspired, if not imposed, a new populist, nationalist (and racist) paradigm for the world based on National Socialist Germany, replacing the market democracy paradigm which has prevailed throughout much of the world today. As for Churchill's "New Dark Age" protracted by "perverted science," imagine a world with a Nazi atomic bomb and no Manhattan Project.

So far as Buchanan is concerned, Reagan, with his restrained and prudent use of military force, was the last good president; he criticizes George Bush for the Gulf War. In doing so, he ignores what was the unifying military theme of both the Reagan and Bush administrations and what came to be known as the Powell Doctrine, after the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: that the American military would not be used without civilian leadership articulating a clear, achievable goal supported by a consensus of the American people, and accompanied by the willingness to use overwhelming force to accomplish the objective as quickly as possible. Designed to avoid further Vietnams, the criteria contained in that doctrine are rarely achievable–as they should be. Yet they reflected then and reflect today the noninterventionist (and non-Wilsonian) tendencies of the American public with respect to the use of the military. And if followed consistently, they would go a long way toward achieving the foreign policy advocated by most free-trade noninterventionists. Needless to say, the Clinton administration has utterly abandoned the Powell Doctrine in favor of frequent military intervention to no clear purpose but only when there is minimal risk to American (though not innocent civilian) lives.

We must study history. And then study it some more. We must recognize the mistakes of the past if we are to avoid them in the future. Clinton and other neo-Wilsonian internationalists have failed to do that. While wrong about World War II, Buchanan and other revisionists are right about World War I–as was Churchill. The U.S. shouldn't have intervened. Our vital interests weren't at stake. Wilson didn't intend to serve as midwife to the births of the Soviet empire and Nazi Germany, but so it happened. The Republicans compounded the mistake in the 1920s by failing to use the enormous leverage of Allied war debts to remove the draconian reparations imposed on Weimar Germany.

The world has paid a heavy price for Wilson's errors. It took the rest of the century to correct them. Let's not make the same mistakes again.