Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sorry, No


Patrick J. Buchanan is evidently an unhappy and angry man. He wants to bang the table, and shout that the West and its Christian civilization are over and done with. And this did not happen through any consequential process of evolution and change. No, indeed. Loss and decay are directly attributable to the wretched politicians, so-called statesmen, who have led us astray for the past hundred years. And the most wretched of all these is — wait for it — Winston Churchill.

Churchill was at the forefront of British public life for about 60 years, at one time or another holding all the great offices of state. As might be expected, his judgments were often at fault, sometimes grievously, as when he broke a miners’ strike with force or agreed to the 1922 partition of Transjordan. Although Buchanan does not mention these specific incidents, or others of the same kind on the home front, for the first 200 or so pages of this diatribe he does his level best to blacken Churchill in the context of foreign affairs — as a warmonger in 1914; vindictive towards Germany over the Treaty of Versailles; wrong over the size and role of the British navy; blind to the need to keep Japan and Italy as allies; dangerous in advocating war when Hitler invaded the Rhineland; and finally complicit in the guarantee actually given in March 1939 by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that if Poland were attacked Britain would go to war in its defense. For Buchanan, this guarantee was the blunder of all blunders, from which came nothing but disaster.

In the 1930s, democracy everywhere was imploding under the challenge posed by Hitler and Nazism. Churchill was the one contemporary statesman who spelled out the reality that a totalitarian future was engulfing the world. Becoming prime minister at a moment when Hitler had won seemingly irreversible military victories, Churchill committed Britain to fight Nazism to the death. The general public in the Anglosphere and far beyond has long held that even if resistance to Nazism was a gamble for the highest stakes, Churchill was right to take it. Whatever mistakes he may have made over other, lesser issues, this determination to destroy Hitler earned him an honored place in history.

Buchanan will have none of that. If Churchill was the great man he is reputed to be in this popular characterization, so it seems to Buchanan, his was the kind of greatness that did untold and everlasting damage. Buchanan makes the particularly grave charges that defiance of Hitler quite pointlessly cost millions of lives, put paid to the British Empire, and condemned half of Europe to live under Communism for some 40 ghastly years. These horrors all stemmed from adventures abroad that a real statesman would have perceived were not in the national interest.

Buchanan seems never to have heard of the all-important Law of Unintended Consequences that governs so much human endeavor and complicates judgment. As often as not, and unpredictably as well, decisions that are right and justified nonetheless may have harmful and unjustified outcomes. This is the case here. The surrender of half of Europe to Stalinism turned out unexpectedly to be part of the price that had to be paid to keep the other half free. In a further unexpected consequence, possession of that conquered bloc eventually helped to destroy Communism from within.

Hitler and Stalin are directly responsible for the crimes committed in their names. To shift onto Churchill the ultimate responsibility for the crimes of others is to confuse the agent and the victim, and further draws a wholly misleading moral equivalence between totalitarian aggression and democratic self-defense.

Much of Buchanan’s mystification depends either on deprecating or exaggerating the role of the individual in history, according to whatever polemical point he is out to make. In the first instance, then, he fails to credit the willpower and imagination shown by Churchill on taking office as prime minister in May 1940. Without Churchill, the British elite might well have chosen a course that betrayed the nation and forfeited its independence. After the Dunkirk debacle, his own foreign minister, Lord Halifax, was recommending an approach via the Italians to discover what terms Hitler might offer. Many prominent people — including dukes and other aristocrats, and senior civil servants — were forming a peace party. More threatening still, a quisling-type regime under the former King Edward VIII, now Duke of Windsor, and the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, was waiting in the wings. If this peace party had prevailed, Nazism might then have been established indefinitely, and the suffering would have been that much the greater.

Hitler duly made a peace offer. Germany was to have sole control of the continent of Europe, with the power to redraw boundaries, and the British were to retain their empire. Confident that they were speaking as representatives of one master race to another, Hitler and his propagandist Goebbels assumed the British would surely appreciate that this proposed division of the spoils was in their interest. They could not understand that Churchill saw Nazism as an absolute evil with which there could be no compromise. Churchill’s flat rejection surprised and then infuriated them. Churchill, they declared and may even have believed, was nothing but a warmonger who thus brought destruction on his country and its empire, a fate which they themselves claimed to regret.

In addition to echoing Hitler and Goebbels with astonishing faithfulness, Buchanan supposes that their promises should have been trusted. But once they were undisputed rulers of a Nazi Europe the balance of power would have been in their favor, creating the temptation to subjugate Britain as well.

If the loss of the empire was also included in the price of victory over Nazism, the British people have proved these past 50 years that they were willing to pay it. What was famously acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness was given up without regret or even nostalgia. War or no war, the British Empire could not have survived the 20th century. The Treasury had always begrudged the expense of it; the armed forces resented the dispersal of resources. Bernard Shaw, J. A. Hobson and the Marxists, Fabians and influential socialist professors such as N. H. Brailsford and R. H. Tawney and G. D. H. Cole, the Bloomsbury coterie, the universities, even the patriotic Orwell formed a chorus passionately turning public opinion against colonialism and imperialism. The Boers, Gandhi and the Indian Congress, Zaghlul Pasha and the Egyptian nationalists, had learnt from their English peers to launch protest movements. They had only to mobilize mobs on the streets in the name of nationalism, and self-rule would be theirs. In this second instance, Churchill was in the grip of historic forces far too powerful to be at the command of any individual, even, or perhaps especially, one as imperialist as he.

To mount this attack on Churchill, Buchanan employs a strange technique all his own of making some statement and backing it up by one or more quotations from a secondary source, as though reliance on others must prove that he is in the right. Some pages carry three or four such quotations, almost in the manner of an anthology. The huge majority of these sources, needless to say, are British writers with axes to grind, and some of them are crackpots or closet admirers of Nazism. A. J. P. Taylor, for one, seems to have been a major influence on Buchanan; Taylor was the first to put forward the demonstrably silly proposition that Hitler was a politician like any other, and a reasonable man who could have been accommodated by other reasonable men.

As the book unfolds, the puzzled reader is driven to ask himself more and more insistently what Buchanan’s intention is. What is the point of trying to twist Churchill’s wartime role inside out? Does he seriously believe there is no such thing as a just war? He can’t want to denigrate democracy, can he? Nor can he really want to rehabilitate Hitler, can he? He can’t think Stalin might have been a sincere ally, can he? Whatever is an American doing bewailing the end of the British Empire and criticizing his own country for picking up as many of the pieces as possible? Why the superficiality of the argument? Why the aggressively politicized tone?

After hundreds of pages, the final sentence of the book suddenly illuminates these questions: “And to show the world he means business, President Bush has had placed in his Oval Office a bust of Winston Churchill.” So here’s another wretched so-called statesman repeating old mistakes by setting off in search of adventures abroad that are not in the national interest, indeed unnecessary. So Churchill had to be knocked down in order to scotch any notion that President Bush in his foreign policy might have been following a good and brave example.

Oh well.

(From a review of Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War": How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World by Patrick J. Buchanan in National Review)