Thursday, December 04, 2008

Pearl Harbor: Hawaii was not Surprised; FDR was Not

James Perloff

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Japan launched a sneak attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl arbor, shattering the peace of a beautiful Hawaiian morning and leaving much of the fleet broken and burning. The destruction and death that the Japanese military visited upon Pearl Harbor that day — 18 naval vessels (including eight battleships) sunk or heavily damaged, 188 planes destroyed, over 2,000 servicemen killed — were exacerbated by the fact that American commanders in Hawaii were caught by surprise. But that was not the case in Washington. Comprehensive research has not only shown Washington knew in advance of the attack, but deliberately withheld its foreknowledge from our commanders in Hawaii in the hope that the "surprise" attack would catapult the U.S. into World War II. Oliver Lyttleton, British Minister of Production, stated in 1944: "Japan was provoked into attacking America at Pearl Harbor. It is a travesty of history to say that America was forced into the war."

Although FDR desired to directly involve the United States in the Second World War, his intentions sharply contradicted his public pronouncements. A pre-war Gallup poll showed 88 percent of Americans opposed U.S. involvement in the European war. Citizens realized that U.S. participation in World War I had not made a better world, and in a 1940 (election-year) speech, Roosevelt typically stated: "I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars."

But privately, the president planned the opposite. Roosevelt dispatched his closest advisor, Harry Hopkins, to meet British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in January 1941. Hopkins told Churchill: "The President is determined that we [the United States and England] shall win the war together. Make no mistake about it. He has sent me here to tell you that at all costs and by all means he will carry you through, no matter what happens to him — there is nothing he will not do so far as he has human power." William Stevenson noted in A Man Called Intrepid that American-British military staff talks began that same month under "utmost secrecy," which, he clarified, "meant preventing disclosure to the American public." Even Robert Sherwood, the president's friendly biographer, said: "If the isolationists had known the full extent of the secret alliance between the United States and Britain, their demands for impeachment would have rumbled like thunder throughout the land."

Background to Betrayal

Roosevelt's intentions were nearly exposed in 1940 when Tyler Kent, a code clerk at the U.S. embassy in London, discovered secret dispatches between Roosevelt and Churchill. These revealed that FDR — despite contrary campaign promises — was determined to engage America in the war. Kent smuggled some of the documents out of the embassy, hoping to alert the American public — but was caught. With U.S. government approval, he was tried in a secret British court and confined to a British prison until the war's end.

During World War II's early days, the president offered numerous provocations to Germany: freezing its assets; shipping 50 destroyers to Britain; and depth-charging U-boats. The Germans did not retaliate, however. They knew America's entry into World War I had shifted the balance of power against them, and they shunned a repeat of that scenario. FDR therefore switched his focus to Japan. Japan had signed a mutual defense pact with Germany and Italy (the Tripartite Treaty). Roosevelt knew that if Japan went to war with the United States, Germany and Italy would be compelled to declare war on America — thus entangling us in the European conflict by the back door. As Harold Ickes, secretary of the Interior, said in October 1941: "For a long time I have believed that our best entrance into the war would be by way of Japan."

Much new light has been shed on Pearl Harbor through the recent work of Robert B. Stinnett, a World War II Navy veteran. Stinnett has obtained numerous relevant documents through the Freedom of Information Act. In Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor (2000), the book so brusquely dismissed by director Bruckheimer, Stinnett reveals that Roosevelt's plan to provoke Japan began with a memorandum from Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. McCollum, head of the Far East desk of the Office of Naval Intelligence. The memorandum advocated eight actions predicted to lead Japan into attacking the United States. McCollum wrote: "If by these means Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better." FDR enacted all eight of McCollum's provocative steps — and more.

While no one can excuse Japan's belligerence in those days, it is also true that our government provoked that country in various ways — freezing her assets in America; closing the Panama Canal to her shipping; progressively halting vital exports to Japan until we finally joined Britain in an all-out embargo; sending a hostile note to the Japanese ambassador implying military threats if Tokyo did not alter its Pacific policies; and on November 26th — just 11 days before the Japanese attack — delivering an ultimatum that demanded, as prerequisites to resumed trade, that Japan withdraw all troops from China and Indochina, and in effect abrogate her Tripartite Treaty with Germany and Italy.

After meeting with President Roosevelt on October 16, 1941, Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote in his diary: "We face the delicate question of the diplomatic fencing to be done so as to be sure Japan is put into the wrong and makes the first bad move — overt move." On November 25th, the day before the ultimatum was sent to Japan's ambassadors, Stimson wrote in his diary: "The question was how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot...."

The bait offered Japan was our Pacific Fleet. In 1940, Admiral J.O. Richardson, the fleet's commander, flew to Washington to protest FDR's decision to permanently base the fleet in Hawaii instead of its normal berthing on the U.S. West Coast. The admiral had sound reasons: Pearl Harbor was vulnerable to attack, being approachable from any direction; it could not be effectively rigged with nets and baffles to defend against torpedo planes; and in Hawaii it would be hard to supply and train crews for his undermanned vessels. Pearl Harbor also lacked adequate fuel supplies and dry docks, and keeping men far from their families would create morale problems. The argument became heated. Said Richardson: "I came away with the impression that, despite his spoken word, the President was fully determined to put the United States into the war if Great Britain could hold out until he was reelected."

Richardson was quickly relieved of command. Replacing him was Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. Kimmel also informed Roosevelt of Pearl Harbor's deficiencies, but accepted placement there, trusting that Washington would notify him of any intelligence pointing to attack. This proved to be misplaced trust. As Washington watched Japan preparing to assault Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel, as well as his Army counterpart in Hawaii, General Walter C. Short, were completely sealed off from the information pipeline.

Prior Knowledge

One of the most important elements in America's foreknowledge of Japan's intentions was our government's success in cracking Japan's secret diplomatic code known as "Purple." Tokyo used it to communicate to its embassies and consulates, including those in Washington and Hawaii. The code was so complex that it was enciphered and deciphered by machine. A talented group of American cryptoanalysts broke the code in 1940 and devised a facsimile of the Japanese machine. These, utilized by the intelligence sections of both the War and Navy departments, swiftly revealed Japan's diplomatic messages. The deciphered texts were nicknamed "Magic."

Copies of Magic were always promptly delivered in locked pouches to President Roosevelt, and the secretaries of State, War, and Navy. They also went to Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall and to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark. However, although three Purple decoding machines were allotted to Britain, none were sent to Pearl Harbor. Intercepts of ciphered messages radioed between Tokyo and its Honolulu consulate had to be forwarded to Washington for decrypting. Thus Kimmel and Short, the Hawaiian commanders, were at the mercy of Washington for feedback. A request for their own decoding machine was rebuffed on the grounds that diplomatic traffic was of insufficient interest to soldiers.

How untrue that was! On October 9, 1941, the War Department decoded a Tokyo-to-Honolulu dispatch instructing the Consul General to divide Pearl Harbor into five specified areas and to report the exact locations of American ships therein.

There is nothing unusual about spies watching ship movements — but reporting precise whereabouts of ships in dock has only one implication. Charles Willoughby, Douglas MacArthur's chief of intelligence later wrote that the "reports were on a grid system of the inner harbor with coordinate locations of American men of war ... coordinate grid is the classical method for pinpoint target designation; our battleships had suddenly become targets." This information was never sent to Kimmel or Short.

Additional intercepts were decoded by Washington, all within one day of their original transmission:

• November 5th: Tokyo notified its Washington ambassadors that November 25th was the deadline for an agreement with the U.S.
• November 11th: They were warned, "The situation is nearing a climax, and the time is getting short."
• November 16th: The deadline was pushed up to November 29th. "The deadline absolutely cannot be changed," the dispatch said. "After that, things are automatically going to happen."
• November 29th (the U.S. ultimatum had now been received): The ambassadors were told a rupture in negotiations was "inevitable," but that Japan's leaders "do not wish you to give the impression that negotiations are broken off."
• November 30th: Tokyo ordered its Berlin embassy to inform the Germans that "the breaking out of war may come quicker than anyone dreams."
• December 1st: The deadline was again moved ahead. "[T]o prevent the United States from becoming unduly suspicious, we have been advising the press and others that ... the negotiations are continuing."
• December 1st-2nd: The Japanese embassies in non-Axis nations around the world were directed to dispose of their secret documents and all but one copy of their codes. (This was for a reason easy to fathom — when war breaks out, the diplomatic offices of a hostile state lose their immunity and are normally overtaken. One copy of code was retained so that final instructions could be received, after which the last code copy would be destroyed.)

An additional warning came via the so-called "winds" message. A November 18th intercept indicated that, if a break in U.S. relations were forthcoming, Tokyo would issue a special radio warning. This would not be in the Purple code, as it was intended to reach consulates and lesser agencies of Japan not equipped with the code or one of its machines. The message, to be repeated three times during a weather report, was "Higashi no kaze ame," meaning "East wind, rain." "East wind" signified the United States; "rain" signified diplomatic split — in effect, war.

This prospective message was deemed so significant that U.S. radio monitors were constantly watching for it, and the Navy Department typed it up on special reminder cards. On December 4th, "Higashi no kaze ame" was indeed broadcast and picked up by Washington intelligence.

On three different occasions since 1894, Japan had made surprise attacks coinciding with breaks in diplomatic relations. This history was not lost on President Roosevelt. Secretary Stimson, describing FDR's White House conference of November 25th, noted: "The President said the Japanese were notorious for making an attack without warning and stated that we might be attacked, say next Monday, for example." Nor was it lost on Washington's senior military officers, all of them War College graduates.

As Robert Stinnett has revealed, Washington was not only deciphering Japanese diplomatic messages, but naval dispatches as well. President Roosevelt had access to these intercepts via his routing officer, Lieutenant Commander McCollum, who had authored the original eight-point plan of provocation to Japan. So much secrecy has surrounded these naval dispatches that their existence was not revealed during any of the ten Pearl Harbor investigations, even the mini-probe Congress conducted in 1995. Most of Stinnett's requests for documents concerning Pearl Harbor have been denied as still classified, even under the Freedom of Information Act.

It was long presumed that as the Japanese fleet approached Pearl Harbor, it maintained complete radio silence. This is untrue. The fleet barely observed discretion, let alone silence. Naval intelligence intercepted and translated numerous dispatches, some clearly revealing that Pearl Harbor had been targeted. The most significant was the following, sent by Admiral Yamamoto to the Japanese First Air Fleet on November 26, 1941:

The task force, keeping its movement strictly secret and maintaining close guard against submarines and aircraft, shall advance into Hawaiian waters, and upon the very opening of hostilities shall attack the main force of the United States fleet and deal it a mortal blow. The first air raid is planned for the dawn of x-day. Exact date to be given by later order.

So much official secrecy continues to surround the translations of the intercepted Japanese naval dispatches that it is not known if the foregoing message was sent to McCollum or seen by FDR. It is not even known who originally translated the intercept. One thing, however, is certain: The message's significance could not have been lost on the translator.

1941 also witnessed the following:

On January 27th, our ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, sent a message to Washington stating: "The Peruvian Minister has informed a member of my staff that he has heard from many sources, including a Japanese source, that in the event of trouble breaking out between the United States and Japan, the Japanese intended to make a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor with all their strength...."

On November 3rd, still relying on informants, Grew notified Secretary of State Cordell Hull: "War with the United States may come with dramatic and dangerous suddenness." He sent an even stronger warning on November 17th.

Congressman Martin Dies would write:

Early in 1941 the Dies Committee came into possession of a strategic map which gave clear proof of the intentions of the Japanese to make an assault on Pearl Harbor. The strategic map was prepared by the Japanese Imperial Military Intelligence Department. As soon as I received the document I telephoned Secretary of State Cordell Hull and told him what I had. Secretary Hull directed me not to let anyone know about the map and stated that he would call me as soon as he talked to President Roosevelt. In about an hour he telephoned to say that he had talked to Roosevelt and they agreed that it would be very serious if any information concerning this map reached the news services.... I told him it was a grave responsibility to withhold such vital information from the public. The Secretary assured me that he and Roosevelt considered it essential to national defense.
Dusko Popov was a Yugoslav who worked as a double agent for both Germany and Britain. His true allegiance was to the Allies. In the summer of 1941, the Nazis ordered Popov to Hawaii to make a detailed study of Pearl Harbor and its nearby airfields. The agent deduced that the mission betokened a surprise attack by the Japanese. In August, he fully reported this to the FBI in New York. J. Edgar Hoover later bitterly recalled that he had provided warnings to FDR about Pearl Harbor, but that Roosevelt told him not to pass the information any further and to just leave it in his (the president's) hands.

Kilsoo Haan, of the Sino-Korean People's League, received definite word from the Korean underground that the Japanese were planning to assault Hawaii "before Christmas." In November, after getting nowhere with the State Department, Haan convinced Iowa Senator Guy Gillette of his claim's merit. Gillette briefed the president, who laconically thanked him and said it would be looked into.

In Java, in early December, the Dutch Army decoded a dispatch from Tokyo to its Bangkok embassy, forecasting attacks on four sites including Hawaii. The Dutch passed the information to Brigadier General Elliot Thorpe, the U.S. military observer. Thorpe sent Washington a total of four warnings. The last went to General Marshall's intelligence chief. Thorpe was ordered to send no further messages concerning the matter. The Dutch also had their Washington military attaché, Colonel Weijerman, personally warn General Marshall.

Captain Johann Ranneft, the Dutch naval attaché in Washington, who was awarded the Legion of Merit for his services to America, recorded revealing details in his diary. On December 2nd, he visited the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). Ranneft inquired about the Pacific. An American officer, pointing to a wall map, said, "This is the Japanese Task Force proceeding East." It was a spot midway between Japan and Hawaii. On December 6th, Ranneft returned and asked where the Japanese carriers were. He was shown a position on the map about 300-400 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor. Ranneft wrote: "I ask what is the meaning of these carriers at this location; whereupon I receive the answer that it is probably in connection with Japanese reports of eventual American action.... I myself do not think about it because I believe that everyone in Honolulu is 100 percent on the alert, just like everyone here at O.N.I."

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Second thoughts

Was World War II, and the unparalleled misery it caused, as inevitable as many historians claim?

ROY WILLIAMS reviews: "Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilisation" By Nicholson Baker Simon & Schuster, 566pp, $34.95

"Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost its Empire and the West Lost the World" By Patrick J. Buchanan Crown Publishers, 518pp, $53 (HB)

"Buchanan and Baker advance the same core thesis: World War II was avoidable, and should have been avoided"

WORLD War II had to be fought, according to conventional wisdom. Nazi Germany was bent on world domination and the extermination of the Jews; imperial Japan had designs on the Asia-Pacific. Western appeasement throughout the 1930s almost proved disastrous but, eventually, braver statesmen prevailed and the free world was preserved. Winston Churchill in particular has been idolised for his wartime leadership.

These notions remain deeply embedded in Western consciousness. Yet two generations of revisionist historians, from A. J. P. Taylor to Niall Ferguson, have shown the truth to be much murkier. Two recent books make the revisionist case with unusual passion, especially regarding Churchill's exalted status, and Graham Freudenberg's just-published Churchill and Australia has fuelled the fire.

These matters are not academic. The neoconservatives who hijacked George W. Bush's presidency belong to a modern Churchill cult. In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and for years afterwards, they routinely smeared their critics as appeasers of Saddam Hussein in particular and of terrorists generally. This line was echoed by John Howard and Alexander Downer.

Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker's masterpiece, would be despised by the neocons. Indeed, the book has had a mixed reception. And no wonder: Baker dedicates it to "the memory of American and British pacifists [who] tried to stop the war from happening". He concentrates on the period from 1933, when the Nazis won power in Germany, to the end of 1941, when the US entered the conflict The book is a collection of vignettes, chronologically arranged Baker, better known as a distinguished novelist, explains in the afterword that he relied primarily on newspaper articles, diaries, memos, memoirs and public praclamations, "each tied as much as possible to a par ticular date".

Hovering throughout is the spectre of the Holocaust, to which the title alludes. Here are three examples of Baker's style:
George Bell, the bishop of Chichester, gave his first speech in the House of Lords. It wasJuly 27,1938. "I cannot understand how our kinsmen of the German race can lower themselves to such a level of dishonour and cowardice as to attack a defenceless people in the way that the National Socialists have attacked the non-Aryans."

Heinrich Himmler wrote a memo describing his plans for alien populations. The Jews would go to a colony in Africa or elsewhere, he wrote. "However cruel and tragic each individual case may be, this method is still the mildest and best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible." Hitler read Himmler's memo and, according to Himm]er, he found it "good and correct". It was May 28, 1940. "With respect to the Jewish question, the Fuhrer has decided to make a clean sweep," Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary. "The world war is here, and the annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence." It was December 12, 1941.

The cumulative effect of hundreds of such snippets is extraordinarily powerful. Patrick Buchanan's The Unnecessary War is a more conventional work of history. Buchanan is no pacifist. Once a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, he was a competitive candidate in the Republican Party's presidential primaries in 1992 and 1996. As well as being a fine wordsmith, Buchanan is an old-fashioned American conservative: ornery, isolationist and proud of it.

Despite their radically different philosophies, Buchanan and Baker advance the same core thesis: World War II was avoidable, and should have been avoided The horrors tha war wrought are incontestable. More than 10 million Allied servicemen died and nearly six million from the Axis powers. Bombing of cities and towns became a routine strategy, devastating large tracts of Europe and coastal Japan. The Holocaust was perpetrated and nuclear weapons were invented and used. By 1945, total civilian deaths exceeded 40 million.

There were longer-term consequences as well: the final disintegration of the British Empire, the entrenchment of Joseph Stalin's tyranny in the Soviet Union, 40 years of brutal communist rule in eastern Europe and in China, the Cold War and the modern tragedy of Vietnam.

How and why did the world's 20th-century leaders allow all this to happen? Cold War statesman George F. Kennan once wrote: "All lines of inquiry lead back to World War I" Buchanan's early chapters are devoted to the origins of that war and its aftermath. Baker deals with those subjects only briefly, at least in any explicit way, but there is much in his book that casts a retrospective light.

It is notorious that the terms imposed by the Allies on Germany in June 1919 were fiercely punitive. Certainly, Germany was left ravaged and embittered. Yet its high command had surrendered in November 1918 on the basis that the peace would be governed by US president Woodrow Wilson's grand-sounding "Fourteen Points". The overriding principle was supposed to be this: "Unless justice be done to others, it will not be done to us."

Justice was denied. No German representatives were invited to the conference at Versailles and the "big three" Allied leaders -- Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George and his French counterpart Georges Clemenceau -- lacked the character to resist populist howls for revenge. Lloyd-George had inflamed passions at the "khaki election" of December 1918 and he was bound to bring home, in Buchanan's words. "the peace of vengeance that British voters demanded".

Worst, for eight months after the armistice, Britain maintained a naval blockade of the Continent. This caused, and was intended to cause, widespread starvation in Germany. Hundreds of thousands died, mostly women and children. The terms to which Germany eventually acceded included a reparations bill of 32 billion gold marks, a debt so onerous that it crippled the economy in the '20s "To repair a broken window now costs more than the whole house would have cost before the inflation," lamented Stefan Zweig, a young Viennese writer who is quoted several times in Human Smoke.

The German people's confidence in moderate politicians steadily waned. Adolf Hitler's emergent National Socialist Party exploited that discontent and appealed to injured national pride. At Versailles the Allies had confiscated Germany's navy and merchant fleet. They had also revoked the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, agreed between Germany and Russia in March 1918. Germany had been victorious on the eastern front, but was stripped of its hard-won gains. In all, Buchanan estimates, it lost one-tenth of its peoples, one-eighth of its territory and all of its overseas colonies. Further, Germany was required to accept sole blame for causing the war. This, the now-infamous "war guilt clause", provoked a furious initial response from German foreign minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau: "Such a confession in my mouth would be a lie. We are far from declining any responsibility but we deny that Germany and its people were alone guilty."

There are historians, such as best-selling Briton Andrew Roberts, who still defend the Treaty of Versailles and-or World War I in general. They assert that Wilhelm II was an evil megalomaniac, that Germany, enslaved to a spirit of Prussian militariam, planned to conquer Europe, if not the world; and that liberal demovracy itself was at stake. Britain had no choice, they say, but to go to the rescue of Belgium when German troops entered its territory in late Julv 1914.

Yet as Buchanan and others have cogently demonstrated, the truth is more nuanced. Granted, the Kaiser was a vain and impulsive man, guilty during his reign of several gross diplomatic blunders. But in 1913 he acceded to Britain's demand that Germany limit the size of its navy to 60 per cent of the British fleet and, in the critical month of August 1914, he tried to avert a full-scale European war.

Germany, however, was facing two grave problems in 1914, one born of strength and the other of weakness. The German empire's industrial output had grown enormously, to the dismay of powerful vested interests in Britain. Meanwhile, Germany's geostrategic position in Europe had deteriorated. Britain, France and Russia, so frequently at loggerheads during the 19th century. were bound by various treaties and understandings to support each other militarily. Britain also had achieved rapprochement with Japan and the US.

Simon Schama has argued that there was another key factor at play: the turbulent political situation in Britain. Herbert Asquith's reformist Liberal government was barely re-elected in 1910 and by 1913 its position was even shakier The Liberals dreaded the thought of another Tory administration but were plagued by internal divisions. Lloyd-George - brilliant, charismatic and ambitious - was chancellor of the exchequer. Churchill - equally ambitious but bellicose, erratic and distrusted by his colleagues (he had defected from the Tories in 1904) - was first lord of the Admiralty.

By mid-1914, despite mobilisations of troops on the Continent, full-scale war was not inevitable. Buchanan shows that, until the fateful weekend of August 1-2, 1914, a clear majority of Asquith's cabinet (12 of 18) opposed any British involvement. A week earlier. Asquith had written: "There seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators."

What changed? Buchanan contends that Churchill and Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, got to the waverers in cabinet. They saw a chance to crush Germany and seized on an obscure 1839 treaty under which Britain was entitled (but not compelled) to aid Belgium in the event of a violation of its neutrality. With support from Bonar Law's Tories and jingoists in the tabloid press, they invoked British honour. Crucially, they swayed Lloyd-George. His instincts were against aggression but he had opposed the Boer War and was scared of being tagged as weak. Asquith, too, caved.

It was a capitulation to what Zweig perceptively called "false heroism". In 1915, Zweig lamented the mindset "that prefers to send others to suffering and death, the cheap optimism of the conscienceless prophets, both political and military". Buchanan observes:
Churchill was exhilarated. Six months later, after the first Battle of Ypres, with tens of thousands of British soldiers in their graves, he would say "I am so happy I cannot help it --I enjoy every second "

In the event, Churchill had neither a successful nor an honourable war. His ill-considered plan to take the Dardanelles in 1915 was a disastrous failure, for which the Anzacs paid dearly at Gallipoli, and he played a central and shameful role in the naval blockade of 1918-19. The alienation of Germany was but one of several momentous consequences of World War I. Buchanan highlights the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia and the emergence of the US as a fully-fledged world power.

But, above all else, according to historian N. K. Meaney: "The war had reinforced and extended the appeal and influence of nationalism. The right of the state in the name of the nation to demand absolute obedience and total sacrifice had been widely accepted." Hitler exploited these sentiments with singular cunning. But, as Buchanan argues persuasively, Hitler's ambitions for Germany were limited. He could have tolerated the retention of Alsace-Lorraine by France; until 1939 he confined his activities in western Europe to building defensive fortifications up and down the Rhineland. He had no desire to fight Britain, which he respected, let alone the US. His greatest fear was another war on two fronts.

Hitler dreamed of Lebensraum for Germany. Famously, he "turned his gaze to the east", to the lands and peoples of Austria. Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states and Poland and beyond to the Ukraine. Some of this territory was historically and culturally German; portions of it had been carved up by the Allies at Versailles. Hitler wanted a contiguous, self-sufficient empire that would be safe from blockade and starvation. The more thoughtful Western leaders, notably British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, understood that Germany harboured some well justified grievances; and, across Europe, nightmarish memories of 1914-18 still haunted millions.

How, then, did World War II come about? Buchanan and Baker agree on one thing: appeasement was not the main problem. Buchanan argues convincingly, on strictly pragmatic grounds, that Britain was right not to go to war in February 1938 in protest against the Anschluss. So, too, seven months later, at the Munich conference, when Chamberlain recognised Germany's retaking of the Sudetenland. Most of the population there was sympathetic to Germany, as was the vast majority in Austria; and, in any case, Britain was not militarily capable of defending their borders.

In my opinion, most of the blunders by the Allies in the '20s and '30s involved not craven timidity but hypocrisy or over-aggression, or plain ineptitude. It is not surprising that entreaties from the pacifist movement were ignored. (These were made eloquently and often by Mohandas Gandhi, Zweig and others, and are documented in Human Smoke.) It is harder to fathom the dismal failure of realpolitik.

Buchanan identifies many strategic missteps, not least Britain's dealings with Italy, which were clumsy and arrogant. Italy had fought with the Allies in World War I, losing 460,000 men; and, for all his odious faults, Benito Mussolini was quick to recognise the menace posed by Nazi methods and ideology. But by 1936 he felt compelled to "cast his lot with the Hitler he loathed".

Britain's two most calamitous errors stemmed from feckless bravado. The first was the war guarantee given to Poland on March 31, 1939, Chamberlain's panicky response to Hitler's occupation earlier that month of the rest of Czechoslovakia. (This was a breach by Hitler of the Munich agreement but, again, most of the local people empathised with Germany.) As for Poland, it was militarily indefensible, and Germany's claim on the port city of Danzig was especially strong. Chamberlain intended the Poland guarantee to deter Hitler, and to an extent it did, but it also emboldened the Polish government to reject German offers "widely recognised as mild".

In late August 1939 Hitler concluded an expedient non-aggression pact with Stalin, and German troops entered Poland on September 1. Britain still had a choice. It was powerless to help Poland by military means and Hitler had ordered his generals to make no aggressive moves in the west. War in the East between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia was now likely in the short to medium term, and if it had ensued must have weakened both regimes substantially. Buchanan argues that Britain would have been wiser to denounce Hitler outright and await events (and, with France, rearm in the meantime).

Who knows what would have happened? Could it have been worse than what did happen? On September 2, 1939 speaking in the House of Commons, Chamberlain rediscovered his pacifist convictions and proposed a peace conference. Predictably, this appalled Churchill and most of the Tory backbench, as well as many in the Labour Opposition. Later that night the cabinet voted for war and, the next day, Chamberlain dolefully declared it.

Yet again in a time of crisis, in the words of military historian Robert Cowley, "politicians seemed more afraid of what would happen to them if they didn't go to war than if they did". Baker quotes the French prime minister in 1940, the much-maligned Philippe Petain:
"It is easy, but also stupid, to talk of fighting to the last man, " Petain said, with tears in his eyes. It is also criminal in view of our losses in the last war."

But what of the elephant in the room? All other considerations aside, were the Allies honour-bound to fight the war to "save the Jews"? That is a widely held belief but it is mistaken. Hitler did not fight World War II to bring about the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a direct and foreseen consequence of Germany being simultaneously at war with Britain and the US, as well as Stalin's Russia. The Jewish population of Germany in the '30s was about 450,000. The Nazis wanted their mass deportation, either by resettlement (various destinations were proposed. including Palestine, Madagascar. even Alaska) or by immrgratiun to friendly countries. As the SS's atrocities worsened, more and more Jews in Germany wished desperately to escape. Kristallnacht (November 9-10 1938) was a watershed.

To the world's shame, no nations and few citizens responded. There were noble exceptions: Baker highlights the magnificent efforts of the Quakers, of former US president Herbert Hoover and of certain churchmen. But, in the main, indifference and bigotry prevailed. Baker shows how US president Franklin Roosevelt stymied all attempts to increase America's tiny quota of Jewish immigrants.

Once hostilities broke out, the Jews' position became yet more perilous, both in Germany and the occupied territories in the east, especially Poland. Emigration from Germany ceased altogether in October 1941 and two months later, following Pearl Harbor, the US entered the war. By early 1942 the Nazi high command realised that Germany was doomed. Then, and only then. was the final solution put into effect in all its systemic hideousness.

Where was Churchill in all this? He defected back to the Tories in 1921 and served a patchy stint as chancellor of the exchequer from 1924 to 1929. Then his career languished. It is a tenet of the Churchill cult that during the '30s he was one of the few voices of courage and good judgment. This is nonsense. Baker reminds us that Churchill's tactical acumen was poor and that, on several occasions, he expressed fulsome admiration for Mussolini and Hitler. Openly anti-Semitic Nazi sympathisers (such as American aviator Charles Lindbergh) at least urged peace.

By early 1938 Churchill was agitating for war, notwithstanding Britain's military unpreparedness, and he was elated when war came ("the glory of Old England thrilled my being"). After succeeding Chamberlain as prime minister in May 1940, he vetoed any idea of peace negotiations with Hitler, interned all "enemy aliens and suspect persons" in England (mostly Jewish refugees) and ordered another starvation blockade of the Continent (including occupied France).

For five years he directed Britain's war effort with determined savagery and child-like relish, as is well documented in Freudenberg's fine book. In July 1945, soon after the war ended in Europe, Britain held a general election. Churchill expected a grateful nation to return him and the Tories to power; instead, Clement Attlee's Labour Party won in a landslide. The beleaguered British people were fond of Churchill but at another level had seen through him. His career had borne out A. G Gardiner's prophetic warning in 1913: "Churchill will write his name in history; take care that he does not write it in blood."

Of course, for as long as World War II was raging, it was essential that the Allies prevailed. But should the war have been fought at all? Freudenberg emphatically says yes: Churchill was wrong about many things, but his decision in May 1940 to fight the Nazis "is his eternal greatness". Buchanan and Baker contend otherwise, and they persuade me. Buchanan endorses some wry advice of late 19th-century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, a hard-headed conservative if ever there were one. He regarded preventative war as "like committing suicide from fear of death". Baker prefers the teaching of Gandhi, which echoes Christ's in the Sermon on the Mount: "We have found in non-violence a force which, if organised, can without doubt match itself against all the most violent forces in the world."

The above article appeared in "The Australian Literary Review" of 3 December, 2008