It is an admittedly easier task to criticize the work of an off-beat crank than that of someone who has many redeeming qualities and resonant opinions. I certainly like much of what Patrick Buchanan has said and done over the years - from those long-ago days as a Nixon staffer, to his work for Ronald Reagan, to his various media incarnations. So, I found myself mildly dreading the arrival of his latest book: CHURCHILL, HITLER, and THE UNNECESSARY WAR: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World.
I was right to be concerned in advance. The book didn’t let me down, and it certainly didn’t lift me up.
In the interest of full disclosure and complete candor, I need to say up front that I am, and have been as long as I can remember, an unreformed and unapologetic Churchillophile. Therefore, I tend to recoil when confronted with Buchanan’s broadsides like:
“There has arisen among America’s elite a Churchill cult. Its acolytes hold that Churchill was not only a peerless war leader but a statesman of unparalleled vision whose life and legend should be the model for every statesman.”
I guess I should at least find some comfort in the idea that I may now be considered part of America’s elite.
You don’t have to plunge too deeply into Pat’s prose to figure out that there’s some not-so-subtle psychological projection going on in the book. Here’s the interpretive key: when he says WINSTON CHURCHILL, he really means GEORGE W. BUSH. It’s that simple.
Have you seen the news about recent grave-flipping? Well, it should be in all the papers, because some great men who helped Pat Buchanan along and mentored him, men no doubt still admired by him, have been slightly quickened six feet under. They are eternal card-carrying members of the Churchill cult.
Richard Nixon gave Mr. Buchanan his start in national politics. He plucked the young journalist from a newspaper job in St. Louis to become part of the embryonic presidential campaign team in 1965 working out of the former Vice-President’s New York law firm.
Nixon admired Winston Churchill very much. In fact, during the early days of the Nixon-Buchanan relationship, RN was himself being inspired by the mysterious wonders of Winnie’s cult. Years after leaving the White House, he wrote of his own wilderness years – those between the 1962 California gubernatorial loss and his eventual election to the presidency in 1968 – and of how he identified with Mr. Churchill: “After eight years of wandering in the wilderness – at the age of sixty-five, when most men were contemplating retirement – he was called back into office to lead Britain in its darkest hour. His brilliant leadership in World War II prompted Isaiah Berlin to acclaim him ‘a mythical hero who belongs to legend as much as to reality, the largest human being of our time.’”
Then there’s Ronald Reagan, another restless sleeper these days. Pat Buchanan was a big fan of the Gipper and he constantly applauded the 40th president for his Cold War bravado. Well…sorry Pat, but Reagan was another big fan of the man from Chartwell. He regularly drew strength from Churchill’s wisdom and wit and often told stories like the one he shared during a speech in 1987:
“Winston Churchill was once asked, ‘Doesn’t it thrill you, Mr. Churchill, to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?’ ‘It’s quite flattering,’ Winston replied, ‘but whenever I feel this way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.’”
Of course, as that piece of self-deprecating humor indicates, Mr. Churchill was not admired by all during his life, and his modern-day cult does not boast universal membership. He was a polarizing figure throughout his storied career. He frustrated any attempts to put him – or keep him – in any political box.
But the one thing that hindsight tells us is that he was the right man, at the right time, for the right job. And he knew it long before most others caught up to the idea. Patrick Buchanan reminds us that some remain enduringly behind that curve. Usually though, Churchill’s critics tend to be from the left side of the political spectrum. His status as a conservative icon is rarely challenged by insiders. This is one aspect of the book I found to be very disappointing.
Again, the reader has to bear in mind that Buchanan’s narrative of events in the first half of the 20th century is really a lengthy, thinly-veiled, and selectively-supported metaphor about modern day geopolitics. If that is understood, the book becomes slightly more benign.
Mr. Buchanan’s argument builds toward and flows from what he sees as the critical event in 1939 – Great Britain’s guarantee to defend Poland in the event of German attack. This, to the author, was the wrong thing to do and led to everything thereafter, from global war to the holocaust itself.
In other words, the world according to Pat would have been a happier place where Hitler would have stopped with Danzig, or maybe all of Poland – and of course, the Soviet Union thrown in, too. But he wouldn’t have moved west, vengeful and pathological fantasies about revisiting a certain train car at Compiègne, notwithstanding. Nope. The Maginot Line would have gone down in history as the great bastion of western democracy. There would be pilgrimages there instead of to places like Omaha Beach.
But as historian John Lukacs points out in his review of the book, Buchanan deals in half-truths, or what he calls things “partly true.” They have to do with Hitler’s ambitions and Churchill’s motivations. Lukacs also adds an age-old reminder from Thomas Aquinas that, “a half-truth is more dangerous than a lie.”
On a theoretical level most wars are, in fact, unnecessary. Hindsight can generally find long-lost moments of opportunity that could have been seized to avoid conflict. But some conflicts become inevitable – and that is very different.
It’s important to note, though, that Pat Buchanan is partly right about an unnecessary war in the 20th century. But it was the one that started in 1914. Many historians have recounted the mistakes and misjudgments that brought that horror to bear on the world. Buchanan tells that story effectively including, in fairness, the misjudgments of a much younger Winston Churchill.
But the unnecessary conflict of 1914-1918 led to the INEVITABLE conflict of 1939-1945. And a great case can still be made, Patrick Buchanan notwithstanding, that if Great Britain and France had not finally stood their ground on the issue of trying to defend Poland in 1939, much of Western Europe and maybe places closer to home would see a new generation of teen-age fast-food workers asking the revealing question: