World War I had no heroic statesmen. The Emperor should have negotiated with Serbia. The Czar should never have mobilized. The Kaiser should have ignored the plan of the then-deceased General Schlieffen. The French were too vengeful. The President was both ignorant and naive. The British cynically added a million square miles to their empire.
World War II, on the other hand, immortalized at least a few, including FDR and, especially, Winston Churchill.
Why is this so? Because the revelation of the Holocaust provided an excellent ex post facto
reason for defeating Hitler. But, as Pat Buchanan argues in his new book, Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, World War II didn't have to be fought.
Part of the problem is that the Versailles ideal of "national self-determination" was rewarded to many peoples, but not the Germans. The British came to feel guilty about that, as well they should; Versailles was abominable. But they tepidly, and later fanatically, replaced their own self-interest with League of Nations idealism - and in so doing drove Mussolini out of anti-German alliance and straight into the arms of Hitler. Later, with their pride wounded, the British were determined to defeat Hitler without asking themselves if Hitler was actually a threat to them.
Hitler's pre-war tactics were brilliant. He asserted Germany's just claims while offering an olive branch. Through this he re-militarized the Rhineland, rebuilt the navy, and acquired Austria and the Sudetenland. Hitler's great blunders before the war were taking Prague, and Kristallnacht, humiliating Chamberlain and proving the beastly nature of his regime. But neither indicated aggressive designs against Britain and her neighbors across the Channel.
Chamberlain did not err at Munich, he erred when he came back to England to proclaim "Peace in our time." He should have called for re-armament and drawn the "line in the sand" at France and the Low Countries - not at Poland, a country Britain had no means of defending. Churchill was right to criticize Chamberlain, but wrong to believe that keeping the Sudetenland Germans in Czechoslovakia against their will was a good reason to fight the Reich.
Buchanan provides evidence that Chamberlain's foolish "war guarantee" to Poland may have been his way of gaining leverage with Poland to hand over the German city of Danzig; instead, it stiffened the necks of Poland's leaders and made them unwilling to negotiate. This shows how blanket public pronouncement can undo or prevent a lot of diplomacy. Hitler signed the Hitler-Stalin pact dividing Poland as a way of telling Britain that war was hopeless, and was amazed when Britain declared war anyway.
And because Britain and France did declare war to "protect" a far-away country they couldn't defend, Britain lost France, the Low Countries, and most of Scandinavia. (Churchill had planned to violate Norway's neutrality before Hitler beat him to it.) Even then, Churchill could have come to terms with Hitler in 1940 and kept the British Empire intact.
By preventing the war in 1939, Chamberlain would have saved the Jews of Western Europe and remained a World Power. By agreeing to peace in 1940, Churchill would have preserved his Empire and allowed Germany to fortify in the East.
Unable to knock out Britain or invade, Hitler assumed the Churchill was waiting for Russia to enter the war on Britain's side. Hitler's goal was to smash Russia in five months in 1941 to gain the resources to continue the war and again try to persuade Britain that victory was hopeless. (Elsewhere I have learned that Stalin was probably planning to attack Germany later in 1941
, so there is some vindication in Hitler's decision to invade "pre-emptively.")
Buchanan states that Churchill either helped make the key decisions - or cheered them - in every key strategic and diplomatic blunder Great Britain made from the eve of World War I through, obviously, World War II. Among them:
- Several misguided battles and maneuvers in both wars.
- Deterioration of the Royal Navy began when Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer (in charge of the budget) in the 1920's.
- Naively believing Britain and the U.S. had a "special relationship" with the U.S.; by war's end, however, Britain was more of a dependency of the U.S. rather than a partner with it. FDR and his successors were glad to see the Empire fall apart.
- As First Lord of the Admiralty in WWI, Churchill initiated a "starvation blockade" against the German civilian population, a war crime that also violated Freedom of the Seas. And as Prime Minister he again committed war crimes by introducing civilian terror bombing as a war tactic. These tore away at the fabric of the Christian West.
- Churchill despised Bolshevism and admired Mussolini and Hitler early on; his later obsession with knocking Hitler out drove him to appease Stalin - giving him half of Europe and signing on to ethnic cleansing campaigns that killed two million Germans.
A Holocaust may have happened anyway; Britain's war guarantee meant it would also swallow up Western European Jews. A Hitler-Stalin confrontation may have been inevitable; Churchill determined that it would come sooner rather than later - with the UK and USA aiding the bloodiest dictator in history.
Buchanan wrote the book because the of Churchill Cult that exists in the United States. While fighting evil is admirable, destroying our own country's prosperity and strategic position to fight "enemies" who pose no threat to us and want no war with us is not. The would-be Churchills of the U.S. - President Bush first among them - appear more concerned about how history will look upon their own courage and heroism, but have little regard for the lives and welfare of the people they are supposed to govern.
And I would add one point I believe Buchanan leaves out: Churchillian means violated the rules of war, and today's would-be Churchills seem intent on doing the same thing. After all, if it's okay to let hundreds of thousands die of starvation and disease through a blockade, what's the big deal about spying on people without warrants? If fire-bombing civilians is "necessary" to win a war, why is torture out of the question? If it is okay to appease and reward aggressors like Stalin, what so bad about invading and occupying foreign countries ourselves?
The Churchillian "end" of destroying the latest "Hitler-of-the-month" like Milosevic or Saddam will bring about our country's ruin, but the Churchillian, barbaric means we use to achieve those ends will destroy our very souls.