I’m not a fan of Winston Churchill. The man had his virtues and did some good but he was also a militarist (of the type that romanticizes war as a grand adventure), an imperialist, a bungling administrator (Gallipoli being only the most famous of his many botched operations), a racist, and a militant supporter of ruling class interests. Still, reading Pat Buchanan’s new book Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World had the unexpected effect of creating in me some sympathy and affection for the old reprobate British bulldog.
I’ll have more to say about Churchill in some subsequent posts, but in the meantime, my initial take on Buchanan’s book can be found in this Guardian column.
Here is a slightly amended version of the article:
Challenging the Cult of Churchill
The cult of Winston Churchill, although strong among Anglo-American conservatives since the end of the second world war, flourished as never before in the United States after the attacks of 9/11. To show his resolve in the war on terror, President Bush asked the British embassy to supply him with a bronze bust of Churchill, which now comforts the commander-in-chief in the Oval Office. Republican leaders like Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani worship Churchill with a devotional intensity that would embarrass a medieval peasant on a pilgrimage.
These political figures pore over Churchillian anecdotes (some of which are as apocryphal as any saint’s tale) in search of wisdom and guidance, and take comfort in the stock phrases of the Churchill legend: the folly of Munich-like appeasement; never surrender; finest hour; blood, sweat and tears. For wartime leaders, the appeal of invoking Churchill is clear, especially if you accept the standard account of his career: he was a scorned Cassandra who accurately prophesied the dangers of Hitler, stood alone as leader against Nazi-occupied Europe in the lonely aftermath of the French defeat and ultimately led his country to a great victory. What leader wouldn’t want to be labelled the new Churchill?
This view of Churchill’s achievement has been so often reiterated that it seems self-evidently true, but Pat Buchanan, long a maverick on the American right and the publisher of the American Conservative, hopes to challenge it in his new book Churchill, Hitler and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World.
Churchill, Buchanan contends, was a disaster for western civilisation. Instead of fighting Hitler, Britain should have followed a policy of “dual containment” keeping out of Europe to let Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia fight among themselves. This policy would have allowed Britain to maintain its empire for generations to come, rather than become a shrivelled post-war welfare state at the margins of the European Union. In sum, Buchanan’s Churchill is an epic failure.
It’s easy to dismiss Buchanan as a crank. His alternative history scenario is built on the type of half-baked speculations that make scholars wary of counterfactual history: What if Napoleon hadn’t attacked Russia? What if Abraham Lincoln had allowed the South to secede? What if Superman had been a Nazi? These are questions for an undergraduate bull session or a pub argument, not serious scholarship.
Laughable as a historian, Buchanan is interesting as an ideological symptom. Buchanan’s thinking on this is hardly a personal eccentricity and reflects the larger worldview of the anti-communist right, both in the distant past and the present. If you listen to Bush and Cheney, Churchill worship seems like an inherit part of conservatism. But the fact is that both in the past and the present, many right-wingers have hated Churchill. Buchanan is both a throwback to an earlier conservatism and perhaps the harbinger of coming trends.
From 1939 to 1940 conservatives throughout the English-speaking world (ranging from Lord Halifax to Herbert Hoover to Robert Taft to HL Mencken to the very young William F Buckley Jr) thought that making war with Hitler was a mistake. They believed, as Buchanan still does, that Britain should have let Germany rule Europe and be a bulwark against communism, which would have allowed the English-speaking world to continue to dominate Africa and Asia. In 1940 Hoover, the former Republican president, was appalled that Churchill was unwilling to accept Hitler’s peace terms. The following year Robert Taft, like Hoover a Republican big-wig, said that he felt “very strongly that Hitler’s defeat is not vital to us”.
Buchanan grew up in an isolationist household, where Charles Lindberg was regarded as a hero for trying to keep America out of the second world war. As Buchanan recalled in his 1988 autobiography Right From the Beginning, his father agreed with the popular late 1930s American adage “Let Hitler and Stalin fight it out”. This sentiment still undergirds Buchanan’s thinking about the second world war.
The dividing line between Churchill and his conservative critics was Nazism and anti-communism. Churchill thought that Nazism was a greater evil than communism. His critics feared communism more, so much that they were willing to tolerate a Nazi-dominated Europe. But Buchanan isn’t just channelling long-dead isolationists. His new book also builds on the work of recent scholars, many of them British conservatives, who take a dim view of Churchill, seeing the roots of Britain’s post-war diminishment in his failed leadership.
As historian John Lukacs, a confirmed Churchill devotee, noted in his 1999 book Five Days in London, the 1980s and 1990s saw the emergence of a school of revisionist historians that included Maurice Cowling, David Reynolds, Sheila Lawlor and John Charmley. Although their works had different approaches and arguments, Lukacs saw them as united by a common theme: “that Churchill had no plan in May 1940 except to keep fighting, hoping that something might turn up (Micawber-like), though he hardly knew what and that Churchill’s obsessive hatred of Hitler may have blinded him, for had he accepted an accommodation with Hitler by 1941 at the latest, the Empire might have been saved.”
Although Buchanan is sometimes dismissed as an Anglophobe, he’s essentially popularising the works of these revisionist British scholars (most of who are conservative Thatcherites). In effect, Buchanan’s book fuses together two mutually contradictory strands of nationalist history. On the one hand, Buchanan frequently evokes the themes of traditional American isolationism, an Anglophobic tradition that argues that England suckered the United States into the two world wars. But on other occasions Buchanan rehearses the themes of English right-wing historians, an often anti-American tradition that contends that Churchill’s attachment to the “special relationship” with the United States led to a radical decrease in British power. Of course, both these intellectual traditions are flawed, but Buchanan’s attempt to combine the two together makes for a very incoherent brew.
The British revisionist school Buchanan relies on is often remarkably feckless. John Charmley, for example, wrote that defeating Nazism was “a great achievement, but it buttered no parsnips”. The moral problems of leaving Europe at the mercy of Hitler are obvious. But there is another weakness in this type of revisionism that is less often noticed. It’s absurd to think that the life of the British Empire could have been extended more than a decade or two. By the 1930s, you already had a full-fledged nationalist movement in India and embryonic stirrings throughout the empire. It’s inconceivable that Britain could have held on as a global power for much longer than it did in the real world. In a nutshell: the second world war was caused in part by Britain’s weakness; the war was not the cause of Britain’s weakness.
Because of the ridiculous way that Bush and Cheney use Churchill to lend a sheen to their own tawdry war policies, it’s tempting to search out an alternative view of the second world war. Alas, the strand of Churchill-bashing indulged in by Buchanan and his revisionist friends is as much a travesty of history as Bush’s invocation of Britain’s finest hour.