One can be very lucky in one's political opponents. Geoffrey Wheatcroft may be an ardent foe of Tony Blair and a blushing admirer of Ron Paul and, as one of his compatriots likes to phrase it, a "bleeding Tory" to boot, but he is always worth reading on pretty much anything. (His Times piece on the origins of Israel and the intellectual distinctions among 20th century Zionists was one of the finest specimens of its type.) So it was with great pleasure that I just finished his short but potent essay in the New York Review of Books on the cult of Winston Churchill. Actually, "cult" is going too far because two of the authors under discussion in this collective review are admirers of the Last Lion -- John Lukacs and Lynne Olson. The first provides a book-length exegesis and commentary on Churchill's "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat" speech, the inaugural address he delivered as prime minister on May 13, 1940, just three days after the Nazis entered France. The second writes of the "troublesome young men," or rebel Tories (not so bleeding after all) who undercut Chamberlain in Parliament by voting against him and thereby faciliated Churchill's ascendancy, not to say bore minority witness to an event that in hindsight has made them all look delphic.
But the other two authors under review are the real trouble: Nicholson Baker and Pat Buchanan, both of whom argue against the legitimacy, necessity, and "goodness" of World War II and believe either that a cosmos of moral equivalence existed between the Allies and the Axis powers (this is Baker's pacifist claim in the bestselling Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II and the End of Civilization), or that Hitler was more victim than aggressor and was only cajoled into exterminating six million Jews because Churchill and Roosevelt decided to challenge him and did so, moreover, by joining with Stalinist Russia (this is Buchanan's isolationist and Spenglerian claim in Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War": How Britain Lost the Empire and the West Lost the World).
A blog post is not the medium for addressing the many and deep historiographical and moral failings of either thesis, nor can a single essay do full justice to the task. Wheatcroft is more restrained in his criticism of Baker and Buchanan than others have been (see especially Anne Applebaum's excellent review of Human Smoke in the New Republic, which does us the added favor of comparing Baker's style to that of bloggers and the online populist storehouse of knowledge known as Wikipedia). Though one observation bears reprinting:
Whether or not one follows Buchanan's apocalyptic vision of the West in terminal decline—like other conservatives, he doesn't seem to have noticed that communism has been routed—it is of course true that World War II led to the cold war and the forty-year subjection of Eastern Europe. But then much of what he is saying was said more concisely by A.J.P. Taylor long ago, in a throwaway line glossing the very speech that is Lukacs's main text, and the one phrase "victory at all costs." Taylor writes:This was exactly what the opponents of Churchill had feared, and even he hardly foresaw all that was involved. Victory, even if this meant placing the British empire in pawn to the United States; victory, even if it meant Soviet domination of Europe; victory at all costs.
Here was the nub of the problem. To defeat Hitler meant paying a very heavy political price, and meant waging war, when there seemed no other way in 1940–1941, with methods which would have seemed atrocious not long before. "At all costs" for Churchill also meant the ruthless bombing of German and Japanese cities and the killing of their civilian inhabitants. Nothing is more chilling in Human Smoke than Churchill's language about this, especially since, as Baker puts it, Churchill saw bombing in pedagogic terms:Let them have a good dose where it will hurt them most.... It is time that the Germans should be made to suffer in their own homelands and cities.... The burning of Japanese cities by incendiary bombs [will bring home their errors] in a most effective way.
Why, it might almost be Hillary Clinton threatening "to totally obliterate" a distant country.
I can recall Robert Conquest noting the grim irony of the cancellation of the war charter after Poland was not so much handed to Stalin on a platter as it was simply left there for him to take. But then, Conquest, like A.J.P. Taylor from the opposing ideological direction, has more than earned the right to point this out without sounding feverish or like he was peddling the kind of agenda one can download off the Internet. As for Wheatcroft, "chilling" is the right word -- not euphemistic or hyperbolic -- to describe Churchill's comment. Yet his bloody-mindedness fails to rattle the humanist instinct quite as much as it might otherwise have done when one realizes that these words were spoken after London had been subjected to a year of brutal aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe, which killed approximately 43,000 British civilians. Here were the English being made to suffer in their own homeland and city and by a regime that largely kept score on the basis of how many innocents and noncombatants could be vaporized.
Though Wheatcroft doesn't mention it, the prelude to Churchill's dark prescription was that he should like to mete out "the measure, and more than the measure, that they have meted out to us," which is certainly "pedagogic" in one way but also less calculated in another. It is vengeful. However much war policy should not be determined by so low a motive, who among history's crop of statesmen or wartime leaders would be expected not to want to hit back just as hard, if not harder, than they have been hit? And would we desire any such person to be even remotely in reach of the reins of power? (Wheatcroft's joke at Hillary Clinton's expense is also at his own since her maid of Saragossa militancy still allowed her to nearly get away with earning her party's nomination.)
Nicholson Baker is a pacifist and therefore believes war is never justified. His principles have made his tract tone-deaf, voulu, and slightly creepy -- but also, in its way, harmless. Even the untutored student of World War II can decide for himself, according to the in situ examples he provides, just how much there really was to choose between Hitler and Churchill. Baker's is the kind of sham argument, in other words, that doesn't improve by collecting evidence "out of context."
But Buchanan's cards are all showing, and they have been for years. He's made it his life's work to undo the established wisdom of the climactic event of the twentieth century and to offer this "alternative" history of the hot war against totalitarianism from the perspective of the lonely little America Firster who has been as hounded and excluded from the great debate as Germany was at Versailles in 1919. He'll find he's still got his work cut out for him. Some things are true and right even if every schoolboy has been taught to believe they are, and history to the defeated revisionists may say alas, but cannot help or pardon.