[This book review article is scheduled to be published in the Winter 2008 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies.]





Understanding the West’s Self-Immolating Follies: Buchanan and the World Wars

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University, retired



Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War:

How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World

Patrick J. Buchanan

Crown Publishers, 2008


            With this analysis of what he correctly sees as the Pyrrhic victories won by Britain and its allies in World Wars I and II, Patrick Buchanan has added once again to his many writings that have challenged the unquestioned, though superficial, truisms that make up the conventional wisdom in the United States.  We have reviewed most of his books as they have appeared, and each deserves serious consideration by those who will move themselves to read the works of scholars whose independence and intelligence allow them to speak genuinely.  In this book, Buchanan examines in detail the long and tortuous path that during almost half a century led Britain, France and the United States into nominal victories in the World Wars while an overriding need—the preservation of Western civilization—was ill-served.

            The points Buchanan makes in tracing those follies have already been examined by many historians.  Why, then, this book?  Its value is two-fold.  First, it brings the discussion of the Wars’ causes and consequences together into one easily readable volume and by doing so will hopefully add another step toward the gradual reconsideration of the template by which most of the public understands the Wars.  Second, Buchanan has looked to the past for a lesson about the folly of the post-Cold War American drive for “world hegemony.”  He  knows that to learn from history Americans will need to understand the world very differently than most of them now do.    His objective is worthwhile, but unfortunately it would have a better chance of succeeding if the American educational system had created a significant population of serious readers who would read such a book.

            To understand the place this book occupies in the now long-running discussion of the World Wars, it is worth thinking about, for want of a better term, the “stratified geology” that exists in connection with the examination of many serious subjects.  The surface stratum consists of the “conventional wisdom” embraced by most people.  Buried beneath that is a stratum of serious scholarship which differs substantially from the conventional understanding but which, though done by well-thought-of scholars, is ignored by most people and hardly causes any disturbance in the conventional view, at least in the short and medium terms.  And then, down deeper, there are scholars of considerable courage and independence whose work, no matter how thorough and conscientious, is suppressed as taboo. 

            In keeping with this, the conventional wisdom about the World Wars is that the Allies (Britain and those associated with her) won each war, beating back forces of evil and giving mankind a new lease on life.  Although several sources contribute to this, it is in large part the legacy of wartime propaganda, which seems to persist long after a substantial literature has exposed its superficiality.  At the next level—the second stratum—, there are the thinkers such as Buchanan who exercise considerable independence from the conventional wisdom, putting themselves at odds with that settled body of opinion.    This requires no small courage, since it is something most people shrink from doing.  At the same time, Buchanan and others on that second level show such discretion as is needed to stay within the bounds of “acceptable” discussion.  We need to appreciate that there is considerable value in thinkers on this second level remaining respectable, since if they move to the third level, the one that involves being excoriated as taboo, their analyses will be considered only to be denounced.

            We would be remiss, however, if we did not consider the third level.  This involves the scholars whose courage and devotion to truth exceed even those in the second stratum.  In the context of the subjects discussed by Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, it is astonishing—or at least should be—that so preeminent an historian as David Irving—conscientious, exhaustive in his research into original sources, mentally independent, and possessing a courage that has seen him go to prison for his scholarship—has been relegated to taboo status on the pretense that what he has written is “hate literature.”  Among his other books, Irving is the author of Churchill’s War[1] and Hitler’s War,[2] which cover much the same ground as Buchanan.  It is consistent with the “geological stratification” we have described that Buchanan has neither mentioned Irving in the text, cited his books, nor listed him in the bibliography.  As we say, there is value in Buchanan’s not causing himself to be tarred with the same brush as Irving, so we by no means fault him for the omission.  It is the task of a reviewer, however, to provide the larger picture when there is one.  And Irving definitely deserves a place in that panorama.

            So, too, do a number of other authors, although we are hard pressed to say in any individual case which stratum the author fits into, the second or the third.  One of these is Frederick J. P. Veale, whose classic Advance to Barbarism: The Development of Total Warfare places the enormities of the World Wars in long-term historical perspective.[3]  Hanson W. Baldwin’s Great Mistakes of the War[4] is important.  Thomas Fleming’s The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I[5] considers the folly of American intervention into that war.  James Bacque’s Other Losses[6] and Crimes and Mercies[7] describe little-known horrors that occurred under the Allied occupation after World War II.  Freda Utley and Nikolai Tolstoy have added independent and courageous histories. All of these deserve the attention of the reader, but of course there are many others.


            In Advance to Barbarism, Frederick J. P. Veale looks back far enough to see that Europe has gone through a series of civil wars.  He considers World Wars I and II “civil wars number 8a and 8b,” linking them together as one war with two parts.  “So closely interlocked are the First and Second World Wars that it seems likely that future historians will regard them as merely episodes of the same struggle.”[8]

            Buchanan sees them in the same light.  And, with Veale, he sees them as tragedies that wiser leadership would have avoided.  This leads him to analyze in detail many of the more crucial decisions that had to be made, by one nation or another, from 1914 through 1945.  We can’t hope to recap that detail here; if readers are to feast at that table, they must go to the book itself.  (Doing so will be necessary, too, if one is to go beyond the many omissions that are inherent in the brief overviews we will be giving.) 

            Because his concern is primarily on what might have been done to preserve the West, Buchanan focuses most on Britain’s follies, especially as they stemmed from the bellicosity of the irrepressible Winston Churchill.   “In the twin catastrophes of Western civilization, World Wars I and II, Britain was the indispensable nation and Churchill an indispensable man.”  Buchanan’s main message: That each war could have stayed limited to eastern and central Europe if Britain had not insisted on participating, in each case pulling the war to the west and at the same time making it a “world war.”

            Britain traditionally followed a strategy of seeking a European balance of power, but Lord Salisbury, who was three times prime minister in the late nineteenth century, preferred a policy of “splendid isolation,” which he considered “less dangerous than the danger of being dragged into wars which do not concern us.”  Britain, with its command of the seas and worldwide colonial empire, could remain detached from the internecine quarrels that bedeviled the mainland.  Early in the twentieth century, however, Foreign Secretary Edward Grey abandoned this policy, reverting to the involvement inherent in a “balance of power” strategy and striking up a secret alliance with France.  Buchanan says that “Grey and Churchill” (who he says was joyous at the prospect of war) “without the approval of Parliament, had committed her to go to war for France.”  The upshot was that, despite the reluctance of other leaders, Britain declared war on Germany in 1914 even though it would much better have served its interests to have stayed out.  Although Buchanan doesn’t address the eventual American intervention, we know that Britain ultimately succeeded in bringing in the United States, thereby preventing a stalemate that might in turn have prevented the vengeful peace of Versailles that created the seedbed for World War II.

            Buchanan makes the point that the “moral high ground” staked out by Britain through its claimed outrage over the German violation of Belgian neutrality—a putatively moral enormity used as the pretense for going to war and as the basis of much wartime propaganda—was pure hypocrisy, not the least because Churchill’s war plans involved Britain’s own violation of Belgian neutrality.  Thomas Fleming, in his The Illusion of Victory, adds that “Belgium was about as neutral as Scotland.  The Belgian government had secret understandings with France and England.”[9]

            In both world wars, Britain counted heavily on bringing in the United States.  At the beginning of the first war, Britain cut Germany’s undersea cables, which resulted in Americans’ hearing only the British and French side of the story for the duration of the war.  Propaganda, hyperbole and moral posturing played a fateful role, with the Kaiser and Germany successfully painted by British and French propaganda as monsters seeking to dominate the world.  This was a false picture (despite stupidities of arrogance and saber-rattling on the Kaiser’s part).  All his life, Buchanan points out, the Kaiser had sought an alliance with Britain; and at the last minute in late July 1914 was “desperately trying to avert the war.”

            It appears to us from the history Buchanan recounts that in the aftermath of the 1914-1918 war, the victorious allies essentially had three choices: (a) to make a magnanimous peace that would point toward a long period of good relations within Europe; (b) to strike a vengeful peace reflecting the passions of the war, and then to keep Germany tightly under the Allies’ thumbs, preventing an angry German resurgence; (c) or to do neither, alternating indecisively between the first two.  What happened was that the Allies started with the vengeful peace and then, torn by war-weariness and a guilty conscience, moved to the indecisive third alternative.  This combination provoked, and then allowed, the eventual rise of Hitler.

            When the Germans surrendered in late 1918, they relied on the assurance that the peace would be based on Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points.”  It is interesting that  Veale points out that at the end of the Napoleonic Wars “the moderation of the victors in 1815 appears [to have been]… superhuman… France was neither penalised nor humiliated.”  And at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the 1871 peace, though not perfect, was satisfactory enough to last for 43 years, “a period longer than any in the history of Europe.”[10] 

            It was a different story in 1919.  Britain continued its starvation blockade of Germany long past the armistice on November 11, 1918, indeed until July 12, 1919.  In a White Paper, the British put the number of German dead from the blockade at nearly 800,000.  Buchanan tells us that as First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was the “architect and chief advocate” of the blockade.  We won’t go into the extensive details of the Treaty of Versailles here; it suffices to say that it was a “peace” that was fashioned in the spirit of the blockade and that repudiated Wilson’s earlier assurances.  It catches the essence of it to recall that when Lady Astor was asked “where was Hitler born?” her answer was “at Versailles.”  Among the reasons Buchanan points out for this spawning of Hitler was that when the German democrats were forced to sign the Treaty, admitting to sole German fault for the war (an admission that rang false with the German people, who considered it atrocious), that very act alone “discredited German democracy at its birth,” assuring the eventual failure of the Weimar Republic.

            And so it was that the victors started out with their vengeful peace.  This implied an imperative of continuing vigilance to hold Germany down.  For quite understandable reasons, Britain and France lacked the will, over time, to do this.  They could have worked to correct the grievances caused by Versailles before Hitler took power, and doing so might have prevented his ascendancy.  Or they could have joined in crushing Hitler in March 1936 when he reoccupied the Rhineland.  They did neither.  Hitler pursued his own rectification, in a series of alarming steps bringing into Germany several fragments of the German people; and it seemed to Prime Minister Chamberlain, as the reason for the Munich settlement, that Hitler would make no further territorial demands beyond those.  When, however, Hitler moved beyond the Sudetenland to seize the rest of Czechoslovakia (albeit Poland took a share, too), Hitler crossed, in effect, his own Rubicon, his aggressive intentions (at least toward the east) unveiled.

            Churchill had all along thought of Hitler as “striding for world mastery.”  Calling for “drawing a line in the sand” against Hitler, he denounced the accommodation of Hitler at Munich in September 1938.  At this point, we reach a fateful turning point that is central to Buchanan’s analysis.  To Churchill, the defeat of Hitler was worth any price.   The price included a willingness to strike up an alliance with Stalin (without which there was no chance of defeating Hitler in the east); a resort to the World War II British air strategy of terror-bombing civilian centers (something that was not, contrary to common belief, initiated by Hitler); and even the eventual loss to Britain of its empire.  This meant that Churchill, who followed Chamberlain as Prime Minister, was not willing to allow Germany to move militarily only toward the east.  It was Churchill who insisted on bringing the war to the west, involving France, Britain and eventually the United States. When Chamberlain, with Churchill’s enthusiastic blessing, made Britain’s “war guarantee” to Poland (whose defense Britain could not possibly hope to effect), the line had been drawn. 

            Buchanan cites evidence that Hitler did not want to destroy Britain or her empire.  On several occasions, Hitler sought peace with Britain.  One of these occurred when he waited a week after the Hitler-Stalin Pact to launch his attack on Poland, so that he could seek peace with Britain.  Another was immediately following that attack, when he offered peace to Britain and France.  Still another was in July 1940 after his successful invasion of France.  (Oddly, Buchanan does not speak of Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland in May 1941 on his historic quest for peace with Britain.)

            The alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union was delayed, of course, by the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which lasted until Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941.  Churchill’s World War II strategy counted on Stalin’s being an ally, and in fact Churchill developed a liking for and confidence in Stalin.  This, of course, was a moral travesty, since in 1941 Stalin had long-since established a record as by far the worse butcher as between himself and Hitler.  The unholy alliance led to unimaginable horrors in the aftermath of the war.

            By way of mitigation of Churchill’s role in allowing the Soviet domination of east and central Europe at the end of the war after the Red Army moved into the areas east of the Trieste-Stettin line, it would have been well for Buchanan to have considered Churchill’s (and his military advisers’) role in relation to one of the principal strategic decisions of the war.  According to Hanson Baldwin, the British advocated “a jump eastward into the Balkans” instead of the Normandy invasion of France.  An invasion through the “soft underbelly” of Europe would have allowed the British and American forces to reach central Europe ahead of the Red Army, preempting its loss to Communism.  The British were forced to acquiesce in the Normandy invasion at the Quebec and Teheran conferences in August and November 1943, overridden by Roosevelt and Stalin.  Even then, the British persisted; after the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, Churchill “made his final efforts to influence the future fate of the world.”  He wanted an invasion through the Adriatic and the Ljubljana Gap into Austria instead of a second invasion of France on its southern coast.  This was a strategy that U.S. General Mark Clark, commander of the U.S. forces in Italy, thought sound.[11]  When Roosevelt sided with Stalin in opposing even this fall-back invasion of the Balkans, one of the great opportunities to prevent a Communization of half of Europe was lost.  Without a discussion of all this, there is an incomplete basis for an assessment of Churchill’s role in World War II.  

            Be that as it may, at this point, the reader will need to decide for himself the answer to the question Buchanan’s thesis poses.  Would it best have served the interests of Britain, France and the West to have made peace with Hitler when it was possible to do so, allowing the war to flow to the east as a titanic struggle between Germany and the Soviet Union (while arming themselves in case Hitler at some point reneged on such a peace by turning on the west)?  Or was Churchill right in considering Hitler so evil and dangerous that it was worth any price to defeat him?

            Discussing World War II, an American television commentator remarked recently  to the effect that “everyone acknowledges that Hitler was the overriding danger and had to be brought down.”  The historian John Lukacs has argued along these lines in his negative critique of Buchanan’s book in The American Conservative’s issue of June 2, 2008 (a surprising venue for such a critique).  Lukacs in effect joins those who argue the “uniqueness” of Nazi evil.  “There is—and there ought to be—no comparison here.  Germany was part and parcel of European culture, civilization, and tradition.  Russia was not... German National Socialist brutality was unprecedented. Russian brutality was not.”

            This invokes a grading of evil based on the perpetrator’s level of culture.  Such a grading is no doubt an interesting question in moral theory, but its relevance to what was in the interests of Britain and the West isn’t apparent.  Entering into the war and allying with the Soviet Union proved, quite foreseeably, to be a disaster.  Herbert Hoover, we recall, warned in June 1941 what the alliance of the Allies with Stalin would mean: “If… we join the war and we win, then we have won for Stalin the grip of Communism on Russia and more opportunity for it to extend in the world.”[12]  We started this review by referring to the success in each of the world wars as “Pyrrhic victories” (i.e., military victories whose effects were so disastrous to the winners that it becomes ironic to speak of them as victories).   The costs included (but only as a partial list, since there was much more besides) Britain’s being reduced to a second-rate power; losing her empire; utterly failing to carry out her stated but impossible objective of protecting Poland (which was initially seized in part by Hitler and in part by Stalin, and in the final weeks of the war by the Red Army, placing Poland behind the Iron Curtain for several decades with Churchill’s acquiescence); and seeing Eastern Europe, the Baltics and the Balkans join Poland as captive peoples.

            Like an earthquake with many aftershocks, the Pyrrhic victory in World War II has continued to have seismic effects to this day.  We can count among them the Cold War, Mao’s takeover in China, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the genocide in Cambodia, and the misbegotten marriage of the many Third World “wars of national liberation” with Communism.  In recent years, an even bigger cloud has appeared: the loss of the West’s will to survive (ironically at the same time that the United States, which has the same suicidal disposition, has presumed to assert an American hegemony), marked by its acquiescence in a vast demographic invasion that is rapidly transforming it from a European civilization.  Further, the world’s “peoples of color” stepped to center stage, prompting a profound change in “point of view.”  This latter is an earthquake of its own with untold implications, shifting the mental ground upon which people stand, even in Europe and America and even as to their own domestic issues.  The world is now perceived from the perspective of non-Europeans; and it is they, not Europeans, who are acknowledged, again even by Europeans and Americans themselves, to occupy the moral high ground.  It is no wonder that historian Walter Laqueur has thought it necessary to title a book The Last Days of the West.


            A concern over all of these things would have been enough in itself to justify Buchanan’s book.  In his final chapter, however, he spells out his second purpose.  He points to the folly of America’s post-1991 overextension as the United States has sought to create a “New World Order” based on “a Wilsonian ideology of democratic fundamentalism.”  Few in the United States question whether their country should be the social worker and policeman of the world.  Not “a sparrow falls” anywhere in the world without most Americans feeling that the United States should make it its business, even though mostly they don’t bother to understand the complexities of what is really quite a variegated world.  (A good example is the “do something about Darfur” impulse, which is combined with an almost total ignorance about Darfur.[13])  Buchanan’s is one of the few voices warning about the dangers and presumptuousness of this global interventionism. 

            At first blush, it may seem that Buchanan’s analogy comparing U.S. and British delusions is strained.  It wasn’t, after all, British overextension through its worldwide colonialism that constituted the gravamen of its folly in the world wars, so the comparison with American overextension doesn’t seem to hold.  There is certainly danger and presumption in the United States’ pretensions, but that isn’t where the comparison with Britain really arises.  Just the same, Buchanan’s warning about American folly is well taken on other grounds.  He points out how the George W. Bush administration seized upon 9/11 to justify the invasion of Iraq, much as Britain used the Kaiser’s violation of Belgian neutrality as a pretext for war.  He compares the war guarantee to Poland with the United States’ and NATO’s present impracticable desire to stand by the defense of the Baltic Republics, six erstwhile Warsaw Pact nations, Ukraine and Georgia.  These are trip-wires to war in matters, Buchanan says, that are not within the vital national interests of the United States.  So also is the United States’ declaration that it won’t permit a challenge to its dominance on any continent (a declaration so puffed up in its arrogance and so impossible to implement successfully that it seems to dwarf the British policy of “balance of power,” to which Buchanan compares it).  He adds that the United States’ recent pugnacity toward Russia is unnecessarily pushing that country into the arms of China, just as, he says, British policy drove Japan and Italy into an embrace with Hitler.  When all of these things are considered, it is hubris, arrogance, short-sightedness and bellicosity that form Buchanan’s truest analogy.                        

            There is much more that could be said, but we will conclude with just a few unrelated points.  One of these is to observe that Buchanan’s history is a story of “decisions at the top” by leading decision-makers.  It would have detracted from his account to have attempted to describe the vast subterranean social forces that had long been at work creating the pressure-cooker that exploded into the thirty-year civil war.  Julien Benda’s description in his famous la trahison des clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals) of the myriad blood-and-thunder illiberal diatribes in nineteenth century European thought would be relevant.  So, too, would be the rise in the nineteenth century of Left- and Right-wing Hegelianism, with Marxism an example of the first and the German Volkish movement an example of the second.  Concurrently with these was the rise of the gigantic modern nation-state, with populations and economies that dwarfed those of earlier times.  In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy made the point that statesmen and generals are merely bubbles that ride on the waves of vast social forces.  Buchanan’s detailed history serves well to show that Tolstoy overstated his case, since the decisions of leaders do count for much; but this is not to say that the forces to which we have referred were not also of central importance.  They are worth noting, even though Buchanan could not have devoted space to them.

            Another part of the context that Buchanan necessarily did not have space for can be found in Veale’s Advance to Barbarism, which among other things traces the late-17th century consensus among European nations in favor of certain “Rules of Civilized Warfare” which by restricting hostilities to the military forces barred warfare against civilians, and agreed that prisoners of war would be humanely treated.  Veale shows how this consensus was destroyed by a series of actions (of which the depredations of Generals Sherman and Sheridan as part of President Lincoln’s strategy in the American Civil War were a part).  One of the more significant steps was taken by the British with its starvation blockade during and after World War I.  Another came in the 1920s: “The conception of terror bombing can be traced back to as early as the 1920s when Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard recommended the construction of large, long-range bombers designed for attacks on the civilian population of an enemy.”  Trenchard’s “novel recipe for victory,” Veale says, was to “bomb the enemy civilian population until they surrender.”[14]  The philosophy of winning at any cost led the Allies to carry out some of the most barbaric warfare in the history of the world.  This included the incineration of Hamburg, Dresden and countless other German cities, and the American fire-bombing of Tokyo and nuclear strikes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

            Much of the problem was that war had ceased to be a struggle for limited objectives, but reverted instead to an existential fight to the death.  Genocidal war had long been a part of human history, but it had been mitigated considerably among Europeans by the Rules of Civilized Warfare.  The Napoleonic wars and the World Wars were not, as before, conflicts between the armies of contending aristocracies, but had become “Peoples’ Wars,” representing a “democratization” (of sorts) of war.  This gave rise, Veale says, to “the modern science of emotional engineering” by which mass psychology was manipulated by propaganda to see an enemy as evil incarnate.  (Interestingly, Veale says that war since the advent of the nuclear age has evolved beyond this into war by highly trained specialists, who “do not need to be inflamed by mendacious hate-propaganda.”[15]  Veale’s observation may have been unduly influenced, though, by the conventional military face-offs that came to be seen as the normal form of warfare by military planners in the late twentieth century.  He would probably agree that it applies much less to the asymmetrical struggle between the West and Islamism.)

            We will close by touching on a point that we have not had occasion to mention thus far, but that is suggested by the context of this article.  It is that war crimes trials conducted by victors are a mockery of the “rule of law,” especially since they are dressed up in the forms of law.  Nothing seems clearer than that if the fortunes of war had gone the other way, the Axis powers would have had occasion, if they had chosen to do so, to hang a good many Allied leaders.  When violations of international law are committed on all sides, there is no such thing as impartiality in the bringing of charges and in their eventual disposition.  To say this is not to exculpate the Nazis or the Japanese war party (or, more recently, Saddam Hussein), but it does remind us that such trials are themselves a violation of civilized norms.  If the “rule of law” is really to be pursued in the aftermath of war, what it requires is that judges be selected from neutral countries and that prosecutions be brought not just against the losers but against the victors, as well, where that fits.  Such a day will never come.


Dwight D. Murphey is the associate editor of this Journal.  He is a retired attorney and professor at Wichita State University, and the author of a number of books, articles and book reviews, all of which may be found at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info  He writes frequently for the Journal.  As with any of our authors, he expresses views that are his own and that for that reason are not official statements of  position on behalf of the Journal.            

[1]  David Irving, Churchill’s War (New York: Avon Books, 1987).

[2]  David Irving, Hitler’s War (New York: Avon Books, 1990).

[3]  Frederick J. P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism: The Development of Total Warfare (Institute for Historical Review, 1948, 1993).

[4]  Hanson W. Baldwin, Great Mistakes of the War (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1949, 1950).

[5]  Thomas Fleming, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

[6]  James Bacque, Other Losses (Prima Pub, 1992).

[7]  James Bacque, Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians Under Allied Occupation 1944-1950 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, Canada, Limited, 1997).

[8]  Veale, Advance to Barbarism, pp. 84-6, 161.

[9]  Fleming, The Illusion of Victory, p. 50.

[10]  Veale, Advance to Barbarism, pp. 116, 127.

[11]  Baldwin, Great Mistakes of the War, pp. 29, 34-5, 38, 43-4.

[12]  Herbert Hoover, Addresses Upon the American Road, 1940-1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), p. 95.

[13]  See this reviewer’s article on Darfur in the Summer 2008 issue of this Journal.

[14]  Veale, Advance to Barbarism,  pp. 30, 15.

[15]   Veale, Advance to Barbarism, pp. 111, 113, 354.