[This review appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Summer 2000, pp. 253-6.]
A Republic, Not an Empire
Patrick J. Buchanan
Regnery Publishing, Inc. 1999
There is no more thoughtful individual in American public life than Patrick J. Buchanan. His two recent books, The Great Betrayal about economic policy and A Republic, Not an Empire about the history of American foreign policy with regard to interventions abroad and about the dangers of America's over-commitment in the world today are certainly among the most insightful and provocative books ever written by anyone in American public life.
Such an observation may surprise those who have the widely-held image of Buchanan as a redneck know-nothing. That is an image compounded out of at least four unfortunate features in contemporary life:
. that the outlook of the predominant literary-intellectual world has for over a century been very reluctant to acknowledge that genuinely intellectual work can be done on the Right. This is a prejudice, to be sure; and it tends to denigrate anything said by a conservative analyst. . that someone who expresses thoughts that violate the taboos of "political correctness" is today automatically relegated to the dust-bin as not worth considering.
. that most Americans outside the literary-intellectual subculture don't read serious books or otherwise devote themselves to more than a cursory examination of serious subjects, both out of disinclination and because they are too busy.
. and, finally, that most opinion held (from virtually all points of view) in the United States is embraced by its devotees as an article of faith. This leaves little room for serious thinkers, who want to think things through afresh.
Patrick Buchanan needs, perhaps, no introduction. He was a senior White House adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan; has long been a political commentator, syndicated columnist and television panelist; is the author of four books; and is now making his third run for the presidency, for which he recently moved to the Reform Party.
A Republic, Not an Empire devotes several chapters to a readable review of American foreign policy going back to Washington's first administration. Its scholarship, grasp of essential facts, and easy readability make it ideal for use in home-schooling or simply for anyone who wants a fine primer on a central feature of American history. A major advantage over most other works is that Buchanan, as an independent thinker, sees many things that orthodox histories prefer to slide over. (An example is his simple observation that the British-American blockade of Germany was continued for many months after the armistice in November 1918, causing hundreds of thousands to starve. The importance of such a fact, which others usually won't even mention in a footnote, is that it, in combination with a number of other things, set the stage for Hitler in Germany).
More than anything, however, the book is valuable both for its broad themes and its specific ideas. Its leading theme is that the United States, while certainly not "isolationist" in any true sense, managed to eschew interventionism in the affairs of other countries from the founding of the country in 1789 until finally the country lurched into imperialism in 1898. Even though the public soon became disenchanted with imperialism itself, the impulse toward interventionist overreach was a major feature of America's relation with other countries in the twentieth century. Often this impulse has come from a globalist idealism that has sought to set the world straight along the lines of democracy, free trade and of pressure toward world government. Other times, it has stemmed from a unilateralist sense of America's hegemonic power and influence, whereby American superpower status would itself work wonders. Buchanan sees the interventionism as fraught with danger, and calls instead for an "enlightened nationalism" that will assess what is truly in America's "vital interest" (things people are willing to die for) and intervene only with regard to them, quite deliberately staying out of everything else. Among many other grounds for objection to rampant interventionism, he mentions that in an age of growing potential for nuclear, biological and chemical terrorism it invites national tragedy to make oneself feared and despised by the upholders of other nations and cultures all over the world. The United States, he argues, can cut down on that fear by minding its own business, and satisfying itself with being an example to the world of how a free society works.
A second theme has to do with maintaining American sovereignty as against the constant pressure to subordinate sovereignty to the institutions of an incipient world government. Buchanan is too much of a realist to think the world is constituted in such a way that American lives and fortunes and liberties can safely be subordinated to externally-made decisions.
His two main themes themselves, accordingly, run counter to today's respectable opinion; i.e., the opinion held by America's and the "world community's" dominant opinion-forming elite. That would be enough to cause a pointing with alarm. A delightful thing about the book, though, is that it contains many specific nuggets of insight that are also as provocative as the main themes. Buchanan is relentlessly honest, although there is no tone of having a chip on his shoulder. (In the Gresham's Law of intellect and of politics, by virtue of which those who tell others what they want to hear rather than what is clearly true will be the ones who are most acclaimed, this almost certainly means that Buchanan is doing a "most impolitic" thing for anyone who aspires to political success. If Buchanan is serious about wanting to become president, he shouldn't be writing thoughtful books.)
Can you believe it? Even after William F. Buckley wrote his long and fanciful essay a few years ago about Buchanan's supposed "anti-Semitism," Buchanan remains unbowed and is willing to broach the subject of Jewish and Israeli influence in American foreign policy. Surely that influence is a legitimate subject for discussion, and certainly doesn't justify a charge of anti-Semitism; but few analysts have the courage to mention it. Buchanan does.
He builds a strong case for not intervening around the world on humanitarian grounds even to prevent atrocities or genocide. This is supported by important prudential reasons, and also by any number of historic precedents. Disraeli, he points out, considered maintaining the British empire more important than stepping in to stop the Turk-Bulgarian atrocities of 1876. There were two episodes of Turkish genocide against the Armenians immediately after World War I, but "none of the Western Allies had any stomach for intervention, including the Americans." When Stalin deliberately starved millions during the winter of 1932-3 to force the collectivization of agriculture and to repress nationalist movements, the world hardly even noticed (and, we might add, continues not to notice, except in a book like Buchanan's; when did you last see a television miniseries about the emaciated millions in the Ukraine under Stalin?) Mao's mass murder (an estimated 30 million in the Great Leap Forward alone) hardly blemished Mao's reputation, much less elicited intervention. There was no intervention, either, to stop Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia; and Buchanan's list goes on. That such things are even mentioned is priceless.
What has drawn Buchanan the most criticism has been his willingness to fly in the face of the virtually ubiquitous American conviction today that the entry of the United States into World War II against Hitler was a splendid thing. Buchanan sides with the overwhelming consensus held by Americans before Pearl Harbor (but, of course, that public's votes and voices are long gone). Despite all the criticism he has taken, it is worth reflecting that Buchanan's position is entirely rational - hardly the rantings of a vicious man, as is so often suggested. He points out that when Britain and France gave their guarantee to Poland, they were guaranteeing something they had no conceivable power to enforce; and that it would have been much better for them if they had refrained from war with Hitler and had spent several years building up their own military strength while Hitler exhausted his against the Soviet Union. He also observes that after the "Battle of Britain" had been won to frustrate Hitler's ambition to invade across the Channel and Hitler had become absorbed in a vast war on the Eastern Front leading to his defeat at Stalingrad, it was especially untimely for the United States to enter the war against Hitler (and in alliance with Stalin) rather than, again, to build up its own strength militarily and economically. Only blindness to the blood on Stalin's hands (of his own people and of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the eastern half of Poland) can allow Americans to feel that there was a moral imperative to intervene and that the war was all about "the forces of good against the forces of evil."
There is so much more mentioned in A Republic, Not an Empire that the temptation is to continue giving examples at length. Suffice it to say that a reader who brings thought, not prejudice, to the book will be rewarded not just by these, but by many other, reflections.
There are a few things, perhaps, to criticize. Buchanan, for example, has apparently not stopped to question the claims made about the "interning of 110,000 Japanese-Americans." No doubt he will speak the truth about that as forcefully when he does find time to investigate it independently as he does about so many other subjects. This reviewer finds it odd, too, that he doesn't mention the great strategic question in Europe during World War II, which was whether the Western Allies were going to let the Red Army reach eastern Europe and Germany before they did. This is a major omission from his discussion of that war. Buchanan would have been hard pressed, though, to include in a book of readable length a discussion of everything that arguably should be included.
Buchanan has perhaps not exhausted his subject, but he has written a book of wonderful merit that raises issues of critical importance to the survival and future well-being of the United States.
Dwight D. Murphey