“He saith among the trumpets, Ha, Ha! and he smelleth the battle afar off,
the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”

—Job 29:25

According to the fashion current in the publishing world today, the title of a book is a bit of catchy fluff, and the subtitle a ponderous, plonking sentence fragment indicating the book’s content.  In the present instance, both titles are important, and indeed equally important. The title as it stands is an accurate representation of the author’s thesis.  But a reversal of title and subtitle has an equivalent result.  “How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World: Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War,” besides being more conventionally catchy, serves equally well to introduce the book.  Each title suggests a thesis; and each thesis is complementary to the other and central to Pat Buchanan’s purpose.  Nevertheless, both theses need to be read, as it were, separately, and weighed in the same manner.

Admirers of Winston Churchill, and at least one prominent reviewer of this book, insist that World War II indeed was a necessary war waged to defeat a great evil even at the expense of collaboration with an evil of equal magnitude.  My dictionary defines the word necessary as something that is “of an inevitable nature: INESCAPABLE”; “logically unavoidable”; “that cannot be denied without contradiction”; or that which is “determined or produced by the previous condition of things.”  Nothing, of course, in history is inevitable except the end of it.  Nevertheless, I think that the two world wars in the 20th century, and the calamitous results they produced for the West, do suggest, broadly speaking, a degree of inevitability.  Mr. Buchanan regards World War I and World War II as the principal causes of the ruin of the Western world.  It seems to me that the catastrophic and unprecedented violence of the century’s first half were at least as much a symptom of the West’s self-destruction as they were its cause.  For Western civilization was in process of decline generations before 1914, as the Western nations gradually turned against what Josef Pieper called the sacred tradition that had produced it.

The cultural decadence of the Weimar Republic from which the Third Reich arose was only that of desacralized Western European culture, postwar, in exaggerated form.  And Hitlerism itself was both a result and an expression of civilizational decline, which not infrequently has been accompanied (as was the case with the late Roman Republic and the Empire) by social turmoil and political violence.  What is more, that decline was scarcely halted by peace in Western Europe since 1945; rather, it has been continuing ever since, and in fact has been accelerated once again by the Muslim invasion of the past couple of decades.

Buchanan describes Churchill as having been by nature a pagan Roman, “a post-Christian man” who exuberantly embraced war in 1914 and again in 1939, and, by air-bombing Westphalia on the night of May 11, 1949 (before he had served 24 hours as prime minister), removed the keystone upholding (in the words of F.J.P. Veale) “the whole structure of civilized warfare as it had been gradually built up in Europe during the preceding two centuries.”  Yet the same term—post-Christian man—may be fairly applied as well to much of the British governing class of the 20th century, including most of those British cabinet ministers who took Great Britain into war twice in a quarter-century.  By the turn of the 20th century the British, like most of the peoples of Western Europe, were nominally Christian, at best.  Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s predecessor, who first “appeased” Hitler in Munich and later issued the fatal war guarantee to Poland, throughout his life had no interest in religion, organized or otherwise.  (His father had been Unitarian but made no attempt to press even that thin, denatured gruel upon his family.)  Churchill’s contemporaries suspected him of having no principles, and Churchill himself admitted, at the age of 24, that “I do not care so much for the principles I advocate as for the impression which my words produce and the reputation they give me.”  But, again, how greatly did the great man differ in this respect from his colleagues, the successors of the British Victorian moralist politicians of the previous era?

It is always a dangerous thing to hang an historical argument on the person of a single actor, particularly when he is really one of a crowd of more-or-less like-minded associates, and other players.  And added to this are the dangers of counterfactual history.  If we agree to imagine Winston Churchill not having been a parliamentary presence for 64 years, may we also suppose that another man would not have supplied an equivalent voice in British politics?  All the same, Churchill was, as Buchanan calls him, “an indispensable man” (emphasis mine) in his time, as well as an inimitable one.

Issues of emphasis aside, Pat Bu­chanan’s revisionist depiction of the Weekly Standard’s Man of the Century is an arresting one, not least because Buchanan displays a startling ability to pull down, in seemingly effortless fashion, the precisely apt Churchill quotes and incidents he needs to score his points effectively.

Buchanan’s Winston Churchill (the hero of Ladysmith) is very much the English Theodore Roosevelt (“that damned cowboy in the White House”): a brilliant, gifted, and preternaturally dynamic man and a first-rate personality whose statesmanship was nevertheless deeply flawed and misguided, owing to profound errors of vision. Both men were aristocrats, romantics, and adventurers.  Both were warriors who delighted in war, and in the prospect of war.  Both were accomplished literary artists, as well as eminently successful politicians.  Both were religious skeptics, unchurched agnostics who believed that death meant personal extinction.  In this last respect, Churchill and Roosevelt were very much men of their own time, of their class, and of their Anglo-Saxon civilization.  Both were high-spirited and impulsive, subject to fits of enthusiastic irresponsibility.  And both were flamboyant egoists and consummate actors, whom life fascinated and who were capable (as Mencken wrote of Roosevelt) of “making [their] doings fascinating to others.”

Buchanan’s account of the first lord of the admiralty’s warmongering in the British Cabinet discussions during the days before the government declared war on Germany (August 4, 1914) is typical of his treatment of Churchill throughout this book.  “The Cabinet was absolutely against war and would never have agreed to being committed to war,” Churchill himself wrote.  Only Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, and the first lord favored taking Britain into armed conflict, should war on the Continent come.  “But only the First Lord relished the prospect,” Buchanan writes.  Churchill reacted to Grey’s suggestion of a conference of ambassadors to forestall hostilities by complaining that it seemed the country was faced, after all, by “bloody peace.”  “[E]verything,” he wrote to Clementine three days later, “tends toward catastrophe and collapse.  I am interested, geared up and happy.  Is it not horrible to be built like that?”

At the Cabinet meeting on the morning of August 2, he demanded instant mobilization.  That afternoon, Lloyd George, then serving as chancellor of the exchequer, refused to lead those ministers who wanted peace out of the Cabinet, which might have caused Asquith’s government to fall—in which case, says Buchanan, “history would have taken another course.”  “The key figure,” he adds, “was Lloyd George, and Churchill played a major role in winning his support for a declaration of war.”  Violet Asquith, observing the Cabinet during the luncheon interval, recorded that “all those I saw looked racked with anxiety and some stricken with grief.  Winston alone was buoyant.”  Churchill was as avid for his bully war as TR was for his own war with Spain.

World War I was not the kaiser’s war.  And World War II, Buchanan argues, was not Hitler’s war: “It was Chamberlain’s war and Churchill’s war.”  Churchill, Buchanan claims, was responsible for “egging on” Chamberlain to issue (on March 31, 1939) the fatal war guarantee to Poland—the first given by a British prime minister to an Eastern European nation—only to lay responsibility for the deed on his dead rival ten years later.  Buchanan does quote Basil Liddell Hart’s history of World War II, where he says of Chamberlain,

It is only too evident that in 1939 he, like most of Britain’s leaders, acted on a hot-headed impulse, instead of with the cool-headed judgment that was once characteristic of British statesmanship.

Impulsiveness, according to Liddell Hart, was not a quality of heart and mind restricted in the crisis to Winston Churchill.  Liddell Hart and Buchanan suggest that Chamberlain issued his guarantee—despite his lifelong belief that Britain had no vital interest in Eastern Europe—from the shame and humiliation of Munich, from fear of the Tory back-benchers, and from a panicked conviction that Hitler was out to dominate the world. Buchanan attributes Churchill’s belligerency to his aristocratic detestation of Adolf Hitler and his regime, couched in idealistic terms as when he told Parliament, “The preservation and integrity of Poland must be regarded as a cause commanding the regard of all the world.”  He added the observation that the prime minister and his critics were now agreed that “we can no longer be pushed from pillar to post.”  Churchill was supported by his followers in Parliament, and by Labour MPs determined on a program of war.

Mr. Buchanan does not dispute Churchill’s greatness as a war leader.  But he is enormously critical of his foresight and acumen as a statesman.  Buchanan insists that Great Britain had no cause whatsoever to go to war against Hitler—and every reason not to do so.  World War II came “at the wrong time, in the wrong place, for the wrong reason,” and the decision to go to war was “the greatest blunder in British history.”  Great Britain had, indeed, no vital interest in Eastern Europe.  A German march eastward might endanger the Soviet Union, certainly not the island kingdom.  As Chamberlain and Churchill had known all along, Britain had no means to honor the guarantee they had made to Poland.  Indeed, she was wholly unprepared militarily to do battle with the Reich.  Hitler despised neither Great Britain, nor the British people (who were not targets of the Nazi racial ideology), nor the British Empire.  In fact he admired them, had no intention of turning Britons into “slaves,” and far preferred to become their ally rather than their enemy.  Had Britain stayed out of the German-Polish imbroglio, Hitler would indeed have pushed eastward, run up against Stalin, and most likely destroyed the Soviet state.  Instead, Great Britain went to war unnecessarily on behalf of Poland, for which she paid the price in 400,000 dead, the ruination of her economy and national bankruptcy, and the loss of her empire.  Once Britain was in, the Eastern European war became the continental European war, which mushroomed—inevitably!—into World War II.  Thus Pat Buchanan has modified John Lukacs’s concept of the Last European War, which the United States expanded to the proportions of another world war by her entry into the conflict two years later.  According to Buchanan’s formulation, it was the British intrusion upon an Eastern European war that guaranteed the later global conflict, not the American engagement with the wider European war, that produced World War II.  Hence the paradox perceived by Buchanan.  Churchill became the savior of Britain, having nearly destroyed her.  Or, in Buchanan’s words, “He had been a great man—at the cost of his country’s greatness.”

Pat Buchanan faults Church­ill for his obsession with Hitler and national socialism, an obsession that was in part responsible for his gullibility in respect of Stalin (“I like that man,” he said after Potsdam) and his acquiescence in the creation of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe postwar.  Likewise, John Lukacs, in the wake of his review of Buchanan’s book in the American Conservative, has been sharply criticized for emphasizing, throughout his career, the threat of national socialism—a poisonous combination, as Lukacs sees it, of the two great political heresies of modern times, and a greater, more prevalent, and longer-lasting danger than communism to the West.

I shall not take sides here except to point out that the America that Pat Buchanan, in his final exhortative chapter, argues is presently seeking to inherit the British Empire, while she hardly resembles the Germany of Adolf Hitler, indeed combines socialist institutions by another name with a degree of aggressive ideological nationalism that is as dangerous to herself as it is to other countries and regions of the world where she has chosen to assert herself, her interests, and her official values with an arrogance that is matched only by her stupidity and ignorance of history.  The modern-day United States even has a racial ideology: People of color are morally and culturally superior to white people.  As for Mr. Buchanan’s comparison of the Hegemonic Nation with the Empire of Disraeli and Winston Churchill, I can only point out that the times and the circumstances are hardly comparable.  More importantly, the government and people of Great Britain in her imperial era were wholly unlike the governments and people of the United States since her founding.  Empire is consistent with monarchical government and a clearly delineated social hierarchy fixed on aristocratic principles, not with a democratic republic—or the mass-democratic bureaucracy that our own republic has become.  Americans and their governments, lacking the sense of assurance and command—combined with a spirit of self-sacrifice—that came naturally to their British cousins, have never been able, as we say, to “do” empire, whereas the British did it supremely well, and for centuries.  Even today, at what is surely past the height of American power and prestige from which everything to come will be (probably precipitously) downhill, the United States cannot be said to enjoy or to profit from her so-called empire.  Whitehall, like Washington today, had redeemable commitments all over the world.  But the British knew how to make those commitments work for them, and so they got something—in fact, they got a very great deal, by way of a counterbalance—in return.  Their commitments were, in the main, assets.  Our own are simply liabilities.

The 20th century is surely material for a prophet of biblical stature.  Indeed, it is material for a million prophets, a million of whom in fact probably arose and had their unrecorded or unnoted say over the course of the past hundred years.  From the sinking of Titanic two years before Sarajevo to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the slow, progressive suicide of the United States and of the American people, the century’s history has been one vast epic saga, the poetry of which is written in the Divinity’s own fierce metric.  How many of that saga’s episodes, how many of its heroes and villains, how many of its decisions taken (or avoided) have been unnecessary or inevitable to the grand design, I, for one, cannot say. 


[Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World,  by Patrick J. Buchanan (New York: Crown; 518 pp.) $29.95]