Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Not-So-Good War?

Fascinating article by Richard Bernstein of the International Herald-Tribune (http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/05/21/america/letter.php) reviewing new books and new thoughts about World War II. The basic premise of this new line of thinking is that WWII wasn't quite the black-and-white, good-versus-evil conflict that we're always presented it to be. Rather, the thinking goes, much of the conflict was generated by the Allies' arrogance and warmongering.

It's strong stuff, to be sure, and I think it's a safe bet Barack Obama won't be touching it with a ten foot pole. But it really is interesting to re-think some of the icons and stories that we think we know already. Perhaps those longing for a "good war" should be reminded that there are shades of gray in everything.

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Rethinking Churchill and the Allied warmongers
By Richard Bernstein

Wednesday, May 21, 2008
NEW YORK: World War II, we know on good authority, was unnecessary, the authority being none other than Winston Churchill. By unnecessary Churchill meant that if the Allies' appeasement of Hitler hadn't taken place earlier, the war wouldn't have to have been to fought later.

Now, in this country at least, a current of opinion is gaining strength that stands Churchill on his head. It wasn't appeasement that brought about the disaster of the conflict, but warmongering on the part of the Allied leaders, Churchill first and foremost among them.

The new revisionism makes no excuses for Hitler, but it sees the war through a lens of moral relativism: Yes, the Nazis were evil, but so were the Allies, whose leaders were mendacious, committed unspeakable atrocities and hoodwinked the public into believing that the war was a noble one, fought on behalf of decency and against an evil more colossal than any previous evil in human history.

For those of us, including myself, who have long believed that the Allied war effort was indeed noble, it might seem that such a point of view could only emanate from the dank quarters of some lunatic fringe, perhaps holed up in a Rocky Mountain redoubt and eating conspiracy theories for breakfast.

But on the contrary, the view seems to be the province of entirely respectable and thoughtful people of literary bent. The most visible proponent of the unnecessary war theory is the novelist Nicholson Baker, an accomplished, gentle and entirely civilized man, whose book "Human Smoke" has made him a darling of leftist critics of the American role in the world.

"Baker shows, step by step, how an alliance dominated by leaders who were bigoted, far more opposed to Communism than to fascism, obsessed with arms sales and itching for a fight coerced the world into war," Mark Kurlansky, whose own books include cultural histories of codfish and salt, wrote in a review of "Human Smoke" that appeared in the entirely mainstream Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Similarly, another novelist, Colm Toibin, writing in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, highly praised Baker's work, calling it "a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate on pacifism."

More is coming along the anti-Churchillian lines. Patrick Buchanan, the conservative commentator and two-time presidential candidate, launches a sustained attack on Churchill in a new, lengthy book, "Churchill, Hitler, and 'The Unnecessary War': How Britain Lost the Empire and the West Lost the World," which will be out later this month.

Let's, in light of this trend, examine for a moment the idea that the United States should have stayed out of the European war. If that had happened, the Hitlerites surely would have conquered all of Europe, minus Britain. There would have been more mass murder of "inferior" peoples. There would also have been no morally tainted alliance with Stalin, no 40-year Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, no firebombings of German cities like Hamburg and Dresden, and no deaths among American soldiers.

Buchanan goes further, arguing (as numerous others have on this point) that had imperialist France and Britain not forced an unjust peace settlement on Germany after World War I, there would have been no rise of Hitler in the first place, no World War II, and no resulting Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

The Baker/Buchanan argument is a collective refutation of the views of more mainstream historians - presumably those taken in by what Kurlansky calls "one of the biggest and most carefully plotted lies in modern history" - namely, that the war was a good one encouraged by the weak-kneed appeasement that happened before Churchill came to power.

Among those historians is the Budapest-born John Lukacs, who has written several books on Churchill and the origins of World War II, including a new one called "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning." (All of these books, plus one more, were the subject of a recent essay by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The New York Review of Books).

Lukacs charges that both Baker's and Buchanan's work is full of half-truths, partial and selective samplings of the historical record that, to those not in command of the facts, might seem convincing.

For example, there have long been those in Britain who have argued that, in fact, Hitler posed no direct treat to Britain or to the empire - yet Churchill's policy of total war and unconditional surrender ruled out any possibility of a negotiated peace.

It's true, Lukacs said in a recent telephone interview, that Hitler had no grand designs on the British Empire, but what Churchill understood, Lukacs continued, is that without the United States in the war, Hitler would have won it, and German domination of the rest of Europe would have meant a Britain that was "at best a junior partner of Germany."

To re-examine old assumptions, including almost universally held ones, is of course a good thing, a strength of democracy. But the most radical of the critiques of the Allied leaders - exemplified by Kurlansky's amazing characterization of them as warmongering, arms-selling bigots - seem to illustrate the old notion of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

It may be true that Churchill was an arch-imperialist whose advocacy of tough policies on Germany after World War I was dreadfully mistaken (though, as Wheatcroft points out, recent scholarship indicates that the Treaty of Versailles wasn't actually as onerous as many have believed.) But Churchill and Roosevelt faced the very imminent prospect of a Europe conquered by a genocidal evil genius - not a social anti-Semite worried, as Roosevelt apparently was, that there were too many Jews at Harvard.

"Hitler and the Germans were an extraordinary people," Lukacs said, summing up the argument against pacifism.

"They would probably have defeated Russia, and they probably would have been unbeatable without the Americans in the war," he said.

As for the devil's alliance with Stalin, Lukacs said, "Churchill was very consistent. Either Germany dominates all Europe, or the Russians will dominate half of Europe, and half of Europe is better than none, especially the western half."

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