Commentary Magazine


World War II

To the Editor:

In his essay on Patrick J. Buchanan’s recent book, A Republic, Not An Empire [“Buchanan as Historian,” December 1999], Gabriel Schoenfeld starts off well enough by saying that “Buchanan’s thesis”—that Britain’s decision to extend a guarantee of security to Poland in 1939 was a major mistake—“should be accepted or rejected on its merits.” Mr. Schoenfeld then proceeds to reject Buchanan’s argument on grounds that are mostly irrelevant to the merits. His claim that “it is worth paying heed to [the] intellectual lineage” of Buchanan’s ideas cannot remove the fact that the heed he does pay is old-fashioned ad hominem.

For example, the British historian A. J. P. Taylor, cited often by Buchanan in his book, is described by Mr. Schoenfeld as a “rabble rouser,” a “muckraker,” “an apologist for appeasement, . . . not only of the Soviet Union but also of Nazi Germany,” “something of an apologist for Hitler himself,” and a man with an “iconoclastic temperament.” Moreover, Taylor’s reassessment of World War II “led to considerable jubilation in Nazi and neo-Nazi circles in West Germany.” Mr. Schoenfeld offers no evidence to support his portrayal of Taylor, nor does he attempt to show how these charges, even if true, are relevant to the merits of Buchanan’s thesis.

Along the same lines, Mr. Schoenfeld spends considerable time knocking No Clear and Present Danger, a 1972 book by Bruce Russett that he describes as “a minor classic in the library of appeasement” and that supposedly supports Buchanan’s views. But I do not believe that Buchanan cites Russett anywhere in his book. Similarly, Mr. Schoenfeld attacks David Irving, an established and well-respected historian, calling him a “Holocaust denier” and a “positively eager” champion of the neo-Nazi cause. Once again he offers no evidence to support his charges or attempt to show how they are relevant to the merit of Buchanan’s perspective. And once again, I do not believe Buchanan cites Irving anywhere in his book.

On the question of Britain’s guarantee to Poland, Mr. Schoenfeld argues that Buchanan “ties himself in knots” trying to reconcile two conflicting opinions: (1) that Hitler concluded that the Allied war guarantee to Poland was a bluff and (2) that the Allied guarantee was taken so seriously that it impelled Hitler to seek a deal with Stalin. Since in Mr. Schoenfeld’s view these “small pieces do not fit together,” therefore, “neither does the bigger picture.” Let us see.

Britain’s guarantee presented Hitler with a problem: could he move into Poland without being challenged? True, Britain had done nothing to prevent him from militarizing the Rhineland or from annexing Austria, the Sudetenland, and most of Czechoslovakia, and probably would not act in this case, either. But he could not be sure. There was a possibility that Britain would form an alliance with Russia, thereby presenting a serious obstacle to an invasion of Poland. Therefore Hitler had to neutralize Russia; hence, the German-Soviet nonaggression pact of August 1939. After the pact was signed, Hitler became more doubtful of the likelihood of intervention. Buchanan’s presentation of all this is straightforward, conventional, internally consistent, and knot-free.

Mr. Schoenfeld has Buchanan insisting that the USSR was a “far greater long-term threat than Hitler’s Germany,” and that there was no reason for the U.S. to prefer a Soviet to a Nazi victory. In fact, Buchanan does not say either of these things. Rather, he simply presents his (correct) understanding of U.S. public opinion in mid-1941: “To many Americans, Stalin’s Russia . . . was a far greater long-term threat than Hitler’s Germany.” As for his own view, Buchanan clearly thinks that both powers were evil and that they should have been allowed to “fight each other to a frazzle,” in the words of Hanson Baldwin, the New York Times military expert whom Buchanan quotes.

Mr. Schoenfeld, of course, believes that there were many reasons for preferring a Soviet to a German victory. But in making his case, he points almost exclusively to the atrocities committed by Germany during the entire war, atrocities that, for the most part, had not occurred by mid-1941 and hence could have played no part in the speculations of the American public at that time. He also attempts to minimize the evil nature of Soviet Russia by noting that even many of “Stalin’s victims . . . understood what was at stake” in the contest between Germany and the USSR, and fought “desperately to stave off the Nazi onslaught.” In other words, Hitler was so horrible that Russians would have rather been victims of Stalin and would even fight for that privilege.

In his classic history of Russia, Nicholas Riasanovsky wrote:

The fighting spirit of Soviet troops varied greatly: certain units fought heroically, while others hastened to surrender. . . . Even more significantly, the Soviet population often welcomed the Germans. This was strikingly true in the . . . Ukraine and White Russia, but it also occurred in Great Russia regions near Smolensk and elsewhere. After a quarter of a century of Communist rule many inhabitants of the USSR greeted invaders, any invaders, as liberators.

Perversely, Mr. Schoenfeld does not even hint at the existence of the Russians described by Riasanovsky. As for those of “Stalin’s victims” who fought against the Nazis, they did so for all the reasons that men have always fought: fear and hatred of the enemy, love of country, obedience to their leaders, fear of punishment, etc. It should also be kept in mind that roughly twenty million of Stalin’s victims were not fighting against Hitler in 1941 because they had already been killed by the Communists. Is Mr. Schoenfeld indifferent to those people?

Buchanan argues that “[I]f the revealed horrors of Nazism in the east mandated a war, the Allies could have chosen the time and place to strike.” For this, Mr. Schoenfeld accuses him of “disingenuousness at its height,” but what is he saying? That Buchanan is unaware of Nazi atrocities? That is preposterous. Buchanan’s meaning is quite clear (and well stated): if, after watching Germany and Russia slug it out, the Allies believed that a war was necessary (in terms of their interests), then they could have selected the time and place to strike. Such an “America First” policy obviously offends Mr. Schoenfeld because Hitler was hugely evil and ought to have been opposed for that reason. Would he also argue that America ought to have gone to war against Russia because of its even greater atrocities? If so, when? If not, is he not once again guilty of indifference to Stalin’s victims?

In the end, Mr. Schoenfeld implies that Buchanan’s “America First” program is amoral and that its source is an anti-Semitic “corner of Buchanan’s mind.” There you have it. One of the oldest debates in American foreign policy—in Buchanan’s words, “the vision of Washington or the temptation of Wilson”—is reduced to anti-Semitism, or Whatever War The Good Guys Want To Fight Today.

Hank Hoover
Alexandria, Virginia

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To the Editor:

If a German victory over the USSR might have put enormous resources at Hitler’s disposal, the Soviet victory, we must remember, put those same items at the disposal of the Communists, with dire consequences to follow for decades. At the same time, German control and victory over so large a nation as the USSR would surely have distracted and weakened the Nazis and given the rest of Europe more time to prepare for war. Buchanan’s main point is that America would still have been out of Hitler’s reach.

It is almost farcical to draw Hitler’s warmaking machine as a real threat to the United States. Germany is not a seafaring nation, and it could hardly have manned or supplied the vast French, Russian, or Italian armadas Mr. Schoenfeld thrusts threateningly in our faces, even assuming these fleets contained more than mediocre warships or were not scuttled first. Germany never gave any real attention to long-range bombers, either. As John Keegan notes, the Luftwaffe was entirely a medium-range force.

Mr. Schoenfeld questions Buchanan’s assertion that by 1950, “Americans were asking what [World War II] had all been for.” Yet no lesser a figure than William F. Buckley, Jr. mused not long ago over the dismay Americans felt when they saw that one tyranny in Europe had been overthrown only to be replaced by another. Indeed, the USSR became a superpower that killed millions and gave life to the North Korean, Chinese, and North Vietnamese Communists, who in turn slaughtered tens of millions. The West had to fight this power all over the globe for 45 years, usually losing, and suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties, not to mention the loss of prosperity and liberty that always accompanies war. Is Buchanan justified in speculating whether there might have been a better outcome? Absolutely. Does he make a plausible argument? Yes.

Of course, no COMMENTARY article dealing with Buchanan would be complete without a dark insinuation of bigotry. It is too bad that the magazine’s writers must assume that only evil can oppose their views, a form of argumentation I thought only rabid liberals practiced.

Ross Nelson
Casselton, North Dakota

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To the Editor:

Patrick J. Buchanan has postulated that if Britain had refrained from declaring war, Hitler would have concentrated his efforts on Russia and the East and not on the West. The possibility of a Nazi-Soviet “stalemate” is debatable, but given Russia’s vast distances and primitive terrain, the chances are that Buchanan is correct and that the two worst totalitarian threats of our century would have destroyed or, at least, badly crippled each other.

Buchanan’s sin is that this conclusion ignores the Holocaust, and, certainly, such a terrible event would not be allowed today. The past is not the present, however, and it is very unlikely that a neutral America would have gone to war over the Holocaust, of which very little was known, in any case, until after the war.

Jewish Americans can take pride in the constant media publicity concerning the Holocaust since World War II, which has gone a long way toward changing older anti-Semitic attitudes. But a possible reaction is now occurring as the American people, who did not participate in the Holocaust, grow tired of the publicity and wonder if it is not, like most repetitious media messages, exaggerated.

Buchanan’s second sin is his criticism of the Israel lobby. While Israel is, of course, of natural interest to Jewish Americans, it is still revealing how billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars go to Israel each year without any debate in Congress and little or no discussion in the media. This stands in sharp contrast to American aid to other countries.

William H. Riddell
Tampa, Florida

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To the Editor:

After Japan attacked the U.S. in 1941, would the U.S. have entered the conflict in Europe if Germany had not first declared war on us? William L. Shirer thought not. There was no political will in Congress for a second war, and our armed forces wanted to take on only one enemy—Japan.

Did Germany pose a threat to the U.S. in 1941? Certainly not an immediate one. To envision a German fleet approaching the east coast seems improbable after one considers the terrible problems encountered by the Allies simply in crossing the English Channel in 1944. The idea that a German trans-Atlantic bomber of the time could have made a nonstop round trip is absurd.

Was there a moral imperative for us to go to war against Germany for its savage behavior in Europe, or against Japan for its savage behavior in China? Perhaps, but we reacted only after an attack by Japan and a declaration of war by Germany. Having somehow gotten into two wars, neither of which would have passed a national referendum, we should ask how all this happened and whether it was a good thing.

Is Patrick J. Buchanan a “revisionist,” as Mr. Schoenfeld describes him? No, but he is an effective gadfly.

John N. Buckley
West Des Moines, Iowa

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To the Editor:

In September 1944, Allied troops liberated the little piece of the Netherlands where I grew up. Notwithstanding terrible destruction and civilian casualties, we were fortunate in avoiding the starvation that would kill tens of thousands further north during the harsh winter of 1944-45. It was not American troops that liberated us, but Canadians and Poles. A number of memorials and a statue in the town of Axel commemorate their sacrifices. In light of those sacrifices, one wonders about Britain’s sincerity in vowing to go to war for the sake of Poland, when in the end the Poles were delivered to the tender mercies of Joseph Stalin.

As for Patrick J. Buchanan’s view that Hitler had benign intentions toward Britain, it must be noted that the Germans drew up extensive plans for that country’s subjugation and the wholesale removal of the population (similar plans were made for the removal of the Dutch population to Poland). In the fall of 1940, the Netherlands became one of the staging areas for an invasion of Britain; a motley collection of confiscated Baltic fishing boats and barges was turned into landing craft.

Though there is much to disapprove of in Buchanan’s views, I wish that those who reject them would refrain from labeling simple factual statements as hateful or anti-Semitic. Buchanan’s reference to the youthful Hitler as “an individual of great courage, a soldier’s soldier in the Great War” is a case in point. Gabriel Schoenfeld decries the statement but, in fact, reputable historians agree on Hitler’s performance. During World War I he served as a dispatch runner on the Western front, showing utter disregard for personal danger. He was twice wounded, and twice decorated with the Iron Cross, the second time first-class, which was unusual for a common soldier.

Wim De Vriend
Coos Bay, Oregon

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To the Editor:

I enjoyed reading Gabriel Schoenfeld’s timely comments on Patrick J. Buchanan. It is relevant to note that England and France did not dare go to war with Hitler. The only action they took after the German invasion of Poland was to send Hitler a declaration of war. It was Hitler who, eight months after he finished off Poland, attacked them in spite of their timorous attitude.

Not that the delay in the assault was driven by caution or fear on Hitler’s side; it was only because of his hesitation over how to proceed. Hitler’s mind and soul lay in waging wars, endless wars, constant wars. He spent his days and nights bent over maps, playing ceaselessly with his colored pencils while drawing “bold” military actions under an endless array of operational codenames.

Stalin, on the other hand, had no military ambitions and regarded himself as a “social thinker.” Having gained power over a huge country by means of subversion, treachery, and deceit, by sowing dissent and perverting time-honored values and ideals, he and his henchmen were always afraid that the methods they used to gain power would be turned against them. Hence, Stalin spent most of his energy spying on comrades, “weeding out” potentially disaffected elements, and destroying them and their kin.

When the hour of decision came, it became clear to the leaders of the free nations that it was not Stalin but Hitler, the bloodthirsty predator, who had to be slain by the sword.

Benjamin J. Frydman
Madison, Wisconsin

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To the Editor:

Gabriel Schoenfeld performs an excellent and commendable service in demolishing Patrick J. Buchanan’s revisionist theory that the United States did not need to enter World War II. In a one-front war, Hitler would have smashed the Soviet Union. It is also very conceivable that an unchallenged Nazi war machine would have developed battle-ready atomic weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and jet fighters.

Although Mr. Schoenfeld presents the military and diplomatic arguments successfully, I found his lack of consideration of the Holocaust a bit disturbing. Adolf Hitler was a genocidal monster who turned human beings into lampshades; you can only deal with a person like Hitler by destroying him utterly.

Daniel McLane
Plainview, New York

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To the Editor:

Gabriel Schoenfeld is to be congratulated for his article debunking the account of World War II offered by Patrick J. Buchanan and his fellow revisionists. Still, in his attempt to rebut Buchanan’s assertion that the Soviet Union posed a greater threat to the West than Nazi Germany, Mr. Schoenfeld partially overlooks the true extent of Stalin’s crimes.

Less than a decade after the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin planned to murder the four to five million Jews of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, thereby completing Hitler’s work. By 1953, Stalin had prepared killing grounds and the logistics for a mass extermination of the USSR’s Jews, who were to be deported to camps in Siberia where, upon arrival, they were to be shot and then buried in ditches. Only Stalin’s timely death in March 1953, several weeks before the second holocaust was to be set in motion, prevented his plan from being carried out.

Peter Emanuel Goldman
Surfside, Florida

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To the Editor:

Gabriel Schoenfeld’s informative and important article will likely not alter the views of persons who applaud Patrick J. Buchanan’s beliefs. I have known some, and no matter what facts are presented to them, they maintain their position: Communist Russia was the real enemy and should have been destroyed; Hitler might have destroyed Russia had the U.S. not intervened; and the situation of the Jewish people in Germany was unfortunate but basically irrelevant. Buchanan’s political ambition becomes all the more frightening when one is aware of his supporters beyond the obvious “crazies.”

Ellen Sehgal
Chevy Chase, Maryland

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Gabriel Schoenfeld writes:

To understand a historical event of any consequence, one must examine it from at least two angles. The first of these is the contemporaneous: how matters looked to those who were in the midst of them. The second is hindsight, which offers the tremendous advantage of knowing how things turned out even if the very clarity thereby gained clouds our sense of the immense imponderables faced at every step by those caught in the flow of events.

From the contemporaneous perspective—and only if one turns a blind eye to the significant number of anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers among them—one could perhaps be somewhat charitable to the members of the America First Committee who opposed America’s entry into World War II. It is not hard to comprehend a reluctance to send American troops to fight and die in faraway lands when our shores are not immediately threatened; and, as more than one of my critics point out, the scope and scale of Hitler’s atrocities in the early phases of the war were neither fully understood nor as great as they were to become by 1942 and 1943 when the death camps were in full swing.

But from hindsight—and again ignoring anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi sentiment and focusing solely on the America Firsters’ opposition to U.S. intervention in Europe or the provision of “aid short of war” to embattled England—a far less generous assessment must be levied. We now know better than ever how close a call was victory in World War II. We now know, too, the full extent of Hitler’s crimes, and what would have happened to the peoples of Western Europe and England, of Eastern Europe and the USSR, and ultimately of South and North America, if the Nazi dictator had not been resisted with all our might Indeed, there are few questions on which history has rendered a more unequivocal verdict: from our present vantage point, members of the America First Committee look, at best, like dangerous fools.

What is truly remarkable, therefore, about some of the letters I have received in response to my article is that today, almost six decades after the America First Committee was compelled to close its doors in disgrace after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the ideas it represented live on as if preserved in amber, untrammeled by the horrors of Nazism and the peril Hitler posed to the entire world.

Let me begin my reply to individual correspondents by squarely facing the charge leveled by Hank Hoover and Ross Nelson that I engaged in an ad-hominem attack when I examined the origins of Patrick Buchanan’s views and located them in the work of other well-known World War II revisionists. My intention was not to find Buchanan guilty by means of association but merely to engage in the entirely legitimate enterprise of tracing influence, an essential task in any serious history of ideas. That Buchanan finds himself with such strange bedfellows as A.J.P. Taylor, Bruce Russett, and David Irving is hardly my fault, and those who reprimand me for bringing this fact to light are merely shooting the messenger. Indeed, in his eagerness to pull the trigger, Hank Hoover does not hesitate to distort my words. For the purpose of tarring Buchanan, he says, I disparaged A.J.P. Taylor as a “rabble rouser” and “muckraker.” But I was far more respectful to the iconoclastic British historian than that. A.J.P. Taylor, I wrote, was regarded “by his admirers” as a “marvelously high-toned rabble-rouser/ muckraker” [emphasis added]. Readers can judge for themselves whether I have been fairly quoted.

It is of course true that Buchanan does not cite the works of Bruce Russett or David Irving in his book, and I never claimed otherwise. Had I wanted to smudge Buchanan with the sources he actually employs, that would have been easy enough. I chose not to primarily because many of them are extremely obscure.

Buchanan relies, for example, upon the work of Ralph Raico, a professor of “social-studies education” at Buffalo State College in New York who has devoted a portion of his career to toppling Winston Churchill, a figure of somewhat greater stature than his own. The statesman who did more than anyone else to rescue Europe is, to Raico, “a man of blood and a politico without principle,” one who “served to corrupt every standard of honesty and morality in politics and history.” Churchill’s conduct of the air war against the Nazis, Raico writes, amounted to a “campaign of murder”; its chief result was the destruction of Germany, where a “thousand-year-old urban culture was annihilated.” Needless to say, Buchanan treats Raico as a leading authority, drawing upon his “scholarship” without offering an iota of criticism or a demurral of any sort.

In impugning Churchill with words that should properly be applied to Adolf Hitler, Raico himself relies on the work of his fellow World War II revisionist David Irving, whom in my article I labeled a Holocaust denier. Hank Hoover objects to this appellation, complaining that I adduced no evidence. But Irving’s views of the Holocaust have not exactly been hidden from sight, except perhaps from those who do not wish to see them.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from one of Irving’s lectures on the subject of whether Auschwitz—where more than a million Jews were murdered in gas chambers—was ever used by the Nazis as an extermination camp:

It’s baloney, it’s a legend. Once we admit the fact that it was a brutal slave-labor camp and large numbers of people did die, as large numbers of innocent people died elsewhere in the war, why believe the rest of the baloney?

I say quite tastelessly, in fact, that more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.

Oh, you think that’s tasteless, how about this? There are so many Auschwitz survivors going around, in fact the number increases as the years go past, which is biologically very odd to say the least. Because I’m going to form an Association of Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars, or the ASSHOLS.

This is the man whom Hank Hoover regards as a “an established and well-respected historian.”

Still, Hoover and my other correspondents do offer a number of additional arguments that deserve consideration, if only to dispose of them. Thus, disagreeing with my assessment of Buchanan’s failed effort to explain the impact of England’s Polish guarantee on Hitler’s foreign policy, Hoover offers a brief synopsis of Hitler’s diplomacy and then asserts that Buchanan’s account is “straightforward, conventional, internally consistent, and knot-free.” I would agree that Hoover’s own summary is entirely unexceptionable; the trouble is that it is hardly congruent with the polemical muddle offered by Buchanan. In that muddle, logic and historical evidence are tossed overboard in the attempt to indict Great Britain for “impelling” (Buchanan’s word) Hitler to attack westward into the low countries and France.

I am hardly unaware that the soldiers of the Red Army fought for a variety of motives and that in the initial phases of the Nazi invasion, large numbers of Soviet citizens welcomed the German forces, in the words of the historian Nicholas Riasanovsky, as liberators. One could go further and note that the Germans might well have won the war had they treated the subjugated peoples of the USSR with a modicum of decency. Given the nature of Nazism, however, this was not to be.

Still, it is difficult to see what is perverse about my assertion “that millions of Soviet peasants, after experiencing the brutalities of both sides at first hand, chose accordingly, and fought desperately to stave off the Nazi onslaught.” This is a statement of fact, one supported by all the leading authorities, including Nicholas Riasanovsky himself. Hank Hoover, who appears to have a habit of quoting selectively, fails to include Riasanovskys words on the process by which the Nazis’ “beastly treatment of the Soviet population . . . turned friends into enemies.”

A number of my correspondents question the wisdom of America’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union. In my article I offered reasons why an alliance with Stalin was both necessary and morally defensible, and I will not repeat myself here. Nor is there any need to reargue the question of whether our own shores were directly threatened by Hitler, except to note that my critics, like Buchanan himself, appear unwilling to discuss the possibility that a Germany unopposed by the United States could well have acquired nuclear weapons. Their silence on this linchpin issue, if not deafening, is loud enough.

My critics also pass over a number of other points I raised, including Buchanan’s habit of indicting Franklin D. Roosevelt as a scheming liar while taking Hitler’s words as the gospel truth, not to mention the implications of Buchanan’s long record as an “effective gadfly”—to borrow John N. Buckley’s euphemism—on behalf of Nazi war criminals. But I cannot pass over some of their observations, especially William H. Riddell’s half-patronizing, half-snide remark that “Jewish Americans can take pride in the constant media publicity concerning the Holocaust,” and his complaint that the sin for which Buchanan is really being pilloried is “criticism of the Israel lobby,” which manages to funnel billions of “taxpayer dollars” to the Jewish state “without any debate in Congress and little or no discussion in the media.”

It would be nice to think that this sort of baiting (to use a mild term) is a thing of the past. But evidently it is not. Still, it raises an interesting question of its own. Is it an accident that World War II revisionists, like Buchanan himself, so often have what can only be called (to use another mild term) a Jewish problem?

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