How Good Was the Good War?
Posted on: 2008-07-22 11:14:29
Anglo American Ascendancy Lost in Unnecessary Wars
Even with the passage of some seven decades, the events of the 1930s have the capacity to ignite the passions of historians and policy analysts. They—or at least Winston S. Churchill’s rendering of them—have provided the myths, metaphors, and images that still shape the discourse about American foreign policy: falling dominoes, insatiably aggressive dictators, and the folly of trying to “appease”—that is, conduct diplomacy with—non-democratic regimes.
In arguing that Winston Churchill helped bring on World War II, Pat Buchanan aimed at the wrong target. The perniciousness of Churchill’s role lies not in his contribution to the march to war but in the way he shaped historical memory of the events of that portentous decade.
During the 1930s, Churchill was sidelined politically and had no discernible influence on British policy. By the time he joined the cabinet in August 1939, the critical decisions that led Britain into World War II had already been made. But Churchill painted an infinitely more heroic picture of his role during the 1930s: that of a modern-day Cassandra. In The Gathering Storm, Churchill alleged that—except for him—British leaders were willfully blind to the German threat and failed to meet it by rearming. Had Britain followed a different—Churchillian—policy during the 1930s, he claimed, the disasters of 1940, and possibly war itself, might have been avoided.
Of course, Churchill did not aspire to write an objective history. As David Reynolds reminds us in his splendid In Command of History, Churchill’s dominant motive was “to show that he was right, or at least as right as it seemed credible to claim.” With respect to the events of the 1930s, Churchill wanted to prove that “the Second World War broke out because his policies were not adopted.” But when the British archives were opened in the late 1960s, historians realized that Churchill’s version of events was distorted.
British leaders—especially Chamberlain—were not blind to the German threat and rearmed against it by building up the Royal Air Force and Navy. Under Chamberlain’s direction, London adopted a sophisticated strategy that aimed to combine diplomacy and deterrence to avoid war while allowing Britain to retain its empire and hold on to world-power status. Reynolds observes that during the 1930s, “Churchill was broadly at one with Chamberlain” with respect to British strategic priorities. In a real sense, therefore, The Gathering Storm was a work of self-revisionism.
The one substantive policy difference between Chamberlain and Churchill was over a possible “Grand Alliance” with the Soviet Union to oppose Hitler. Churchill advocated this, but as Chamberlain knew from British intelligence reports—the accuracy of which has been confirmed by the opening of the Soviet archives—Stalin’s plan was not to have the Soviet Union stand up to Hitler, but to pass the buck to Britain and France. For a variety of reasons, Churchill’s proposed Grand Alliance was never a viable strategic option during the late 1930s.
Chamberlain was playing a weak hand because Britain’s position was a textbook case of strategic overstretch: London had too many enemies (Japan and Italy in addition to Germany), too few allies, and not enough resources to deal with its geopolitical challenges. As the archives show, Chamberlain was never an advocate of “peace at any price.” He made clear that Britain would resist direct German aggression in Western Europe but—like all post-1919 British governments—did not regard Britain’s vital interests as being at stake in East Central Europe.
Chamberlain and his colleagues had good reasons not to go to war over Czechoslovakia during the September 1938 Munich crisis. As early as March, following the Anschluss, Britain’s highest political and military leaders had correctly concluded that there was nothing Britain and France could do to prevent Germany from overrunning the Czechs. British leaders also understood that a conflict over Czechoslovakia would not remain a limited affair but would quickly escalate into a world war that would imperil Britain’s empire. Chamberlain, his foreign secretary Lord Halifax, and the British chiefs of staff understood that taking up arms on the Czechs’ behalf was nothing more than a pretext for fighting a preventive war—an option they rejected on the grounds that, as Halifax put it, there was no sense in fighting a certain war now to avoid a possibly uncertain war later.
Buchanan stands in good company with historians in arguing that the Polish guarantee was a mistake. Strategically, the arguments against going to war over Poland were just as strong—for the same reasons—as the case for not fighting over Czechoslovakia. The British guaranteed Poland not because the geopolitical picture changed but because the domestic political balance of power in London shifted between September 1938 and March 1939, when German troops marched into Prague. In issuing the guarantee, Britain fulfilled Stalin’s fondest wishes by entangling Germany in a war with Britain and France and deflecting its expansion from east to west; allowing the Soviet Union to make territorial gains in East Central Europe; and offering the prospect that the Soviet Union’s relative power would increase as the Western powers and Germany bled each other in another great European war.