Contrarian view of U.S. history


Candidate: Presidential hopeful Patrick J. Buchanan's book, "A Republic, Not an Empire," has stirred controversy in the Republican Party.

September 29, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Beaten back by British Spitfires over the English Channel, Hitler's Nazi forces turned eastward in the summer of 1941, throwing 3 million men against Stalin's Soviet Union and dropping the United States from their target list -- at least for a time.

That is a historical fact, capturing a pivotal moment in time, and from that moment, Patrick J. Buchanan reaches conclusions in his new manifesto that have divided the Republican Party between those who say Buchanan should no longer be welcome in the party and those who worry that driving him out could cost the Republicans the White House in 2000.

Beyond the political consequences, Buchanan's book has also led some historians of the era to try to refute some of its central tenets.

Buchanan concludes that before Pearl Harbor, there was no real U.S. interest in a European war, that Franklin D. Roosevelt provoked Germany and Japan into striking America and, ultimately, that Roosevelt and the interventionist wing of the U.S. political system stand responsible for the Stalinist scourge, the fall of China, the war in Vietnam, even the genocide of Pol Pot.

Before Pearl Harbor, at a time when many Americans were dead-set against U.S. entry into World War II, his thesis would not have triggered a political uproar. Even today, some historical contrarians share Buchanan's analysis.

"He's not alone" in such beliefs, cautions Geoffrey Cocks, a World War II historian at Albion College in Michigan, who says he has read portions of the book. "But that doesn't make him any less wrong."

As a campaign document for a presidential candidate, Buchanan's book, "A Republic, Not an Empire," is a bold stroke.

The candidate has called it "a boring, scholarly work on foreign policy." But its broad statements and historical leaps are anything but boring and, say some historians, hardly scholarly.

By Buchanan's reckoning, Britain and France plunged the world into war in 1939 by guaranteeing Poland that they would intervene if Hitler attacked.

Indeed, he suggests, that one diplomatic blunder might have led to postwar Soviet tyranny, the London blitz, the depredations of Vichy and "the destruction of the Jewish populations of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France or even Italy."

All along, Buchanan argues, Hitler wanted only to do battle with Stalin, and the two tyrants might well have destroyed each other had the West not intervened.

"Had Britain made an alliance with France to confront Nazi Germany with a Western defense wall, without making a commitment to Poland, the Allies might have stayed out of the titanic clash between the Nazis and Bolsheviks," Buchanan asserts.

"By redirecting Hitler's first blow upon themselves, Britain and France bought Stalin two extra years to prepare for Hitler's attack -- and thus saved the Soviet Union for communism."

Similarly, he says, the Western powers were largely to blame for war with Japan, the seeds of which he argues were sewn by the U.S. annexation of the Philippines and the West's cozy relations with China earlier in the century.

Indeed, the United States might never have entered World War II, Buchanan suggests, had Roosevelt not provoked German submarines and lured the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor.

"There is something deeply wrong about how the United States got into that war," Buchanan argues, blaming Roosevelt ultimately for the "wars in Korea and Vietnam, 100,000 American dead, 350,000 American wounded, the Stalinization of French Indochina and genocide in Cambodia."

Not all historians are completely dismissive. Robert A. Divine, professor emeritus at the University of Texas and an author on U.S. isolationism who says he has read part of the book, says: "There's something to this."

Most Americans did not want their country to enter World War II before Pearl Harbor, and Roosevelt was deliberately provocative in his search for a pretext to come to the allies' defense, says Divine, author of a classic book on the origins of World War II, "The Reluctant Belligerent."

But Buchanan loses even his sympathizers in his assertion that the United States was no longer under threat after the fall of 1940.

"After the Battle of Britain, Hitler no longer contemplated invading Britain," allows Thomas Childers, a World War II historian at the University of Pennsylvania. "Britain was relatively safe -- that in the narrowest sense of the word was true.

"But in the summer of 1941, everyone assumed Germany would win when they invaded the Soviet Union," Childers continues.

"If he prevailed in the Soviet Union, Hitler would have been master of Europe, from the English Channel to the Urals, and Britain's position would have been untenable.

"It's a crazy argument to say American national security was not at risk."

Buchanan also overlooks some disquieting facts, says Brother Edward Sheehy, a military historian at LaSalle University who has read portions of the candidate's book.

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