History Lesson

Pat’s Personal History

How Buchanan plays fast and loose with the past in his new book.

Pat Buchanan’s new book, A Republic, Not an Empire, has drawn fire for its claim that Hitler posed no threat to American national interests. Already, some Republicans have disavowed him, and some historians, such as Norm Goda, Gerhard L. Weinberg, and Robert G. Kaufman, have rebutted him. But Buchanan’s Hitlerophilia is just the start of his problems. The real news about A Republic, Not an Empire is that it repeatedly warps American history to support Buchanan’s nativist ideology. (Click here to read if today’s congressional Republicans would have voted to stop Hitler.)

The aim of Buchanan’s book is to revive the doctrine of isolationism and restore legitimacy to its advocates. As Buchanan notes, the term “isolationist” (which he rejects) was coined in the 1920s to denigrate those who would keep America out of European wars. For Buchanan, what others call isolationism has a noble history, dating to George Washington’s admonition that America should “steer clear of permanent alliances.” In the 19th century, Buchanan argues, presidents obeyed, and the nation thrived. But with the Spanish-American War, he says, the policy was junked, and since then we’ve been rushing headlong into ruin.

Errors, distorted emphases, discredited theories, internal inconsistencies, and outright prejudice permeate Buchanan’s book right from the beginning. Early on, he refers to the American West before European settlers arrived as “empty land.” For a screed against American imperialism, his book is astonishingly uncritical about the nation’s violent conquest of the West. In writing about the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe–the showdown between the troops of the Indian leader Tecumseh and of the Indiana Gov. William Henry Harrison–Buchanan treats the Indians as Britain’s hired minions who ran around scalping Americans for sport, rather than a threatened people who enlisted Britain in a strategic alliance. He also describes the Florida of the early 19th century as “a haven for … marauding Indians who regularly crossed into U.S. territory to pillage, burn and murder,” and calls Andrew Jackson, who ruthlessly waged war against them, a man of “vision, unapologetic about the means [he] employed to realize the destiny [he] foresaw for America.” There’s much to admire about Andrew Jackson,, but his brutal Florida campaign should elicit at least pause, if not apologies.

Buchanan’s determination to see the 19th century as a success story (the better to underscore the failures of 20th-century policy) also leads him to a rosy view of the Mexican-American War. Dismissive of those who have questioned America’s aggressive annexation of the Southwest, he argues that opponents of annexation were dupes of Britain. Actually, expansion aroused Northern fears mainly because it promised to create more states hospitable to slavery, but in Buchanan’s telling, the central issue of antebellum America garners barely a mention. The Anglophobia returns when he buys into hoary theories that America foolishly accepted the “Open Door Policy” in China because the British had conned Secretary of State John Hay. Buchanan also resurrects 75-year-old claims that the wily schemes of Wall Street financiers and munitions-makers plunged America into World War I. (And as Kaufman notes in the Weekly Standard, recent scholarship suggests Kaiser Wilhelm was more of a continental menace than previously recognized and that the war wasn’t necessarily the “mistake” common wisdom once held it to be.)

Buchanan’s theory of 20th-century foreign policy is basically that Democratic presidents have been bad. His vituperation for Woodrow Wilson extends beyond the familiar argument that Wilson’s arrogance sabotaged his efforts to win Senate approval for joining the League of Nations; Buchanan also faults Wilson for impugning the patriotism of so-called “hyphenates”–immigrants who wanted American policy to favor their native lands. The criticism is plainly disingenuous: In two of his last three chapters, Buchanan bashes Jewish and Mexican-Americans for speaking up on behalf of Israel and Mexico. Likewise, Buchanan, until now not known as a friend of Asian immigrants, sheds crocodile tears for the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II–apparently so he can take another swipe at Franklin Roosevelt.

This brings us to the much-reported World War II controversy. Buchanan argues that Britain and France never should have pledged to defend Poland. Had the Allies acquiesced in Hitler’s invasion there (following, mind you, Germany’s unchallenged invasions of the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia), then Hitler would have spared the West and attacked Stalin’s Russia, leading the two regimes to fight to the death. Buchanan further argues that after Germany’s loss in the Battle of Britain in 1940, the United States was safe, and thus Roosevelt, who inveigled the country into war, is at fault for the 400,000 American lives lost.

Counterfactuals––are unprovable. They carry rhetorical power but no meaning. Besides, as Goda and Weinberg have both shown at TomPaine.com, Hitler did plan for war with America. In 1940, he commissioned bombers that could reach New York City, and Germany actively quested for the atomic bomb. And even if Germany had ignored the United States and achieved “only” its goal of becoming “master of Europe” (Buchanan’s words), no historian would agree that American interests would have remained unimperiled.

As for the charges against FDR, they too are specious–the residue of 1940s conspiracy theories by the ultra-rightists Buchanan seeks to redeem. Yes, in 1940, politicians of both parties ran for office promising peace while contemplating war. But throughout 1940 and 1941, the overall climate became increasingly belligerent, making neutrality untenable. For a while, Roosevelt succeeded anyway in his balancing act: supporting America’s allies, as he knew he had to, while satisfying popular anti-war sentiment with what he called, in a Fireside Chat of Dec. 29, 1940, “methods short of war.” Mainly, this policy meant “Lend-Lease,” a congressional act that allowed the United States to arm countries under attack, most importantly Britain. In the Pacific theater, meanwhile, FDR pursued a diplomatic resolution with Japan until late November 1941, when he learned that Japan was continuing its southward aggression despite the negotiations.

Recently Buchanan, boxed in by criticisms, has insisted that he does agree the United States should have declared war on Germany–because Germany declared war on the United States first. He has called it a “damnable lie” to claim that he doesn’t consider the war to have been a noble one. But he doesn’t realize how this admission leaves him without an argument. If going to war against Hitler was ultimately the right policy, then in hindsight Buchanan’s beloved isolationists, even if well-intentioned, were wrong. Buchanan might reply with what he says in his book: that FDR “maneuvered us into one collision after another with Germany and Japan so that war would be ‘thrust upon us’ “–in other words, that the United States effectively made the choice to wage war first. But if that’s the case, a consistent argument would have to stick by the claim that the war was a mistake–a position even Pat Buchanan knows to be untenable in a presidential election.

T o revive the isolationists’ reputation, Buchanan also distorts the views of Charles Lindbergh, who even his sympathetic biographer A. Scott Berg admits was an anti-Semite. While Buchanan correctly notes that many non-bigots opposed the war, Lindbergh isn’t so easily exonerated. Lindbergh openly admired Hitler, cozied up to Hermann Goering, and branded Jews as un-American agitators who used their alleged power to attain their parochial ends. Buchanan pities the “Lone Eagle,” who he says suffered “for the rest of his life–and beyond” for uttering “three short paragraphs.” Recently, Buchanan yelled at CBS’s Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation for asking about a passage in A Republic, Not an Empire in which he bemoans the alleged power of the Israeli lobby. “That is one paragraph out of a 2,000-point essay,” Buchanan retorted, suggesting an affinity with Lindbergh. In fact, just as Lindbergh was guilty of more than three offending paragraphs, Buchanan’s bigotry is not confined to just one paragraph of this book, as.

Buchanan can’t reconcile his lifelong anti-communism with the anti-interventionist philosophy that supposedly unites his book, so when it comes to the Cold War he carves out an absurd exception: The extreme evil of communism, he says, warranted military action in places as far-flung as Vietnam or as minuscule as Nicaragua. Hitler wasn’t a threat to the United States, but Ho Chi Minh was. Nearly everyone agrees today that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and was needlessly prolonged so America could save face. But Buchanan deems it “a legitimate war of containment that could have been won in half the time … if the United States had used full conventional power.” Incidentally, he also asserts wrongly that Richard Nixon’s “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi in 1972 made peace possible. In fact, the peace treaty signed in January 1973 differed little from one on the table the previous October. The key to peace lay in Nixon’s decision to jettison his demand that Ho Chi Minh withdraw from South Vietnam–a demand that he could have renounced four years earlier, sparing 18,000 American lives.

One could go on. Buchanan throws in tenuous assertions and crusty old theories willy-nilly, regardless of their provenance. That’s because he has set out to make an argument, and only then rounded up whatever “evidence” he can find to support it. And the real argument that comes through is less about foreign policy aims–his arguments on behalf of Cold War intervention make that clear–than about a nativist vision of America, where foreigners aren’t to be trusted, where the fates of Indians, blacks, and Jews don’t count. Most Americans reject this vision. But even those who don’t should realize that Buchanan’s method–forming his conclusions based on prejudice, then rustling up the support for them–invariably produces bad history.