Patrick buchanan, the maverick right-wing candidate for the US presidency, argues for a more limited international role for the US. To support his case he has suggested that Britain had no need to go to war against Hitler in 1939 and that the US was dragged into an unnecessary war. This, in the general American view, has put him beyond the pale.
But Buchanan is right. Without the isolationism of Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s and the blundering of Roosevelt in 1941, Hitler would have been a nine-month wonder and the Japanese would not have attacked Pearl Harbour.
Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 with a programme to scrap the Treaty of Versailles, rearm, bring back the lands in Czechoslovakia and Poland wrested from Germany in 1919, then march against Russia, crush Bolshevism and win an industrial empire in the east.
Britain was not threatened by this. Hitler respected Britain and its empire. Nevertheless, Hitler’s plans made war in Europe inevitable. In September 1933 the French government told the British that they had proof of German rearmament. They planned to march into Germany and crush Hitler before he became too strong. But they had to have British support to sell this to their people. Baldwin, the leading member of the British cabinet and later prime minister, refused. In 1936, when Hitler marched into the Rhineland, the French made the same plea. Baldwin again refused. These were the two worst decisions ever taken by a British government. Had they marched with the French, the Holocaust would never have happened and 55m would not have died in history’s bloodiest war.
Having refused to intervene at the right time, the British government then intervened at the wrong time. Neville Chamberlain stepped into the row between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Hitler was determined to get back the 3m Germans under Czech rule (and ill-treated by the Czechs, as their President Edvard Benes admitted). Britain did not have the resources to defend the Czechs, so intervening meant either humiliation or war. Having been humiliated, Chamberlain then offered a guarantee to Poland in the belief that this would dissuade Hitler from taking back the Polish Corridor. Lloyd George, when told this, burst out laughing. As with Czechoslovakia, Poland involved no vital British interest. It was a military dictatorship “despised and disliked by every decent Pole” (as a British foreign office report put it). Britain had not the faintest hope of coming effectively to Poland’s aid, and when Chamberlain’s bluff was called, the country was dragged into a war which it had no hope of winning.
The sensible thing for the British, after having not intervened over the Rhineland, would have been to let Hitler attack the Soviet Union. In doing this Hitler signed his death warrant. He attacked the Soviets with just over 3,000 tanks, half of them obsolete; the Soviets had 22,000 tanks, including the T-34 and the KV, superior to anything the Germans had. Soviet tank production in 1942 was four times that of Germany, airplane production double. The German army was not the all-mechanised force of legend; its transport was mostly horse-drawn. Hitler invaded Russia with 625,000 horses, the same number as Napoleon. And in the endless wastes of Russia, with its ferocious winters, against a population more than twice that of Germany and even more ruthlessly mobilised, Hitler suffered Napoleon’s fate. Without American and British intervention his defeat would have taken a few years longer and millions more would have died. But the Red Army would not have been able to venture beyond the frontiers of an occupied Germany against an intact French army. Hitler would have been crushed without the bloodbath in the west and a Soviet occupation of Europe.
Pearl Harbour was also the result of blunders. In July 1941 the Japanese occupied French Indochina. The US, the Netherlands and Britain imposed an oil embargo on Japan. Roosevelt, anxious not to provoke the Japanese, wanted only a partial embargo, but Dean Acheson was able to make it total. The Japanese fleet began to run out of fuel. Either a solution had to be found or Japan would have to resort to force.
The Japanese proposed that in return for lifting the oil embargo they would withdraw from southern French Indochina. The American and British ambassadors in Tokyo supported this option. Cordell Hull, the US secretary of state, was prepared to consider a compromise. But Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese leader, protested and Churchill supported him. Competent American diplomacy could have brokered a deal. But Hull lost his temper and insisted that Japan withdraw from the whole of China. This was clearly unacceptable. Pearl Harbour followed.
For the US, the consequence of the war was that it became the world’s superpower. Was this worth 400,000 American lives? Only Americans can judge. But we have much to be grateful for. The US saved Europe and saved the world by winning the cold war.
The consequence for continental Europe was a grim determination to exorcise the past and become an economic and political union. But Britain’s Churchillian conceits prevented it from becoming more than a half-hearted player on the fringe of Europe.
The lessons? The isolationism of Baldwin and Roosevelt in the 1930s is dead. But intervention has to be carefully tailored to what it can realistically achieve. Let us hope that this lesson will have been learnt by the new leaders of the two superpowers, the US and the continental European Union to be.