A Fair Reading of History

By Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz

30 September 1999 NEW YORK TIMES



Patrick Buchanan has been accused of harboring pro-Hitler sympathies and of being an isolationist for his interpretation of World War II laid out in a recent book. But this interpretation is hardly beyond the pale of respectable discourse. Diplomatic historians have long made similar arguments.

In his book, Mr. Buchanan contends that Germany posed no direct military threat to America until it declared war in December 1941. This statement has provoked a furious response, yet Mr. Buchanan’s argument is hardly novel.

It has long been noted that after the fall of France in June 1940, the United States decided to allow Britain and the Soviet Union to bear the brunt of the war effort. As long as Germany fought the British and the Soviets, both of whom received American arms, America was virtually immune to attack.

According to Mr. Buchanan, this strategy could be followed precisely because Germany was not capable of threatening the United States. Numerous scholars have made this argument, including Bruce Russett, a Yale political scientist, in his 1972 book ”No Clear and Present Danger.” Indeed, this unsentimental and even ruthless approach to foreign policy is identical to what Harry Truman proposed in 1941. The United States should not fight in the European conflict, the future President argued. Instead, America should encourage Germany and Russia to fight one another to exhaustion, thereby weakening the aggressive totalitarian threats of both Communism and Nazism.

In his book, Mr. Buchanan also argued that Britain and France should not have extended a security guarantee to Poland in 1939. British historians have long been divided on whether Britain should have agreed to intervene if Poland and Germany went to war. Indeed, conservative scholars like David Dilks and Maurice Cowling, and leftists like A. J. P. Taylor have all argued that the guarantee effectively took the decision for war out of London’s hands. And they assert that Poland was unnecessary for Britain’s security and, in any event, impossible to defend. Poland could be saved militarily only if the Soviet Union joined the West against Germany. But from 1939 to 1941, Stalin was allied with Hitler.

Above all else, critics have a moral problem with Mr. Buchanan’s argument: that is, his isolationist views ignore the American obligation to intervene to end the Holocaust. But the implication that America entered the war to save the Jews is entirely wrong. The United States intervened only after Germany declared war. And even during the war, America’s goal was not to save the Jews.

Yes, Mr. Buchanan’s approach to history is polemical, not disinterested. His past criticism of Israel and remarks about Jews affected the book’s reception. But that should not be the reason critics denounce his interpretation of America’s role in World War II. It only makes their statements seem inflammatory, not his.

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