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Pat Buchanan's Revisionist Fantasy

By Robert Dallek

Tuesday, October 19, 1999; Page A19

Patrick Buchanan's argument that Britain made a terrible mistake in guaranteeing Polish security and that the United States would have done better to avoid the policies that helped draw us into the war is unconvincing historical revisionism of the worst kind.

Buchanan believes that had Britain and France left Poland to Hitler's mercy, it would have spared them an unnecessary war with Nazi Germany. According to Buchanan, Hitler was solely interested in expansion to the east. After Poland, he would have attacked Soviet Russia and "the monsters" would have eaten each other up. In Buchanan's invented history, this would have meant "the eradication of Bolshevism in Russia and China, no Cold War, no Korea, no Vietnam. Instead of six years of World War II bloodletting, we might have seen six months of a Hitler-Stalin war, ending with one dead and the other crippled."

It's a seductive but wholly unpersuasive fantasy. Among Buchanan's many misjudgments on the events of World War II, none is as serious as his failure to understand the dynamic of the Hitler-Nazi regime. Had Hitler defeated Soviet Russia, it would have been an inducement to further expansion. Hitler's Thousand Year Reich was built on fierce nationalism and militarism. His regime needed enemies and constant military challenges to survive and flourish.

After Russia, he would have turned his military machine back against the West. And it would have been a West even less able to meet the threat than in 1939-1940. The decision to guarantee Polish security had as much to do with stiffening British resolve to meet Hitler's threat as with saving Poland from German conquest. A Britain assuming Hitler would confine himself to Eastern conquests would have been a nation as enthralled in 1939-1940 by the appeasement psychology as that which immobilized it in 1938.

As for the United States, Buchanan thinks that after Britain successfully resisted Hitler's air assault in the fall of 1940, "Germany posed no strategic threat to the United States." Buchanan means by this that Hitler would not have been able to invade the United States: hardly a revelation to historians or to Franklin Roosevelt and his political and military chiefs in 1940.

The issue was not whether Hitler had the wherewithal to land forces in the United States, but the many other ways in which he directly threatened our national security. Roosevelt justifiably worried about the penetration of Nazi influence in Latin America and potential dangers to the Panama Canal. And what about Nazi challenges to dominance of the Atlantic sea lanes? Buchanan all too casually passes over the U-boat menace, which could not be contained until 1943.

Buchanan has forgotten FDR's compelling June 1940 speech at Charlottesville, where he warned against the isolationist "delusion" of America as "a lone island in a world dominated by force." Roosevelt predicted that a Nazi-dominated Europe would create for America a "nightmare of a people lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by contemptuous unpitying masters of other continents."

Buchanan entirely overlooks how difficult it would have been to maintain our democratic institutions in a world of hostile totalitarian regimes.

And what about Hitler's potential to build an atomic bomb? By 1940 Roosevelt had taken heed of Albert Einstein's warning about Germany's capacity to develop such a weapon and America's need to launch a crash program to beat the Germans to the punch. Can anyone with the slightest familiarity with Hitler's ruthless indifference to civilized standards of behavior doubt that a Nazi Germany armed with atomic weapons would have been ready -- indeed, even eager -- to use them against Britain and the United States? And would a president who strictly adhered to isolationism in response to the European conflict even have considered building a bomb?

Buchanan has nothing to say about what a Hitler victory over Soviet Russia might have meant to Britain and the United States in the Pacific, where Japan, Hitler's ally, would hardly have given a passive response to German victories in Europe. And what about the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia?

Praise be that we had Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt as the leaders of the West in 1939-1945. Pat Buchanan as president of the United States then would have been a disaster for America and others around the globe who believed in the victory of civilized democracy over the forces of totalitarianism.

The writer, a presidential and diplomatic historian at Boston University ,is the author of "Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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