The shouting about Patrick Buchanan's defense of American isolationism in World War II has deflected attention from the real task: Defeat the ideas, not the man. By stressing party unity while defending internationalism, Gov. George W. Bush has chosen the same path in winning the battle of ideas that President Dwight Eisenhower used successfully in the campaign of 1952.
The chapter on World War II in Buchanan's book, "A Republic Not an Empire," argues that by becoming the arsenal of democracy for China and Great Britain in their hours of trial in 1940 and 1941, Franklin Roosevelt deliberately risked the attacks of Japan and Germany that ultimately happened. He further argues that FDR revealed only the outlines of his policy to the public, hiding much of the substance.
Buchanan's recitation is plausible enough, though he understates Hitler's long-term agenda for global domination and overstates FDR's understanding of the risks he was running in the Pacific. To his credit, Buchanan does not endorse the wackier conspiracy theories still purveyed about FDR and Pearl Harbor.
It is Buchanan's conclusions that are truly unsound. As France fell to the Germans, FDR spoke out (at the University of Virginia) to declare that the United States could not thrive, and perhaps could not even survive, as "a lone island in a world dominated by force." FDR made the moral argument, too, that to sustain Western civilization America must take sides against "the gods of force and hate." He did not choose war, but he did accept the risk, and the country knew it. The dictatorships then forced war upon America.
Those judgments made by Democrats such as FDR and Republicans such as his secretary of war, Henry Stimson, were profoundly right. Buchanan does not try to explain how the republic and republican values he so treasures could have flourished if totalitarian states dominated the rest of the world.
Buchanan has dusted off a critique of American history that was once in the mainstream of a Republican Party deeply divided between its internationalist and isolationist wings. The party turned aside from the isolationists when it ran Wendell Wilkie against FDR in 1940. Still, the isolationist critique was echoed for years after the war by former president Herbert Hoover and senators such as John Bricker and "Mr. Republican," Robert Taft. They, with some Democratic allies, bitterly fought the Marshall Plan, NATO and other international commitments.
Dwight Eisenhower ran for president in 1952 because he feared that otherwise Taft and his more isolationist views would land in the White House. But how did Eisenhower, despite such convictions, deal with the isolationists? He called for party unity and let his own record in building NATO speak for itself. Then he used his presidency to drive this set of beliefs out of American politics, to be picked up later by the Democratic Party. In 1953 the Senate majority leader who wanted American troops out of Europe was Republican Robert Taft. In 1973 it was Democrat Mike Mansfield.
Buchanan is evoking ancestral memories for some Republicans, the same memories Bob Dole was recalling when he let slip his denunciation of World War II as a "Democrat war" in his 1976 vice presidential debate against Walter Mondale. Buchanan may be many things, but above all he is nostalgic. Such nostalgia may seem an anachronism to Americans who are prospering with globalization. Yet these latent sentiments have surfaced because many people think America is now stumbling from one international adventure to another without a clear, coherent, consistent understanding of the national interest.
The half-formed "Clinton Doctrine" has summoned an understandable reaction. That is why George W. Bush is right in dealing with this reaction the way Eisenhower did: Choose unity over division; use coherence and common sense to win the battle of ideas.
Philip Zelikow is White Burkett Miller professor of history and director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.