[W]AR IS THE creation of individuals not of nations.1
—SIR PATRICK HASTINGS, 1948
British barrister and writer
OF ALL THE EMPIRES of modernity, the British was the greatest—indeed, the greatest since Rome—encompassing a fourth of the Earth’s surface and people. Out of her womb came America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland, five of the finest, freest lands on Earth. Out of her came Hong Kong and Singapore, where the Chinese first came to know freedom. Were it not for Britain, India would not be the world’s largest democracy, or South Africa that continent’s most advanced nation. When the British arrived in Africa, they found primitive tribal societies. When they departed, they left behind roads, railways, telephone and telegraph systems, farms, factories, fisheries, mines, trained police, and a civil service.
No European people fondly remembers the Soviet Empire. Few Asians recall the Empire of Japan except with hatred. But all over the world, as their traditions, customs, and uniforms testify, men manifest their pride that they once belonged to the empire upon whose flag the sun never set. America owes a special debt to Britain, for our laws, language and literature, and the idea of representative government. “[T]he transplanted culture of Britain in America,” wrote Dr. Russell Kirk, “has been one of humankind’s more successful experiments.”2
As with most empires, the sins of the British are scarlet—the opium wars in China, the cold indifference to Irish suffering in the Potato Famine. But Britain’s sins must be weighed in the balance. It was the British who were first to take up arms against slavery, who, at Trafalgar and Waterloo, were decisive in defeating the Napoleonic dictatorship and empire, who, in their finest hour, held on until Hitler was brought down.
Like all empires, the British Empire was one day fated to fall. Once Jefferson’s idea, “All men are created equal,” was wedded to President Wilson’s idea, that all peoples are entitled to “self-determination,” the fate of the Western empires was sealed. Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, saw it coming: “The phrase [self-determination] is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized…. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!”3
Twenty-five years after Versailles, Walter Lippmann would denounce Wilson’s doctrine of self-determination as “barbarous and reactionary.”
Self-determination, which has nothing to do with self-government but has become confused with it, is barbarous and reactionary: by sanctioning secession, it invites majorities and minorities to be intransigent and irreconcilable. It is stipulated in the principle of self-determination that they need not be compatriots because they will soon be aliens. There is no end to this atomization of human society. Within the minorities who have seceded there will tend to appear other minorities who in their turn will wish to secede.4
WILSON’S DOCTRINE OF SELF-DETERMINATION destroyed the Western empires.
But while the fall of the British Empire was inevitable, the suddenness and sweep of the collapse were not. There is a world of difference between watching a great lady grandly descend a staircase and seeing a slattern being kicked down a flight of stairs.
Consider: When Winston Churchill entered the inner cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, every nation recognized Britain’s primacy. None could match her in the strategic weapons of the new century: the great battle fleets and dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy. Mark Twain jested that the English were the only modern race mentioned in the Bible, when the Lord said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”5
Yet by Churchill’s death in 1965, little remained. “Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”6 At century’s end, Labour Party elder statesman Sir Roy Denman looked back at the decline and fall of the nation and empire into which he had been born:
At the beginning [of the twentieth century], Britain, as the centre of the biggest empire in the world, was at the zenith of her power and glory; Britain approaches the end as a minor power, bereft of her empire…. [O]n the world stage, Britain will end the century little more important than Switzerland. It will have been the biggest secular decline in power and influence since seventeenth-century Spain.7
WHAT HAPPENED TO GREAT BRITAIN? What happened to the Empire? What happened to the West and our world—is what this book is about.
For it was the war begun in 1914 and the Paris peace conference of 1919 that destroyed the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires and ushered onto the world stage Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. And it was the war begun in September 1939 that led to the slaughter of the Jews and tens of millions of Christians, the devastation of Europe, Stalinization of half the continent, the fall of China to Maoist madness, and half a century of Cold War.
Every European war is a civil war, said Napoleon. Historians will look back on 1914–1918 and 1939–1945 as two phases of the Great Civil War of the West, where the once-Christian nations of Europe fell upon one another with such savage abandon they brought down all their empires, brought an end to centuries of Western rule, and advanced the death of their civilization.
In deciphering what happened to the West, George F. Kennan, the geostrategist of the Cold War, wrote, “All lines of inquiry lead back to World War I.”8 Kennan’s belief that World War I was “the original catastrophe” was seconded by historian Jacques Barzun, who called the war begun in August 1914 “the blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction.”9
These two world wars were fratricidal, self-inflicted wounds of a civilization seemingly hell-bent on suicide. Eight million soldiers perished in World War I, “twenty million more were wounded, diseased, mutilated, or spitting blood from gas attacks. Twenty-two million civilians had been killed or wounded….”10 That war would give birth to the fanatic and murderous ideologies of Leninism, Stalinism, Nazism, and Fascism, and usher in the Second World War that would bring death to tens of millions more.
And it was Britain that turned both European wars into world wars. Had Britain not declared war on Germany in 1914, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and India would not have followed the Mother Country in. Nor would Britain’s ally Japan. Nor would Italy, which London lured in with secret bribes of territory from the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. Nor would America have gone to war had Britain stayed out. Germany would have been victorious, perhaps in months. There would have been no Lenin, no Stalin, no Versailles, no Hitler, no Holocaust.
Had Britain not given a war guarantee to Poland in March 1939, then declared war on September 3, bringing in South Africa, Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, and the United States, a German-Polish war might never have become a six-year world war in which fifty million would perish.
Why did Britain declare war on Germany, twice? As we shall see, neither the Kaiser nor Hitler sought to destroy Britain or her empire. Both admired what Britain had built. Both sought an alliance with England. The Kaiser was the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria. Thus the crucial question: Were these two devastating wars Britain declared on Germany wars of necessity, or wars of choice?
Critics will instantly respond that Britain fought the First World War to bring down a Prussian militarism that threatened to dominate Europe and the world, that Britain declared war in 1939 to stop a fanatic Nazi dictator who would otherwise have conquered Europe and the world, enslaved mankind, massacred minorities on a mammoth scale, and brought on a new Dark Age. And thank God Britain did declare war. Were it not for Britain, we would all be speaking German now.
Yet, in his memoir, David Lloyd George, who led Britain to victory in World War I, wrote, “We all blundered into the war.”11 In his memoirs, Churchill, who led Britain to victory in World War II, wrote:
One day President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once, “The Unnecessary War.” There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle.12
WAS LLOYD GEORGE RIGHT? Was World War I the result of blunders by British statesmen? Was Churchill right? Was the Second World War that “wrecked what was left of the world” an “unnecessary war”? If so, who blundered? For these were the costliest and bloodiest wars in the history of mankind and they may have brought on the end of Western civilization.
About the justice of the causes for which Britain fought, few quarrel. And those years from 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945 produced days of glory that will forever inspire men and reflect greatly upon the British people. Generations may pass away, but men will yet talk of Passchendaele and the Somme, of Dunkirk and El Alamein. Two-thirds of a century later, men’s eyes yet mist over at the words “Fighter Command,” the men and boys in their Hurricanes and Spitfires who rose day after day as the knights of old in the Battle of Britain to defend their “island home.” And in their “finest hour” the British had as the king’s first minister a statesman who personified the bulldog defiance of his people and who was privileged by history to give the British lion its roar. In the victory over Nazi Germany, the place of moral honor goes to Britain and Churchill. He “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” said President Kennedy, when Churchill, like Lafayette, was made an honorary citizen of the United States.
Thus the question this book addresses is not whether the British were heroic. That is settled for all time. But were their statesmen wise? For if they were wise, how did Britain pass in one generation from being mistress of the most awesome of empires into a nation whose only hope for avoiding defeat and ruin was an America that bore no love for the empire? By 1942, Britain relied on the United States for all the necessities of national survival: the munitions to keep fighting, the ships to bring her supplies, the troops to rescue a continent from which Britain had been expelled in three weeks by the Panzers of Rommel and Guderian. Who blundered? Who failed Britain? Who lost the empire? Was it only the appeasers, the Guilty Men?
There is another reason I have written this book.
There has arisen among America’s elite a Churchill cult. Its acolytes hold that Churchill was not only a peerless war leader but a statesman of unparalleled vision whose life and legend should be the model for every statesman. To this cult, defiance anywhere of U.S. hegemony, resistance anywhere to U.S. power becomes another 1938. Every adversary is “a new Hitler,” every proposal to avert war “another Munich.” Slobodan Milosevic, a party apparatchik who had presided over the disintegration of Yugoslavia—losing Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia—becomes “the Hitler of the Balkans” for holding Serbia’s cradle province of Kosovo. Saddam Hussein, whose army was routed in one hundred hours in 1991 and who had not shot down a U.S. plane in forty thousand sorties, becomes “an Arab Hitler” about to roll up the Persian Gulf and threaten mankind with weapons of mass destruction.
This mind-set led us to launch a seventy-eight-day bombing campaign on Serbia, a nation that never attacked us, never threatened us, never wanted war with us, whose people had always befriended us. After 9/11, the Churchill cult helped to persuade an untutored president that the liberation of Iraq from Saddam would be like the liberation of Europe from Hitler. We would be greeted in Baghdad as our fathers and grandfathers had been in Paris. In the triumphant aftermath of a “cake-walk” war, democracy would put down roots in the Middle East as it had in Europe after the fall of Hitler, and George W. Bush would enter history as the Churchill of his generation, while the timid souls who opposed his war of liberation would be exposed as craven appeasers.
This Churchill cult gave us our present calamity. If not exposed, it will produce more wars and more disasters, and, one day, a war of the magnitude of Churchill’s wars that brought Britain and his beloved empire to ruin. For it was Winston S. Churchill who was the most bellicose champion of British entry into the European war of 1914 and the German-Polish war of 1939. There are two great myths about these wars. The first is that World War I was fought “to make the world safe for democracy.” The second is that World War II was the “Good War,” a glorious crusade to rid the world of Fascism that turned out wonderfully well.
Not for everyone. When President Bush flew to Moscow to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of V-E Day, he stopped in one of the nations that was not celebrating, Latvia, and dispelled one of these myths. He told the world that while “V-E Day marked the end of Fascism…it did not end oppression,” that what FDR and Churchill did to Eastern and Central Europe in collusion with Stalin “will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.”13 Bush called Yalta a sellout of free nations as shameful as Munich.
This book will argue that President Bush understated his case.
For their crimes, Hitler and his collaborators, today’s metaphors for absolute evil, received the ruthless justice they deserved. But we cannot ignore the costs of Churchill’s wars, or the question: Was it truly necessary that fifty million die to bring Hitler down? For World War II was the worst evil ever to befall Christians and Jews and may prove the mortal blow that brings down our common civilization. Was it “The Unnecessary War”?