ONE MAY PICK UP something useful from among the most fatal errors.1
—JAMES WOLFE, 1757
Hero of Quebec
IN THE TWIN CATASTROPHES of Western civilization, World Wars I and II, Britain was the indispensable nation and Churchill an indispensable man.
It was Britain’s secret commitment to fight for France, of which the Germans were left unaware, that led to the world war with a Kaiser who never wanted to fight his mother’s country. It was Britain’s declaration of war on August 4, 1914, that led Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India to declare war in solidarity with the Mother Country and drew Britain’s ally Japan into the conflict. It was Britain’s bribery of Italy with promises of Habsburg and Ottoman lands in the secret Treaty of London in 1915 that brought Italy in. Had Britain not gone in, America would have stayed out.
It was Britain that converted a Franco-German-Russian war into a world war of four years that brought down the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires and gave the world Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler.
It was Britain whose capitulation to U.S. pressure and dissolution of her twenty-year pact with Japan in 1922 insulted, isolated, and enraged that faithful ally, leading directly to Japanese militarism, aggression, and World War II in the Pacific.
It was Britain’s lead in imposing the League of Nations sanctions on Italy over Abyssinia that destroyed the Stresa Front, isolated Italy, and drove Mussolini into the arms of Hitler.
Had the British stood firm and backed Paris, the French army could have chased Hitler’s battalions out of the Rhineland in 1936 and reoccupied it.
Had the British not gone to Munich, Hitler would have had to fight for the Sudetenland and Europe might have united against him.
Had Britain not issued the war guarantee to Poland and declared war over Poland, there might have been no war in Western Europe and no World War II.
Britain was thus the indispensable nation in turning two European wars into world wars. And as is written in the opening pages of this book, their role in both world wars was heroic. But was it wise?
CHURCHILL HAD PLAYED A crucial role in plunging his nation into the war of 1914. Britain then brought in the Dominions, Italy, Japan, and the United States. Asquith, Grey, Churchill, and Haldane had planned to make any war with Germany a world war. They succeeded, and Britain emerged triumphant. Her greatest rival since Napoleon saw its High Seas Fleet scuttled, its overseas trade ravaged, its colonies confiscated. Germany had been defeated, disgraced, divided, dismembered, disarmed, and driven into unpayable debt. But the cost had been seven hundred thousand British dead, a national debt fourteen times what it had been in 1914, rebellions across the empire, and Britain’s inevitable eclipse as first nation on earth.
The British Century was over. The American Century had begun.
The cost to Western civilization was perhaps ten million dead soldiers, and millions of civilians dead from starvation and disease. The Great War begat Versailles and Versailles begat the Second World War.
To “stop Hitler,” Britain gave a war guarantee to Poland. To honor it, Britain declared war. Both decisions were victories for Churchill. This war lasted six years and ended in the ruin of Europe, Stalinization of eleven nations, and collapse of the British and French empires.
In the two phases of the Great Civil War of the West, a hundred million Europeans perished as victims of war or the monsters bred by war. Nor did the killing stop with Hitler’s suicide in his bunker. From the Baltic to the Balkans, Stalin’s murders went on and on, and a triumphant Communism conquered China and North Korea, leading to the mass murder of tens of millions of Asian friends of the West. Looking back at the fruits of these two world wars in 1950, George Kennan wrote:
[T]oday, if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913—a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists, a vigorous Germany, united and unoccupied, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe—well, there would be objections to it from many quarters, and it wouldn’t make everybody happy, but in many ways it wouldn’t sound so bad, in comparison with our problems of today. Now, think what this means. When you total up the score of two [world] wars, in terms of their ostensible objective, you find that if there has been any gain at all, it is pretty hard to discern.2
The price of Britain’s victory in 1945 was four hundred thousand more dead, the fall of the empire, an end to the days of hope and glory, and bankruptcy of the nation. Britain faced socialism at home, a near-absolute dependency on the United States, and the displacement of Nazi Germany as dominant power in Europe by a Stalinist Russia with a revolutionary agenda that posed a far greater menace to British interests and Western civilization. All the British Dominions and colonies now turned to America for their defense and leadership. For coming belatedly to the rescue of the Mother Country, America had demanded and taken title to her estate. Britannia was allotted a cottage by the sea—to live out her declining years. But the Great Man was given his own statue in Parliament Square.
HOW AMERICA TRIUMPHED
IN NEGOTIATING WITH Stalin, Churchill, as we have seen, made far greater blunders than had Chamberlain in dealing with Hitler. He had put his trust in Stalin, believing that if Britain gave him all he demanded, Stalin would cooperate in building a lasting peace. By March 1946, when Churchill gave his Iron Curtain speech, it was apparent to all but the incurably gullible that Churchill had been had, that the Soviet Union was—and had always been—a mortal enemy of the West.
The Americans had watched the initial crisis from afar. On September 3, 1939, the same day Britain and France declared war, FDR had assured the nation in a Fireside Chat, “There will be no blackout on peace in the United States.”
This war was not America’s war, FDR told his countrymen. In 1940, the year of Churchill’s Norwegian debacle, Dunkirk, and the fall of France, FDR won reelection on a pledge: “While I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before but I shall say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
FDR was lying. But in the election of 1940, he had to echo America First. For even after Hitler had occupied Europe from the Atlantic to the Vistula, America was saying, “This is not our war.”
Though derided as isolationists, the America First patriots kept the United States out of the war until six months after Hitler had invaded Russia. Thus the Red Army bore the brunt of bloody combat to bring Hitler down, as would seem only right. For Stalin had colluded with Hitler in the rape of Poland and had launched wars of aggression against as many nations as his partners in Berlin.
Not until four years after France had fallen and three years after the Soviet Union had been invaded did U.S. troops land on the Normandy beaches to open the Second Front. There the Americans and British faced a German army one-fourth the size of the German armies on the Eastern Front. Because we stayed out of the war until after the Soviet Union had been invaded, America lost four hundred thousand men, while Soviet combat losses are estimated at ten times that. How many more U.S. military cemeteries would there be in Europe had we had to face a German army of three million instead of the seven hundred thousand troops under Rommel and von Rundstedt on D-Day?
America is the last superpower because she stayed out of the world wars until their final acts. And because she stayed out of the alliances and the world wars longer than any other great power, America avoided the fate of the seven other nations that entered the twentieth century as great powers. The British, French, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Ottoman, and Japanese empires are all gone. We alone remain, because we had men who recalled the wisdom of Washington, Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams about avoiding entangling alliances, staying out of European wars, and not going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED BY
AFTER AMERICA EMERGED as the undisputed leader of the West in 1945, however, the shocks, reversals, and humiliations at the hands of Stalin were greater than those that had caused Britain to declare war in 1939. America, however, chose a different course. Embracing the wisdom of George Kennan, America pursued a policy of containment and conscious avoidance of a Third World War.
When Stalin trashed the Yalta agreement, terrorizing the peoples of Poland and Eastern Europe for whom Britain had gone to war, America was stunned and sickened but issued no ultimata. When Moscow blockaded Berlin in violation of Allied rights, Truman responded with an airlift, not armored divisions or atom bombs. When Stalin’s agents carried out the Prague coup in 1948, Truman did not see in Czechoslovakia an issue that justified war, as Churchill had when the Czechs were forced to give up the Sudetenland. America’s answer was NATO, drawing a red line across Europe that the West could defend, as Britain should have done in that March of 1939, instead of handing out the insane war guarantee to Poland. And where the British had failed to line up a Russian alliance before giving its war guarantee, America enlisted ten European allies before committing herself to defend West Germany.
Unlike Churchill in the 1930s, American leaders of the late 1940s and 1950s believed that, while the fate of Poland and Czechoslovakia was tragic, both were beyond any U.S. vital interest. From 1949 to 1989, the American army never crossed the Yalta line. When East Germans rose in 1953 and Hungarians in 1956, Eisenhower declined to act. In 1959, Ike welcomed the “Butcher of Budapest” to Camp David. When Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall, Kennedy called up the reserves, then sent them home after a year. In the missile crisis of 1962, Kennedy cut a secret deal to take U.S. missiles out of Turkey for Khrushchev’s taking Russian missiles out of Cuba. When the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968, LBJ did nothing.
U.S. inaction was not due to cowardice but cold calculation as to what was worth risking war with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union and what was not worth risking war. When the Polish workers’ movement, Solidarity, was crushed in 1981, Ronald Reagan denounced the repression but he neither broke diplomatic relations with Warsaw nor imposed economic sanctions.
Eisenhower and Reagan were not Chamberlains, but neither were they Churchills. Who ruled in the capitals east of the Elbe was not to them a vital U.S. interest worth a war. They believed in defending what we had, not risking war to retake what Roosevelt and Churchill had given up at Teheran and Yalta. Reagan believed America and freedom were the future, that Communism was headed for the ash heap of history, that we need not, indeed, must not blunder into a war to hasten its inevitable end. Patience and perseverance were required, the use of proxies to bedevil the Soviet Empire at its outposts in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua, and carrying a bigger stick—that was the Reagan way.
For half a century, the United States confronted Stalinist enemies as evil as Hitler, but more powerful and more dedicated to our destruction. Yet America never went to war with the Soviet Union. We won the Cold War—by avoiding the blunders Britain made that plunged her into two world wars.
Unlike the Brits of 1914 and 1939, Americans did not feel the need to “pull the bully down” if it meant war with a great power such as the Soviet Union of Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. Our way was not as glorious as Churchill’s way, but Reagan won the Cold War and world leadership without firing a shot, while Churchill, who had inherited a world empire, left behind a small dependency. To win a war without fighting is the greatest victory, said Sun Tzu. That was Reagan’s achievement.
REPLICATING CHURCHILLIAN FOLLY
WITH THE END OF THE Cold War in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, America was at her apogee. All the great European nations—Britain, France, Germany, Italy—were U.S. allies, as were Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt in the Middle East, and Australia, South Korea, and Japan in the Far East. In the Reagan era, Russia was converted from the “evil empire” of the early 1980s into a nation where he could walk Red Square arm in arm with Gorbachev, with Russians straining to pat him on the back.
Four hundred million people in Europe and the USSR had been set free. The Red Army had begun to pack and go home. The captive nations looked on Reagan’s America as their liberator. With all the territory and security any country could ask for, the first economic, political, cultural, and military power on earth, America ought to have adopted a policy to protect and preserve what she had. For she had everything. Instead we started out on the familiar road. We were now going to create our own New World Order.
After 9/11, the project took on urgency when George W. Bush, a president disinterested and untutored in foreign policy, was converted to a Wilsonian ideology of democratic fundamentalism: Only by making the whole world democratic can we make America secure. “Marxism is a religion,” Joseph Schumpeter said in 1942; and, as James A. Montanye, an economist and student of Schumpeter, has written:
To the believer, [Democratic Fundamentalism, like Marxism], presents, first, a system of ultimate ends that embody the meaning of life and are absolute standards by which to judge events and actions; and, secondly, a guide to those ends which implies a plan of salvation and the indication of the evil from which mankind, or a chosen section of mankind, is to be saved…. [It] belongs to that subgroup [of “isms”] which promises paradise this side of the grave.3
Democratic Fundamentalism, added Montanye, is akin to “the religious fervors of old.”4
Bush professes his faith in the ideology of democratic fundamentalism in his neobiblical rhetoric: As Christ said, “He who is not with me is against me,” Bush declared, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” “This war is a struggle between good and evil.” “The evil ones…have no country, no ideology; they’re motivated by hate.” America’s “ultimate goal” is “ending tyranny in our world.”
After seven years of a foreign policy rooted in such “moral clarity,” the world of 1989 has disappeared and America has begun to resemble the Britain of Salisbury and Balfour, a superpower past her prime, with enemies rising everywhere.
In Latin America, Castro has found a successor in Hugo Chávez. Across the Middle East, Islamic peoples seek to expel us. We are mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and defied by that surviving partner of the “Axis of Evil,” Iran. China may be about to become for us what Wilhelmine Germany became for Britain. Notwithstanding all the neoconservative blather about our being an “omnipower” in “a unipolar world,” we are bedeviled on every continent.
Rather than follow the wisdom of conservative men like Kennan, Eisenhower, and Reagan, we began to emulate every folly of imperial Britain in her plunge from power. With all our braying about being the “indispensable nation” and “Bring ’em on!” braggadocio, we exhibited an imperial hubris the whole world came to detest.
There is hardly a blunder of the British Empire we have not replicated. As Grey and Churchill seized on von Kluck’s violation of Belgian neutrality to put their precooked plans for war into effect, the neoconservatives seized on 9/11 to persuade our untutored president that he had a historic mission to bring down Saddam Hussein, liberate Iraq, establish a strategic position flanking Iran and Syria, democratize the Middle East and the Islamic world, and make himself the Churchill of his generation.
As Chamberlain gave a war guarantee to Poland he could not honor, the United States began to hand out NATO war guarantees to six Warsaw Pact nations, the three Baltic republics, and, soon, Ukraine and Georgia. Should a hostile regime come to power in Moscow and reoccupy these nations, we would have to declare war. Yet no matter how much we treasure the newly free Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, their independence is not a vital U.S. interest, and never has been. And the threatened loss of their independence cannot justify war with a nuclear-armed Russia.
As Britain had a “balance-of-power” policy not to permit any nation to become dominant in Europe, the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States declares our intention not to permit any nation to rise to a position to challenge U.S. dominance on any continent—an attempt to freeze in place America’s transient moment of global supremacy. But time does not stand still. New powers arise. Old powers fade. And no power can for long dominate the whole world. Look again at that graveyard of empires, the twentieth century. Even we Americans cannot stop the march of history.
As Britain threw over Japan and drove Italy into the arms of Hitler, Bush pushes Russia’s Putin into the arms of China by meddling in the politics of Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus, planting U.S. bases in Central Asia, and hectoring him for running an autocratic state that does not pass muster with the National Endowment for Democracy.
Ours is a peculiarly American blindness. Under the Monroe Doctrine, foreign powers are to stay out of our hemisphere. Yet no other great power is permitted to have its own sphere of influence. We bellow self-righteously when foreigners funnel cash into our elections, yet intrude massively with tax dollars in the elections of other nations—to promote our religion of democracy.
As the British launched an imperial war in Iraq after their victory over the Ottoman Empire, we launched a war in Iraq after our victory over the Soviet Empire. Never before have our commitments been so numerous or extensive. Yet our active-duty forces have been reduced to one-half of 1 percent of our population, one-ninth the number under arms in May 1945.
We are approaching what Walter Lippmann called “foreign policy bankruptcy.” Our strategic assets, armaments, and allies cannot cover our strategic liabilities, our commitments to go to war on behalf of scores of nations from Central and South America to the Baltic and the Balkans, to the Middle East, the Gulf, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and Taiwan. Like the British before us, America has reached imperial overstretch. Either we double or treble our air, sea, and land forces, or we start shedding commitments, or we are headed inexorably for an American Dienbienphu. For if the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are stretched to the limit by the insurgencies in Mesopotamia and Afghanistan, how can we police the rest of the planet?
We cannot. If two or three of the IOUs we have handed out are called in, the bankruptcy of U.S. foreign policy will be exposed to the world.
America is as overextended as the British Empire of 1939. We have commitments to fight on behalf of scores of nations that have nothing to do with our vital interests, commitments we could not honor were several to be called in at once. We have declared it to be U.S. policy to democratize the planet, to hold every nation to our standards of social justice and human rights, and to “end tyranny in the world.”
And to show the world he meant business, President Bush had placed in his Oval Office a bust of Winston Churchill.