Recently, Pat Buchanan fired the first volley in the next great debate on “The Good War” – World War II – in his column in Human Events. He critiqued pacifist Nicholson Baker’s new book challenging the virtue of World War II – then makes his own (different) case for why “The Good War” was nothing of the kind. While he raised some interesting points and drew some challenging conclusions, we’ll have to wait for Mr. Buchanan’s new book, “Churchill, Hitler and 'The Unnecessary War,” due out next month.
I’ll reserve judgment on that book until I can read it, but I took the opportunity on the Human Events website to take issue with some of Mr. Buchanan’s conclusions. Here is his column and my reply:
Was It 'The Good War'?
Published in Human Events 4/4/08
"Yes, it was a good war," writes Richard Cohen in his column challenging the thesis of pacifist Nicholson Baker in his new book, "Human Smoke," that World War II produced more evil than good.
Baker's compelling work, which uses press clips and quotes of Axis and Allied leaders as they plunged into the great cataclysm, is a virtual diary of the days leading up to World War II.
Riveting to this writer was that Baker uses some of the same episodes, sources and quotes as this author in my own book out in May, "Churchill, Hitler and 'The Unnecessary War.'"
On some points, Cohen is on solid ground. There are things worth fighting for: God and country, family and freedom. Martyrs have ever inspired men. And to some evils pacifism is no answer. Resistance, even unto death, may be required of a man.
But when one declares a war that produced Hiroshima and the Holocaust a "Good War," it raises a question: good for whom?
Britain declared war on Sept. 3, 1939, to preserve Poland. For six years, Poland was occupied by Nazi and Soviet armies and SS and NKVD killers. At war's end, the Polish dead were estimated at 6 million. A third of Poland had been torn away by Stalin, and Nazis had used the country for the infamous camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Fifteen thousand Polish officers had been massacred at places like Katyn. The Home Army that rose in Warsaw at the urging of the Red Army in 1944 had been annihilated, as the Red Army watched from the other side of the Vistula. When the British celebrated V-E day in May 1945, Poland began 44 years of tyranny under the satraps of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
Was World War II "a good war" for the Poles?
Was it a good war for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, overrun by Stalin's army in June 1940, whose people saw their leaders murdered or deported to the Gulag never to return? Was it a good war for the Finns who lost Karelia and thousands of brave men dead in the Winter War?
Was it a good war for Hungarians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Rumanians and Albanians who ended up behind the Iron Curtain? In Hungary, it was hard to find a women or girl over 10 who had not been raped by the "liberators" of the Red Army. Was it a good war for the 13 million German civilians ethnically cleansed from Central Europe and the 2 million who died in the exodus?
Was it a good war for the French, who surrendered after six weeks of fighting in 1940 and had to be liberated by the Americans and British after four years of Vichy collaboration?
And how good a war was it for the British?
They went to war for Poland, but Winston Churchill abandoned Poland to Stalin. Defeated in Norway, France, Greece, Crete and the western desert, they endured until America came in and joined in the liberation of Western Europe.
Yet, at war's end in 1945, Britain was bled and bankrupt, and the great cause of Churchill's life, preserving his beloved empire, was lost. Because of the "Good War" Britain would never be great again.
And were the means used by the Allies, the terror bombing of Japanese and German cities, killing hundreds of thousands of women and children, perhaps millions, the marks of a "good war"?
Cohen contends that the evil of the Holocaust makes it a "good war." But the destruction of the Jews of Europe was a consequence of this war, not a cause. As for the Japanese atrocities like the Rape of Nanking, they were indeed horrific.
But America's smashing of Japan led not to freedom for China, but four years of civil war followed by 30 years of Maoist madness in which 30 million Chinese perished.
For America, the war was Pearl Harbor and Midway, Anzio and Iwo Jima, Normandy and Bastogne, days of glory leading to triumph and the American Century.
But for Joseph Stalin, it was also a good war. From his pact with Adolf Hitler he annexed parts of Finland and Rumania, and three Baltic republics. His armies stood in Berlin, Prague and Vienna; his agents were vying for power in Rome and Paris; his ally was installed in North Korea; his protégé, Mao, was about to bring China into his empire. But it was not so good a war for the inmates of Kolyma or the Russian POWs returned to Stalin in Truman's Operation Keelhaul.
Is a war that replaces Hitler's domination of Europe with Stalin's and Japan's rule in China with Mao's a "good war"? We had to stop the killers, says Cohen. But who were the greater killers: Hitler or Stalin, Tojo or Mao Zedong?
Can a war in which 50 million perished and the Christian continent was destroyed, half of it enslaved, a war that has advanced the death of Western civilization, be truly celebrated as a "good war"?
I share your enthusiasm for history - I've been fortunate enough to have been on the History Channel on eight occasions and to have had published a number of articles on history (including one in Newsweek Japan in defense of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings - not for the carnage they caused, but for the perhaps 10 million Japanese starvation deaths they prevented). So I read your column with more than a little interest.
I have no use for "pacifism" as a philosophy - the world is too harsh a place to stand idly by singing Kumbaya while the wolves howl at the door. But you raise the issue of the worth of World War II from a non-pacifistic position, and I think your views are therefore worth serious consideration. I have long bought into the "Good War" theory, all the while wondering how Churchill could sell out Poland (after going to war to preserve that too-frequently-conquered country); how Roosevelt could barter away Eastern Europe at Yalta (though much of that was acknowledging a fait accompli); how Truman could "Keelhaul" millions of reluctant-to-return Soviet citizens held in Nazi POW camps even when he had reason to believe that they were being sent to their death or long-term imprisonment (it was no secret that Stalin's USSR considered all surrendering troops as traitors unless proven otherwise). It seems that, except for Italy (our enemy) and Western Europe (including our other enemy, West Germany), the "Good War" was indeed not very good. While we freed half a continent, as you pointed out, we liberated the other half of the continent from Hitlerism only to consign them to nearly half a century of Stalinism.
So I'd like to acknowledge that you are, in part, echoing some of my own thoughts and musings.
But I have to take issue with some items and assumptions you make (though acknowledging that your book may address them).
While I am horrified by Japan's excesses, it's true that the ultimate result of World War II in the Pacific was Mao's China (not to mention Kim's North Korea and Ho's North Vietnam). However, unlike Europe, that was neither the goal nor the initial outcome. We supported Nationalist Chiang against the Japanese (and allowed him to keep his lend-lease materials and US advisors to fight Mao after the war). Unlike Eastern Europe, we didn't want a Communist China and didn't agree to it by treaty. However, a war-weary America and a too-accommodating Truman didn't NOT want a Communist China badly enough to fight for it (and perhaps fight Stalin for it - a land-war in Asia we could have only won by resorting to massive use of tactical nuclear weapons). But in the Pacific, we fought for the defeat of a fascist-like ultra-nationalism and a return to a status quo ante that, while not liberating the colonial countries (except our own - we kept our word to the Philippines), we did fight for freedom in China. It's not our fault (the way Poland and Eastern Europe are our fault) that China couldn't keep that freedom. In the Pacific, we did fight the Good Fight - and I contend that even Hiroshima was justified in the awful arithmetic of total war (as I contended in my Newsweek Japan article last summer).
It's not so clear in Europe, you are correct in that. However, if we (after December 11, when Hitler declared war on us - not the other way around) and Britain on September 3, 1939 (and France before June 1940) had sat idly by and let Hitler have his way, he might well have ignored the West (at least at first) and focused on replacing Stalinism in all of Eastern Europe and Central Asia with Hitlerism - a fascism supported, as Churchill said, by a perverted science.
Left to his own devices, and with the incredible brainpower of Germany's scientists at his beck and call, Hitler might have become the world's only nuclear power (we certainly wouldn't have had the Manhattan Engineering Project without the impetus of World War II - and who knows what he might have done.
You can maintain that we should not deal in "what if" speculation about a future Europe with Hitler in sole command of everything from the Rhine to the Urals (including the oil-rich Caucuses and the food-rich and metal ore-rich Ukraine) - but I think you use that same "what if" logic in blaming Communist China on our "Good War" effort to defeat Japan. We freed China - not knowing that a Soviet-backed Mao would, four years down the line, make a mockery of that freedom. And if we'd given Hitler a free hand, he might well have become the sole world nuclear power by that same 1949.
In such a world, and if Hitler's success had altered the flow of the Pacific's pre-war policies, Japan might have avoided war with the West (after all, in a peaceful Europe, the colonial powers would not have been preoccupied - a major impetus for Japan's warlike approach to 1941. In that case, Japan might have likewise come to control resource-rich Siberia, giving the world two dark superpowers with no-one strong enough to stand against them.
Given Hitler's empire-building proclivity, and his often-stated desire to punish the West (eventually) for World War I, a nuclear Germany might have indeed become a nuclear power, and used nuclear blackmail to control Europe - and to intimidate America. While we had the stomach to fight back against Japan (and to take on Hitler as part of a coalition once he'd declared war on us), would we have faced him alone, knowing that our seaboard-hugging cities with their tens of millions of Americans were at risk of a nuclear holocaust we could not answer? I think not.
Taking this further, I do not think that Hitler's empire could have survived him, any more than Alexander's survived the world's first "Great" conqueror. So perhaps this is all moot.
I look forward to your book, Mr. Buchanan, and I look forward to the vigorous debate in defense of America's (and the West's) role in World War II that is sure to follow. Could we have had the "Greatest Generation" without a "Good War?" Probably not - so those old warriors, and the generations that followed, will be sure to challenge your views.
All the best