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Patrick Buchanan’s Forebears

by Alvin Finkel on Dec 28, 1999

Alvin Finkel

Which presidential aspirant would provide the greatest continuity with the foreign policy course that has typified Western diplomacy in the 20th century? Unfortunately, it’s Patrick Buchanan.

In his recent book, “A Republic, Not an Empire,” Buchanan suggests that Britain and France should not have declared war against Germany in September 1939 and that the United States should not have joined the war in December 1941. In Buchanan’s view, the Western powers should have continued appeasing Hitler so that he could have destroyed the Soviet Union.

For Buchanan, Communism, with its rejection of free enterprise and foreign investment, represented a threat to “Western interests” that Nazism and fascism, with their rejection of democracy and individual rights, did not. His view of which forms of totalitarianism were acceptable and which were not was shared by major Western politicians in the 1930s. It became the COMMON SENSE of the Cold War period. It lingers today.

Following a logic similar to Buchanan’s, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his leading cabinet colleagues lauded Hitler’s military expansion from 1933 to 1939. They presumed that his aim was to confront the Soviets. Young John F. Kennedy, writing in 1940, summed up nicely the British attitude: “During this period, the fear of Communism, not of Nazism, was the great British bogey. Germany, under Hitler, with its early program of vigorous opposition to Communism, was looked on as a bulwark against the spread of the doctrine through Europe.”

Kennedy knew about the attitudes of the British from his father, Joseph Kennedy, American ambassador to Britain. Joseph Kennedy shared the British mindset regarding Hitler. Franklin Roosevelt did not. But America’s foreign policy agenda was driven by men like Kennedy, and by “isolationists,” who believed the United States should ignore European conflicts altogether.

One of these influential isolationists was Martin Dies, the Texas congressman who chaired the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in the late 1930s. HUAC was supposed to investigate the activities of all “subversive” groups in America. In practice, it focused exclusively on the Communists, ignoring Nazi and fascist groups because the latter participated in attacks on Communists.

That perspective, Pat Buchanan’s today, might have prevailed beyond 1939 but for Hitler’s impatience and paranoia. Western elites’ efforts to convince him of their support failed. In two private meetings with Hitler that preceded the famous Munich agreement of September 1938, Chamberlain assured Hitler that Germany had a free hand in central and eastern Europe.

But Hitler’s suspicion of democracies made him begin plans for a pre-emptive attack on Britain and France before making war on the eastern front. And his impatience for territory made him take the rest of post-Munich Czechoslovakia rather too quickly for the tastes of the British public. Public pressures and national security considerations forced a reluctant Chamberlain to take steps, beginning with a guarantee of Poland’s territory, that led inevitably to war with Hitler.

Britain’s going to war with Germany in 1939 ought not to obscure its six previous years of supporting Hitler as an opponent of Communism. Britain ignored his destruction of democracy and human rights at home and his military takeover of neighboring countries’ territory.

American foreign policy during the Cold War had a similar cast. Overthrowing elected leftist regimes in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Indonesia in favor of military thugs was justified in terms of narrowly defined “Western interests.” Support of the apartheid regime in South Africa was justified in terms of Cold War logic: the Nationalists may have disenfranchised the majority, but they were fierce anti-Communists.

Pat Buchanan defends a similar approach to foreign policy. Like North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, he believes that Americans can’t do too much to isolate Castro’s Cuba. But he has no bitter words for right-wing dictatorships, past or present. We owe Buchanan a debt for his bluntness regarding foreign-policy options. Buchanan is clear that Western foreign policy should be bloody-minded. If there are American economic interests to protect, send in the armed forces. If there are none, leave the people to cut themselves to pieces or starve.

Buchanan’s historical reflections should give us pause about the morality of starting the next millennium with the mindset that prevailed for the last century. If we are to avoid giving support to the equivalents of Hitler, we need to broaden our understanding of “Western interests” to make democracy and justice, rather than free enterprise, the touchstones of support for a regime.


Alvin Finkel is co-author, with Clement Leibovitz and Christopher Hitchens, of "In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion." He teaches history at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada.