Capitol Ideas

The Good War? Maybe Not

Could World War II have been prevented?

By From the December 2008 - January 2009 issue

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I HAVE CHILDHOOD MEMORIES OF World War II: the drone of distant night bombers in formation (coming from America? heading to Germany? I don’t know); the skittering contrails of a “dog fight” in a clear blue sky; great Wehrmacht-obstructing concrete blocks littering the road from the South Coast (Worthing, Bognor Regis) to London; Canadian soldiers bivouacked in the house opposite; then, one morning, gone. Gone to the beaches of Normandy; not seen again by me. Meanwhile they had made, especially for me, a cut-down, child-sized army uniform, and I was so proud to wear it.

I saw one of those V1 “doodlebugs” -- pilotless planes with an engine like an unsilenced motorbike -- making its guttural way across the Surrey skies toward the North Downs. The engine stopped, and there was a thirty-second silence. Then the plane (a flying bomb) exploded two or three miles away.

And I remember my mother saying, repeatedly, "Oh, before the war..." How different everything had been. She was recalling a lost age. And it was lost.

World War I became known as the Great War -- although not approvingly. Now, some refer to World War II as “the good war.” Very much approvingly.

I wonder, though. Has enough time passed to raise the question whether it really was the good war? I hope so. From Britain’s point of view I believe it was not a good war. The country became mere Britain, no longer Great. For America the war had its advantages (but not for the 417,000 who were killed). And certainly the war was good for the Soviet ruling class. The whole of Eastern Europe fell under Communist domination for 45 years. Without the war it wouldn’t have happened.

I have been reading Patrick J. Buchanan’s book Churchill, Hitler and “The Unnecessary War,” and it is an informative and courageous work. On its face, it may seem odd to call a book courageous that questions the need for a war in which 50 million people died. But support for the war has been so sustained and the denunciations of its critics so vehement that something must be said.

Buchanan’s book is not about the war itself but about the events leading up to it. I shall focus on two events in particular. The first was the Versailles Treaty of 1919. The second, Neville Chamberlain’s war guarantee to Poland in March 1939. A lunch discussion of that guarantee, held in London at the time of Sir James Goldsmith’s funeral and attended by Buchanan, was the inspiration for the book. In addition, the historians Andrew Roberts and Paul Johnson and the politician and diarist Alan Clark joined in that discussion.

The armistice that ended World War I was based on Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Germany had triumphed in the east and its troops still occupied France. So it accepted what seemed to be reasonable terms. Britain’s David Lloyd George at first opposed any “vengeance and avarice.” But the popular press in London whipped up the public and a spirit of retribution soon consumed all the parties (Georges Clemenceau of France in the thick of it). New points were added to Wilson’s 14. Germany was to surrender all its colonies and possessions and was saddled with the cost of British military pensions and many other burdens.

The Versailles terms became ever more onerous as the meeting progressed, but Germany, facing a naval blockade and starvation, signed on the dotted line. It was a belated conquest dressed up as a treaty. Herbert Hoover, then involved in famine-relief work, called the post-armistice “food blockade” of Germany “a wicked thrust of allied militarism and punishment,” and a “black chapter in human history.”

John Maynard Keynes said that the “peace” of Versailles, in which Germany had been deliberately humiliated, would last for 20 years. He was spot on.

After Versailles Germany lost Danzig, among other territories. It was 95 percent German, and Germany had a strong historical claim to the port. But it had been transferred to Poland, along with a linking corridor, to give that country a port on the Baltic. The 350,000 Danzigers were agitating for a restoration to Germany.

 “If Warsaw would consent to Germany’s building of an extra-territorial road and railway line across the Corridor,” Buchanan writes, “Berlin would leave Warsaw in control of the economic and railway facilities in Danzig and guarantee Poland’s frontiers.”

 A deal was expected. Hitler wanted Poland in his “anti-Comintern Pact,” and “the fiercely anti-Bolshevik, anti-Russian, Catholic Poles seemed natural allies in a crusade to eradicate Communism.” It’s of interest that in the prewar period Hitler and Churchill did agree on one thing: the menace of Bolshevism.

But the Polish foreign minister Jozef Beck rebuffed the German offer. He had delusions of grandeur. In 1920 the Poles had rolled back the Red Army and briefly considered themselves a great power. They forgot, as the British historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote, that they had gained their independence in 1918 “only because both Russia and Germany had been defeated. Now they had to choose between Russia and Germany. They chose neither. Only Danzig prevented cooperation between Germany and Poland.”

The British “cared nothing for Danzig,” Taylor added, or if they did, “they sympathized with the German case.” “Die for Danzig?” That become the rallying cry of British war-skeptics.

EARLIER THERE HAD BEEN MUNICH -- a fiasco for Chamberlain. This was not so much because he gave away the store -- Czechoslovakia wasn’t his to give and he had been in no position to defend it -- but because he made the mistake of trusting Hitler. He seemed weak and naïve. Hitler then humiliated him with a triumphant tour of Prague after he had taken over the Sudetenland.

With the news that Hitler was now planning to recapture Danzig Chamberlain decided he had to make a stand. That was his fatal blunder. He promised to go to war if Poland asked for help.

The British historian Roy Denman has called this guarantee “the most reckless undertaking ever given by a British government,” putting peace or war in Europe in the hands of an “intransigent, swashbuckling military dictatorship.”

“Therein lay the foolishness of the pledge,” Paul Johnson wrote in Modern Times. “Britain had no means of bringing effective aid to Poland, yet it obliged Britain itself to declare war on Germany if Poland so requested.” The “loosely worded pledge” was “one of the most ill-considered in British history.”

Churchill (not yet prime minister) immediately supported the pledge, saying that “the preservation and integrity of Poland must be regarded as a cause commanding the regard of all the world.” But in The Gathering Storm, published after the war, he changed his tune. “How could we protect Poland and make good our guarantee?…Here was a decision taken at the worst possible moment and on the least satisfactory ground, which must surely lead to the slaughter of tens of millions of people.”

Tragically, that’s what happened, over the next few years.

I was interested to read about the pledge to Poland, because I had known little about it. Chamberlain has been criticized for it, but we are a hundred times more likely to have heard him vilified as an appeaser, returning from Munich waving a piece of paper and promising “peace in our time.”

A recent, analogous turn of events, potentially involving Russia and the United States, reminds us that the Polish guarantee of 1939 should always be remembered as an object lesson. In August, military forces in Georgia invaded two breakaway or autonomous provinces, and attempted to reunite them with Georgia. Russia then attacked and beat back the Georgians. It also invaded other parts of Georgia, including Gori, birthplace of Stalin. Possibly Russia wants to restore the whole of Georgia to Russian control--I don’t know.

What I do know is that Sen. John McCain pressed for Georgia’s admission into NATO and said, “Today, we are all Georgians.” Lest we forget, a guiding principle of NATO is collective security: “An attack on one is an attack upon all.” If attacked, then, Georgia could call on its NATO allies (us) to come to its defense. Against Russia.

Thus the parallel with the Polish guarantee. In a Washington Post piece in August, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote that the prospects of NATO membership emboldened Georgia to launch its attack on the breakaway provinces. It seems to me that expanding NATO out to Russia’s borders has been a foolhardy exercise and one can only hope that the Germans and French will put a halt to it.

Die for Gori? I hope not. Let’s try to keep a sense of proportion about these things. There are times when a country must go to war, but good judgment is a prerequisite. War against Germany to protect Poland showed poor judgment. So would a war against Russia now to protect Georgia’s independence.

IN REVISITING THE PRELIMINARIES to World War II, I want to make one more point. Let’s pretend that we can rewrite history, this time without Chamberlain’s pledge. Now what happens? One possibility is that Hitler decides to move east and attack the Soviet Union. He was explicit in Mein Kampf that east was the most promising direction for German expansion, not west or south. And east was where he went anyway. Maybe, with a neutral Poland, an advance to the east would have meant the early end of the Soviet Union, or mutual destruction of the German and Russian armies.

But engaging in such speculation ensnares us in counterfactual history and, as you can readily see, it’s all guesswork. You can make it come out any way you want. Does this mean that we should avoid such speculation? Maybe. We certainly shouldn’t believe any of this subjunctive history. Perhaps it’s an interesting game but it won’t prove anything.

Notice, however, that those in the "good war” camp all along have engaged in just such counterfactual speculation. How so? Obviously they do not call World War II the good war because they believe that the terrible things that happened--50 million dead, including 6 million Jews--really were good. What they mean is that if the destruction of the Third Reich had not happened, an even worse outcome would have come our way.

They have already decided how things would have turned out, if the actual course of events had somehow been derailed. Some believe, for example, that Hitler would have conquered the whole world and we all would have become slaves of the Nazis.

Well, we don’t know that. That particular alternative history is no more reliable than any other. The difference is that the “good war” proponents got in first with their “even-worse-without-it” argument, and they have stuck to their guns.

Perhaps, in the end, we can all agree on one thing: that the war in and of itself was a terrible thing, maybe the worst in history. Let’s try to stop anything like it from happening again.

On one point I disagree with Buchanan. His book is subtitled, in part, “How Britain Lost Its Empire.” But surely it was doomed anyway? The unmitigated disaster of World War I already saw to that. As Buchanan asks, at the end of his account of Versailles: “How could British and Europeans, who had just concluded four years of butchering one another with abandon, assert a moral superiority that gave them the right to rule other people?”

They couldn’t. It was over for the British and the other empires. Even the short-lived Soviet version fell. And notice that that evil empire was a product of World War II--the not-so-good war.

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).