Contrarian view of U.S. history; Candidate: Presidential hopeful Patrick J. Buchanan's book, "A Republic, Not an Empire," has stirred controversy in the Republican Party.


WASHINGTON -- Beaten back by British Spitfires over the English Channel, Hitler's Nazi forces turned eastward in the summer of 1941, throwing 3 million men against Stalin's Soviet Union and dropping the United States from their target list -- at least for a time.

That is a historical fact, capturing a pivotal moment in time, and from that moment, Patrick J. Buchanan reaches conclusions in his new manifesto that have divided the Republican Party between those who say Buchanan should no longer be welcome in the party and those who worry that driving him out could cost the Republicans the White House in 2000.

Beyond the political consequences, Buchanan's book has also led some historians of the era to try to refute some of its central tenets.

Buchanan concludes that before Pearl Harbor, there was no real U.S. interest in a European war, that Franklin D. Roosevelt provoked Germany and Japan into striking America and, ultimately, that Roosevelt and the interventionist wing of the U.S. political system stand responsible for the Stalinist scourge, the fall of China, the war in Vietnam, even the genocide of Pol Pot.

Before Pearl Harbor, at a time when many Americans were dead-set against U.S. entry into World War II, his thesis would not have triggered a political uproar. Even today, some historical contrarians share Buchanan's analysis.

"He's not alone" in such beliefs, cautions Geoffrey Cocks, a World War II historian at Albion College in Michigan, who says he has read portions of the book. "But that doesn't make him any less wrong."

As a campaign document for a presidential candidate, Buchanan's book, "A Republic, Not an Empire," is a bold stroke.

The candidate has called it "a boring, scholarly work on foreign policy." But its broad statements and historical leaps are anything but boring and, say some historians, hardly scholarly.

By Buchanan's reckoning, Britain and France plunged the world into war in 1939 by guaranteeing Poland that they would intervene if Hitler attacked.

Indeed, he suggests, that one diplomatic blunder might have led to postwar Soviet tyranny, the London blitz, the depredations of Vichy and "the destruction of the Jewish populations of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France or even Italy."

All along, Buchanan argues, Hitler wanted only to do battle with Stalin, and the two tyrants might well have destroyed each other had the West not intervened.

"Had Britain made an alliance with France to confront Nazi Germany with a Western defense wall, without making a commitment to Poland, the Allies might have stayed out of the titanic clash between the Nazis and Bolsheviks," Buchanan asserts.

"By redirecting Hitler's first blow upon themselves, Britain and France bought Stalin two extra years to prepare for Hitler's attack -- and thus saved the Soviet Union for communism."

Similarly, he says, the Western powers were largely to blame for war with Japan, the seeds of which he argues were sewn by the U.S. annexation of the Philippines and the West's cozy relations with China earlier in the century.

Indeed, the United States might never have entered World War II, Buchanan suggests, had Roosevelt not provoked German submarines and lured the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor.

"There is something deeply wrong about how the United States got into that war," Buchanan argues, blaming Roosevelt ultimately for the "wars in Korea and Vietnam, 100,000 American dead, 350,000 American wounded, the Stalinization of French Indochina and genocide in Cambodia."

Not all historians are completely dismissive. Robert A. Divine, professor emeritus at the University of Texas and an author on U.S. isolationism who says he has read part of the book, says: "There's something to this."

Most Americans did not want their country to enter World War II before Pearl Harbor, and Roosevelt was deliberately provocative in his search for a pretext to come to the allies' defense, says Divine, author of a classic book on the origins of World War II, "The Reluctant Belligerent."

But Buchanan loses even his sympathizers in his assertion that the United States was no longer under threat after the fall of 1940.

"After the Battle of Britain, Hitler no longer contemplated invading Britain," allows Thomas Childers, a World War II historian at the University of Pennsylvania. "Britain was relatively safe -- that in the narrowest sense of the word was true.

"But in the summer of 1941, everyone assumed Germany would win when they invaded the Soviet Union," Childers continues.

"If he prevailed in the Soviet Union, Hitler would have been master of Europe, from the English Channel to the Urals, and Britain's position would have been untenable.

"It's a crazy argument to say American national security was not at risk."

Buchanan also overlooks some disquieting facts, says Brother Edward Sheehy, a military historian at LaSalle University who has read portions of the candidate's book.

German U-boats were already menacing the U.S. coast. Two years earlier, Albert Einstein had warned Roosevelt in his famous letter that Germany might be moving to build an atomic bomb.

And the German navy was building a monstrous aircraft carrier, suggesting that the Nazis still harbored offensive intentions, says Robert Maddox, an American historian at Pennsylvania State University.

"The notion that Buchanan can say Hitler posed no threat is just nonsense," suggests Maddox, who said he has not read the book.

Buchanan is not the first to make such arguments.

In his book "Backdoor to War," a title that Buchanan lifted for one of his chapters, Charles Callan Tansill also contended that Roosevelt provoked the attacks on U.S. forces.

But where some contrarian historians have hedged, Buchanan asserts. He quotes the Oxford don and legendary gadfly A. J. P. Taylor as writing, "Maybe [Hitler's] ambitions were genuinely limited to the East; maybe conquest there would have been only the preliminary to conquest in Western Europe or on a world scale. No one can tell."

Buchanan seeks to divine Hitler's intentions: "No one can know the mind of Hitler. But as of mid-1940, his actions argue that beneath the overlay of Nazi ideology, he was driven by a traditional German policy of the drive to the East."

Still, says Divine, it is worth re-examining these questions, instead of merely dismissing them as the ravings of an unpatriotic anti-Semite, as some of Buchanan's critics have done.

Sheehy agrees. If "A Republic, Not an Empire" had been published in 1941, he suggests, it might have been a best-seller in an America where isolationist sentiment dominated, and it probably would have been well received in the press.

The book might be a bit of an anachronism, he says, but "it's a cheap shot to say he likes Hitler. Anyone who knows anything about the war would dismiss the attacks on Buchanan as unfair."

Still, to release such an incendiary analysis in the middle of a campaign seems to border on politically suicidal, Divine says: "I can't imagine why he would come out with this book at this time."

Pub Date: 9/29/99

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