Three generations of American policymakers and pundits have regarded the war’s lessons as indisputable. First, aggression must always be halted at the outset, wherever it surfaces. Appeasement merely whets the appetites of aggressors and leads to larger, more destructive conflicts under less favorable circumstances for peace‐loving nations. Second, no adverse development anywhere in the world is entirely irrelevant to the security and well‐being of the United States. Arguments to the contrary reflect flawed isolationist thinking and risk repeating the strategy that nearly produced a totalitarian‐dominated planet.
A few brave souls occasionally question this orthodoxy. They invariably receive torrents of abuse. Pat Buchanan has experienced that response twice: in 1999, with the publication of a chapter on World War II in A Republic, Not an Empire, and now with the appearance of Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War.
The argument that the United States could and should have remained on the sidelines in World War II is not entirely convincing—at least with respect to the European theater. It assumes that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would have exhausted themselves in a stalemated struggle, and the United States and other Western powers would then have been well positioned to pick up the pieces after the collapse of the two totalitarian giants. The situation might have worked out that way, but such a strategy would have been high‐risk. It is equally possible that either Germany or the USSR would have scored a decisive victory and then dominated all of Europe. A Soviet‐controlled continent would have been catastrophic; a Europe dominated by Nazi Germany and its volatile, extremely aggressive dictator would have been even worse. Roosevelt deserves criticism for the deceitful way in which he maneuvered America toward war, but his alarm at the danger a totalitarian Europe could pose to America was not misplaced.
The Pacific theater was different. Japan’s expansionism, while brutal, was not dramatically worse than some European empire‐building in the 19th century. With better diplomacy, America probably could have reached a modus vivendi with Japan and avoided war. Instead of seeking pragmatic solutions, however, the Roosevelt administration presented Tokyo with a laundry list of unrealistic and humiliating demands—couched in moralistic, sermonizing terms worthy of the Democratic Party’s sainted hero Woodrow Wilson. When the Japanese government did not capitulate, Washington ratcheted up the pressure through economic sanctions, including an oil embargo that threatened to strangle Japan’s economy and military. The predictable result was war.
Whether or not America’s entry into World War II was wise, the supposed lessons of the conflict have distorted U.S. foreign policy and suffocated prudent strategies for more than six decades. American officials and pundits have portrayed an array of tin‐pot dictators as the reincarnation of Hitler: Kim Il‐Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld even tried to equate the clownish Hugo Chavez with Hitler. The notion that decrepit, third‐rate powers such as North Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq, and Venezuela could ever compare to Nazi Germany—which had the world’s second‐largest economy and a modern, extremely capable military—would be humorous if U.S. leaders did not base policy on that fallacy.
Overuse of the Munich analogy impelled U.S. policymakers to intervene in Vietnam. The argument was that failure to block Hanoi’s bid to reunify the country under a communist regime would lead to a cascade of “wars of national liberation” and produce a third world war. The Clinton administration similarly invoked the specter of Europe degenerating into chaos to justify meddling in the Bosnian civil war. And the image of Saddam Hussein as rapacious aggressor became the rationale for the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.