In 1996, as Pat Buchanan's second presidential campaign was fading fast into irrelevancy, Bill Maher delivered this coup de grace: "Nobody's following Buchanan now except Simon Wiesenthal."
Like all great jokes, Maher's gag was a flip way of telling the truth. Calling Buchanan a fascist sounds so knee-jerk lefty that it's a sure bet to keep yourself from being taken seriously. What, then, do you do when faced with A Republic, Not an Empire? Though it's clear that Buchanan doesn't have any chance of reaching the White House, how can he be dismissed as a fringe lunatic when he's courting a party nomination that would give him access to federal matching funds?
A Republic, Not an Empire is Buchanan's assessment of American foreign policy. He's against it.
In Buchanan's view, international obligations to defend democracy are so harshly stretching and depleting our resources that we're on our way to becoming a played-out power. This state of affairs, he tells us, is the legacy of the shortsighted, arrogant "interventionists" (FDR and Winston Churchill among them) who would have us extend our protection to areas of the world without strategic importance to us. The conventional term for people who hold Buchanan's views, "isolationists," is, he tells us, "a dismissive slur on the tradition of U.S. independence in foreign policy and nonintervention in foreign wars," and he cites addresses by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams to back his claim up.
His language, though, is from a less rich oratorical strain, half John Birch Society pamphleteer ("the free-trade uber-alles policy of the administration") and fire-and-brimstone preacher:
A day of reckoning is approaching. It is my hope
that the price in blood, treasure, and humiliation
America will eventually be forced to pay for the
hubris, arrogance, and folly of our reigning foreign
policy elites is not, God forbid, war, defeat, and the
diminution of the Republic -- the fate of every other
great nation or empire that set out on this same
It would take a team of historians weeks to ferret out all the missions, contradictions and outright lies in this celebration of what Sen. Arlen Specter, referring last week to the Republicans who voted to defeat the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, called Fortress America. But Buchanan's intentions are perfectly clear, and the story he tells -- it stretches from Washington's 1754 march to Fort Duquesne to the present, making its most significant stop at World War II -- is all of a piece. It would be nice to be able to dismiss the volume as a boy's-book adventure imagined by a pug-faced schoolyard bully. But the stink of death rises too strongly from its pages to treat it as a joke.
A Republic, Not an Empire puts forth a consistent view of American strength built on foreign corpses. Among the sacrifices Buchanan considers acceptable are the Eastern European Jews slaughtered by Hitler, the Chileans murdered by Pinochet, the South Africans murdered under apartheid, the Nicaraguans murdered by that country's "freedom fighters" and the Kosovars slaughtered by Milosevic. None of these people, Buchanan tells us, count for enough to have deterred America from its course.
But what is that course, you might wonder, if it's not using our status as a world power to stand up against abuses that are abhorrent to our ideals -- even if our actions have sometimes suggested otherwise?
Buchanan's answer is the consolidation of might -- but might divorced from morality and responsibility. His "reclamation" of America's destiny translates into something like the United States as Nero, watching from the global sidelines as lions gobble up Christians and showing the rare mercy of a thumbs-up only to victims who can satisfactorily answer the question "What have you done for me lately?" "America is about nothing if not the preservation of liberty," Buchanan writes; but "liberty" is a word that has no relevance to him when it's applied to anyone other than Americans -- and then to only certain kinds of Americans. Just as needy foreign countries are a threat, so are foreigners within our borders: The "trend back toward hyphenated-Americanism is not a sign of national vitality, but of a dying patriotism and approaching disunion...Continued mass immigration, legal and illegal, threatens America's national unity" -- not our resources, mind you, but our unity -- "and may yet bring the eventual breakup of this country."
If nothing else, A Republic, Not an Empire is ample proof of George Orwell's admonition that corruption of language is one of the surest signs of the totalitarian mind-set. Consider the following passage:
Whether a nation is democratic should be of less
concern to us than how it views America. In the
Cold War, autocratic Pakistan was a better friend
than democratic India, which sided with Moscow in
the Afghan war. Chile's Pinochet was a better friend
than the elected demagogue Salvador Allende.
Other examples follow (notably the Europeans who didn't support us in Vietnam), but stop right there and hold those lines in mind as we turn to the beginning of the next paragraph:
"The form of governments nations adopt is their own business."
First, consider the language. The vagueness of "The form of government nations adopt" nearly slides right by. Nations are the people who constitute them, and governments are not "adopted" but are either chosen by vote or imposed by force. Certainly Chileans didn't "adopt" our good friend Augusto Pinochet; he seized power after his countrymen, tending to "their own business," elected Salvador Allende. Thus we can assume that for Buchanan, a nation's choice of government is not always just its own business.
He admits as much:
When we say a nation is democratic we say only
that its leaders reflect the will of its people. Would
Americans be better off with regimes in Morocco,
Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait that
better reflected the will of the Arab street?...Of the
Persian Gulf nations, perhaps the most "democratic"
-- if voter approval and popular support are our
yardstick -- is Iran.
Again, pay attention to the language. If a democratically elected government is repugnant to him, it's a "regime." The popular will of Arab peoples is "the will of the Arab street," a phrase designed to invoke images of rabble-rousing anti-American rallies. (That Iran may well be the most democratic Persian Gulf nation is surely why its leaders are finding it harder and harder to hold to the Islamic hard line as Iranians press for a more democratic system.)
I'll concede Buchanan's point that "voter approval and popular support" don't always result in a more democratic society. Certainly the voter approval and popular support for Buchanan's idol, Ronald Reagan, whose economic policies concentrated the bulk of the national wealth among a tiny minority of citizens, didn't result in a more democratic nation. And you'd be hard pressed to find anything in the poll figures Buchanan cites for the years 1939 through 1941, showing that a majority of Americans opposed entering World War II, that does credit to the notion of democracy.
It is, of course, Buchanan's view of World War II that has provoked the firestorm over this book and caused Sen. John McCain to accuse him of slurring the memory of every American who fought and died in the conflict.
Briefly, Buchanan's take runs something like this: Since Hitler's ambitions were to restore the land taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and to extend Germany's empire into Russia, he presented no danger to the United States or to Britain. But Neville Chamberlain's Britain -- humiliated when Hitler broke his word and invaded Czechoslovakia -- then issued a guarantee of protection to Poland. Hitler's invasion of Poland propelled Western Europe into the war, and Hitler was forced to respond "to secure his rear before invading Russia," the country whose conquest was his ultimate aim. Thus, Europe bought Stalin two extra years to strengthen his army and prepare for Hitler's attack. The final outcome of Britain's guarantee to Poland -- and thus of such episodes of stunning courage as the Blitz and Dunkirk -- was to secure Eastern Europe for Stalin:
Had Britain and France not given the guarantee to
Poland, Hitler would almost surely have delivered
his first blow to Stalin's Russia. Britain and France
would have had additional years to build up their air
forces and armies and to purchase, as neutrals,
whatever munitions they needed from the United
States. If the revealed horrors of Nazism in the East
mandated a war, the allies could have chosen the
time and place to strike. Even had Hitler conquered
the USSR at enormous cost, would he then have
launched a new war against a Western Europe
where his ambitions never lay? Had Britain and
France not given the war guarantees to Poland,
there might have been no Dunkirk, no blitz, no
Vichy, no destruction of the Jewish populations of
Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg,
France, or even Italy.
Notice that Buchanan doesn't mention the destruction of the Eastern European Jews or of Hitler's myriad other Eastern European victims. The Eastern dead are the acceptable expenditures for keeping the United States out of the war.
Again and again, Buchanan tells us that Hitler's only aim was the conquest of the Soviet Union. How does he know this? He has Hitler's word on it, from Mein Kampf: "If we talk about new soil and territory in Europe today, we can think primarily only of Russia and its vassal border states." He quotes Hitler in August 1939 -- "Everything I undertake is directed against Russia" -- oblivious to the irony that 12 days after this statement, Germany and the Soviet Union announced their nonaggression pact. So much for Hitler's word.
But it isn't only Hitler's word that Buchanan is willing to accept at face value. He also has confidence in the Fuhrer's rationality. A successful Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union would have come, as he observes, at enormous cost to Germany; does he think that cost would have sated the hunger for conquest of a man who said, "I go with the certainty of a sleepwalker along the path laid out for me by Providence"? What if Hitler had been able to replenish his arms by plundering Soviet weapons, to swell his armies by forcing Russian soldiers into the German ranks? And why should we assume that, had Britain withheld its guarantee from Poland and remained outside the fight, a Nazi-dominated Eastern Europe would not have been a threat?
The simple reason Buchanan makes this assumption is that he is far more comfortable with dictatorships of the right than of the left. An Eastern Europe where Hitler could carry out his genocidal policies without outside interference strikes him as considerably less evil than the actual Eastern Europe of 1945-1989. But then, Buchanan concedes the existence of victims only when they do his argument some good. He invokes the Russian people to illustrate the horrors of Stalinism, but when he contemplates a Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R., the country seems to be populated only by Stalin and his henchmen.
"Unlike the Fascist movements," Buchanan wrote in his 1987 autobiography, "Right From the Beginning," "Communism could not be diverted or halted by a single rifle bullet...Once Hitler was dead, Hitlerism was dead." But where would the bullet have come from if the isolationist "patriots" Buchanan so admires had had their way?
I don't have the space to go on cataloging the gross distortions of history that fill this book. (Just one --that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a direct result of FDR's attempt to force Japan into giving up the "empire for which it had paid an immense price in blood and treasure" by forcing it to withdraw from China -- will have to suffice.) I don't have the patience to show how rapidly Buchanan abandons his isolationist policy with regard to Vietnam ("a legitimate war of containment") and Nicaragua, or to enumerate all his flabbergasting contradictions such as his adventure-story celebration of the Alamo followed by his citing Mexico's loss of Texas to illustrate the perils of immigration). I'll let the idiocy of using the foreign policy of the geographically isolated, pre-technological America of the 1700s to dictate the foreign policy of contemporary America speak for itself.
Nothing in the book is more pathetic than the spectacle of his pillorying the memories of Roosevelt and Churchill. That Buchanan feels nothing but contempt for these men is not surprising; he's a longtime fan of the thugs of modern history. In "Right From the Beginning" he stands up for Franco, McCarthy, Nixon, Pope Pius XII (whose 1933 treaty with Germany assured Hitler that the Catholic Church would not oppose the Nazis) and the Chicago cops who gave anti-war demonstrators "exactly what they deserved."
Nor should it be necessary to once again point up Buchanan's anti-Semitism -- not after his description of Congress as "Israeli-occupied territory"; not after his contention that Jews manipulated the United States into the Gulf War (which earned him a rebuke from William F. Buckley Jr.); and not after his approvingly quoting, in this book, John Foster Dulles' remark about "how almost impossible it is in this country to carry out a foreign policy not approved by the Jews."
But in the face of the equal-opportunity vitriol of A Republic, Not an Empire ("While the Israeli lobby is the most powerful of ethnic lobbies, it is not alone"), calling Buchanan an anti-Semite seems somehow reductive. At heart, Buchanan hates what he might call "foreignism." He sees a consistent danger in foreigners who are not ready to divest any and all traces of their heritage, not ready to renounce any and all concerns for the welfare of the people they have left behind. Buchanan's willingness to subjugate all identity to national identity has too many uneasy precedents, as does the way, in both his history and his foreign policy, that he divorces might from moral concerns. Strength is the end, and it is justified by whatever means, whatever alliances are necessary to sustain it. Hitler's rampage through Eastern Europe was not a threat to the "vital interests" of the United States, Buchanan says. What, then, are we to make of his noting the "mortal threat to [the American] way of life as represented by Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin"?
The answer, I think, is that for Buchanan our way of life is somehow separate from our vital interests; in his view, we must always be ready to sacrifice the principles of democracy. Mocking Benjamin Disraeli's outrage over the Bulgarians slaughtered by Turks in 1876 as "sentimentality," Buchanan gives away his attitude toward anyone who would step in to fight the brutality of dictators: The strong do what they will, he says (quoting Thucydides), and the weak suffer what they must.
But does he even see the weak? Complaining of the way the press stirs up sympathy for the victims of war and tyranny, Buchanan writes of "the photo" of the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack, the "TV pictures" of starving Somali children -- as if these images originated from no underlying reality. And for Buchanan there appears to be no underlying reality to the corpses that have littered this century, beyond the uses he can put them to.
Pat Buchanan fears the passions that a free press may stir up, but he has had no better friend than the American press. Familiar with him from his years in the Nixon and Reagan administrations and from his stint as a TV commentator, members of the press have been eager to declare that he's really a pussycat beneath the bluster; they welcome him onto panel shows with a friendliness that, say, members of the American Nazi Party, or, for that matter, left-wing extremists, can only dream of. And this cozy camaraderie has allowed him to present his poisonous vision as if it were simply another view, containable within traditional conservative ideology and its traditional desire for a strong America.
But Buchanan has gone well beyond those traditions. The danger that Pat Buchanan represents lies not in his getting elected to the presidency but in his usurping history, and it lies, too, in his access to the forums where he can make that usurpation seem reasonable, where his extremism can be presented as just another point of view. In A Republic, Not an Empire, his vision of the country's future is frighteningly clear; his reclamation of American destiny is a relentless march away from the melting pot -- and not so many years ago, the final destination of that journey was the ovens.