Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Good(ish) War

Second Thoughts About the Good War _ Common Review Winter 2009

By Ian Williams

Books discussed in this essay:

Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost its Empire and the West Lost the World
By Patrick Buchanan
Crown, 544 pages, $29.95

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization,
By Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, 576 pages, $30

Chamberlain and the Lost Peace
By John Charmley
Ivan R. Dee, 257 pages, $27.95 (clothbound 1989)

Churchill: the End of Glory: A Political Biography
By John Charmley
Harcourt, 742 pages, $34.95 (clothbound 1993)

1940: Myth and Reality
By Clive Ponting
Ivan R. Dee, 273 pages, $24.95 (clothbound 1991)

Armageddon: The Reality Behind the Distortions: Myths, Lies, Illusions of World War II
By Clive Ponting
Random House, 376 pages, $27.50 (clothbound 1995)

Nicholson Baker and Patrick Buchanan are neither kindred spirits nor ideological soulmates. They occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum, the former a gifted writer of fiction who has given himself in recent years to the cause of preserving newspaper archives, the latter a bruising culture warrior who began his career as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon. Although the duo of Baker & Buchanan alliterates in promising ways, one cannot really imagine them dancing very well together.

It is a surprise, then, and an opportunity for reflection, to find both provoking outrage for debunking the accepted notion of World War Two as the ultimate in just wars. In contrast to the general acceptance among scholars and historians that the First World War was a costly, disastrous mistake, our popular vision of World War Two is one of a crusade so virtuous as to be beyond criticism—a struggle, yes, between good and evil. It is Studs Terkel’s “Good War” waged by Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” In this narrative, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt stand side by side for democracy against the original Axis of Evil, dictators Hitler, Mussolini, and the Emperor Hirohito, whose designs of world domination had to be stopped, by whatever means necessary.
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Drawing attention to Churchill’s manifold imperfections may seem iconoclastic in the United States, where many American conservatives have indeed made him an icon and even liberals hold residual warm feelings for FDR’s transatlantic partner. However, in Britain, these sorts of attacks on that cigar-smoking brandy-toper merely represent the resurgence of what is practically a folk tradition. After all, they voted him out of office in 1945, in a landslide defeat, right on the heels of his greatest triumph.
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I’ve had personal experience of these mixed feelings. During the 1960s, my Christmas vacation job was in the head post office in the Port of Liverpool. Most of my fulltime colleagues were war veterans, who found the uniform and hierarchy of the postal service comforting. Early one chilly morning, I sat in a red General Post Office van, waiting with the rest of the gang to go down to the docks, waiting for one tardy worker.
The driver poked his head in and lamented that Churchill would have sorted out the latecomer. The former sergeant by the door asked, deadpan, “Churchill? Wasn’t he the one who said that Tobruk wouldn’t fall?” His companion took up the theme. “No—it was Singapore, wasn’t it?” A third chipped in, “No, wasn’t he the guy who got all the Aussies killed at Gallipoli?” Yet another demurred, “No, he was the one who sent the army against the miners in Tonypandy.”
And so it went around the van, giving me graphic evidence of why Churchill’s feet of clay had marched him to electoral defeat as the country celebrated military victory.
Don’t get me wrong—these men were proud of victory in World War Two. Given a choice between Neville Chamberlain and Churchill they had no doubts – but then given a choice in the 1945 election between Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader, and Churchill, they were equally certain, despite Churchill’s scurrilous attempt to liken his wartime coalition partners to the Gestapo.
On both sides of the Atlantic, our historical vision has an inherent tendency towards a Manichean, and in the English-speaking world, a Panglossian frame. As the victors, we tend to accept uncritically that everything was for the best. The war made the United States the world’s unquestionably strongest power, while for the British there was the vicarious comfort of the alleged special relationship, along with the consolation that they had given their all for a good cause.
However, the simple fact that the American president and the British prime minister stood side by side with Josef Stalin suggests the need for generous doses of doublethink to maintain the myth uncritically. Any serious study reveals the gray complexities of the titanic struggle, which Clive Ponting, the British whistle-blowing civil servant turned author, calls “Armageddon.” As Humpty Dumpty put it, the question was, “Which is to be Master – that’s all.” And the war certainly resolved that question for the Axis powers. Most of us would assume that for all their manifest faults, we are better off that way. Baker and Buchanan demur.
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Even if we disagree with their conclusions, They both raise general ethical and particular historical questions that deserve to be thrashed out. How far can nations go to avert a threatened evil? Do measures such as embargos and bombing that harm civilians fatally compromise a “just war?” How far can one compromise with evil to secure peace? In the particular historical application, was an alliance with Stalin justified—and was he really the lesser evil? Should the United States have joined in the war? Could Britain have made peace with Hitler, and would doing so have preserved the British Empire? And the question certainly not posed by Patrick Buchanan: would that preservation have been a good thing for Britain, the Empire or the world?
Baker and Buchanan pose the questions starkly in black and white binary terms, but any rational answers are not so clear, certainly not as clear as those they imply or state. In real politics, “fuzzy logic” applies as circumstances shift. Lord Halifax, former foreign secretary and wartime ambassador to the US, epitomized the empirical strain in British foreign policy that is now reviled as appeasement. He commented, “The world is a strangely mixed grill of good and evil,” and “for good or ill we have to do our best to live in it and not withdraw into the desert because of the evil, like the ancient anchorites.” (Charmley, Chamberlain 66)
Such a policy emanates naturally from an offshore island, short of resources and weakened by two colossal conflicts in a few decades in the nearby continent. Buchanan retrospectively advocates just such a pragmatic approach for Britain. He thinks that Churchill’s belligerently anti-German approach stopped a desirable deal between Germany and Britain, which would have left the latter its Empire in return for Berlin ruling Europe. However, the pragmatic real-politik that Buchanan posits for Britain is a thin cover for his crusading zeal. Such a deal would have enabled the “Christian” powers as he refers to them to defeat or contain the real enemy – Stalin. Buchanan follows and extends the furrows ploughed by John Charmley and other revisionist historians to make Churchill almost single-handedly responsible for the conflict and the consequent dissolution of the British Empire and triumph of the Soviets in Eastern Europe.
From behind the security of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as buffers, one can see why America Firsters and their modern descendants like Buchanan, or indeed with a bar sinister for illegitimate descent, Baker, can take such highly Manichaean views. These two books in conjunction revive memories of a distinctive American lineage: of the mass movements that united Nazi sympathizers, Communist Party supporters, and pacifists in trying to keep the United States out of the war.
From opposite political poles, Baker and Buchanan converge in regarding World War Two as an unnecessary and avoidable conflict.
As the saying appropriately has it, the devil is in the details, which during World War Two sadly did include Allied mass bombings of civilians, violations of neutrality, active or tacit support for ethnic cleansing, blockades that starved civilians, betrayal of allies, and naked displays of national self-interest—all of which both belabor in detail. They provoke thought, even as they disturb.
Baker eschews pragmatism. War itself is evil, the Second World War no less than others, and his villains are both Churchill and Roosevelt, who with Machiavellian cunning engineered an un-necessary war, and fought it with amoral brutality. Human Smoke is much more readable than Buchanan’s, although both would have benefited from more thorough fact-checking. Leaving aside for a moment his implicit endorsement of conspiracy theories such as Roosevelt setting Pearl Harbor as a trap for the Japanese, someone should surely have noticed in aBaker’s book, (p. 457) that for the SS Struma to be sunk in the “Baltic” sea after being chsed from Istanbul would have entailed a highly unlikely trip up the Volga. Baker could also usefully have mentioned that Germany that declared war on the USA after Pearl Harbor, not vice versa. It was far from sure that the reluctant Congress, with a preponderance of Buchanan and Baker’s political ancestors, would have responded to the Japanese attack with a declaration of war on Germany.
Editing out tendentious repetition could have shortened Buchanan’s work into a more readable form. And like Baker, he needed an editor paying more attention to the facts. In Buchanan’s old school Cold War perspective, the Soviets can do no right—ever. For example, he charges that in the Warsaw Rising of 1944, the Polish Home Army rose on Soviet signals, which is simply not true. While the Soviets certainly did not try too hard to support the rising that the London-based Polish government-in-exile, the Home Army had risen on signals from London to forestall the Red Army’s “liberation” of the city. The rising was a brave but essentially cynical risk of the city and its population to achieve that end.
Similarly, Buchanan gives Hitler a free pass for the bombing of Guernica, depicted so memorably by Picasso, claiming that it was to support military operations and thus no precedent or excuse for the subsequent Allied bombings of cities, through which, Buchanan asserts, Churchill would play a “lead role in Western man’s reversion to barbarism.” (Buchanan 399) More accurately, and less hampered by affection for Spain’s Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, Baker cites Hermann Goering on Guernica. The German Luftwaffe commander called that action “a pity,” but also insisted, “we had nowhere else to try our machines.” (Baker 69) Of course, Buchanan, given his soft spot for Franco (elsewhere he has described him as a “soldier-patriot” (syndicated column 9/17/89 and “Catholic savior” (Right from the Beginning) could live with that. Most others would not.
Buchanan has no reticence about using tendentious commentary or drawing such controversial conclusions in his narrative. In some ways, this is refreshing, since it gives the many skeptical readers something to react against. Baker’s is almost insidiously sneering in its effect, since he is insinuating rather than stating a case. He presents carefully selected facts and invites us to draw our, or rather his, conclusions from them. It is reminiscent of the wilder fringes of the web that marshal factoids and quotes torn out of context and without reference or analysis to support various causes.
Still, despite their agendas, both successfully challenge our preconceptions. Buchanan points out that the peace terms after World War One deprived millions of Germans (not to mention others) of their right to self-determination. Even though the post-Versailles states of Czechoslovakia and Poland have been retrospectively sanctified by Nazi aggression, there was indeed no ethical argument against voluntary Anschluss, unification, with the ethnic Germans in Austria, Sudetenland, East Prussia, the Polish Corridor and so on. Even the socialists in the Saarland voted to reunite with Germany. They were not coerced into it. Indeed, one of the points that John Charmley convincingly makes is that British leaders’ appreciation of how insupportable and unsustainable the Versailles boundaries were in the wake of the Great War disarmed their opposition to Hitler’s expansionism.
It is equally true that the Western allies’ willingness to violate the neutrality of Belgium, of Norway, Denmark, and Portugal under the exigencies of war was precisely the charge made against defeated Nazis at Nuremburg. The Soviets’ record was even worse, with their trampling on Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, Rumania and other states.
One of the problems for both Baker and Buchanan is that it takes delicate treatment to blacken the reputations of accepted heroes without implicitly, or even explicitly, whitewashing their antagonists. Buchanan does not typically do delicacy, and Baker, whose novels often showcase his gift for nuance, chooses in this book to abandon subtlety altogether with his demonization of Churchill. Buchanan has the clearer ideological agenda. While most British see the postwar welfare state and national health service as worthy consolations for the travails of war, Buchanan laments that because of Churchill’s war, Britain “faced socialism at home.” (415)
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Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War lays out its wares in its title. His frequent caveats about the evil of Hitler look like ritual invocations to avert hostile reaction to the drift of his argument—which is that the Nazi leader was a lesser evil.
Buchanan persistently sees the silver linings in Hitler’s stormtrooper clouds. He describes Hitler’s apprehensions over Austrian Nazi provocations (318) and the march into the Rhineland and deduces that he did not want war with the West. (310) He repeats his disclaimer, ”For what happened to the Jews of Europe, Hitler and his collaborators . . .bear full responsibility” (310)] he says, for the record, but then ruins his disavowal by trying to imply blame elsewhere. He cavils, “But was the Holocaust inevitable? Could it have been averted?” (ibid) Well, yes, by an earlier defeat of the Nazis, not by making peace and giving them the free hand in the East.
He argues that the belligerence of Churchill drove Hitler to war, leading in turn to a baneful result: the downfall of the British Empire and the rise of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. It is true, as Buchanan contends, that in 1939 Stalin’s regime had far more blood on its hands than Hitler’s much more visible but, at the time, less sanguinary crimes. One can almost sympathize with Buchanan’s puzzlement at the difference in treatment. Partly of course, it is retrospective absolution. Once Stalin had become an ally, in fact the main driver of the war effort, the West owed some considerable gratitude, even if the convenient amnesia about his enthusiastic honoring of the 1939 pact with Hitler may have gone too far.
Buchanan is on surer ground when he castigates Churchill for taking Stalin at his word, at least about elections and freedoms for the nations he signed over to the Soviet sphere. However, Stalin did deliver on a number of war promises, maybe most notably in Greece where Churchill and the British showed equal insouciance about local wishes. It is worth stressing that Roosevelt was even more partial to Stalin, in effect ganging up with him against his British ally. Of course, Churchill was as dedicated as Buchanan to the lost cause of preserving the British Empire—to which the Soviet Union posed little or no direct threat at this stage—but which Roosevelt and the United States, as Clive Ponting and Buchanan both detail, were effectively dismantling.
Although Stalin’s record was certainly quantitatively worse and more murderous than Hitler’s by 1939 and indeed up to 1941, the Nazis certainly made up for lost time afterwards. In contrast, Buchanan implies that Hitler was the lesser evil, in part because Communism was more exportable than Nazism. He points out the limitations of the appeal of Aryanism and its contrast with the more universal aspirations of the Communists.
Looking at the authoritarian regimes that emulated the Nazis, this is a highly arguable point. (p 345) Italy, Spain, Rumania, Japan, Bulgaria were quite acceptable as allies despite their manifest lack of Aryan bloodlines. However, the exportability of communism did depend on its romantic ideal of equality, so its supporters could pass off the “excesses” as aberrations, while Hitler’s ideology of race and blood was itself explicitly based on excess.
Arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain ruined his reputation with his sound bites of “peace with honor” and “peace in our time”—which Charmley points out he immediately regretted—but he does indeed deserve a rehabilitation that Buchanan oddly fails to offer. According to Charmley, in cabinet discussions he talked of threatening Hitler with a two-front war, (p170 Charmley) “not in order to save a particular victim but to pull down the bully,” which is surely the point, despite Buchanan’s invective against guaranteeing Poland against German attack. The Polish regime was anti-Semitic, undemocratic and intransigent but the guarantee represented a line in the sand for international peace and order—which Hitler crossed.
Having regretted Chamberlain’s guarantee to Poland and the ensuing declaration of war, Buchan then attacks Churchill for not suing for peace in 1940. Strong partisan prejudice often marshals contradictory arguments. In this vein, Buchanan suggests that Hitler only invaded Russia to force Britain to a peace treaty, but then elsewhere he suggests that a peace treaty with Britain would have let Hitler attack Stalin and sort out the Bolsheviks.
Clearly, the Nazi leader was eventually going to attack the Soviet Union regardless of the non-aggression pact, even though Stalin honoured it to the letter, to the extent that Communists in the USA agreed with Buchanan about the inhumanity of the British blockade starving German workers. Consequently, only a very foolish British government would trust guarantees from either Berlin or Moscow. Equally, though it may be true that Hitler did not want war with Britain, the missing adverb is surely “then.” In fact, as his multiple aggressions suggested, Hitler took whatever opportunities were offered for expansion.
He insists that Germany posed no immediate threat to the United States and elaborates on the Germany’s lack of long range bombers, without reckoning on Werner Von Braun and his work, which was intended to get missiles to his future home, nor the work of the German nuclear researchers. He asserts that (334) Stalin used the two years of the Pact “to build the tanks, planes and guns and conscript the troops that stopped Hitler at Leningrad.” Well, up to a point. Those would be the planes destroyed on the ground and the tanks, guns and troops that the Wermacht captured with such ease in the first few weeks of war because Stalin made the same mistake as Buchanan occasionally does—taking Hitler’s expedient promises seriously.
The feasibility of peace between Britain and Nazi Germany goes to the nub of the question. Buchanan insists that peace (one is tempted to add “with honor”) was achievable, and points to the armistice that allowed Vichy to keep the French Navy. However, since the alternative to a French Navy confined to port may have been one that sailed off to join the Royal Navy, this was as much politic as politeness on the Führer’s part. Perhaps a better reference would have been to the Vichy’s reactionary domestic policies in emulation of the Nazis.
One suspects that a less vindictive Hitler, prepared to return prisoners and lift the occupation, could have turned France in the same way that the Allies turned Italy in 1943. In fact, Buchanan’s implicit assumption is that Hitler was a rational actor and a man of his word. In fact, he already had a consistently murderous record, from the night of the Long Knives, through Kristallnacht and onto his culling of the inmates of mental hospitals. In contrast with Stalin, who was generally content to keep his butchery domestic, Hitler showed every sign of wanting to expand his terror. More significantly, after Munich, he broke every promise he made to the British.

Buchanan asserts that Hitler stopped the Panzers (326) and in effect let the British escape from Dunkirk, which fails to explain why the Luftwaffe attacked the evacuating ships furiously. In fact, Ponting points out that the British let the French cover their retreat, and that it was the French Army that stopped the Wermacht long enough for the British to evacuate, leaving most of their French allies and defenders behind.
Buchanan’s nostalgia for the British Empire as a bulwark of Christendom, even at the cost of handing over Eastern Europe to Hitler, also challenges logic. His assumption that Germans in the Sudetenland and the Polish Corridor deserved self-determination but that the Indians, Burmese, and Africans did not betrays a bedrock racist assumption. This is scarcely mitigated by his description of Churchill’s racist diatribes against Indians (356) which provided cogent reasons why the Empire was as undesirable as it was unsustainable.
Quite apart from any ethical moral aspects, the challenge of defending a far-flung empire, many of whose subjects were restless and did little to contribute to the wealth or defence of the mother country, stretched the already parlous British finances. Indeed, Britain might well have been better off abandoning its imperial pretensions sooner. Certainly if India had been given the Dominion status that Churchill resisted so tenaciously, it may have become like Canada or Australia in sentimental attachment, but the only way to keep it as a colony would have been to take Hitler’s advice, and progressively shoot the leaders of the Congress Party.
However, as Buchanan explains, the greatest enemy of the Empire was in fact the USA. He complains that, “When Britain was in her darkest hour, FDR shook her down for every dime,” (p 408) and goes on to quote one of Churchill’s memorable lines: “we are not only to be skinned but flayed to the bone.” [ibid) He also quotes Grenfell on the “extraordinary paradox that Britain’s principal enemy was anxious for the British Empire to remain in being, while her principal ally, the United States, was determined to destroy it.” (409) For the record, Buchanan’s political antecedents, the America-Firsters, certainly did not object to the process!
However, quite apart from exercising his retrospective adhesion to the America-Firsters, his staunch anti-communism, and his equally staunch Catholicism, Buchanan has written a tract for our times, a polemic against the “Churchillian” aspects of neo-conservativism. He concludes that Bush, who, damningly, possesses “a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office,” (423) has led the United States to the same position as Britain was: “A superpower past her prime, with enemies rising everywhere.” He adds that, “There is hardly a blunder of the British Empire that we have not replicated . . . America is as overextended as the British Empire in 1939.” (423) He has a point, but many people have as little enthusiasm for an American empire as they did for its British predecessor.
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Baker’s “Human Smoke” takes a pacifist tilt at the same targets, not least in sharing Buchanan’s touching faith in the Führer’s diplomatic integrity. Baker cites Charles Lindbergh’s disquiet with the pacifists—alongside whom he campaigned against war with Germany. Perhaps more of the Pacifists should have reciprocated that discomfort.
Baker’s book reads like a Dos Passos novel with its cut and paste technique. It eschews commentary—but also elides some relevant facts, Baker directs the narrative as surely as any overt editorializing would. Sometimes the sound of silence is deafeningly loud. His omission of Hitler’[s declaration of war on the United States, not vice versa, relays his political bias. His choice of material suggests that he blames Roosevelt equally with Churchill for the war, without showing too much concern for the fate of empires, Soviet or British, or indeed the fate of Europe if Hitler had had a free hand.

Baker implicitly states that Pearl Harbor was contrived by FDR to get America into the war, (p445) which almost makes one anticipate his next work on how the World Trade Center was not really hit by planes. In his afterword, he asks, “Was it a ‘good war?’ Did waging it help anyone who needed help? Those were the basic questions that I hoped to answer.” (473) However, his question, like those Buchanan asks, is rhetorical, as he immediately answers, (p. 315) “Had Britain not given the war guarantee, and not declared war over Poland, Western Europe might have avoided war altogether. And was the war worth it?”
His book is dedicated to “the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists . . . They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan and stop the war happening. They failed, but they were right.” (474) In essence, Baker makes a moral equivalence between aggressive and vicious warmongers and those who choose to meet that kind of aggression with force. George Orwell, who managed to be mercilessly critical of Allied conduct while supporting the war, commented appositely, that, “Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval, but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States.” (Notes on Nationalism)
In his obituary essay on Gandhi, who is frequently cited by Baker, Orwell praised the Indian pacifist because he “did not take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins.”
(Reflections on Gandhi)
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Fifteen years ago, the ultra-Tory minister Alan Clarke caused a major flurry when, in reviewing Charmley’s work, he suggested that an Anglo-German alliance in 1940 would have made the world a better place. (Buchanan 316) It is along these lines of thinking that Buchanan uses Clark as a bludgeon against Churchill for refusing peace overtures: “the war went on too long, and when Britain emerged the country was bust. Nothing remained of assets overseas. Without immense and punitive borrowings from the U.S., we would have starved. The old social order had gone forever. The empire was terminally damaged.” [Buchanan 316) Neither Buchanan nor Clark pause to consider that for many British voters, and many subjects of the empire, these latter two results were a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Still, Charmley’s efforts to rehabilitate Neville Chamberlain’s battered reputation are worth considering. In Charmley’s argument, Chamberlain indeed understood the unique threat posed by Hitler, but he also appreciated the financial and military weakness of the Allies. The facts Charmley summons help to rescue the reputation of Chamberlain from the outer darkness to which Labour and Churchillian Tories have jointly exiled it. In contrast to his historic reputation as an appeaser, Chamberlain was in fact emulating Theodore Roosevelt, talking softly while growing a big stick. Even while negotiating at Munich, he was allocating scarce resources to rearmament, bringing online the Spitfires and Hurricanes that won the Battle of Britain. Astonishingly, from 1935 to 1939, British defense spending rose by forty percent annually, even while the country was paying off the highest per capita debt in the world—incurred by the struggle of World War One. Such military expenditure was unsustainable, which is why if there were to be war, it had to be quick. Far from being unprepared and naïve, the British authorities had made a shrewd and accurate assessment of the probability of war in 1939.
They had already concluded that they did not have the military resources to fight in both the Pacific and in Europe. A more besetting problem facing London was the complete absence of any guarantees from the United States. Britain’s lean finances also shaped the methods against which Baker and Buchanan protest so much. In World War One, the blockade, no matter how brutally, had worked and made effective use of Britain’s biggest military asset, the Royal Navy. Now, at the outset of World War Two, there was no way that Britain could in any reasonable time develop the size of army it had eventually deployed in World War One, and that led to the decision to rely on airpower—which would eventually culminate in the mass civilian bombings that Baker and Ponting especially revile.
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Books that propose a world better off without World War Two can only lead into the hypothetical realm of “What if?” What we do have is very strong evidence about the direction and form of an unopposed Hitler regime. Chamberlain’s exasperation after Munich was solidly based on Hitler’s breach of promise, both about the integrity of the rump Czechoslovakia, and more broadly, his false disclaiming of future territorial claims in Europe. As Ponting quotes Hitler declaring at the very start of his rampage, “Once I conquered a country, should I ever restore its freedom? What for? Whoever spent his blood has the right to rule.” (P 249) Equally, his counterproductive savagery and exploitation of his Polish and Soviet conquests constitute a real-time demonstration of the shape of his New World Order. Despite his late start, he soon overtook Stalin in horror and terror, to the extent that even the Poles could regard the Red Army’s arrival as comparative liberation.
Once it was clear that there was no speedy end in sight, the British could indeed have done what Buchanan implies they should have done. An agreement with Hitler would certainly have cost Churchill his job, and it would have guaranteed the “Empire” for a short time. However, defeated or stalemated empires are fragile things.
Buchanan asks, was the sacrifice “done willingly as an act of martyrdom? Or was it rather the result of British blundering on a colossal scale.” (313) There was indeed blundering, but Ponting answers Buchanan’s question with clarity, pointing out that “1940 marked the final and decisive shift of power in the world from Britain to the US.” (Ponting 1940 215) It was neither martyrdom nor blundering, but rather a voluntary abdication on Britain’s part. On 22 August 1940, after Dunkirk and the French defeat, the British cabinet met to consider the numbers, which showed that Britain did not have its own resources to continue the struggle for much longer. (Ponting 1940 p 10) The Cabinet decided to fight on, hoping Micawber-like that something would turn up, even if it meant, in Churchill’s words, “giving the United States, if necessary, a lien on any and every part of British industry.”
Roosevelt took up the offer. Treasury Secretary Morgenthau unilaterally announced a fire sale of every British asset, individual or public in the United States, and indeed in Canada and Latin America as well. While Congress was passing the Lend Lease bill, Great Britain had only £3 million left in its reserves and had to borrow from the Belgian and Czech governments in exile. (Ponting 1940 p 213)
It was not as Quixotic a gesture as Buchanan puts it, nor as blindly bellicose as Baker would have it. Britain was not in a financial position to use peace as breathing space to rearm. At peace it would not have qualified for the tightly restricted American loans and support it secured when it was in Washington’s interest to keep London fighting.
Orwell In his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn” Hitler’s offer could only be made “treacherously, with a view to conquering England indirectly or renewing the attack at some more favourable moment.” Indeed Clive Ponting observes that World War One leader Lloyd George expected that without backing from the United States, Great Britain would have to sue for a compromise peace – with himself playing the role of Petain, the revered war leader who could cut the deal.
In the end, Churchill and Roosevelt were every bit as Machiavellian and steeped in Realpolitik as Baker and Buchanan show them to be. Nevertheless, remembering what Halifax said, the world is a better place because they were not anchorites, and knew how to operate in an evil world. Pace Joan of Arc, saints do not usually win wars. We should be glad that for all their moral failings, Churchill and Roosevelt, each of whom could have given lessons to Machiavelli, were in the appropriate places at the right times.
In large part, Western Europe has for over sixty years enjoyed peace and prosperity, along with the highest standards of human and civil rights in the history of the world, at least in part because the British cabinet made that decision on August 22 1940. Was it worth it? Yes, absolutely.

Madoff, robber of the rich but no Robin Hood

Bernie Madoff is stranger than fiction

The saga of the Wall Street swindler is a bizarre story of justice delivered, and justice still denied
Comments (74)

Ian Williams, Thursday 12 March 2009

As mega-swindler Bernie Madoff prepares to plead guilty to fraud charges that will likely land him life in prison, I am reminded of my longstanding writer's dictum: "All the best stories are true." Even down to his name and its appropriate pronunciation – made off (as in, with people's money) – Bernie's tale smacks of nominal determinism.

It would be difficult to invent a character like Madoff, who so triumphantly rolled together Catch 22's Milo Mindbender and Ben Jonson's Alchemist with a sort of portmanteau Nigerian email scam artist. The essential ingredients of their successes are other people's gullibility, and their own greed.

Those two can be a powerful combination. It is very likely that absent the global credit crunch, Madoff would have been able to maintain his scam for many years more, since he had previously managed to keep his investors very happy. It was not his conscience that pricked him into 'fessing up – but rather urgent calls, motivated by the credit crisis, asking for $7bn redemptions that he could not meet.

There is also a deep mystery about just how much was lost. The oft-quoted $50bn apparently is the sum of how much people thought they had. It would be the equivalent of the Alchemist's victims claiming not just the gold they had put in, but all the gold he had persuaded them he could transmute from base metal.

Another thing the Madoff case reminds us of is the fact that wealth, even purloined, has its privileges. Madoff has been out on bail – but had he been a poor African-American burglar he would be cooling his heels in Riker's Island. And unlike most common thieves, Madoff has reportedly been wearing an armoured vest for his court hearings – which, unless he has been banking for the Russian or Italian-American mafia, seems unnecessary.

It is precisely because wealth offers (sometimes unfair) privileges that public vituperation for Madoff has been somewhat limited. After all, any widows and orphans he robbed were very rich ones, hoping to get richer: Madoff's entry threshold for investments was a million dollars, and investors begged him to take their money.

Rich people being robbed is not exactly the stuff of tragedy, and recent events have put the theft into perspective. Sure, Madoff's total lifetime take is certainly more than the bonuses Wall Street Bankers awarded themselves (which the taxpayers now have to pay for). Yet those same greedy, incompetent bankers collected those bonuses based on their mastery of the financial universe – so if Madoff pocketed some of their cash, it may only mean that there is in fact some justice in the world. Just look at the so-called hedge fund managers who collected commissions and management fees to feed the Alchemist's furnace with their clients' money.

The unfortunate thing is that even those feeder funds had significant minimum investments – and across the world of Anglo-American neoliberal economics, the bankers' antics have destroyed the savings and pension funds of millions of hard-working people. The bankers who swindled them should be facing 150-year sentences along with Madoff, instead of gliding on taxpayer-financed golden parachutes.

Madoff's acceptance of that 150-year deal – instead of entering into the plea-bargaining that his wealth and prominence would have "entitled" him to – raises serious questions, especially given his lack of visible remorse and reports of his repeated attempts to safely stash his loot. Unless he has a bolt hole to an alternative dimension, or is about to conveniently fall into the murky waters of New York's East River only to surface elsewhere in disguise, what motives can one ascribe to such a larger-than-fiction character?

I would wager that a recent medical report has led the 70-year-old Madoff to expect that he will serve even less of the 150 years than a broader actuarial assessment would indicate. If I were writing the plot line, he would come back from surgery, call in his sons, explain that the game was up in every sense and advise them to denounce him to the authorities, confident that his family would be well looked-after.

Of course, if I am wrong, and Madoff serves significant time, I hope he has a lot of engaging company. Starting with all the Wall Street bankers.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Union makes us all strong!

Ending America's labour pains

Hilda Solis's confirmation as US labour secretary brings three decades of unfair union-bashing to a close

* Ian Williams
o, Thursday 26 February 2009

President Barack Obama is exceeding the modest expectations that some of us had for him. His appointment of Hilda Solis as secretary of labour marks the end of three decades of unbridled union-bashing, which saw the degree of unionisation in the American labour force plummet. She is an explicit supporter of unions – a far cry from Ronald Reagan's having the PATCO organisers led away in shackles.

While being "pro-business" has never been a bar to political advancement in Washington, being accused of being pro-labour has all too often been the political equivalent of paedophilia. Though Republicans have been natural, one might add phobic, union-bashers, even Bill Clinton took union money and votes and then denounced them as "special-interest groups" (unlike, say, the bankers, whose money he took and whose interests he cultivated). Emulating Clinton, Tony Blair did the same in Britain – refusing to roll back much of Margaret Thatcher's anti-union legislation and demanding exemptions from EU regulations that gave workers more protections (despite Blair's alleged Europhilia).

The National Labour Relations Board, set up by Franklin Roosevelt to help workers unionise, claims that it is enforcing the statute that "guarantees the right of employees to organise and to bargain collectively with their employers, and to engage in other protected concerted activity with or without a union, or to refrain from all such activity". But for years that last phrase has covered most of their practice. Certainly employers have spent untold millions in the gums of NLRB enforcement actions.

The right in the US are the ideologues, while most union members are pragmatic, lacking the long-term political objectives that used to be common to unions elsewhere in the world. Yet American conservatives and employers display a pathological fear of the unions, Big Labour, that Europeans find difficult to understand.

Unions may not be on par with "terrorists" or "communists", but they are close. "Staying union free is a full-time commitment", asserts the Wal-Mart training manual – and the company has been prepared to close plants rather than recognise or negotiate with a union. In common with other employers Wal-Mart deploys a phalanx of expensive, union-busting lawyers and consultants, prepared to litigate exhaustively against any adverse NLRB decision and to pre-empt any attempt to unionise.

They have benefited from the common American folkway in which millions of ragged-trousered philanthropists benignly approved of pro-wealthy legislation – because they saw themselves as millionaires-in-waiting, rather than employees. It is likely that as they ruefully contemplate the ruins of their home equity, 401(k)s, savings and credit lines, they will be less charitable and think about their own welfare. Who knows: the next time legislators seek to ban political contributions from union dues, they might counter with a demand for a shareholder vote on donations to politicians.

This Anglo-American model has demanded unfettered freedom for bankers and senior management – from government, shareholders and employees alike – while keeping as many restrictions as possible on unions. There is a clear connection between that model and the declining living standards of most working families as the rich got greedier and richer.

As executives surrounded themselves with billions of dollars of incentives, and equal amounts in golden parachutes and retirement pay-offs, their spokespeople from the Chicago school preached that workers needed the whip to work effectively, and that for the economy to work they should be hired for a pittance and fired at the drop of a hat.

While there is growing realisation that the enrichment of the few helped bring about the current crisis, it is time to stress that the other part, the immiseration of the many, is also a major cause. Low salaries meant high credit, which meant high risk.

In fact, the Chicago school always wilfully overlooked the wise words of their alleged prophet Adam Smith, who, like Henry Ford in his early days, equated high wages with high productivity.

So it is refreshing to see the economists who warned about the coming crisis stepping up and stating the obvious: that American adherence to union rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labour Organisation conventions is not just a moral issue, but an economic issue as well.

Obama should put his full weight behind the Employee Free Choice Act as an essential part of his stimulus package. In fact, he should add to the various bailout plans a prohibition against the recipients' funds being spent on anti-union organising.

Truth..the secret weapon against Bush

Seeking the truth about the Bush years

Trying Bush cronies for war crimes won't fly, but Patrick Leahy's truth and reconciliation commission could help restore justice

* Ian Williams
o, Thursday 5 March 2009

I still remember with a frisson of horror being in a hall full of nice American liberal types deeply concerned about the atrocities in Bosnia. There was a wave of indignation when they learned that the Hague tribunal on Balkan war crimes would not be able to pass death sentences.

A similar, one might say, almost conservative, vindictiveness greeted Senate judiciary committee chair Patrick Leahy's suggestion for a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the Bush administration's alleged crimes against the US constitution and international law. The left wants prosecutions and imprisonments.

It would indeed be satisfying to apply the constitution (under which, one may remember, ratified international treaties are part of the law of the land) to people who clearly treated it so scornfully. President Barack Obama's declaration that his administration would not torture, and would not violate the Geneva conventions implicitly conceded the force of the accusations against his predecessors.

Sadly, however, short of the highly unlikely handing over of George Bush, Dick Cheney and company to the International Criminal Court, it is almost inconceivable that any such trials would take place. The US supreme court that awarded Florida and the presidency to Bush, not to mention the whole chain of judiciary below, is somewhat unlikely to find a former president guilty. If they had been more effective, they would have over-ruled many of the illegal acts even as they were being committed.

Indeed, the courts have shown signs of such overt partisanship, especially but not exclusively those who veer to the right, that even if there were trials, their results would not have common public acceptance. Acquittal or committal would be seen as political favouritism or persecution.

Leahy's proposal would, assuming he can get enough well-respected non-partisan figures to sit on his commission, be a far more constructive process, which could demonstrate just how much the law and constitution were jettisoned after 9/11. Its results would not just be a demonstration of criminality but also a warning for the future.

Above all, if, as Leahy suggests, there would be no threat of prosecution, except refreshingly for perjury, then subpoenaed witnesses will be less able to take the roving Karl Rove road. Rove, along with Harriet Miers, has indeed agreed to testify to Congress about the firing of US attorneys, but only on condition that communications with the president are covered by executive privilege.

Without immunity, many officials may take that route, and the fifth amendment protection against self-incrimination, to weasel their way out of telling the truth. Indeed, with a promise of immunity, no matter how much that upsets the liberal Savonarolas, there is almost an incentive to spill the beans, since anything they clam up about could indeed be the basis for prosecution.

Leahy's commission should not just concentrate on the acts of government. It should also examine the complicity of other actors, including the many in the media who after 9/11 cheered on and condoned acts of government – even though, as John Yoo's recently surfaced opinions for them indicate, they were next on the list. As it was, his proposals about the media did not materialise. After all, who would bother muzzling a toothless dog.

Obama should not only endorse Leahy's proposal, which would surely expose the unprincipled and, dare one say, un-American, behaviour of the party now opposing his economic proposals, he should go farther. A truth commission into how the US and global economy was brought to this pass would indeed need to be bipartisan, since its roots go back through so many administrations, not least Bill Clinton's.

But think how instructive it would be in analysing and dissecting the dogmas that ruined a super-power, not least when the opposition (and indeed some in his own party) have shown no signs of abandoning the dogma. Admittedly, they are so dogmatic, it would have to be truth and ridicule rather than reconciliation, but it would serve to make sure that never again would a bunch off crackpot zealots be allowed to run the nation.

Neither the Yarmulke or the Durban

Ian Williams: We can’t be selective about human rights or their abuses
March 12, 2009 Tribune

NEXT month Geneva will host “Durban II”– the United Nations’ review of its 2001 conference on racism. Listening to the hysterical demands for a boycott from die-hard pro-Israeli writers, you would think it was a reconvened Nuremburg rally. So far, Israel and Canada have said they will stay away. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is considering it.

There are some serious issues that deserve to be raised the conference. Some Islamic states are trying to criminalise “projecting negative, insulting and derogatory images of religions and religious personalities” and the introduction of “a code of ethical conduct” for the media. The attempt is outright wrong and almost guaranteed to give ammunition to Islamophobes. But since the issue is being conflated by pro-Israeli boycotters, let us remember that only the House of Lords saved Britain recently from a racial and religious hatred bill which was, was much stronger than the Islamic amendment. Only a few years ago, Britain found a poet guilty of “blasphemous libel”, although it abolished the offence last year. Canada still has it in its criminal code with a two-year sentence. But such pernicious ideas are best fought on the conference floor.

Those calling for a boycott include John Bolton, George Bush’s choice to represent the United States at the UN, who has never seen anything good about a UN conference or resolution. In the Jewish Chronicle, Melanie Philips, one of the conductors of the boycott chorus, splenetically described the coming “hatefest”, which she claimed, “is shaping up to be a vicious and racist onslaught against the human rights of the Jewish people. Its draft declaration singles out Israel for vilification. It accuses it of committing ‘apartheid’, a ‘crime against humanity’ and ‘a form of genocide’. It says the Palestinians are the victims of Israeli oppression, implies that Zionism itself is racism, and calls for the end of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and (as in Durban I) for the ‘right of return’ for Palestinians, which would mean the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.”

It is worth examining her allegations in detail. It was appropriate for the first conference to be in Durban. The South Africans have a detailed knowledge of apartheid, the most elaborately articulated system of racism in history. It is remarkable how many of the anti-apartheid leaders recognise it being practiced in the West Bank. It is true that they may be somewhat prejudiced since Israel was a major partner of the old apartheid regime, but it will be a foolhardy critic who accuses Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and other human rights icons of anti-Semitism. Even apartheid did not have segregated roads, the West Bank settlement’s contribution to modern racism, echoing the parody in the old television comedy The Goodies in which blacks and whites had to hop on the appropriate-coloured stripes of a Zebra crossing.

The “right to return” for Palestinians was enshrined in the resolutions that admitted Israel to the UN, and was accepted by Israel at the time. It is certainly less exceptionable than a “right to return” for Jews whose connections to the land are far more tenuous.

It is accepted by every nation in the world, not one of which now hosts an embassy in Jerusalem, that the city is occupied. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the separation wall is illegal. The UN accepts that the settlements are illegal and in violation of the Conventions. It is true that the accusation of genocide is a stretch – but so it has been in many recent abuses of the term from Bosnia to Darfur, where it has become synonymous with mass murder.

The elision between the Jewish people and Israel was always a stretch, but even more so now when so many prominent Jewish community leaders such as Gerard Kaufman have recoiled in horror from the identification. “My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza. The current Israeli government ruthlessly and cynically exploit the continuing guilt among gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians. The implication is that Jewish lives are precious, but the lives of Palestinians do not count”, Sir Gerald told the House of Commons in January.

Such sentiments expressed by anyone else would lead to pre-emptive charges of anti-Semitism. In Kaufman’s case, it put him up there with “Jews for Genocide”, as Phillips termed those Jews whose universalist ethics rise above a defensive tribalism on the incursion into Gaza. Philips concluded: “It is the UN and the architects of Durban II who are the racists and murderous bigots. Denounce this sick farce, and pull out now.”

There is no doubt that many Islamic states are covering their own sins at home – and their spinelessness in the face of American support of Israel – with their fervent attempts to condemn the latter. However, it is also true that the descriptions of racism in the document would apply to Israel’s conduct whether or not the Jewish state was singled out by name – which is why the boycotters are pre-emptively trying to devalue its outcome. Human rights apply to both Jews and Muslims and they include the freedom of speech and the consequent right to be critical of any religion.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Follow the Money

Follow the money

Ian Williams wants his money back

Speculator, IR magazine February 2009

As I sat having my hair cut in the salon in Grand Central Terminal recently, I asked my barber where all the affluent customers who usually crowded the place were. He reported that half of them no longer came. They had lost their jobs, and Wall Street’s haircut had translated into no haircuts in Grand Central. But what happened to the clippings? Where did the money go? Into another dimension, down a wormhole or into the accounts of the looters?

Lots of people lost lots of money by buying dubious financial instruments. But they gave that money to someone for something. Money from retail investors and pension funds went to banks and other institutions happily conspiring to take commissions and other fees as they sold duff funds or auction-preferred-rate securities down the line to the public.

So where did all that money go? The factories, stores, homes, warehouses and mines still exist. There is no real shortage of money. Indeed one of the most bizarre effects of the crisis (apart from Alan Greenspan admitting he was wrong) is that the dollar went up in value and gold went down, because people were repatriating overseas holdings and liquidating their gold stocks.

Many asset-backed instruments were deliberately complex, and buyers and sellers alike have confessed they didn’t understand them. If you were to let utility companies build nuclear power plants while confessing that they didn’t really understand them, you would not be surprised if there were a cataclysmic meltdown. And if you let uranium smugglers run the reactors, you would not be surprised if there was spillage.

Wall Street has proved what Mack the Knife rhetorically asked in the Threepenny Opera: ‘What’s robbing a bank to starting a bank?’ But the banks were robbing each other! As one Victorian mathematician, specializing in fractals rather than stock options, put it:

‘Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.’

There is no honor among fleas. The news that Bernie Madoff waltzed off with $50 bn of his billionaire clients’ money surprised even those of us who knew that greed and gullibility – like the best laid plans – often go awry.

Naturally, in uncharted waters, decision makers are concentrating on saving the ship. But in a country where long and detailed inquiries into presidential peccadilloes seem to be the norm, surely it is time for some serious experts to look at all the factors that contributed to this perfect storm – not only to be retributive, but also to avoid it happening again and try to make good some of the damage.

There is an old investigative principle to guide any such inquiry: follow the money. Who has it now, and how did he get it? Money works only when it is moving, and keeping it under the mattress does not contribute at all. It should be shaken and stirred, and poured in the right direction.