Pat Buchanan and the Art of the Selective Quote

Pat Buchanan and the Art of the Selective Quote

Q: Response to Buchanan?

Was there any push­back to the Pat Buchanan book, Churchill, Hitler and the “Unnec­es­sary War” (2009)? It ques­tioned Churchill’s judg­ment over his whole life, but par­tic­u­lar­ly his deci­sion to fight on in 1940. I’m sure there has been, but could you give me a cita­tion? —W.M.

A: Here’s one….

On pub­li­ca­tion of the book in 2009 I wrote an edi­to­r­i­al, which I reprise below.

Churchill, Hitler and the Unnec­es­sary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, by Patrick J. Buchanan. New York, Crown, 518 pp.

No ani­mus toward the author: I have respect for Pat and even vot­ed for him in a New Hamp­shire Pri­ma­ry. I helped him with a few items dur­ing his research (while lam­poon­ing his beliefs in friend­ly ban­ter). “I like a man who grins when he fights,” as Churchill said.

But a prob­lem with Pat Buchanan’s book is the ram­pant use of selec­tive quotes. Par­tial quo­ta­tions edit­ed to dis­tort real­i­ty, or to fit a pre­de­ter­mined con­clu­sion, are out of bounds.

Lusting after Armageddon

To estab­lish Churchill’s “lust” for the First World War, for exam­ple, Buchanan quotes him on 28 July 1914: “Every­thing tends towards cat­a­stro­phe & col­lapse. I am inter­est­ed, geared up and hap­py. Is it not hor­ri­ble to be built like that?…” (28)

But he omits the rest of that pas­sage: “…The prepa­ra­tions have a hideous fas­ci­na­tion for me. I pray to God to for­give me for such fear­ful moods of lev­i­ty. Yet I w[oul]d do my best for peace, and noth­ing w[oul]d induce me wrong­ful­ly to strike the blow.” (from Mar­tin Gilbert, edi­tor,  The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol. 3, 1989.

As the war con­tin­ues on 10 Jan­u­ary 1915, Buchanan has Churchill exclaim­ing: “My God! This, this is liv­ing His­to­ry. Every­thing we are doing and say­ing is thrilling—it will be read by a thou­sand gen­er­a­tions, think of that! Why I would not be out of this glo­ri­ous deli­cious war for any­thing the world could give me (eyes glow­ing but with a slight anx­i­ety lest the word ‘deli­cious’ should jar on me).” (66)

The lat­ter is pure hearsay from the noto­ri­ous­ly waspish Mar­got Asquith—but let’s assume he said it. To suit his the­sis, Pat trims the rest of what Mar­got report­ed:…I say, don’t repeat that I said the word ‘delicious’—you know what I mean…..” (The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol. 6, 400.

Pos­sessed of the words Buchanan delet­ed, one might ask what Churchill meant by “you know what I mean”? Did he assume Mar­got knew he real­ized what bar­bar­i­ty war was—that he had been warn­ing of the apoc­a­lyp­tic nature of a Euro­pean war since 1903?

“Vile & wicked folly & barbarism”

I searched in vain among Pat’s col­lec­tion of lusty war quotes for con­trary expres­sions by Churchill—and there are many. Take his 1909 remark after watch­ing Ger­man Army maneu­vers: “Much as war attracts me & fas­ci­nates my mind with its tremen­dous situations—I feel more deeply every year—& can mea­sure the feel­ing here in the midst of arms—what vile & wicked fol­ly & bar­barism it all is.” (The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol. 4, 912.)

Buchanan does include an ear­ly 1900s remark about the dan­gers of a Euro­pean war, but only to imply that Churchill had changed his tune by 1914. Nowhere do we read excul­pa­to­ry evi­dence. Noth­ing is here on Churchill’s 1911 pro­pos­al for an Anglo-Ger­man “naval hol­i­day,” for exam­ple. Or his plea, at the eleventh hour, for a peace con­fer­ence attend­ed by all the Heads of State of Europe.

Hitler red herrings

Then there is Hitler, on whom Pat is indus­tri­ous. Under Hitler’s pho­to we read: “‘If our coun­try were defeat­ed, I hope we should find a cham­pi­on as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.’ —Churchill on Hitler, 1937.”

This sen­tence has often been culled out of con­text to be mis­un­der­stood by the fool­ish or the unwary. Here is the full pas­sage (Churchill, Step by Step, 1947 edi­tion, 158). Draw your own conclusions:

To feel deep con­cern about the armed pow­er of Ger­many is in no way deroga­to­ry to Ger­many. On the con­trary, it is a trib­ute to the won­der­ful and ter­ri­ble strength which Ger­many exert­ed in the Great War, when almost sin­gle-hand­ed she fought near­ly all the world and near­ly beat them. Nat­u­ral­ly, when a peo­ple who have shown such mag­nif­i­cent mil­i­tary qual­i­ties are arm­ing night and day, its neigh­bours, who bear the scars of pre­vi­ous con­flicts, must be anx­ious and ought to be vig­i­lant. One may dis­like Hitler’s sys­tem and yet admire his patri­ot­ic achieve­ment. If our coun­try were defeat­ed I hope we should find a cham­pi­on as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations. I have on more than one occa­sion made my appeal in pub­lic that the Führer of Ger­many should now become the Hitler of peace.

A dif­fer­ent light falls on Churchill’s atti­tude when that was first writ­ten (in 1935, as he foot­notes in Great Con­tem­po­raries). There was still hope then, he thought. All of which shows yet again that you can use Churchill’s words, vac­u­umed like a gigan­tic Hoover and offered unabridged by the faith­ful Mar­tin Gilbert, to prove any­thing. You only have to pre-select and edit the ones that make your point, how­ev­er misinformed.

One thought on “Pat Buchanan and the Art of the Selective Quote

  1. In this sense of using selec­tive quo­ta­tions, Buchanan was woke well before woke was a thing and it would be hyp­o­crit­i­cal of him to crit­i­cize the NYT or WP. Thank you for point­ing out the intel­lec­tu­al fail­ures behind the book. Buchanan took the lazy path rather than look­ing at Churchill from 360 degrees and mak­ing his case. By mis­lead­ing­ly report­ing only what sup­ports his case not only under­mines Buchanan’s the­sis but his cred­i­bil­i­ty in gen­er­al. As a con­ser­v­a­tive myself, I find Buchanan’s actions point­less and tragic.

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