March 18, 2015

Finest Hour 160, Autumn 2013

Page 16

By Dantan Wernecke

Churchill’s and Hoover’s positions over -the Second World War were more than a disagreement over who was the main enemy. Only by considering their vast and complex writings as two highly distinctive analyses of the same set of circumstances and events can the war’s lessons of geopolitics and human relations be fully understood.


In September 1939, Europe set out on the road to ruin as Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The ensuing Second World War—a mere twenty years after the First—would draw in every major world power. Battling across continents, oceans and open skies for nearly six years, forces collided and ideologies clashed. When the end came in September 1945, those touched by the war’s destruction began to rebuild and the statesmen who had led their countries gave pause, reflecting on all that had happened, and sought to ensure that it would never happen again.

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Like Churchill, Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States (1929-33), provided an account of World War II, although it was not published until 2011. Their vantage points during the war years profoundly shaped the tenor and character of their reflections: Churchill as prime minister and war leader; Hoover as a still-influential voice with the unique perspective of a former president.

Hoover’s book, Freedom Betrayed, presents a vastly different account of the war fro Churchill’s The Second World War. Hoover even goes so far as to correct Churchill and his account, which he read closely as the volumes appeared. If Churchill’s statesmanship is to be understood, however, it is important to do so in light of Hoover’s critique. This appears most clearly in Hoover’s objections to Churchill’s leadership and views regarding Soviet Russia.

Hoover does not mince words. He found it necessary, he writes, “to reject every fact, statement, and conclusion of Churchill which cannot be confirmed from other evidence, and to discard much of his text.”1 Some of this may result from Churchill’s intentional refusal to describe his memoir as mere “history.” Instead, Churchill hoped, “it is a contribution to history which will be of service to the future.”2

In Thucydidean language, Churchill intended The Second World War to be a “possession for all time.”3 His volumes display his belief that individuals play an important role in human affairs—for better or for worse—and that his own experience might one day be of value to others in deciding how to act.

It is natural that Hoover and Churchill would be at odds. They were different authors from different regimes, each with his own strategic concerns and prejudices. Moreover, one of Churchill’s chief goals during the war—securing the involvement of the United States— was rejected by Hoover outright. Hoover held that the United States should take an active role in equipping the world’s democracies with the resources needed to defend themselves, while practicing an armed neutrality. About the policies of intervention or isolation he wrote: “Neither is possible, and neither is wisdom.”4 He advocated a vigilant role for the U.S. rather than the gradual intervention championed by Franklin Roosevelt. For Hoover, “statesmanship demands that the United States stand aside in watchful waiting, armed to the teeth.”5 While disagreeing with the Anglo-American policy-makers, Hoover by no means offered milquetoast alternatives.

While Hoover gives credit to Churchill where credit is due—albeit sparingly—he criticizes Churchill for what he sees as WSC’s myopic obsession with Hitler at the expense of an equal if not greater evil, namely Stalin. Churchill’s single-minded pursuit of Hitler amounts to the first of Hoover’s three objections against Churchill’s Soviet policies. The second is Britain’s decision to form an alliance with Russia against Hitler, and the third flows from the second: the Western powers, Hoover maintains, should have let the two dictators devour one another.

Hoover views Communism as a far greater enemy and threat than Hitler and Nazism. Hitler, after all, is just one man, and Nazi Germany would likely falter once he was gone; Communism was in no way dependent on the life, death or leadership of one dangerous figure like Joseph Stalin. This brings to mind the words of another conservative Churchill critic, William F. Buckley, Jr., who held that Communism was a proselytizing faith, while “Hitler had no eschaton.”6

Stalin, Hoover contends, “has taken advantage of the very freedoms of democracy to destroy them with the most potent fifth column in all history.”7 As proponents of a view that separates the world into communists and capitalists,8 communists viewed national borders as irrelevant. Their ideologues would surreptitiously penetrate regimes and infect their institutions, as Hoover believed they had done in France and were attempting to do in the United States. Democracies were the easiest to infiltrate because their protected freedoms could be exploited. With this possibility in mind, Hoover asks, “Is the word of Stalin any better than the word of Hitler?”9

Hoover did not advocate that the United States join the Soviets against the Nazis, a position that would force a choice between equal but opposite tyrannies. He believed, rather, that the Allies should not make war with one tyranny to the benefit of the other. The only strategy worse than perceiving Hitler as the greater evil would be to enter into an alliance with Stalin against him—the very policy adopted by Britain upon Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1941, and by the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941.

Once Churchill pledged military support to Soviet Russia, and Roosevelt incorporated the USSR into the Lend-Lease provisions already in place, Hoover believed that the war would ensure a double victory for Stalin and the communists: the first over Hitler and fascism—their geographical and antithetical enemy—and the second over the capitalist democracies in the West who had helped him defeat Hitler.

Hoover takes no issue with the Soviets and Nazis fighting one another. His concern is the Anglo-American alliance with a Soviet Union that was clearly an aggressor against democracy. “What happens to the millions of enslaved people of Russia,” Hoover writes, “and to all Europe and to our own freedoms if we shall send our sons to win this war for Communism?”10

Hoover’s fear that joining Stalin would result in a victory for Communism was not unfounded. The postwar settlement was far more favorable to the Soviet Union than to the Western democracies. Stalin, the consummate totalitarian, pushed for his slice of a broken Europe, just as he had with Hitler over eastern Poland and the Baltic States; both times he succeeded admirably.

Hoover does not fail to offer alternatives: his common theme, that Hitler and Stalin should be left alone to eviscerate one another, permeates his book. Why send aid to the communists, dangerous as they are, when “the fratricidal war between Hitler and Stalin is daily weakening both dictators” and all the Western democracies need do is wait for one to eliminate the other?11 Even if the Russo-German war did not destroy one or both, Hoover contends it would be preferable to allying with Stalin to the limited disadvantage of Hitler.

As the war progressed, the consequences of having the Soviets as allies became clearer, lending some weight to Hoover’s views. At the time Churchill and Hoover wrote, post-bellum, the world had found itself occupied with another global struggle. Out of the ashes of Europe and the ruins of the Pacific emerged two opposing superpowers, engaged in a contest between two different ways of life. The United States and the Soviet Union, once allies against the Axis, were now opponents in a Cold War with nothing less than the fate of humanity at stake. This was the great conflict that Hoover wished to avoid. Had the Allies not collaborated with Soviet Russia, had Hitler and Stalin been allowed to destroy or at least mutually weaken themselves, the West could have been saved from fifty years of Cold War.

But several problems emerge in Hoover’s analysis. Primarily, he limits his investigation of the Soviet problem by assuming that international relations are primarily dictated by ideology. Thus he fails to articulate fully the role that national interest plays in the conduct of a nation’s foreign affairs.

There was no ideological rationale, for example, for the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler in August 1939. Nor was there political congruity in Stalin’s sharp about-face, aligning himself with Britain in the summer of 1941. In terms of geopolitics and international relations, history repeatedly shows that where ideology fails to drive nations apart, common interests often bring them together. Churchill with his personal experience was more aware of the hard politics of dealing with Stalin and the communists than was Hoover—who merely sought to force two despots into mutual annihilation, and walk away.

There is perhaps no better way to demonstrate the differences in Hoover’s and Churchill’s approaches than by comparing the openings of each of their books. The first sentences in their volumes are telling enough.

Churchill writes: “After the end of the World War of 1914 there was a deep conviction and almost universal hope that peace would reign in the world.”12 This hope, as Churchill goes on to explain, was shattered by Hitler, when “the English-speaking peoples through their carelessness and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm.”13

Hoover, conversely, is concerned only with ideology: “Before dealing with what Communism really is, a short resumé of the origin and rise of the most disastrous plague which has come to free men may be helpful to readers not already familiar with it.”14

For Herbert Hoover, the story of the Second World War begins and ends with a study and understanding of Communism. The war occurred the way it did because of Communism; the postwar settlement was the way it was because of Communism.

It is no surprise that in criticizing Churchill’s The Second World War, Hoover homes in specifically on its first volume, The Gathering Storm. Churchill’s account here, of the origins of the war, is for Hoover “one of the most difficult problems with which the objective historian will need to deal”: Churchill’s “personal prejudices, his constant rationalization after the events with a persistent misstatement and evasion of the facts and realities, are much short of objective truth.”15 Though Hoover intends this as a criticism of what he sees as Churchill’s self-gratification and personal aggrandizement, when he makes reference to “the origins of World War II,” it would be hard to argue that Hoover strikes a balance between ideology and national interest. National interest is simply not what President Hoover has in mind.

Churchill and Hoover are, after all, from vastly different backgrounds, different parts of the world and different cultures. The Englishman was raised in the Pax Britannica of the old Victorian empire; the American was bred of sturdy, independent midwesterners with no comparable world view. As an American patriot, it makes some sense for Hoover to be more concerned with the transnational gaze of Communism, through its “potent fifth column.” Communism, he observes, will go anywhere—even to America. It is a subversive poison without geographic boundaries.

From the standpoint of Britain and her global empire, Churchill on the other hand saw the more immediate peril in the expansionist Hitler, while the Soviet Union could be approached more successfully by stressing Russian national interests than the challenges of Soviet ideology. Indeed it has been observed that Churchill, when referring to communists, would use the words “Bolsheviks” or “Soviets.” But when referring to national interests he would always prefer “Russians.”16

Without drifting into geopolitical determinism, it can at least be seen why Churchill, in the heat of conflict, would take more notice of Russian national interests than Herbert Hoover, thousands of miles removed, out of office, and after the fact. (Hoover compiled his account over many years after the war.)

In the end, much of history is the record of politics and human interaction. History shows that people and nations will come into conflict with each other time and again. Any study of the great conflict of the Second World War is bound to yield useful contrasts, if the study involves two prominent minds.

Churchill and Hoover differed on many key aspects of the war, through their approaches to the German and Soviet problems specifically and their underlying views of international relations in general. Their positions were vast and complex, and it is imperative to approach their work as separate analyses of the same circumstances and events. Only by considering their work as two highly distinctive analyses of the same set of circumstances and events can the war’s lessons of geopolitics and human relations be fully understood.


Mr. Wernecke is pursuing graduate studies in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he is completing his Master’s thesis on the political thought of Machiavelli. This article is derived from a larger essay which may be found on Finest Hour Online (http://xrl.us/beuiy6).

Endnotes:

1. Herbert Hoover, Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath, ed. with an introduction by George H. Nash (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2011), 870. Written in the 1940s and 1950s, Hoover’s account was placed in storage after his death in 1964; only recently has Professor Nash brought out the text, a lifetime project and major historical achievement.

2. Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 1, The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), xiii.

3. The Greek historian Thucydides made a similar pronouncement: “The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, in The Landmark Thucydides, ed. Robert B. Strassler (New York: Free Press, 1996), I 16.

4. Freedom Betrayed, 260, from “The Crisis: We Should Not Again Sacrifice Our Sons,” a speech by Hoover in Chicago on 16 September 1941.

5. Freedom Betrayed, 233. Excerpted from a speech by Hoover on 29 June 1941.

6. William F. Buckley, Jr., to Richard M. Langworth, Boston, November 1995. Private conversation.

7. Freedom Betrayed, 232.

8. Or workers and the elite / Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie.

9. Freedom Betrayed, 232.

10. Freedom Betrayed, 259.

11. Freedom Betrayed, 258.

12. The Gathering Storm, 3.

13. “Theme of the Volume,” The Gathering Storm, [ix].

14. Freedom Betrayed, 13.

15. Freedom Betrayed, 867.

16. See for example Warren F. Kimball, “Taking a Chance: Editing the Churchill-Roosevelt Correspondence,” Finest Hour 157, Winter 2012-13, 62.

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