Monday, May 12, 2008

Reading Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, it's impossible not to think that Winston Churchill's gotten off rather easily in histories of the twentieth century; or that FDR's relentless prosecution of the war had had years of rehearsal, in which December 7, 1941 served merely as the blinking of the theater lights. The nasty reviews the book's gotten reinforce the impression that World War II will be the only cause around which liberals and conservatives will rally in that low, grim, dishonest century – A Just War. Judging from the unceasing thrust of Stefan Kanfer's subject-verb constructions ("Baker despises Churchill too") and decidedly non-pacifistic phrase weaving ("perhaps the worst parts of the author’s cut-and-paste job are his attacks on Roosevelt and Churchill," as if they were Hawaiian island chain), Baker's book should resemble one of Gore Vidal's latter-day screeds – the ones collected in 2000's The Last Empire – in which his insider unctuousness finally blunted legitimate criticism of crafty FDR and flinty Harry Truman's creation of America regnant. But Baker's assemblage – paraphrases of newspaper clips and declassified intelligence, and letters, essays, and cables by the participants – creates a narrative bleaker than any dreamed of by Kanfer and Vidal. My conclusion: that Churchill was a butcher and devourer of men, that FDR was a sly old puss maneuvering to get the U.S. involved doesn't mitigate the horror of what Nazi Germany was doing to Jews, not to mention the deracination of European cultural life, as letters from exiles like Thomas Mann show. Churchill and FDR were bad, but Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering were worse.

Baker's book is subtler than his written remarks endorsing pacifism. War is an inevitability; as 1938 becomes 1939, peaceful co-existence with Germany was an impossibility no matter how many pacifists went on hunger strikes. The moral clarity to which Churchill aspired in his writings and public appearances had its counterpart in the floor speeches by Representative Jeanette Rankin of Montana (who also made news in 1917 by opposing WWI). Both seem equally deluded: Churchill genuinely believed in the edifying nature of war and Rankin in the nihilism of blood. That both forces were unofficial, uneasy, but essential partners is one of the ironies Baker and his critics miss. Pacifism may have been futile, but its adherents were the only ones who understood the nature of the Nazi threat: while FDR was sending shipfuls of Jewish refugees back to Europe and Neville Chamberlain venting silly social hostilities, pacifists, James Wolcott reminds us, risked their lives to help the endangered race. In an experience as devastating as WWII, no one emerged with clean hands, nor should we expect them to. This is why Orwell's writings constitute the best example of how a man of reasonable intelligence thinks through the problem of evil, without delusion.

1 comment:

J.D. said...

after reading charles beard's "president roosevelt and the coming of the war" recently, it's hard not to see a queasy echo of some of our more recent warmongering presidents in the great FDR's pre-war tactics. the difference, of course, is that FDR was right and his successors were wrong; he still left an irresistible blueprint for them to follow.

churchill, of course, is an easier nut to crack: not just an apologist but a wild-eyed advocate of empire, a racist blowhard, an appallingly immature fan of violence (he makes teddy r. look like a harmless old coot in that department). still, it's impossible to deny the elegance and power of his war addresses.