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Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 1999 /24 Tishrei, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Buchanan, Churchill and Hitler -- PRIOR TO THE TAPING of my TV show "Hardball" several months back, I shared with Patrick Buchanan my hope that Time magazine might have the guts to pick a real "Man of the Century." It would name as its millennium honoree not "the atom," "the human psyche" or other construct of rhetoric, but that true-life wonder of human courage, vision and leadership: Winston Churchill.

Pat listened as I made my case: that Britain's World War II premier had stood up early and alone to the 20th century's two greatest evils, Nazism and Communism. Unlike his fellow conservatives, Churchill had seen the need to stop Hitler. Unlike his wartime ally Franklin Roosevelt, he'd seen the enduring evil of Soviet Communism and here again stood up early and alone to name the Iron Curtain even as he pronounced its villainy.

Buchanan was quick to disagree on the first point. By standing up to Hitler's aggression in 1939, by drawing the line at Poland after the Third Reich's grab of Czechoslovakia, he said, the British had entered a war that would cost them their empire.

I was stunned by Pat's rejoinder. I had assumed, given his long history with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, that he shared their pride in the man seen by so many as the great conservative of the century. Hadn't we spent the Cold War warning against another "Munich," that sordid meeting with Hitler in which the West capitulated to his territorial demands? Hadn't we cheered that one voice, Churchill's, crying out that the Nazi march would continue from one country to another until someone had the stuff to stop it? Hadn't we learned that the peaceful words of Adolf Hitler, spoken after each new conquest, were but the treacherous lies of a man filled with ethnic hatred and bent on revenge?

Apparently, that "we" did not include Pat Buchanan. As he makes clear in his new book, "A Republic, Not an Empire," he believes the Western democracies were wrong to challenge Hitler in 1939. He was headed Eastward.

Buchanan quotes the Fuehrer himself on this point. "Everything I undertake is directed against Russia." Why should British and French soldiers die to prevent Germany from snatching some additional "living space" out of Poland and Russia? Why should we Americans have entered the conflict a day sooner than the German declaration of war against us after Pearl Harbor?

The political point Pat makes in the book and on the stump is that America should look to its own defenses and avoid getting involved in trying to defend others. In a world of "us" and "them," we must husband our resources to the single task of self-preservation. Never again should the United States forge alliances that drag us into an overseas conflict.

"America First!" That is Pat's battle cry, his national philosophy. And it demands a response. To me, the greatest American achievements of this century can be found in our readiness to act beyond our immediate interests. We liberated Europe from Hitler, much of Asia from Japan. We occupied the defeated countries only long enough to rid them of the aggressive poison that had brought on the Second World War in the first place. In 1989, five decades after the war's onset, we watched in glory as the rest of Europe gained its liberation.

In all those years in between, America stood forth as the world's greatest opponent of the Communist philosophy and empire. We did so by refusing to mimic the tragedy of the 1930s when the democracies of the West allowed Hitler to do his worst, believing then, as Buchanan argues now, that they might not someday find their own countries on his bloody list.

So let's put his question to the test. Suppose it was all happening again today? Suppose, as you read this, squads of SS are moving through Poland. Their prime targets are the country's 3 million Jews, but there are others. The elite Death's Head regiments have orders to kill priests, teachers, local politicians, anyone who might rise up as a leader, a patriot, even a pundit.

Imagine now we hear the voice of Adolf Hitler coming over the short-wave. He is speaking to the Western democracies. He is talking of peace.

"Why should this war in the West be fought?" he asks in a public speech from Berlin. "For the restoration of Poland? The Poland of Versailles will never rise again." Why should the British and French, much less the Americans, fight over another country's dead body?

That is the argument Pat Buchanan has taken up 60 years later. Why should we get involved in another people's horror?

Hitler asked the question in October 1939, a month after his invasion of Poland. Buchanan is asking it now as he prepares to invade the Reform Party.

And what will be America's answer?

That we've been wrong all these post-World War II years about the evils of "appeasement," the humiliation of Munich, the greatness of Churchill and Roosevelt? That the umbrella-wielding Neville Chamberlain was right when he buckled to Hitler in '38, wrong when he found the fiber to challenge him over Poland in '39? That if we'd just given Adolf a tad more "living space" back then he'd have beaten the Communists while leaving us, the blissfully neutral democracies, to flourish untouched? That his song of "Deutschland uber Alles" would apply forever to the other guy?

JWR contributor Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington Bureau, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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