Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Liberals and the Problem of Evil

As I continue to make my way through Terry Teachout’s biography of H.L. Mencken, I was stuck by the following passage (by Teachout) regarding the writer’s views on Hitler:

He had no feeling for the darkness in the heart of man. He looked at evil and saw ignorance. To him Hitler was Babbitt run amok, and he thought it inconceivable that such a buffoon could long pull the wool over the eyes of the most civilized people on earth.

This is probably something that’s already been said by someone smarter than I, but it strikes me that this is frequently a problem for liberals, both of the classical and the modern variety. They do not necessarily reject the notion of evil (although some of them do), but seem to lack the moral imagination to appreciate its true depth. One sees this in Howard Dean’s fatuous comments about "right-wing pastors," cited by Joe Knippenberg last weekend. One also sees it in John T. Flynn, my biography of whom is due out later this month. Flynn had nothing good to say about Hitler, but essentially characterized him as nothing more than a cheap demagogue--FDR (whom he also hated) with a little mustache. He simply could not envision the kind of evil that would deliberately murder millions of people. Likewise, when asked to imagine evil, the worst that Dean can come up with is the preacher at the local Baptist church.

Ultimately much of the opposition to the Iraq War might come from just this source--for the mind that cannot appreciate a qualitative difference between, say, Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush, can there be any other option but to decry a war to topple Saddam’s regime?

Discussions - 13 Comments

Careful, the opposition to the war is now different than the opposition to the outcome of the war. The war was not to topple the regime, it was to bring his WMD out into plain sight and then oust him for being a bad, bad man. The outcome could never be opposed unless you are a wingnut lefty who can’t see the forest for the trees. Some people who opposed the war (like I at one time did) did so because there was a desire to use other means to look for weapons and being his regime to an end. I no longer oppose the war, and certainly never opposed the troops (my roommate went to Iraq and back twice). I opposed the idea that we had exhausted the options and needed to go to war. All I know now is that the war has certainly started a domino effect as Syria, Lebannon and Iraq are on their way to (or have had) free elections. I hope.

I just read what I wrote, and I look foolish. Hard day at work; I should have thought about that before posting.

John, since you also mention FDR in your post, it’s probably worth pointing out that serious historians such as John Lewis Gaddis have faulted him for much the same lack of "thick" insight on the evil of Stalin that Mencken had regarding Hitler.

FDR seemed to view Stalin as yet another politician whom he could manipulate with an artful combination of personal charm, circumvention, and wheeling-&-dealing, as Roosevelt had w/ so many American pols. There is evidence that Amb. William Bullitt’s ominous reports about Stalin’s duplicity and brutality had begun to change FDR’s views in a more realistic direction toward the end of FDR’s life, but at that point FDR was ailing badly and was a shell of his former self, in no position to act decisively on the new and superior appraisal that Bullitt had moved the president toward.

It’s also noteworthy that Winston Churchill "got it" regarding both Hitler and Stalin so much earlier than others who had a blind spot for the evil of one, the other, or both. Simon Schama, a man of the left (and shrill Bush-basher) in the 2nd volume of his "A History of Britain" credits Churchill, who was often lampooned as a Col. Blimp type who saw "Bolshies" under every bed, with seeing early and deeply into precisely the depth of totalitarian evil at the heart of the tyrannical Soviet regime. (And Schama is not necessarily a pushover for WSC’s type of analysis--elsewhere in the book Schama is very tough on Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and clearly prefers Tom Paine’s defense of same in "The Rights of Man.")

PJC, thanks for reminding us about FDR’s naivete regarding Stalin. Truman, it should be remembered, had the same impression of "Uncle Joe" when he first met the Soviet dictator, but wised up fairly quickly.

Still, it is to FDR’s credit that, like Churchill, he sensed Hitler’s true evil fairly early on.

Mencken is perhaps the most overrated "conservative" writer there is. Robert Tyrrell makes far too much of him.

Churchill’s senses were sorta lacking in ’37:

"If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as admirable [as Hitler] to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations." Winston Churchill, in his Great Contemporaries (1937)

Kinda nutty, eh?

Actually, Jerry, Churchill wrote that in 1935, and you (as Michael Lind did last year) are quoting him out of context. Kinda sloppy, huh?

Incidentally, Richard Langworth of the Churchill Centre and Churchill Books in New Hampshire published back in 1991 some thoughts worth reading on conflicting assessments of Churchill’s Hitler essay from "Great Contemporaries." I paste the relevant passage below, and you can read the whole piece by Langworth at:

[LANGWORTH WRITES]: Churchill’s famous 1935 Hitler essay in Great Contemporaries, subjected to various interpretations herein, illustrates if nothing else the breadth of interpretation Sir Winston inspires. Manfred Weidhorn and Patrick Powers view this essay from diametrically different directions: Professor Weidhorn (who believes few in 1935 could predict how Hitler would turn out) originally quoted only the passage in which Churchill waxed positive over Hitler’s accomplishments:

"The story of [Hitler’s] struggle cannot be read without admiration for the courage, the perseverance, and the vital force which enabled him to challenge, defy, conciliate, or overcome, all the authorities or resistances which barred his ....... Thus the world lives on hopes that the worst is over

But Professor Powers (who is certain Churchill understood the true Hitler from the start) preferred originally to quote the final paragraph in the essay, in which he commented that Hitler

"... has offered many words of reassurance, eagerly lapped up by those who have been so tragically wrong about Germany in the past. Only time can show, but, meanwhile, the great wheels revolve; the rifles, the cannon, the tanks, the shot and shell, the air-bombs, the poison gas cylinders, the aeroplanes, the submarines, and now the beginnings of a fleet flow in ever-broadening streams from the already largely war-mobilized arsenals and factories of Germany."

Clearly, the thing to do is consider both these seemingly opposite summaries of Hitler in Great Contemporaries together. So that neither author may be accused of quoting out of context, I have reproduced both excerpts in each of their papers (Powers footnote 6, Weidhorn footnote 1).

Taken by itself, the first quote above does suggest that Churchill was capable of misjudging history. But such a description of Hitler, which Dr. Weidhorn rightly labels "grotesquely optimistic," is out of context if not accompanied by the grotesquely pessimistic paragraph which Dr. Powers argues is the key passage. If that doesn’t tell you what Churchill thought of Hitler in 1935, says Powers, consider what Churchill wrote, also in Great Contemporaries, of Franklin Roosevelt: "Churchill defends Roosevelt against the charge that he conducted his Presidency in the manner of a Hitler by a contrast between the high, statesmanly efforts of Roosevelt and the extraordinarily low character of Hitler’s violence."

What then did Churchill really believe? Taken together, Churchill’s two paragraphs offer us two equally extreme possibilities.

It would not be a misjudgment of history to conclude that if we didn’t know in 1935 which scenario would occur, it would have been best to err on the side of caution and assume the pessimistic one. That, of course, is what Churchill asked the British nation to do — "we are not likely to get into trouble by having a few thousand first-line aircraft at our disposal."

Dr. Weidhorn has however made his point had Hitler been assassinated in 1937, history would be milder toward him today, whatever happened afterward — even if events, which Hitler himself set in motion, had occurred substantially as they did.[END OF LANGWORTH QUOTE]

Well, that hardly seems to settle the matter. So, Churchill’s early views on Hitler are open to interpretation, and you (and probably everybody at No Left Turns) subscribe to the more flattering one.

Wow, if my quoting of Churchill was "kinda sloppy," I can only imagine your harsh assessment of the Bush administration’s WMD intelligence.

Jerry: Abandoning the untenable picket line of "kinda nutty" and falling back on the fieldworks of "open to interpretation" is a significant concession. Your willingness to admit (even if grudgingly and implicitly) that you were quoting unfairly and out of context speaks at least somewhat well of your intellectual integrity in conversation, if not your level of insight going in. I was encouraged by the former, if not the latter. So imagine my disappointment at seeing you then put yourself to rout by retreating pell-mell toward the broken-down redoubt of subject-changing, a false fortress whose choice by you may well be revealing, but is therefore precisely not encouraging at all to any honest interloctor, I’m afraid.

As a final note, I can’t help wondering: At the time you posted your highly selective quote, had you actually read the "Great Contemporaries" essay in question (indeed, had you ever even heard of the book before?), or did you just cherry-pick the line courtesy of Michael Lind or off some website somewhere? [Please note that any answer along the lines of "Cherry-pick a quote, me?! What about Bush’s cherry-picking of WMD intel?!? What say you to that, eh?" will be categorized as nonresponsive.]

By the way, selective quoting of Churchill didn’t begin with Mr. Flint, or Mr. Lind. Anti-interventionists in the United States in 1940-1941 made something of a cottage industry of digging through his speeches and public writings looking for any tidbit that could be used against him. Many of these were published in a collection by Flanders Hall, a company in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, that was later shown to be a front for the Nazi government in Berlin.

By the way, anyone who reads a fair amount of Churchill’s speeches and writings from the 1930s can hardly come away with the impression that he was in any way sympathetic to Nazism. I challenge Mr. Flint or anyone else to cite a single biographer of Churchill who would make that claim.

I’d read the essay before, not the book. Haven’t heard of Michael Lind. I still think the quote sticks out like a sore thumb, even in its full context. Yes, WC’s opinion of Hitler certainly declined as Hitler’s power, and willingness to use it, grew. I’m not inclined to give him a big pat on the back for coming to realize the obvious.

Except it’s an "obvious" fact that was hardly so obvious at the time--why else was WSC persistently lambasted throughout the latter half of the 1930s as a reckless warmonger for wanting to keep Britain well-armed and ready to stand up to Hitler? To see how all this cashed out when the true time of testing finally came (as Churchill warned in 1935 that it might), I recommend John Lukacs’s "Five Days in London: May 1940." Lukacs has put together evidence suggesting that Halifax (a skilled infighter with the Foreign Office at his beck and much of the Tory party behind him) wanted to cut a separate deal w/ Hitler in May 1940, and that Churchill stopped him cold--even as the BEF was being hemmed in at Dunkirk--and pretty much kept Britain in the war single-handedly by sheer force of character(and in May 1940, the British war against Hitler was THE ONLY war against Hitler--period). WSC had the moral insight to see that continuing the fight against Hitler was the only right course. There was, to repeat, little "obvious" about this: Halifax and his ilk were not cowards, not unpatriotic, and not idiots, tho’ they were terribly wrong in this case. For having the vision to see all this, and for having the courage to take a stand based on what he saw, Churchill deserves far more than a "pat on the back" from all of us. Lukacs’s book "The Duel" is also good on Churchill’s view of Hitler and vice-versa.

Simon Schama is no neocon and is perfectly willing to be very tough on Churchill--he’s especially withering on WSC’s posture toward the Empire--but he’s crystal-clear on what 1940 means, and what it means is way beyond the "pat on the back" level. I strongly recommend his book as well.

I really don’t wish to intrude on your debate, but it is quite silly for anyone to conclude from my article about Churchill’s Hitler essay that there was any equivocation by Churchill over Hitler--in 1935 or any other time. The "different intrepretations" I referred to were by two (admirable) professors. What Churchill HIMSELF thought is perfectly plain. I wrote:

"What then did Churchill really believe?....if we didn’t know in 1935 which scenario [Hitler’s ultimate goal] would occur, it would have been best to err on the side of caution and assume the pessimistic one. That, of course, is what Churchill asked the British nation to do — ’We are not likely to get into trouble by having a few thousand first-line aircraft at our disposal.’"

Richard Langworth
The Churchill Centre

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