American Roots of 21st Century Wars

by Patrick J. Buchanan – June 5, 2002

“Ideas Have Consequences” was written by the young conservative scholar Richard Weaver, after he had witnessed the carnage World War II had visited upon his civilization. And if we look about the borderlands of Islam – Chechnya, Kashmir, the West Bank – we see the consequences of ideas advanced by two Americans whose influence is hard to overstate.

“All governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “There is the revolutionary slogan, coming from the pen of a young, erudite, Virginia slave-holder,” said historian D. W. Brogan. “The Revolution was on the march from that moment. It still is.” With the triumph of the American Revolution, the handwriting was on the wall for every empire on earth.

In 1919, an even greater gravedigger of empire arrived in Paris preaching a doctrine of “self-determination” for all peoples. Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing realized Wilson had let the genie out of the bottle. “The phrase (self-determination) is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized. … What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!”

In the name of self-determination, Wilson helped to carve the new nations of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia out of the carcasses of the Russian, German and Hapsburg empires. But his principle clashed with Georges Clemenceau’s resolve (“There are 20 million Germans too many!”) that Bismarck’s Germany must be dismembered for the safety of France.

So, in violation of the terms of armistice and of Wilson’s principle, the Saar was put under French control, South Tyrol was given to Italy, 3 million Sudeten Germans were put under Czech rule, a corridor of German land and the city of Danzig were given to Poland, and the Prussian city of Memel was seized from a prostrate Reich by tiny Lithuania.

Having endured these forced amputations, Germans believed the victorious Allies had hypocritically butchered their country in violation of their own principles. The Allies came to believe it, as well. Thus, when Hitler came to power and demanded the return of all stolen lands and self-determination of all Germans then under Polish and Czech rule, the Allies were morally paralyzed.

Why, British and French asked, should we fight a war to the death against Nazi Germany to keep Sudeten Germans and Danzigers from rejoining their cousins, when they should never have been separated at Versailles and want to go home. If 90 percent of Taiwan’s people demanded to go home to China, would Americans fight to prevent an Anschluss with Beijing? Of course not.

“Munich” is a curse word today, but we should remember that in the Munich and Danzig crises, it was Hitler who was invoking, if cynically, the Wilsonian principle of the self-determination of peoples.

Consider the wars being fought today on the borders of a newly militant Islam. Chechnya has been Russia’s for centuries. Do Chechens have the right to be free and independent? Moscow says no, we will hold Chechnya, even if we must expel all the Chechens. Whose land is it, anyway?

Do Kashmiris, most of whom are Muslim and would vote for union with Pakistan or independence, have a right to leave India? India says no and will fight to hold the province. To whom, then, does Kashmir belong? India, or its majority? Who decides?

Do Palestinians have a right to a homeland on the West Bank with its capital East Jerusalem, when they are 90 percent of the people there and Israelis 10 percent? Israelis say no, these are covenant lands, biblical lands, given to us by God. Other Israelis say we are entitled to this land by right of conquest. Others that we must hold them for our own survival, self-determination be damned.

Not only Israel, but India in Kashmir, China in Sinkiang and Serbia in Kosovo confront independence movements by Islamic peoples who are throwing in our face our own hallowed principle of self-determination, as Hitler did in the 1930s. And there is the same perplexity and moral confusion among Western elites now, as then.

Are we hypocrites who only believe in self-determination when it does not threaten our own or allied interests? And if we are true believers in self-determination, was Lincoln right to send a million-man army to crush a people’s rebellion to break free of his Union, as our forefathers had broken free of the British Crown. If America was a “union of free and independent states,” why was the South not free to depart?

So, today, in Chechnya, Putin invokes Lincoln as Islamic rebels invoke Wilson and the young slave-owner Jefferson. And so we all stumble toward a war of civilizations in which the atomic bomb may be the ultimate ratio, the last argument of those who believe there are principles and rights even higher than those of self-rule and self-determination.