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May 17 / Jonathan

Borah, Hitler and Bush

David Kaiser: Facts are stubborn things

A couple of days ago President Bush ignited a firestorm before the Knesset by attacking those who support talking with hostile foreign leaders as practitioners of appeasement. “As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939,” he said, “an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.” White House officials have identified the Senator as William Borah of Idaho, one of the longest-serving members in the history of that body, a one-time chairman and long-time ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a committed isolationist who opposed American entry into the First World War (and died in January 1940 before entry into the Second had become a major issue.)

That fact that Borah was a Republican has been cited as ironic by several commentators. David Kaiser suggests that the entire business is apparently a fabrication (unlike, it also appears, the suggestions of Bush’s grandfather Prescott Bush’s financial connections with the Nazi war machine).

The purported quote from Borah has been a favorite of neoconservative Charles Krauthammer for some time. There is, however, one problem. While I cannot claim to have researched the issue exhaustively, the Proquest database of major newspapers includes not one shred of evidence that Borah ever said any such thing—and an enormous amount of evidence that he never would have.

More to the point, however, Borah was anything but naive about Hitler and was in fact a violent opponent of Fascism, Nazism, and the Munich agreement reached by the western powers. A selection from the reports of major newspapers during the 1930s leaves no doubt about this. Like many isolationists, he blamed Hitler’s rise largely on the Versailles treaty (an opinion which I personally do not share), but he never minced words about the nature of Hitler’s regime. In 1934 he referred to Nazism as “the malign influence which the world now contemplates with amazement and horror.” In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, he violently attacked Mussolini and Hitler for making war on the government of Spain and argued that domestic Fascism was a greater threat than domestic Communism. In a radio address in late March 1939, after Roosevelt had proposed amendments to the neutrality act to allow the British and French to buy arms, Borah argued that those powers did not deserve our help. “What they are contending for is the realization of their imperialistic scheme and not the destruction of Nazism,” he said. He attacked the British for failing to oppose the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931 and for letting Hitler know they would not object to the annexation of Austria a year earlier (an apparent reference to the famous Halifax mission of late 1937.) “During the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia,” he said, “no mention was ever made of the teachings of Nazism and the dangers of enlarging its influence in Europe. ” He also criticized the British and French for failing to make any provision for the many anti-Nazis who had fallen under German sovereignty as a result of the Munich agreement. In the absence of a direct, sourced quote—which no one so far has produced—I cannot believe that this man would have made the statement that our President attributed to him.

3 Comments

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  1. Mark Baker / Jul 8 2008

    Jonathan, Interesting thoughts on Borah. I did some research into this quotation just after the Knesset speech and posted my findings on wikipedia. There is a source for the quotation, but it is not that reliable. Have a look at the page, when you have a chance. Cheers, Mark Baker

  2. Jonathan / Jul 9 2008

    Thanks, Mark. It seems to me that, while the provenance question is fascinating, Kaiser rather glosses over a more problematical issue, namely the casual equation of diplomacy with “appeasement”, however one might define that term.

    As you’ll see from a couple of my other posts, I’ve been reading another Baker recently; Human Smoke raises any number of troubling “what if” questions about the period in question.

    I love Wikipedia; thanks for your work on it.

  3. Mark Baker / Jul 9 2008

    Jonathan, I quite agree. In fact, I wrote a short piece of our local paper on the differences between Obama and Chamberlain.

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