Day of Reckoning: How Hubris, Ideology, and Greed Are Tearing America Apart
By Pat Buchanan
Random House, 2007,
304 pp., $25.95
In 1940, a young Pat Buchanan followed in the isolationist footsteps of his father, William Baldwin Buchanan, a fervent Catholic who supported Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War and became a placard-waving member of the America First Committee. The group was a hodge-podge of Bundists, conservatives like Robert Taft, confirmed pacifists like Socialist leader Norman Thomas, and other leftists who put aside their ideological differences to declare against American involvement in World War II.
Although the arguments they offered varied, they frequently diverged into two particular tropes. The first, aimed at those who claimed that America had nothing to fear from the rise of fascism, held that a hidden conspiracy of Jews was pushing the American government into war. The second, a rebuttal to those who believed that America was in the fascists' crosshairs, advocated a “Fortress America” approach to arm the U.S. at home as an alternative to sending aid to beleaguered countries under the Lend-Lease Act of 1941.
After Pearl Harbor, most abandoned these sentiments. By the start of the Cold War, conservatives had split into two camps. One, led by Taft, denounced the containment policies of the Truman administration as a big-government derivative of President Roosevelt's hated New Deal. In the other camp were those like Richard Nixon, who supported such Cold War measures. Buchanan became difficult to locate between these poles. On one hand, he advocated Cold War policies, continued by Nixon and accelerated by Ronald Reagan. But he also subscribed to the pessimistic outlook of conservative icon Whittaker Chambers, whose declinist worldview was best summed up in the following l950s letter to William F. Buckley Jr.: “The problem isn't with our enemies, Bill. The crisis in within ourselves -- in Western Civilization.”
In his latest book, Day of Reckoning, Buchanan reveals that he has shed none of the theses of America First. On the contrary, he has now linked them to Chambers' wreck-of-Western Civilization worldview. As much is apparent in the book's alarmist theme, which Buchanan expresses this way: "America is coming apart, decomposing, and...the likelihood of her survival as one nation...is improbable.” The problem isn’t with our enemies, in other words, it’s within America itself.
This is not to say that Buchanan and Chambers’ arguments are identical. For Chambers, the problem was spiritual: America lacked the faith of Christianity to combat the faith of communism. For Buchanan, the problem has a face, or to be more precise, faces: The enemies from within come here illegally in what he calls “the greatest invasion in history, from the Third World…swamping the ethno-cultural core of the country, leading to Balkanization and the loss of the Southwest to Mexico.” They are also to be found inside the neoconservative movement, which, as Buchanan sees it, had President Bush's ear after 9/11 and converted him to their peculiar brand of democracy-spreading and global commitments.
Buchanan's prescriptions read like a slightly updated speech from America First. Contending that the U.S. military is “too small” to meet these global commitments, Buchanan calls for “a new foreign-defense policy that closes most of the 1000 bases overseas, reviews all alliances, and brings home” the U.S. troops. But he has also gone beyond the year 1940 and sounds at times, especially on the topic of Russia, like 1948 Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace. Just as Wallace advocated spheres of influence designated for Russia and the United States to avert a Second Cold War, the United States should, Buchanan writes, “get out of Russia's space and get out of Russia's face,” and shut down all U.S. bases on the soil of the former Soviet Union.
To his credit, Buchanan shows some intellectual courage when he writes of the illegal immigration problem. In a decade when both parties eschew taking a decisive stand on the issue for fear of alienating the Hispanic community, Buchanan pulls no punches, hews to no talking points. With graphs and charts, he shows how the America of 2060 will have tripled the number of illegal immigrants in the country, from 37 million today to 105 million in 2060. One doesn't have to subscribe to Oswald Spengler's pessimism to fear that the Western traditions America was founded upon may soon be overwhelmed by multiculturalism.
But Buchanan's refusal to abandon his America First roots limits his vision. One of the more insightful criticisms of the Clinton era's dealings with terrorism was the administration's unwillingness to place people on the ground. Embassies were and are still vital stations for intelligence agents, and shutting down all facilities in a Russia headed by an increasingly autocratic former KGB agent is not advisable.
Nor will bringing the troops home from Iraq stop the terrorist attacks; more likely, it will only embolden our enemies. Indeed, in another context, Buchanan used to make precisely this point. During the Cold War, he advocated “peace through strength” and supported the funding of freedom fighters in the Middle East. Today, he seeks to pull U.S. forces back behind Fortress America. Unfortunately for Buchanan, it is not 1940, the America First Committee has long passed from the scene, and his foreign-policy prescriptions are out of place in the complex world of the 21st century.