Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster, 576 pages, $30.00)

“Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist,” George Orwell wrote during World War II. “This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one.”

Five decades after Adolf Hitler died in his bunker and the Japanese signed surrender papers on the U.S.S. Missouri, novelist/historian Nicholson Baker remains objectively pro-fascist. But he goes further than that. The contrarian’s twelfth book, Human Smoke, equates Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt with Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. In Baker’s eyes, all four were irresponsible leaders who led their countries to war. Moral equivalence has rarely had so devious a champion. Still, Baker’s regular readers can hardly be surprised. His 2004 novel, Checkpoint, concerned the merits of assassinating George W. Bush. This is a man thirsty for ink.

Nicholson has neither the patience, nor, it would seem, the elementary common sense to lay out a logical pacifist argument. Instead, he presents a collage of quotations from newspapers, diaries, letters, and the public utterances of personalities prominent in the days leading up to World War II. He adores Gandhi, not because of the Mahatma’s asceticism but because of his advice to the British in 1940: “I want you to fight Nazism without arms.” In the event Hitler and Mussolini attacked the Tight Little Island, Gandhi continued: “If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.” As for the Jews: “I can conceive of the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators.”

But 6 million, not mere thousands, died to appease that hunger. In a brief and flaccid afterword, Baker inquires rhetorically, “Was it a ‘good war’? Did waging it help anyone who needed help?” A peek at Hitler’s screed, Mein Kampf, could have furnished Baker with a working hypothesis. “With satanic joy in his face,” wrote the fuhrer-to-be, “the black-haired Jewish youth lurks in wait for the unsuspecting girl whom he defiles with his blood, thus stealing her from her people. With every means he tries to destroy the racial foundations of the people he has set out to subjugate.” As apparently everyone but Baker now understands, Mein Kampf did not end on paper. It concluded at the chimneys of Auschwitz.

The author parades many other pacifist heroes alongside Gandhi. Take the Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, who stated, “The all but unanimous judgment seems to be that we, the democracies, are just as responsible for the rise of the dictators as the dictatorships themselves, and perhaps more so.” Evidently, Fosdick employed “unanimous” in the manner of a Lewis Carroll character: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’” Another of the author’s favorites is the forgotten Quaker, Milton Sanford Mayer. As war clouds gathered in 1939, he wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post entitled, “I Think I’ll Sit This One Out,” arguing that the conflict would not address the fundamental problem: “the animality in man.” Baker also admires Jeannette Rankin, a Republican congresswoman. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and FDR correctly predicted that the day would “live in infamy.” No matter to Rankin; on Monday, she cast the only vote opposing a declaration of war against Imperial Japan. “You cannot have war and democracy,” she declared. “You cannot have war and liberty.”

In fact, that’s exactly what the Allies did have. Throughout the conflict, the Axis used the terror apparatus to quell the slightest whisper of dissent. Meantime, the Fosdicks and Mayers and Rankins in the U.S., and fascist fellow-travelers in Britain, could and did sound off any time they wanted, anywhere they chose.

Human Smoke is a mother lode of execrable sections, but perhaps the worst parts of the author’s cut-and-paste job are his attacks on Roosevelt and Churchill. Baker uses an unattributed quotation to turn FDR into Joe McCarthy writ large: “Hitler often claimed, said Roosevelt, that he had no designs on the Americas. But Roosevelt had evidence to the contrary. ‘I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler’s government,’ he said. The map showed existing boundaries obliterated, the Panama Canal absorbed, and Latin American countries turned into ‘vassal states’ of Germany. ‘This map makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States itself.’ He did not show the map.” Baker despises Churchill, too, as a conniving warmonger, and dispatches him with a quotation from the Nazi minister of propaganda. Joseph Goebbels describes the British prime minister as a man with a face “devoid of one single kindly feature. This man walks over dead bodies to satisfy his blind and presumptuous personal ambition.”

To present caricatures worthy of Der Stürmer as if they were objective portraits is not analysis; it is not even polemic. It is rather a conglomeration of half-truths tarted up to look like evidence. Yet Human Smoke inadvertently makes one valid point: Winston Churchill could indeed be wrong. After he and Roosevelt stopped Hitler’s slaughter of the innocent and restored democracy to Europe (a region, by the way, that has remained at peace for 63 years), the prime minister famously affirmed that history was written by the victors.

Not so, at least in Nicholson Baker’s case, for Human Smoke is history written by one of the losers. Those who buy this book and swallow its thesis deserve to be placed in that category.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next