My Weekly Reader 21 October 2018.

There is a long-lasting illusion that Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union (“The Big Three”) had all emerged victorious from the Second World War.  A further myth holds that the war forged a “special relationship” between Britain and the United States.  Neither of these myths is true.  First, Britain was defeated—heroically—in the Second World War: it was bankrupt, exhausted, and dominated by popular aspirations for a better life and dreams of lost grandeur.  Second, the British imagined that they could maintain international influence by mentoring the “immature” Americans in the ways of the world.  In reality, American leaders do not value Britain much except as a lever with which to move other parts of the world.

The decade following the Second World War should have made these realities clear to British leaders.  Britain abandoned the key parts of its Empire (the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, its advantageous position in China) because it lacked either the will or the power to hold them against rising nationalism; Britain received much American economic aid, while refusing to join the construction of “Europe.”  The United States dominated the conflict with Communism, both in Europe and in Asia.

Yet the British resisted recognizing reality.  They bristled when Dean Acheson said that Britain “had lost an empire, but not yet found a role.”  Britain held fast to one key claim to continued great power status: nuclear weapons.  Yet the independent nuclear deterrent formed another myth.  Britain could scarcely afford to develop weapons or delivery systems that could penetrate Soviet air-defenses, let alone in sufficient numbers to create an effective deterrent.  The coldly logical response would have been to unilaterally disarm in this one area, plow the money saved into conventional weapons that would have increased Britain’s real power, and merge Britain’s destiny with the movement toward European unity.  This they would not do.

C.P. Snow, a novelist with both experience in academic science and government, and a hard-headed approach to the world, played a role in this debate.  In Corridors of Power[1] he looked back at the critical mid-Fifties.

Snow tells the story of Roger Quaife, a youngish Conservative politician who seeks power both to be something and to do something.  The something he wants to be is a cabinet minister at an early age.  The something he wants to do is to end the British pursuit of an independent nuclear deterrent and to ease Cold War tensions.  The botched Suez Expedition (1956) provides a particularly sensitive context.  Britain colluded with France and Israel to fake-up a war that “threatened” the Suez Canal in order to justify an intervention in Egypt.  The Americans then dragged on the reins.  In the aftermath, British politics became bitterly divided, “more even than after Munich.”  Quaife first maneuvers for a key ministerial position.  This makes him enemies among those who resent his rapid rise and methods.  His private life—he is married to a beautiful member of the aristocracy, but has a mistress—renders him especially vulnerable to his enemies.  His campaign against the British nuclear program seems to be shoving Britain yet further down-hill.  In the end, he is forced out of office and out of the public eye.  His former wife remarks that “It must be awful to have a brilliant future behind you.”  She might be speaking of Britain itself.  Not all war books are about wars that actually got fought.

[1] C.P. Snow, Corridors of Power (1964).

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My Weekly Reader 18 October 2018.

Being born-out-of-wedlock was a major social disgrace for many centuries.  It is not so today[1] and it was not so in 11th Century Europe.  Duke Robert “the Devil,” duke of Normandy fathered a child with the presumably winsome Herleve, a tanner’s daughter.[2]

Their son, William “the Bastard,” claimed the title of Duke of Normandy after his father’s death during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  He made good that claim by a combination of favorable circumstances and his own remarkable abilities.  Chief among them were ability as an organizer and as a soldier, and a practical ruthlessness.  These qualities struck fear among those who opposed him or who might think about opposing him.  The latter group included his own vassals.  William also possessed a sincere Christian faith, marked by his generous donations to the foundation of churches and abbeys in his territory.[3]  This won him the support of the Church.

Early success at one difficult task encouraged him to raise his sights.  England lost the last of the ruling dynasty of kings (1066).  William set out to seize the crown for himself.  His chief rival for the crown, Harold Godwinson, faced multiple enemies.  Harald “Hardrada,” a Norwegian challenger, had added Godwinson’s own brother, Tostig, to his allies.  Godwinson had won the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, but Stigand was under a cloud with Rome.  As a result, William’s army fought under a papal banner as well as that of Duke William.  William descended up the shores of southern England just after Harold Godwinson had defeated the Norwegian invaders in the north of England.  William’s army defeated and killed Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066.

William’s victory began the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England.  It took another twenty years before William had an unchallenged grip on the monarchy.  The English were not easily subdued in spite of the death of their own king at Hastings.  William’s followers[4] replaced most to the old aristocracy (called “thegns”).  William distributed revenue-producing lands seized from the English aristocrats to these followers.  However, he extracted a price: his version of feudalism gave the kings of England a tight grip on his vassals.  His unusually centralized form of government made both England and Normandy the best-governed territories in Europe.

Then his power as King of England increased his power as Duke of Normandy.  Later his successors would increase their power within France to the point where they could try to seize the crown of France as William had seized the crown of England.

William the Conqueror’s victories in England ended what is called the Anglo-Saxon period of English history.  It opened the period called Anglo-Norman.  It also began the long process by which England rose from a soggy little place of no consequence on the edge of Europe to be one of the five “Great Powers” that guided the destiny of Europe—and then of the world—from the 18th Century to the 20th Century.

[1] See https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-17/almost-half-of-u-s-births-happen-outside-marriage-signaling-cultural-shift

[2] See the classic book by David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1964).

[3] Admittedly, he also plundered other such institutions, but this appears to have happened when those institutions supported one of his rivals.  As a result, church leaders were prone to give him the benefit of the doubt.

[4] He had recruited additional warriors from all over northwestern Europe to bulk-up his own Norman forces.

My Weekly Reader 17 October 2018.

During the 1500s, the “Wars of Religion” that accompanied the Reformation and Counter (or Catholic)-Reformation wreaked havoc on Europe.  One response appeared in the creation of “absolute” monarchies that had the rights and resources to stamp out rebellion.  Such monarchies could spawn new conflicts, but absolutis, called out to kings who took their responsibilities seriously.  In England, the Stuart kings who succeeded Queen Elizabeth I, last of the Tudors, were convinced absolutists.  The English Parliament sought to check the claims to royal rights.  Under the second Stuart king, Charles I, push came to shove.  A civil war broke out (1644-1648).

C.V. Wedgewood chronicled the long struggle in two excellent books (The King’s War, The King’s Peace).  Here she portrayed King Charles as deceitful, even dishonest in his relationships with others (both friends and enemies).  She portrayed him as uncertain, even fearful, in pursuing the course he set out.  He comes off as a poor sort of king to lead a troubled country or to win the war that would decide that country’s future course.

His opponents were very different.  In the course of the war, power passed to a group called the Independents.  These were dissenters from the Church of England (the Protestant state church).  They rejected both the hierarchical administrative structure of the Church and many of its doctrines, which seemed to them too close to Catholicism.  In the words of Thomas Macaulay, “they knew what they fought for and loved what they knew.”  Oliver Cromwell, who rose up to be a formidable soldier and politician, came to be their “chief of men.”

Perhaps 300,000 people died in the civil war before Parliament won.  The Parliament captured the king, found him still determined to assert his claims, and had to decide what to do.  A compromise—the Treaty of Newport—had been offered to the defeated king.  He rejected the terms, which would have included the exiling of his chief supporters, a radical reform of the Church of England, and parliamentary control of the army.

The dominant faction in the Parliament, with their power rooted in the army rather than in the voters, decided to put King Charles I—“that man of blood”–on trial, to convict him, and to execute him.  This amounted to a judicial murder.  It could be justified only by a “cruel necessity” of bringing peace to the country without submitting to royal absolutism.[1]

In her third book on the subject, she focuses on the defeated king in the last, brief, stage of his life.  She portrays Charles as an in many ways admirable human being.  He remained committed to a conservative version of the Church of England and to his own understanding of the royal powers.  In his trial he refused to recognize the right of Parliament to put him on trial.  Convicted and condemned, he met death with great courage.  In sum, a better man than a king.

The trial and execution of King Charles I had ambiguous effects.  Over the short run, it consolidated the victory of Cromwell, the army, and the Independents, while laying royal absolutism in the dust.  Cromwell established what amounted to a military dictatorship.  It alienated many Englishmen, just as had royal absolutism, and scarcely survived Cromwell’s death (1658).  In 1660, the Stuart dynasty was restored to the throne and England has remained a monarchy to this day.  However, Parliament confirmed its authority and it grew with the passage of time.

[1] C.V. Wedgewood, A Coffin for King Charles (New York: Macmillan, 1964).

My Weekly Reader 13 October 2018.

Geography—like many other things—is Destiny.  The Middle East has been shaped by its location between the upper mill-stone and the lower millstone.  Greeks fought Persians; Romans fought Hellenistic Greeks, then fought Sassanids; Christians (Byzantine and Latin) fought Muslims (Arab and Turk); and Anglo-Americans fought Russians.

The last of these struggles centered on the region’s place in an increasingly globalized world economy.   Sea routes, then air, routes through the Middle East made it a vital link between Europe and Asia.  The rise of oil as the world’s industrial fuel made the Middle East a vital component of economic growth.  (As always before, the people of the region were disdained, not least because they habitually accommodated themselves to whoever held the whip-hand.  Their leaders “Medized,” “Hellenized,” “Romanized,” “Arabized,” “Ottomanized,” and “Westernized.”[1])

Through the Nineteenth Century, Britain supported the decrepit Ottoman Empire.  The Phil-Hellene British elite held the Ottomans in low regard, but they were determined never to allow Tsarist Russia to advance southward to dominate Britain’s line of communications with India and the China trade.  The opening of the Suez Canal (1869) intensified this determination.[2]  The outcome of the First World War in the Middle East appeared to finally relieve the danger.  Russia collapsed into revolution and emerged as a pariah state pre-occupied with its internal problems.  Britain and France parted-out the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire.[3]  Liberated from the Russian danger, the British and French fell to bickering among themselves.[4]

Then came the Second World War.  The war wrecked both Britain and France, while elevating the United States and the Soviet Union into global super-powers.  The unwilling Anglo-French retreat from the Middle East coupled with the renewed Russian threat to draw in the Americans.

The British were reluctant to release their grip.[5]  They had, after all, alone fought from the first day of the war to its last without suffering military conquest.  In the last stages of the war, British leaders began to plan new arrangements that would allow them to exert a guiding hand on Middle Eastern developments.  Britain’s lack of money and power quickly undermined these schemes.   Israel’s self-proclamation (1948), the rise of the charismatic Egyptian military dictator Gamal Nasser (1952) in place of the feeble King Farouk (1952), the American supplanting of Britain as the predominant power in Iran after the 1953 coup, Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal and America’s brutal intervention to halt the botched Anglo-French-Israeli Suez Campaign (1956) against Nasser, and the beginning of the Iraqi Revolution with the overthrow of the pro-British monarchy (1958) marked some of the Stations of the Cross on Britain’s painful imperial Via Dolorosa.

[1] It might be wondered if a recognition of this endless submissive adaptability on the part of unprincipled leaders is part of what fuels the rage of contemporary radical Islam.

[2] M.S. Anderson, The Eastern Question, 1774-1923: A Study in International Relations (1966).

[3] Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), France got Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan.  It also sought a tighter grip on Egypt.

[4] See, most recently, James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East (2011).

[5] James Barr, Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East (2018).

Of Two Minds.

In 2016, Donald Trump captured the Republican Party.  However, his own base lies—so goes the conventional wisdom—in the “white working class.”[1]  That class feels that they have been abandoned by their own country and by their traditional party—the Democrats.[2]  Almost half (47 percent) of the voters who approve of President Trump feel estranged from the country.[3]  Now, with President Trump in the White House and Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, almost as large a share (44 percent) of those who disapprove of President Trump feel estranged from the country.

Since President Trump’s election, those on the left have “lamented the erosion of values around tolerance and diversity.”  This means, apparently, “a weakening of values around voting rights, abortion rights, [and] L.G.T.B. tolerance.”  This view of the situation is puzzling.  It appears to suggest that what liberals believe is what they think is established orthodoxy for everyone.  What has been emphasized by the election of President Trump is rather that there never existed a national consensus on these matters.

Thus, in 2008 President Obama opposed marriage equality.  In 2012, when a bare majority of Americans had come to favor it, he switched to supporting marriage equality.  That still left a large, but declining, share of Americans who had not evolved their position with the same speed as had the president.[4]

Similarly, there has existed substantial opposition to unrestricted right to abortion.  In 2009, 47 percent of Americans thought abortion should be legal in most cases, but 44 percent thought that it should be illegal in most cases.  Since then, the gap has widened, with 57 percent thinking it should be legal in most cases and 40 percent thinking that it should be illegal in most cases in 2017.  Breaking it down by age cohorts, it looks like legalization is the wave of the future.[5]  People don’t vote their future opinions.  They vote their current opinions.

These examples barely scratch the surface.  There are the issues around the Second Amendment, urban policing, capitalism, immigration, affirmative action, and elite cosmopolitanism versus mainstream nationalism.

In a telling quote, one scholar remarked about Trump’s insistence that many of his supporter remain disdained by the elites that “if you’re already primed to feel that way, getting a sort of regular dose of that rhetoric I think would cause you to continue to believe it.”  That makes sense, but it fails to examine the impact of media, entertainment, and Democratic political tropes on Democratic voters.  They, too, have spent years fostering a culture of grievance.  For example, just before the 2016 election, one poll reported that 48 percent of African-Americans felt estranged from their own country.  That was at the end of eight years of President Obama’s administration and in the midst of Hillary Clintons “Stronger Together” campaign.  It is worth asking if Democratic rhetoric played a role in fueling this sense of alienation.

[1] Emily Badger, “Estranged in America: Both Sides Feel Lost and Left Out,” NYT, 7 October 2018.

[2] The white working class long formed the core of the “New Deal” coalition assembled by Franklin d. Roosevelt and bequeathed to his successors.  They were celebrated as the salt-of-the-earth.  See, for example, Norman Rockwell, “Freedom of Speech” and “Homecoming Marine.”

[3] Which isn’t quite the same as approving Donald Trump they human being.

[4] Probably, that is because they were motivated by bigotry or principle, while he was motivated by expedience.

[5] http://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/public-opinion-on-abortion/