My Weekly Reader 25 October 2018.

When the Second World War broke out, Americans—isolationists or not—expected a re-run of the First World War: a long pounding match.  Then the German army smashed into France in Spring and Summer 1940.  France surrendered and replaced the decrepit Third Republic with the collaborationist Vichy regime.  The French Empire in West Africa–nominally under the control of France, but vulnerable to German seizure–stretched westward into the Atlantic.  Brazil lay within flying distance of Dakar. Suddenly, Latin American affairs seemed of more than the usual importance in Washington.[1]

North Americans viewed South America as more than just a potential beach head for German invaders.  The continent held vast natural resources that might feed the Nazi war-machine.[2]  On its Caribbean shore, the continent abutted the shipping routes to the Panama Canal.  Moreover, the colonial heritage from Spain and Portugal–rather than American imperialism–made South America a politically tumultuous place.  Elites continually struggled with populists for control of the governments, and the armies of the continent did not always favor the “forces of order.”  To make matters worse, in the view of Washington, the region had received hordes of German and Italian emigres in the previous hundred years.  In the age of the “Fifth Column” suspicions ran hot.

As a result, South America became a battleground between the Axis and the Anglo-American Allies.  For their part, Germany and Italy hoped to restrict the flow of natural resources toward the United States and to enhance the influence of their emigrant brothers.  For their part, the Americans sought to build a Trans-Atlantic air ferry route to fly bombers and transports from Miami through Brazil to West Africa; they sought to monopolize purchases of raw materials, whose price spiked during the war and continued into the post-war reconstruction period; and they sought to squelch pro-Axis sentiment.[3]  Propaganda played a large role for both sides, although—like most propaganda—the effort availed them but little.

The Latin American countries were eager to profit from all this interest, yet they were not eager to be drawn into the war itself.[4]  Nevertheless, the turning of the tide led some Latin American countries to join the fight.  Brazil sent 25,000 soldiers to fight in Italy and Mexico allowed a small number of its air force pilots to serve against Japan.  In contrast, Juan Peron’s Argentina refused to engage in the war against the Axis until the very last moment.  Peron’s regime illustrates a number of the key themes.  He had served as military attache in Mussolini’s Italy; Argentina had received many German and Italian immigrants; and Argentina profited enormously from the spike in raw materials prices during and after the war.  Perhaps as a result, Argentina became the favored rat-hole for Nazi war criminals on the run, including Eichmann.

[1] Mary Jo McConahay, The Tango War: The Struggle for Hearts, Minds, and Riches In Latin America During World War II (2018).

[2] Henry Ford had established a rubber plantation in Brazil to insure the raw material for car tires.  He wanted to be free of dependence on the British Empire’s Malayan rubber during an era of bitter Anglo-American economic competition that was strategically forgotten during the Second World War.  On this fascinating episode, see Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (2009).

[3] This could go to what now look like shameful lengths.  Amends have scarcely been made to the Americans of Japanese ancestry who were evacuated from the West Coast, but who now remembers the Peruvian-Japanese?

[4] Rather like Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, and Turkey.

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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).

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).

Spy Stories 1.

During the Fifty Years War, the opponents spied on each other by every means possible.  The Soviet Union possessed marked advantages over its enemies in this arena.  On the one hand, it was a brutal police state that could tightly control its frontiers and limit the contacts between its own “citizens” and foreigners.  Soviets who went abroad were closely watched.  On the other hand, this reality did not penetrate the minds of many foreigners.  Foreign Communists and progressive-minded “fellow travelers” clung to an idealized view of the Soviet Union as rough-around-the-edges place where socialism and democracy were being constructed.  Actually going there did nothing to alter their opinions in most cases.[1]  During the “Devil’s Decade” of the Thirties, the Soviet intelligence services recruited many Western agents.[2]

The most effective (so far as we can tell) and attention-grabbing of these spies were the so-called “Cambridge Five”: Harold “Kim” Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony (one is tempted to go the Full-Brideshead and call him “Antoine”) Blunt, and John Cairncross.  They were recruited while undergraduates, then allowed to develop over time.  During the Second World War they came to occupy important positions in British government.  The British intelligence community only caught on in the 1950s.  It chose to cover-up more than expose.[3]

The most satisfying book on Philby explores the dense network of friends and colleagues, British and American, he exploited.  Everything depends upon the barriers to entry and the acuity of the gatekeepers.  Once you are on the “inside” of a group, people tend to see your behavior as congruent with your supposed function.  If you seem to be good at what you do, then trust increases.  What if Jesus was actually the son of Satan?  What if Judas found him out?[4]

Intelligent, ordinary people surround spies.[5]  Often they see nothing unusual in the behavior of the spies.  Geoffrey Hoare[6], previously and subsequently the Middle East correspondent for the Times of London, lived near Donald and Melinda Maclean in Washington, D.C., then was in Cairo when Donald Maclean’s drinking got him sent back to London for “health reasons.”  He was on the same flight to London as Maclean, but saw no sign that Maclean was under immense psychological pressure.  “He had none of the external signs of someone suffering from a severe nervous breakdown.”  Later on, Hoare befriended Melinda Maclean, who had been left behind when Maclean and Guy Burgess disappeared in 1951 before they could be questioned by British security officers.  He was very surprised when she did a bunk herself in 1953.[7]  Tim Milne, a long-time friend of “Kim” Philby and himself a senior officer in MI-6, saw no hint of treason in him.[8]

On the other hand, there was Guy Burgess.  Burgess provided endless scandals: he was an outrageous drunk and an outrageous homosexual at a time when the former seems to have been common and the latter a felony.  The British security services turned a blind-eye in the worst version of Nelson.  “Surely he can’t mean goats” said one security officer briefed on the “peculiar tastes” of Guy Burgess.  Burgess managed to be recalled from Washington and this allowed him to tell Donald Maclean that they were buggered and had to bolt for the Soviet Union.[9]  The two, followed eventually by Melinda Maclean, simply disappeared for a bit.

Burgess and the Macleans reappeared in Moscow in 1956.  Then “Kim” Philby disappeared from Beirut in 1963.  Much gnashing of awful British teeth followed.[10]  Rebecca West had written one version of a book, The Meaning of Treason, in 1947.  It was all about the “quislings” and collaborators of the Second World War.  “A rum lot, what?”  Her second version, The New Meaning of Treason, in 1964, was all about the Soviet spies.  She lambasted the security service (MI-5) and the in-breeding of the upper classes who filled up the diplomatic service.[11]  While understandable and valid, her criticisms didn’t get at the heart of the matter.  Much later it was revealed that Anthony Blunt, a highly-esteemed art expert, had been among the “Cambridge Spies” who had been recruited by the Soviets in the 1930s.  His life revealed the essential puzzle.  How can someone hate a society so much that he would betray its secrets to another country, but still insist on enjoying all the fruits of that society?[12]

[1] Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society (1997).

[2] Notably the members of the “Red Orchestra” in Germany and France, the Gold-Rosenberg group in the United States, and the “Cambridge Five” in Britain.

[3] At least three of the men—Maclean, Burgess, and Philby—were alcoholics.  Did this make them particularly adept at deception, rather than vulnerable to error and exposure?

[4] I’m not trying to get fired from my job at a Catholic college.  I’m just trying to illustrate a psychological tendency.  In any event, see Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2015).

[5] “Roland Philipps on the Cambridge spies,” WSJ, date misplaced; “Jason Matthews on secret agents of the Cold War,” WSJ, ditto.

[6] Husband of the remarkable Clare Hollingsworth.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clare_Hollingworth#Personal_life

[7] Geoffrey Hoare, The Missing Macleans (1955).

[8] Tim Milne, Kim Philby (2014).

[9] Andrew Lownie, Stalin’s Englishman (2014).

[10] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOHiPvl2mWk  Unless you have British relatives from earlier generations.  Then you already know what I’m talking about.

[11] Rebecca West, The New Meaning of Treason (1964).

[12] John Banville, The Untouchable (1997).