European Affairs

In a string of books of history, Roberts has made a name and a living for himself in the culture wars inside the United States and in the Transatlantic context as a standard-bearer for conservatism, the special relationship and the superiority of the Anglophone sphere. As if it needed further luster, his place in the U.S. conservative pantheon gained the ultimate recognition with an invitation to talk with President Bush at a book club discussion organized by Karl Rove.

To attempt to follow in Churchill’s literary footsteps takes considerable self confidence— the non-Anglo-Saxon word would be chutzpah. But Roberts is an author who thinks big thoughts at a time when many contemporary academic historians wander deeper into minutiae. As that profession generally tilts left, he swings hard right. From odes to Kipling to denunciation of post-colonial African governments, there is nothing politically correct in this ardent defense of Britain’s wars and its colonial stewardship all over the world. Certainly, he has produced a book that immediately absorbs the reader as it provokes, irritates and knocks down popular shibboleths, all with great gusto and brio. Here is how he starts:

“As the first rays of sunlight broke over the Chatham Islands, 360 miles east of New Zealand in the South Pacific, a little before 6 a.m. on Tuesday 1 January 1901, the world entered a century that for all its warfare and perils would nonetheless mark the triumph of the English-speaking peoples. Few could have expected it at the time, but the British Empire would wane to extinction during that period, while the American Republic would wax to such hegemony that it would become the sole global hyper-power. Assault after assault would be made upon the English- speaking peoples’ primacy, each of which would be beaten off successfully, albeit sometimes at huge and tragic cost. Even as the twenty-first century dawned, they would be doughtily defending themselves still.”

For those of us who believe that World War I was the critical event of the twentieth century and all that followed was sequel, the first part of this book is particularly provocative. As Roberts reminds, history is argumentation, and that certainly has been true of the historiography of the First World War. For people schooled in mid-20th-century, the prevailing analysis from Sidney Fay’s Origins of the Great War through Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August was that the war was the product of an accident or series of accidents. Roberts goes with a more modern version, advanced in David Fromkin’s recent book, Europe’s Last Summer. Germany was trying to change the balance of power in Europe. The military circles around the Kaisers of Germany and Austria (even if not the two monarchs themselves) were pushing for war. Britain had no choice but to join the conflict, especially after the Germans invaded Belgium on their way into France.

Roberts not only defends Britain’s entry into the war but the tactics and strategy of allied military leaders. He argues they had no other choice but to fight the kind of war they did. He acknowledges he is running up against not only the historical grain but contrary to a terrible sense of carnage that must equate, emotionally, to blundering and class-ridden indifference by the commanding marshals. How can he do otherwise in a war that on one day of fighting— July 1, 1916—at the Somme left 19,241 dead British soldiers?

He takes account of and challenges the legacy of novelists and poets whose narrative of the trench warfare remains embedded in the Western consciousness. His recitations from some lesser-known literary works of the war, such as Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We, offer a heart-rending depiction of stoicism and courage in contrast to the despairing cynicism that infuses the classic postwar literature.

Yet Roberts also acknowledges how the war led to a shift in the balance between Britain and its dominions and former colonies. Australia and New Zealand, stung by their defeat under British command at Gallipoli (at which Churchill’s audacious plan miscarried, being weakly executed) resolved to take more control over their destinies, as did the Canadians from their victories in the European land war. The entry of new and fresh U.S. troops in 1917-18 ended any German Army hopes for victory and it was the American President, Woodrow Wilson, who dominated the peace-making process at the Versailles conference that led to the changing of many borders on the European continent.

For much of the rest of the century, Roberts provides a continuous line of narrative: war-weariness; a tendency, especially on the intellectual left, to be beguiled by tyrants; a seeming willingness to let danger build beyond the breaking point and then rescue by an Anglo- American duo—Churchill-Roosevelt, Thatcher-Reagan, Blair-Bush.

The author has a knack for marshalling anecdotes and little facts to make his big arguments. He’ll describe how an invention such as refrigerated shipping helped deepen the relationship between sheep-exporting New Zealand and sheep-consuming Britain. For him the Anglo-Saxon model of free-market economics combines with scientific and technical achievements to spawn and impose global innovation, right up to the British subject who invented the application that made the World Wide Web a device of global communication for hundreds of millions of people.

Other than totally failing to mention the Anglican Communion, which up to now has brought millions around the world to the same English-language liturgy, hymns and beliefs, little seems to escape his writ, be it the genteel anti- Semitism of many of the British upper classes or the quaint description of Wallis Simpson as “a sexually active American divorcee.” (The word “promiscuous” comes to mind, but may smack of lesemajeste for the author.) And of course, there is the development and spread of the English language from a small Anglo-Saxon vocabulary to the etymological polyglot of more than half a million words that is now on the verge of becoming the world’s first global language. In the process, he cannot help himself from mocking the increasingly futile French efforts at linguistic and cultural protectionism against such threats as CNN and Google with nascent innovations such as France’s 24-hour all-new channel and call for a European on-line library. As if to prove the point, the Canal 24 network offers at least a third of its programming in English.

But even the most ardent Anglophile might blanch at his addition of Charles de Gaulle to a motley list of dictators who came to power via military means. Is it their genes, their history, the education system or maybe something in the water that can produce such bursts of English animus against the French?

Yet, sometimes, even Roberts cannot keep the narrative on a single course. For instance, there’s that small problem of the Irish, predominantly English-speaking but creating their exception at several turns in the century. Ultimately, he dismisses them, as with this view of Irish neutrality in World War II:

“At the very least, at a time between 1941 and 1943 when the entire English- speaking peoples were fighting for their existence, the Irish Government was keeping its options resolutely open, while pursuing the issue of partition above the question of the survival of Civilization itself. The idea that a Nazi victory in the West would lead to an extension of Irish liberty, sovereignty and independence might be laughable today, but a (fortunately small) section of the Irish governing class was so blinded by Anglophobia that they were willing to take the risk.”

As lively and engaging as this book is, it does raise the question of when history- writing stops and punditry begins. Roberts often draws parallels from the distant past into the very contemporary present, such as comparing Lord Salisbury to President Bush. The biggest jaw dropper is this description of Franklin Roosevelt:

“His insistence on regime-change in Germany, Austria, Italy and Japan by installing democracy through force rendered him the first American neoconservative.”

It could be well argued that the author would have been better served not writing or severely editing the penultimate chapter of this book, meant to bring it through the events of 2005. In part, it carries the sense of settling scores, primary among them Bill Clinton, Hollywood for producing such anti-British and anti-English films such as “Braveheart” and the Tory cabal that pushed Margaret Thatcher from Number 10 Downing Street. It seems to have been written in such haste or anger that the normally meticulous author lapses into errors about U.S. history. In a list of adulterous Presidents, he includes Woodrow Wilson, whom most historians believe that, if he ever lusted adulterously, it was only in his heart and long before he reached the White House. And he omits Wilson’s successor Warren Harding, whose adulterous feats in White House closets and elsewhere reached Olympian proportions. And Richard Nixon did not avoid impeachment proceedings, as the author states. The House Judiciary Committee brought impeachment charges against him days before he resigned.

Roberts begins his book with a list of acknowledgements that includes the now-familiar names of many American advocates and architects of the Iraq war —a clue to his conclusion which, inadvertently or otherwise, comes full circle. In defense of the conduct and origins of the war, he uses arguments that even the White House has abandoned in recent months. And as an admirer of Prime Minister Tony Blair, Roberts does not mention how the most promising and dynamic of post-Thatcher prime ministers is coming to a sad political end, and that even the presumptive Tory leader David Cameron is speaking of not blindly following Washington’s lead.

Just as it has weathered previous disruptions, such as Suez, the partnership of English- speaking peoples and governments may well survive Iraq and thrive anew. But one has to wonder about its durability if even its most ardent and articulate proponents have difficulty distinguishing between the legacies of Franklin Roosevelt and the Pentagon architects of U.S. intervention in Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld and Douglas Feith, both, tellingly, listed by Roberts as sources for his book.

Michael D. Mosettig is senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the News Hour with Jim Lehrer.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 1 in the Spring of 2007.