The Magazine

Hands Across the Sea

America, Britain, and the defense of freedom.

Mar 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 26 • By EDWARD SHORT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900

by Andrew Roberts

HarperCollins, 752 pp., $35

Readers familiar with the work of Andrew Roberts will know that he is one of the very best historians now working. His books on Lord Halifax, on Churchill and Hitler, Napoleon and Wellington, and Waterloo all showcase his ebullient originality. His magisterial biography of Lord Salisbury, the Tory Victorian prime minister, is a dazzling portrait of a fascinating man whose exemplary statesmanship is too little studied by present-day conservatives. Roberts is also a prolific essayist and reviewer who brings to his shorter works the same rigor and panache that he brings to his books. His sequel to Churchill's work--taking up where Churchill left it--should delight his admirers and win him many new readers. It deserves as wide a readership as it can possibly get.

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 is a superb reappraisal of the achievements and lost opportunities of the "special relationship," which persuasively makes the case that the United States and the United Kingdom are "infinitely stronger than their constituent parts"--a truth that needs retelling at a time when the freedom not only of the English-speaking peoples but of all peoples is so clearly threatened by Islamic fascism.

Divided, the English-speaking peoples saw their worst reversals: Roberts cites Dunkirk, Pearl Harbor, Suez, and Vietnam. Together, they accomplished their greatest victories: the 1918 summer offensive, North Africa in 1942, the liberation of Europe during 1944-45, the Berlin airlift, the Korean war, the Falklands, the collapse of Soviet communism, the Persian Gulf war, the liberation of Kosovo, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. By any standard, this is an impressive record. As Churchill put it:

The English-speaking nations . . . almost alone, keep alight the torch of Freedom. These things are a powerful incentive to collaboration. With nations, as with individuals, if you care deeply for the same things, and these things are threatened, it is natural to work together to preserve them.

The 19th-century English wit Sydney Smith once confessed that he entirely understood why an American might say, "I will live up to my neck in mud, fight bears, swim rivers, and combat with backwoodsman, that I may ultimately gain an independence for myself and children." This is why Smith was what he called a Philo yankeist: "I doubt if there ever was an instance of a new people conducting their affairs with so much wisdom." Roberts, too, may be described as a Philoyankeist. He writes with unusual sympathy and balance about a people whom many of his compatriots simply don't get.

Nevertheless, he is unsparing when it comes to what he rightly regards as American folly. Jimmy Carter is an easy target, of course, but Roberts is right to excoriate him. There is no justification for an American president responding to the fall of the pro-American Shah in 1979 by warning his countrymen against "the temptation to see all changes as inevitably against the interests of the United States, as a kind of loss for 'us' and a victory for 'them.' . . . We need to see what is happening not in terms of simplistic colors of black and white, but in more subtle shades." Roberts's riposte is unanswerable: The Ayatollah Khomeini "turned out not to be an aficionado of subtle shades." In the last presidential election, Americans heard the same subtle defeatism from John Kerry, the candidate Mark Steyn called the "Nuancy Boy."

Roberts is no more tolerant of British folly. On the 1942 fall of Singapore, in which a garrison of over 110,000 troops surrendered to a Japanese assault force of 35,000, Roberts remarks: "As so often happens in chaotic military debacles involving civilians, there were many appalling scenes in which the sang-froid of the British and Australians completely disappeared, to be replaced by inexcusably disgraceful behavior." In societies where "face" was paramount, this unedifying sauve qui peut unmasked the mystique of British rule and heralded the collapse of the British Empire in Asia. Roberts quotes a New Zealander on the sudden demise of the port that Sir Stamford Raffles had established a century earlier: "Seems rather appalling, all that labor and those millions of pounds worth nothing in a few days. Maybe all concerned did their best, but it seems to me that there must have been some rank inefficiency somewhere, after the lessons of the Maginot Line, not to mention Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and Hong Kong."