The Magazine

Hands Across the Sea

America, Britain, and the defense of freedom.

Mar 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 26 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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."

Churchill, being Churchill, was rather more upbeat about this colossal snafu: "Singapore has fallen. All the Malay Peninsula has been overrun. . . . This is one of those moments when the British race and nation can show their quality and their genius. This is one of those moments when it can draw from the heart of misfortune the vital impulses of victory. Here is the moment to display that calm and poise combined with grim determination which not long ago brought us out of the very jaws of death. . . . So far we have not failed. We shall not fail now. Let us move forward steadfastly together into the storm and through the storm."

Roberts shows how the Munich conference tested the English-speaking people's commitment to freedom. Proponents of Munich often argue that Neville Chamberlain was right to let Hitler dismember Czechoslovakia in 1938 because it gave Britain time to rearm. But opponents argue that defending Czechoslovakia was the right thing to do, and might well have averted World War II by preempting the Wehrmacht.

Following Chamberlain's return from an earlier meeting with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, the Lord Chancellor Lord Maugham (Somerset's brother) argued that "according to the principles of Canning and Disraeli, Great Britain should never intervene unless her own interests are directly affected." But Duff Cooper, first lord of the Admiralty, disagreed: Britain's main interest in foreign affairs, he declared, had always been preventing "any one power from gaining undue predominance in Europe." Neither Canning nor Disraeli would have disputed that. Resisting Nazi Germany--"probably the most formidable power that had ever dominated Europe"--was therefore a direct British interest.

Of course, Chamberlain, and most of those who would later scapegoat him, thought otherwise. But Duff Cooper held his ground. Speaking of the interview he had with Chamberlain when he tendered his resignation after Munich, he recalled: "I found it a relief to be in complete agreement with him for once. I think he was as glad to be rid of me as I was determined to go." The lesson of Munich could not have been clearer: "Sweet reasonableness is no match for the mailed fist."

Roberts observes that the themes debated by Maugham and Duff Cooper on September 17, 1938, "have reverberated through the history of the English-speaking peoples . . . right up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. They can be separated into the distinct yet overlapping foreign policy strands of isolationism, prestige, the thin-edge-of-wedge, the domino theory and the importance of coalition." The one strand he omits to mention is preemption.

Most Americans are grateful to Tony Blair for his stalwart support for the war on terror in the wake of 9/11. Yet at this moment, in Britain, Blair is loathed--more, perhaps, than any premier since Sir Robert Peel, another statesman vilified for opposing his party's consensus. This leads to another of Roberts's main points: that the English-speaking peoples, "like the Romans, . . . would at times be ruthless, at times self-indulgent," but they "would sometimes find that the greatest danger to their continued imperium came not from their declared enemies without, but rather from vociferous critics within their own society."

Roberts is particularly effective on those vociferous Marxists who still exert a pernicious influence on British education, "teaching Western culture in terms of a series of crimes against humanity." These are the same people who have convinced the British electorate that the Islamic terrorist attacks perpetrated against the West in the last quarter-century have been the result not of Islamic extremism but of Western imperialism. The barbarous relativism of multiculturalism only reinforces this state of affairs. Blair acknowledged as much in a September 2006 speech in which he said, "We will not win the battle against global extremism unless we win it at the level of values as much as force. We can only win by showing that our values are stronger, better and more just than the alternative."

Andrew Roberts demonstrates these values in action. Ronald Reagan, he writes, "framed the issue of anti-communism in stark, black-and-white terms, entirely eschewing the nuanced chiaro scuro of détente." Why? Anthony Lewis, a New York Times columnist of the day, was convinced that Reagan was determined to instigate a nuclear standoff with the Soviets. But Roberts offers a different explanation. Reagan, he explains, "possessed something that those who scoffed at him did not: an instinctive belief in America's capability to win the Cold War, because of the desire of those trapped behind the Iron Curtain to live in liberty."

What sets A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 apart is its passionate sincerity. Yes, it is admirably researched and enviably well-written; it is full of revisionist fireworks. It is, in parts, laugh-out-loud funny. (See Roberts's animadversions on Harold Wilson's foreign secretary, George Brown.) But it is also a cry from the heart. Roberts believes in Anglo-American collaboration because he believes in freedom. He believes in what Churchill said at the 1943 Harvard commencement:

Law, language, literature--these are considerable factors. Common conceptions of what is right and decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to the weak and poor, a stern sentiment of impartial justice, and above all a love of personal freedom . . . these are the common conceptions on both sides of the ocean among the English-speaking peoples . . . Tyranny is our foe, whatever trappings or disguise it wears, whatever language it speaks, be it external or internal . . .

What Harvard would make of this now is anybody's guess, but how refreshing to read Andrew Roberts defend it today in this rousing, brilliant, irresistible book.

Edward Short is the author of a forthcoming book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.