If one thing distinguishes all of Conrad Black’s books, from his brilliant biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon to his impassioned 2011 apologia, A Matter of Principle, it is exuberance. The onetime press magnate takes up nothing that he does not enliven, and by offering readers a tour d’horizon of American diplomacy, from George Washington to Barack Obama, Conrad Black has put together a study that is as bold and thought-provoking as it is trenchant and entertaining.
Open the book on any page and you will see examples of these winning qualities. Apropos of the attitude of England’s political class to the American Civil War, Black notes how Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston, William Gladstone, and Lord Salisbury, “who between them had 11 terms of prime minister for a total of 42 years between 1846 and 1902,” were all in favor “of exchanging embassies with the Confederacy and, if need be, accepting war with America.” It took Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert—a German, Black reminds readers—and the rococo Tory Benjamin Disraeli to remind them “that the British government could not take a position in favor of slave-holding and secessionism,” especially since this would ultimately result in their losing not only the West Indies but Canada. Like so much else in the book, Black delivers this as though he were speaking with readers over a convivial dinner table.
We are currently blessed with many good historians—I would single out Andrew Roberts, Juliet Barker, Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, Daniel Walker Howe, and Piers Brendon—but even in this distinguished company Black stands out, harking back as he does to an earlier, brasher tradition. Of gentlemen-scholars, only Winston Churchill exhibits a better feel for the great trajectories of history; and when it comes to exploding the fallacies of historical orthodoxy, Black puts one in mind of Hilaire Belloc, who attacked the complacent Whig version of history at every turn. Black is particularly good at skewering liberal myths about the Vietnam war, which he sees as a tale not only of strategic blunders but of old-fashioned funk, epitomized by a well-meaning but inept Lyndon Johnson, whom Black nicely characterizes as having been “chased from office by a ragged little Vietnamese Communist, a goateed former salad-mixer for Escoffier.”
Certainly no other historian now writing is funnier than Black. In speaking of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who moved China from Maoist Marxism to socialist capitalism, Black remarks how Deng accomplished this feat by “encouraging entrepreneurship, plowing the resources of the state into economic investment, welcoming foreign investment, and radically modernizing key industries.” By any chalk, Deng was a far cry from his predecessor, Lin Piao, who, as Black points out, “was such a helpless cocaine addict that he had to breathe motorcycle fumes to clear his head.”
Then, again, this book shows how deftly Black uses details to illumine the larger historical picture. Of FDR’s tenure in office, for instance, Black observes how New York’s Archbishop Francis Spellman “issued a statement that was read in every Roman Catholic church in America, asserting that ‘It is better to have strength and not need it than to need it and not have it. We seek peace, but not a peace that consists in a choice between slavery and death.’ ” As Black remarks, it was a ringing endorsement of Roosevelt and his war effort without ever making reference to the president by name. Yet, “At the decisive moment, the leadership of that Church delivered all it had for the president.” (Why Cardinal Dolan failed to do the same last year for Mitt Romney must baffle those who wish the church would take a more consistent stance against its political enemies.)
The figure most perceptively portrayed here is Richard Nixon, whom Black considers to have been “the most strategically astute and imaginative president in the country’s history,” his only rivals being Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan. As for Nixon’s peculiar genius, Black locates it squarely in the president’s ability to connect with and win the loyal support of ordinary people—the same people who would reject Jimmy Carter’s inept response to Iran’s invasion of the American embassy and rally around Ronald Reagan’s simple but effective objective in the Cold War against the Russians: “We win and they lose.” In that regard, a good deal of Flight of the Eagle is not only about the leadership of America’s presidents but the good sense of America’s people, whose support made that leadership possible, often against the advice of the country’s elites.
An example of Black’s insight into the larger currents that drive history can be found in his concluding chapter, where he observes that, if America is in decline, it has “taken a good time for a setback.” For Black, the American superpower is fortunate to have no serious rivals, largely because “China will hit the wall of false financial reporting and unsustainable official corruption long before the difficulties of the United States induce any irretrievable decline.”
Still, he does not minimize the extent to which America’s strategic negligence continues to be consequential: “America missed the opportunity to be more tightly connected to the rest of the Americas, and thus have a more comparable demographic bloc for its economic progress than China and India. It could have had effective federal unions with large parts of the hemisphere”—with Canada and Mexico, for instance—by which it could have “added 50 percent to its population and 150 percent to its treasure house of natural resources.” But now, Latin America and Canada “have no interest in being too intimately associated with the United States.” And in much of Latin America, a calamitous socialist-state model continues to fill the void.
Black’s delight in questioning the pieties of American nationhood can be seen in his handling of the secession of the colonies from Great Britain, which he presents as little more than “a grubby contest about taxes, colonial gratitude, and the rights of the . . . mother country.” Here, Black refers to the unwillingness of the Americans to pay Britain taxes to help cover the costs of the Seven Years’ War—which Britain undertook, at least partly, to protect the colonists from the imperial clutches of the French. For Black, the Americans had no grounds for regarding those taxes as tyrannous; indeed, he is convinced that they knew as much themselves and that they deployed the eloquent Thomas Jefferson expressly to “repackage” the contest as “an epochal struggle for the rights of man, vital to the hopes and dreams of everyone in the world.” Of Jefferson’s assertion that the colonists could lay claim to the same individual liberties as the Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest, Black is at his most pungent: “The whole argument was moonshine,” he writes; it was illustrative not so much of the rights of the colonists or Anglo-Saxons (who had had no system of individual rights) as of Thomas Jefferson’s deft polemical rhetoric.
If Black occasionally pokes holes in America’s amour-propre, he is ready also to celebrate it when celebration is in order. In his treatment of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, Black shows himself to be deeply sympathetic to the appeal of American exceptionalism. After establishing that the Civil War “was the greatest war in the history of the world”—producing 360,000 Union and 300,000 Confederate dead, as well as 90,000 civilian dead, and about 475,000 combined civilian and military casualties—Black remarks, “No foreigners had foreseen the vehemence and fury of the struggle, or had imagined the emergent might of the victorious armies.” The war opened eyes in ways that changed the world.
Those who had thought America the light of the world now knew it to be so. Those who had lamented the moral palsy of slavery that was behind the Jeffersonian message rejoiced. And those who had doubted the strength—as opposed to the diplomatic agility, polemical talent, and geographical good fortune—of the Americans and their leader saw the strength of the American people in their devotion to their country and its ideals and were struck almost dumb by the genius and humanity of their leader.
Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Culture and Abortion.