Thursday, January 3, 2008

Anglo-Saxon Empire?

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs (January-February 2008) has a review of "God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World," a new book by Walter Russell Mead. It is a kindly assessment, which is not surprising, for Mead is a resident scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York, the publisher of Foreign Affairs. A cartoon illustrating the review shows John Bull clad in the British flag relaying a baton to Uncle Sam in stars and stripes. The theme of the book is the importance of Anglo-Saxon world dominance.

Mead thinks "the biggest geopolitical story in modern times" is "the birth, rise, triumph, defense, and continuing growth of Anglo-American power despite continuing and always renewed opposition and conflict." The reviewer, Owen Harries, Editor Emeritus of The National Interest, observes that "Americans need to know how and why this has been the case -- not only to understand themselves fully but also to appreciate the nature of the world they have created and to cope with the problems it presents." To that worthy end, let me recall the infrequently told tale of how the baton of power really passed from Britain to the United States.

The story could appropriately begin with the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, but I'll give the Reader's Digest Condensed Book version here and begin it in November 1943. That was when the leaders of the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union -- still known then as the "Big Three" -- met in Tehran, Iran. Nazi Germany had begun losing the Second World War, and the meeting was to decide how best the Allies could push towards victory. For Roosevelt and Stalin the primary focus of the meeting was the war itself; Churchill had an additional aim: how to retain control of the British empire, especially the "jewel" in the imperial crown, India. It was a topic on which Churchill and Roosevelt had strong differences, but with Britain heavily dependent on American military and financial aid, there was little doubt whose views would prevail. As early as August 1941, America's traditional anti-imperialism found expression in the "Atlantic Charter" which set out the common aims of the two countries. It declared unequivocal "respect [for] the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and [the] wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them."

Churchill believed the Atlantic Charter did not apply to the British empire, but Roosevelt thought it did, and that made for rocky relations between the two. Mention of India, especially, infuriated Churchill. So much so that Roosevelt stopped raising the issue personally, leaving it to aides to assert that the British had to give way to the nationalist movement under Gandhi. As a result, Churchill had "come to hate Gandhi more than Hitler or Tojo" by one account, and wanted him dead. In February 1943, when the 74-year old Indian leader was on a 21 day fast in prison -- the entire nationalist leadership was in prison for most of the war -- the British Prime Minister sent a "most secret" encrypted message to the Viceroy in Delhi instructing him against any show of "leniency." The Viceroy assured his boss that he "felt no compunction" about letting Gandhi die. A later secret cable from Churchill demanded to know why Gandhi was "not dead yet." Roosevelt was so concerned about the situation that he sent a personal emissary to India, and when the Viceroy refused to let him visit the prison, the President instructed an aide to "bluntly" tell the British ambassador in Washington that "Gandhi should not be allowed to die in prison."

Gandhi survived, but his wife Kasturba died of "bronchitis" a month after the Tehran meeting. His private secretary of 26 years, the only person familiar with all of the Indian leader's intricate web of personal and political relationships, had died unexpectedly of a "heart attack" in 1942. Other imprisoned nationalist leaders, Stanley Wolpert noted in Nehru: a tryst with destiny, also suffered severely. Jawaharlal Nehru's brother-in-law died in custody of asthma, pleurisy and heart failure. Jayaprakash Narayan "was not killed in jail, but left it prematurely grey and in several ways physically impaired." Vallabhai Patel, the administrative pillar of the Congress Party, was "dreadfully ill" with a "clogged digestive system" that kept him in agony day and night, his requests for medical care ignored on the grounds of security.

At Tehran Roosevelt evidently felt it necessary to distance himself from Churchill and bring home to him that Britain was no longer a "Big Power." Amidst rumors of an impending assassination attempt FDR declined an invitation to stay at the British residency, opting instead for the hospitality of the Russian compound. Churchill's request for a private meeting with Roosevelt before the first three-way meeting was turned down. The president wanted to see Stalin first. While they met, noted Jon Meacham in Franklin and Winston (2003), "Churchill was stewing, his circle as worried as he was" especially after they "got wind of the colonial part of the conversation, including Roosevelt's advice to Stalin that it was not worth discussing India with Churchill." The next morning Churchill asked to have lunch with Roosevelt but was again turned down; instead, another US-Soviet meeting was held, at which, Churchill noted mournfully to an aide, "many important matters were discussed, including particularly Mr. Roosevelt's plan for the government of the post-war world."

At dinner that evening Stalin and Roosevelt took to ragging Churchill about their plans for post-war Germany, so infuriating the Prime Minister that he stormed out of the room in a rage. Seeing that Stalin was amused by Churchill's discomfiture, Roosevelt decided on the final day of the conference to try and establish rapport with the Russian leader by ridiculing Churchill. "I began to tease Churchill about his Britishness, about John Bull, about his cigars, about his habits" he recalled later. "It began to register with Stalin. Winston got red and scowled, and the more he did so, the more Stalin smiled. Finally Stalin broke out into a a deep hearty guffaw, and for the first time in three days I saw light."

Back in Washington, Roosevelt forwarded to "Dear Winston" a "your eyes only ... destroy after reading" memorandum that had been written at his request by a former Secretary of War, Major-General Patrick Hurley. Warren Kimball, editor of Churchill and Roosevelt: the complete correspondence (1984), noted that the letter and the memorandum typified the changes "in the Anglo-American relationship as postwar politics began to rival wartime strategy." The cover letter, in which Roosevelt breezily endorsed Hurley's "general approach to the care and education of what used to be called the 'backward countries'," was obviously intended to be salt in the wound, for the enclosure was a biting attack on Britain's imperial claims, focusing especially on Iran and its prized oil wells, then a British monopoly.

"It is the purpose of the United States to sustain Iran as a free, independent nation and to afford the Iranian people an opportunity to enjoy the rights of man as set forth in the Constitution of the United States and to participate in the fulfillment of the principles of the Atlantic Charter" the memo said. Washington would provide Iran with expert advisers to help it escape "foreign and domestic monopoly and oppression." That would be the model for "the relations of the United States toward all the nations which are now suffering from the evils of greedy minorities, monopolies, aggression and imperialism." The memo declared that the American people were fighting "not to save the imperialism of other nations, nor to create an imperialism of our own." The United States expected the war to end or "radically revise" the world order established by European countries. However, "British imperialism" seemed to "have acquired a new life" because of "the infusion into its emaciated form of the blood of productivity and liberty from a free nation through lend-lease." Woodrow Wilson's "policy for America in the First World War had been designed 'to make the world safe for democracy' and to sustain Britain as a first class world power." For many years that had been the "cornerstone of America's foreign policy; but an "effort to establish true freedom among the less favored nations, so many of which are under the present shadow of imperialism," would "inevitably run counter" to it. To warrant continued American support, Britain "must accept the principles of liberty and democracy and discard the principles of oppressive imperialism."

Roosevelt's vision of the postwar world had no chance of being realized, for he never recovered from the violent stomach upset that laid him low while at dinner on the second night of the Tehran Conference. Rumors of poisoning were quickly hushed up, but the president went into a slow and visible decline. On 28 March 1944 his regular physician sent him to be examined by Dr. Howard Bruenn, a cardiologist at Bethesda Naval Hospital who found him "breathless, with an enlarged left ventricle and a blood pressure of 186/108." Bruenn diagnosed hypertensive heart disease (of which there had been no evidence in a 1941 cardiac examination). A little over a year later FDR was dead at the age of 63 from what was said to be a cerebral hemorrhage; it has been impossible to say what else might have been wrong with him, for his medical file disappeared from a locked safe at Bethesda and has never been found.

[Little is publicly known about the assassination fears that led FDR to stay in the Russian compound in Tehran. It is interesting to note, however, that at Churchill's side at Tehran was "Pug" Ismay, the original James Bond, reputed to be the trigger-man in the group that killed Rasputin; he is supposed to have delivered the coupe de grรขce with a pistol after the Czarina's favorite holy man survived poison and stabbings. At Churchill's insistence Ismay would later become Luis Mountbatten's hatchet-man when he went to India as the last British Viceroy. An article in The Hindustan Times of December 29 commenting on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto noted the staggering list of murdered South Asian leaders: Aung San, Mohandas Gandhi, Liaqat Ali Khan, Solomon Bandaranaike, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Mohammed Daoud, Hafizullah Amin, Indira Gandhi, Zia-ur-Rehman, Zia-ul-Haq, Rajiv Gandhi, Vijaya Kumaratunga, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayak, Najibullah, King Birendra and family, Lakshman Kadirgamar. The list would be even longer if the rest of the former British Empire were included]

When Harry Truman was suddenly elevated to the presidency on FDR's death he had little experience in world affairs; in the few weeks he had been Vice President no one had briefed him about significant foreign developments. "I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me" he told reporters. Jon Meacham in Franklin and Winston noted how Churchill reacted; he canceled plans to attend FDR's funeral, hoping that Truman would visit him in London. "Perhaps Churchill was making a bid to take Roosevelt's place as the senior partner in the alliance; for a moment, a passing moment, he seems to have indulged in a fit of pride, for himself and for Britain. Roosevelt had never traveled far to see only Churchill, instead forcing Churchill to come to him -- or to him and Stalin. ... If he could get Truman to come to him, Churchill may have thought in those feverish hours on April 13, then perhaps the world would see that he, and Britain, were still forces to be reckoned with." But Truman was too busy to to visit Britain, and Churchill did not meet him till July 1945, when the "Big Three" met at Potsdam to take stock after the German surrender. Churchill again found himself odd man out, not only because Truman was impatient with his windy speeches but because the Labour party was voted into power midway through the conference and Clement Attlee took over as head of delegation at Potsdam. However, even as Churchill seemed to fail, entirely unforeseen developments were working to push the United States back into Britain's imperial corner.

The first of those events was the successful test of the nuclear bomb at Alamagordo, New Mexico. When word of it reached the Potsdam conference (Stalin learning of it from his spies within the Manhattan project), it changed the entire post-war strategic picture. The mighty advantage of Soviet land forces in Europe was suddenly neutralized. As George Kennan would note in February 1946 in his famous "long telegram" to the State Department from the American embassy in Moscow, the nuclear bomb fired up Russia's age-old sense of insecurity. The Soviet regime was "committed fanatically" to the view that there could be no peaceful coexistence with the United States; it would seek to to disrupt the "internal harmony" of American society and would have to be contained with the "logic of force." Not entirely by coincidence, Kennan's assessment became a hot item in Washington two weeks before Churchill made his famous "iron curtain" speech at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri.

Fortuitously (or not), Churchill, then leader of the Tory opposition in the British parliament, was vacationing in Florida when the invitation to deliver the speech came from Truman. Before writing the speech he traveled to Washington and met with Admiral William Leahy, who retained in the Truman administration his wartime role of coordinator of the three military services (and was thus, sans title, the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Leahy noted for the record in February 1946 that the speech at Fulton would deal with "the necessity for full military cooperation between Great Britain and the United States in order to preserve peace in the world." Churchill returned to Washington in March for Leahy to approve the final draft of the speech.

The speech has acquired a reputation for flagging off the Cold War, and it certainly did that for the general public; but its true historic significance lies in the 180 degree turn it signaled in American policy towards imperial Britain. To face the threat of expansionist communism, Churchill argued, there was need for a "special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire, and the United States of America." There had to be a "continuance of the intimate relations between our military advisers, leading to common study of potential dangers, the similarity of weapons and manuals of instructions, and to the interchange of officers and cadets at technical colleges. It should carry with it the continuance of the present facilities for mutual security by the joint use of all naval and air force bases in the possession of either country all over the world. This would perhaps double the mobility of the American navy and air force. It would greatly expand that of the British Empire forces and it might well lead, if and and as the world calms down, to important financial savings. "

The idea that Roosevelt had so emphatically rejected was presented as the only option if the United States wanted financial savings and "an overwhelming assurance of security." There was even a hint of a threat: do not "underrate the abiding power of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Do not suppose that half a century from now you will not see 70 or 80 millions of Britons spread about the world united in defense of our traditions and our way of life."

A storm of protest greeted the speech. Critics ranged from the Wall Street Journal to The Nation. Walter Lippman termed it an "almost catastrophic blunder." Stalin said it was a "call to war." According to Truman biographer David McCullough, Truman was given a copy of the speech on the train to Fulton on 4 March but claimed later that he had not known what Churchill would say. In the period that followed, the president "seemed bewildered and equivocating, incapable of a clear or positive policy toward the Russians." But communist advances in Turkey and Greece soon led to the enunciation of the "Truman doctrine" of unconditional support for States threatened with such subversion; the United States was on the road to the ignominy of Vietnam, the killing fields of Cambodia and the "secret war" in Laos.

Fourteen years after Churchill's "iron curtain" speech, President Eisenhower in his farewell address to the American people warned about the threat to democracy from the misplaced power of the "military-industrial complex." His successor in the presidency was assassinated as he tried to extricate America from Vietnam and end the nuclear arms race. The country would not have another two-term president till Ronald Reagan, and that only because he survived an assassination attempt; Bill Clinton would survive another kind of assassination to stay for two terms. Throughout this era in American politics there have been scandalous violations of democratic principle and practice in domestic and foreign affairs. George Bush's two terms in office will go down in history as a low point on both counts. Far from bringing the United States financial savings and assurance of security, the fateful alliance with the British Empire has brought it to a world of high and increasing dangers to constitutional rule. The Anglo-Saxon empire that Mead celebrates in Foreign Affairs has been and is deeply inimical to the best of America.

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