Reading: Our English Problem | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Our English Problem 

While we sit in bogus pubs watching Masterpiece Theatre, young Americans are being sent to finish fights started by our "allies."

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In 1890, a group of American Shakespeare lovers gathered in New York's Central Park intent upon releasing all the species of birds mentioned in the Bard's plays that were not already native to America. Since Shakespeare mentions ostriches and peacocks, among over 50 other species, it must have been quite a sight. One of the birds introduced to this country was the ravenous English starling, which quickly deposed the New York state bird, the eastern bluebird, from its nesting places.

This whimsical but disastrous slice of avian history cannot compare to the more serious manifestations of Anglophilia in American culture and foreign policy. For the past 100 years, America has been picking up the pieces of the crumbled British Empire: in many of the places America has intervened militarily, one can find a tattered Union Jack and a dusty recording of "God Save the King" lying about.

The "special relationship" between Britain and the United States is the subject of Christopher Hitchens's Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies, a provocative, lucidly composed, and often angry work. Hitchens is an author of the type that Britain regularly produces: a public school-educated intellectual who relishes any opportunity to skewer the mother country. Hitchens, who now resides in the United States, comes out fighting in the book's first paragraph. He calls England "the has-been country par excellence," and sneers at America's "powerful need for evocations of grandeur," noting that its "preferred imagery is derived from England, and from the British Empire." But to his credit, Hitchens infuses the book with more than angry expatriate disillusionment. He insightfully traces the origins of British influence on American foreign policy and challenges the United States to reexamine its cultural and historical connections with Britain and to "rediscover republican virtues in a world without conquerors."

Hitchens, who has a keen eye for historical oddities and cultural ironies, documents America's vacillating attitude toward Britain from the revolution to the present. After the revolution, there was much debate on what the official language of the newly liberated colonies would be. One suggestion was Hebrew, another Greek. A delegate to the Continental Congress quipped that "it would be more convenient for us to keep the language as it is, and make the English speak Greek." Hitchens notes that as "late as 1795, the House of Representatives narrowly defeated a motion that all its documents and proceedings be printed also in German. The tie vote was cast by the Speaker, one Friedrich Muhlenberg."

These early efforts to dilute the influence of the English language were, of course, unsuccessful. And as America grew up, it often turned to Britain for definitions of culture and style. We see Anglophilia today in everything from bogus English pubs in chain hotels to Masterpiece Theatre. These evocations of Englishness, Hitchens points out, are all rooted in the England of the past: "The cult of something at once vanished and superseded is secure against any too abrupt swing in fashion. It is reliable and time-tested." Hitchens's chapters on Anglophilia, or what he calls "Brit kitsch," are mildly amusing but not very original. He really builds up some Anglophobic steam, however, when he turns to the many times Britain has succeeded in drawing America into battles the English themselves no longer wanted to fight. England "seduced" America into protecting many of its old colonial possessions, he contends, often in the name of squashing the evil influence of communism.

Hitchens argues persuasively that many British leaders saw themselves as mentors to the emerging American superpower. As British colonialism waned, American expansionism waxed, often with a nudge from London. British prime minister Harold Macmillan, for instance, once commented, "We are the Greeks of the Hellenistic age: the power has passed from us to Rome's equivalent, the United States of America, and we can at most aspire to civilise and occasionally to influence them."

While this metaphor is not exact (it drips with British snobbishness), it does in essence define the relationship between Britain and the United States from the Spanish-American War of 1898 to the Persian Gulf commitment of today. "Post-imperial Britain," Hitchens says, "during the arduous and sometimes embarrassing process of becoming post-imperial, leaned decidedly toward the United States. Not without rancor, it appointed the United States its successor. Not without quibbling and reservation, the United States took up the succession."

Even in 1858, when the memory of British troops burning the White House to the ground in the War of 1812 was still fresh in many minds, America was willing to come to Britain's rescue. Britain was seeking to plow its way into China but faced spirited resistance from the Chinese. Numerous British ships had been disabled and were in danger of sinking. Then Josiah Tattnall, who commanded a supposedly neutral American squadron, towed the British ships to safety. When asked later why he abandoned neutrality, he replied, "Blood is thicker than water."

This famous slogan was the rallying cry for future British-American cooperation in the economic exploitation of China. "The British would dictate terms to the Chinese," explains Hitchens, "and incur their detestation for the drug trade. The United States would act as a junior partner, at once more scrupulous and less implicated." Britain was the skilled teacher and the United States its willing pupil, learning fast the ways of economic expansionism and the persuasive power of the gun.

Britain relished the role of inspirational teacher. In 1898, for instance, Rudyard Kipling, the bard of imperialism, wrote a poem addressed specifically to the United States, "The White Man's Burden," and sent it directly to Theodore Roosevelt. Hitchens says that the poem's "explicit purpose was to nerve Roosevelt in particular, and the American opinion in general, to take unabashed advantage of the conquest of the Philippines." With Roosevelt's help, the poem was first printed in the New York Sun--the day before the Senate yielded to President McKinley's desire to take control of the islands. The poem's second stanza in particular helps account for our country's philosophy of military intervention, from Korea to Vietnam to Panama:

Take up the White Man's burden--

In patience to abide,

To veil the threat of terror

And check the show of pride;

By open speech and simple,

An hundred times made plain.

To seek another's profit,

And work another's gain.

Kipling's references to the "savage wars of peace" and calls for "freedom" to "cloak your weariness" come chillingly close to the "peace through strength" rhetoric of the Reagan years.

Hitchens does not suggest, though, that Britain and the United States had a detailed plan by which the United States would gladly take over Britain's former possessions. The history of "receivership," as Hitchens calls it, "is a mixed history of improvisation, secret diplomacy, covert action, inter-Establishment jealousy, and military disaster."

Britain employed particularly deceptive techniques to draw the United States into World War I. In what is surely the book's most controversial section, Hitchens provides a fascinating account of the British Admiralty's "Room Forty," a secret espionage organization that operated under the direct command of Winston Churchill during World War I. America was reluctant to enter the European conflict. Britain knew the psychological importance that an apparent act of aggression would have on American public opinion; and the sinking of the Lusitania was that disaster, though of the 1,195 civilians who lost their lives, only 140 were Americans. The ship sank quickly after being hit by only one German torpedo. But the British falsely reported that more than one torpedo hit her. "In fact," says Hitchens, "unknown to the civilians who booked passage on her, the ship had been carrying 1,248 cases of shells, six million rounds of ammunition, and eighteen cases of percussion fuses." One torpedo fortuitously placed would, of course, sink this sailing bomb, whose volatile cargo had been discreetly provided by J.P. Morgan.

Hitchens then quotes Patrick Beesly, a British naval intelligence officer who unraveled the lies concocted in Room Forty more than 70 years later. Although a German submarine was known to be patrolling the waters off Ireland through which the Lusitania had to pass, Churchill's Admiralty gave the ship no warning. In fact, escort vessels were removed from the area. Hitchens quotes Beesly, who concluded that there was a "conspiracy deliberately to put the Lusitania at risk in the hope that even an abortive attack on her would bring the United States into the war. Such a conspiracy could not have been put into effect without Winston Churchill's express permission and approval."

A similarly cynical and manipulative intention is evident in the confidential correspondence of high-ranking British officials in July 1941, when the British were again hoping to end American neutrality. Admiral Little joked sinisterly that "the brightest hope for getting America into the war lies in escorting arrangements to Iceland, and let us hope the Germans will not be slow in attacking them. Otherwise I think it would be best for us to arrange an attack by our own submarines and preferably on the escort!" Churchill confessed that it might be beneficial to the British cause if a German submarine or warship could be enticed to fire on a U.S. vessel.

Hitchens also recounts a largely forgotten piece of military history: the fact that in 1919 British and American troops both fought against the Bolsheviks in Russia. That action was preeminently the idea of Winston Churchill, clearly in Hitchens's mind the chief villain in the often sordid alliance between Britain and America. Although Woodrow Wilson was squeamish about intervening in Russia, after intense British lobbying he promised that the United States would aid the white general Aleksei Kaledin. The expedition was a military fiasco. But the episode marked the first time America--with Britain's prodding--pronounced communism an enemy. "In the fighting of undeclared wars against godless Communism," writes Hitchens, "Winston Churchill was America's mentor almost thirty years before his 'Iron Curtain' speech."

Although Hitchens's argument is impressive and disturbing, to some degree he overstates his case. He underplays the influence that America's own interests and prejudices have had on its foreign policy and military decisions in this century. To be sure, Churchill gave the United States and the world that magnificently evocative expression, the "Iron Curtain," but America often invoked its own concept of its destiny and the perceived threats to it independently of British rhetoric or influence. In short, we did not need Britain whispering in our ear to send troops to Vietnam or Lebanon. We were--and still are--eminently capable of making our own miscalculations.

Yet it remains a painful historical fact that the United States has often taken over former British positions in Central America, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Britain understood that American intervention in these regions could be made more palatable by invoking the magic word "communism"; doing so also deflected attention from the tawdry economic motives for many Anglo-American campaigns.

In 1953, for example, the British were plotting to restore the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran because the current government was threatening to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Britain needed American cooperation to ensure the victory of the proshah forces. A leading British official, C.M. Woodhouse, noted in his memoirs the way to entice the Americans: "The Americans were more likely to work with us if they saw the problem as one of containing Communism rather than restoring the position of the AIOC." America provided Britain with the money and the muscle to get the job done. And so began America's unholy alliance with the repressive regime of the shah. America is still paying the price--primarily in money but sometimes in blood--for agreeing, in essence, to buy freedom for British (and later American) petroleum interests for the 26 years that the shah ruled Iran.

The current U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia is another classic example of Pax Americana superseding Pax Britannica. In November 1922, Sir Percy Cox, citing British imperial privilege, drew the boundaries of what would become Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Britain deliberately denied Iraq an outlet to the Persian Gulf in order to limit its power and influence, and Iraq's resentment festered over the decades. In 1961, three years after the Iraqi monarchy was deposed in a coup, Iraqi troops massed near the Kuwaiti border, but they pulled back when Britain rushed troops to the region. This past August Saddam Hussein, seeking to redress the wrongs that, in his view, Britain had perpetrated upon Iraq, invaded Kuwait. This time it was the United States that immediately shipped troops to the region. And Britain, it should be noted, was one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of this action. America once again has shouldered Britain's former burden.

American rhetoric in these situations does not have a British imperial tone; we prefer to use jargon that emphasizes strategic international security and stability. The United States, Arab scholar Fouad Ajami suggests, employs an "imperialism without splendor." Whatever the interventionist rhetoric, however, the fact remains that the United States has proven itself a reliable supporter and, in many cases, protector of British philosophies and economic interests. America's "original commitment arises out of one or another consequence of 'receivership,'" says Hitchens. "This perception is often occluded because of the American anti-colonial inheritance, which meant a shaky dependence upon client regimes rather than upon the historically British method of direct rule. But without the inheritance of British direct rule, the connection would usually not have been made in the first place."

As Anglo-American hegemony diminishes, the debate in both Britain and the United States will focus on a new world role. As Britain becomes more involved in the European Economic Community, and the United States confronts grave economic questions, blood, class, and nostalgia may lose their connective force. International realities may finally force America to bridle its militaristic tendencies. Both Detroit's Polar Bear Monument, a memorial to those first Americans who perished fighting communism in Russia, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., should remind us that the world is not ours alone, that the true measure of a great nation lies in tolerance rather than dominance. And if we must borrow ideas from Britain, why not this sentiment from Milton: "Peace hath her victories / No less renowned than war."

Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies by Christopher Hitchens, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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