The English-speaking century
In the past one hundred years, four successive political movements — Prussian militarism, German Nazism, Japanese imperialism and international Communism — mounted military campaigns to conquer Europe, Asia and the world. Had any of them prevailed, it would have been a profound loss for civilization as we know it. Yet over the course of these bids for power, a coalition headed first by Britain and then by the United States emerged not just to oppose but to destroy them utterly.
From the long perspective of human affairs, these victories must stand as among the most remarkable of the past three millennia. They were as decisive for world history as the victories of the ancient Greeks over Persia, of Rome over Carthage, and of the Franks over the Umayyad Caliphate.
Moreover, military triumph has been complemented by economic success. The policies of free-trade liberalism, which in the nineteenth century made Britain the economic powerhouse of the world, were revived in our own time to achieve the same for the United States and its trading partners. In the past fifty years, much of the world has been economically transformed to a greater degree than in the previous thousand. Most of Asia has enjoyed unprecedented economic growth, with both China and India propelled from socialist penury to future world-power status by the demands of America 's booming technology and consumer markets.
The great achievement of British historian Andrew Roberts's new book A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900  is to put the significance of these feats into their proper perspective. Instead of emulating other historians who have portrayed the twentieth century as a cesspit of almost uninterrupted warfare, slaughter and misery, Roberts snubs reproach and defeatism. His tale is of the triumph of light over the forces of darkness. He is even more at odds with his peers by identifying the common culture of the victors as the principal reason they prevailed.
The definition of his subject originated in Winston Churchill's 1950s four-volume series of the same name that took the story up to 1901. Roberts treats the United States and Britain not as separate nations but members of a common political culture, which also includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the English-speaking Caribbean — though not Ireland, which he shows has a very different identity.
Eventually, Roberts says, just as historians now see no fundamental discontinuity between the republican and imperial eras of the Roman Empire, they will not see a great distinction between the British Empire-led and the American Republican-led periods of English-speaking dominance of the world between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries.
Indeed, the author quotes the distinguished Indian economist and historian Deepak Lal who declares the English-speaking peoples' rise to predominance the most important event in the history of the past millennium. The spread of their common political culture has been, Roberts says, the most significant historical development since the invention of gunpowder and the printing press.
Hence, rather than “the century of the common man” or “the American century”, Roberts calls it the English-speaking peoples' century, and emphasises that it is far from over. Having seen off the major challengers to their supremacy, his subjects today have no rival in might, wealth or prestige — though they have plenty of enemies. “We are part of the hegemonic power that the Arabs, Africans and Europeans so self-referentially loathe.”
Robert's book will drive his inevitable academic critics to distraction. This is especially so in his use of the historical record to defend current American foreign policy. The English-speaking peoples did not actively support the extension of representative institutions throughout the world out of sentimentality or naïve utopianism. It was hard-headed self-interest. George W. Bush did not invent anything new with his unilateralism, pre-emptive warfare and regime change. Rather, he adapted old tactics to new and ominous circumstances.
The so-called neo-conservative drive to export liberal democracy actuated British statesmen such as George Canning and Lord Palmerston in the nineteenth century. Palmerston imposed regime change on Spain, Portugal and Belgium, using the power of the Royal Navy to force liberal constitutions on countries that baulked at first but later came to value them.
The Royal Navy has practised the concept of pre-emptive war since the Napoleonic Wars. In 1940, the British pre-emptively destroyed the Vichy Fleet at Oran. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's imposition of regime change on his defeated World War II enemies by installing constitutional governments and democracy made him the first American neo-conservative.
Roberts argues that the successful reintroduction of West Germany, Austria, Italy and Japan into the democratic world was one of the great contributions of the English-speaking peoples to twentieth-century civilization. They were not to know whether ex-Nazis might stage an insurgency campaign lasting years. The example of Japan showed that liberalism and democracy could be successfully introduced even to authoritarian, theocratic societies with no Western political tradition.
Roberts argues that in trying to do the same in the Middle East today, the United States is acting out its traditional cultural imperatives. The desire to liberate from tyranny runs deep in the English-speaking peoples' psyche. Just on two hundred years ago, they were the first to pursue the unusual goal of first impeding and then abolishing slavery by force of arms. They are still carrying out the task, as the women of Afghanistan and the majority of Iraqis can attest.
In a speech to Harvard University in 1943, Winston Churchill provided what Roberts calls the Ur-text of his own work:
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.
Roberts has a lot to say about these common cultural characteristics. The English-speaking peoples are temperamentally less inclined towards fanaticism, high-flown rhetoric and Bonapartism than any others in history. They have respected what is tangible and, in politics at least, suspected what is not.
“The unimaginative, bourgeois, earth-bound English-speaking peoples,” he writes, “refuse to dream dreams, see visions and follow fanatics and demagogues, from whom they are protected by their liberal constitutions, free press, rationalist philosophy and representative institutions.” He quotes British Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain in 1927: “our preference for the real and the practical, and the cold douche of common sense which we administer, are repugnant to the races who express themselves in a much more rhetorical form, who love broad generalisations and noble sentiments”.
In the 1930s, the martial uniforms, fanatical rhetoric and mass rituals of Hitler and his Nazis could seduce the German populace, but in Britain and the United States the same kind of display simply appeared ridiculous. P. G. Wodehouse's fictional character Berty Wooster put a would-be British Fascist, Roderick Spode of the “Black Shorts”, in his proper place:
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!' and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode, swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a frightful perisher?”
Part of this temperament, Roberts argues, derives from Protestant Christianity. He quotes a particularly striking statement by British Tory politician and author Michael Gove, who said of Protestantism:
It affirmed the spiritual without the need for ritual. It relished argument, lived in language, and celebrated a faith that had its beginning in the Word. Its spirit was democratic, with the Bible and the church office open to all. Its polar opposite is not atheism, but the New Age “faiths” that celebrate feeling over thought and privilege a caste of gurus over a questioning congregation.
The connection between Protestant individualism and personal responsibility, Roberts argues, also created a favourable environment for the free enterprise that provided the economic base for British and then American economic dominance. Their form of capitalism, free enterprise, free trade and laissez faire economics, consistently produced more prosperity than any other model.
The key to this was a Dutch invention, the limited liability joint stock company, which in the mid-nineteenth century was perfected by British legislation. As a result, civilisations that once outstripped the West yet failed to develop private sector companies — notably China and the Islamic world ? fell farther and farther behind. Anglo-American capitalism, when allied to the right to own secure property and the rule of law, unleashed the energy and ingenuity of mankind. It formed the basis of the English-speaking peoples' present global hegemony.
“So long as they retain the technological edge in the military field,” Roberts writes, “the only way they can be replaced as the world-hegemon is through another Great Power adopting an even more effective form of capitalism.” For the foreseeable future, he thinks this unlikely. “The French, Swedish, social democratic, Japanese corporatist and various other models of capitalism have all failed dismally compared to the Anglo-Saxon version.”
World hegemony, however, has many costs. Like the Romans, the English-speaking peoples would be envied and hated by others. They would sometimes find, Roberts argues, that the greatest danger to their continued imperium came not from their declared enemies without, but from vociferous critics within. One of the constants of their common culture's freedom of expression has been its propensity to harbour a degree of internal censure that among many other peoples would probably prove fatal.
As early as 1901, British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury was complaining: “ England is, I believe, the only country in which, during a great war, eminent men write and speak as if they belonged to the enemy.” He wrote this about the critics of his policy on the Boer War, an encounter which Roberts demonstrates has ever since been perversely and unfairly blamed entirely on Britain. Winston Churchill was later to remark in a similar vein: “I think I can save the British Empire from anything — except the British.”
Across the Atlantic, the most virulent criticisms of America and Americans come from Americans themselves. Self-hatred, often through guilt over their supposed materialism and obsession with money, Roberts demonstrates, is an abiding defect. “The politics of the pre-emptive cringe is evident throughout the culture of the English-speaking peoples who in reality ought to be proud of the way that their citizenry can aspire to better themselves.”
Even more hostile internal criticisms have long been made about American foreign policy and directed at both Democratic and Republican presidents. In a 1949 conference in New York attended by such literary and artistic luminaries as the composers Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich, playwrights Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets and Lillian Hellman, and novelist Norman Mailer, “US warmongering” against the USSR was condemned. So was “a small clique of hate-mongers” in Washington who had turned the USA into “a state of holy terror”. Odets said the Truman administration comprised the “enemies of Man” and Copland said its policies “will lead inevitably into a third world war”. All this came only months after the US-sponsored Berlin airlift preserved West Berliners from a Soviet takeover.
In 1956, a similar collection of British intellectuals used their own freedom of expression to support the Soviet crushing of Hungarian freedom. Historians Eric Hobsbawm, A. J. P. Taylor and E. H. Carr, publisher Isaac Deutscher, playwright Sean O'Casey and the “Red Dean” of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, all supported the Kremlin's policy. Reverend Johnson described the Hungarian freedom fighters as “troublemakers”. In the United States, the playwright Lillian Hellman and singer Paul Robeson also obediently toed the Moscow line over Hungary.
All of this was a prelude to the Vietnam War in which the Moscow-armed and funded North Vietnamese and its guerrilla wing, the Viet Cong, successfully conquered the Western-oriented, capitalist south of the country. Of the many American artists, intellectuals and celebrities who became activists for the Communist cause, the most bizarre, Roberts records, was movie actress Jane Fonda. After the fall of Saigon in 1975 Fonda returned to Hanoi for the victory celebrations where she christened her new-born son Troy after a Viet Cong fighter Nguyen Van Troi who in 1963 had attempted to assassinate US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara.
Today, that Great Power known as Hollywood is still doing its best to undermine its own heritage. It has recently declared cultural war on the United Kingdom. Since the end of the Cold War, the geographic and linguistic origin of Hollywood 's stereotype villains has shifted from Eastern Europe to Britain. Terrorists, kidnappers, despots and various other screen criminals have had their Iron Curtain vowels replaced by English accents. Charles Dance in Michael Collins, Tim Roth in Rob Roy, Jeremy Irons in Die Hard, Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, are all Britons speaking in British accents. The subtext, Roberts writes, is clear: such an accent is now shorthand for villainy.
The 1997 Hollywood film Titanic has a scene in which British officers on the sinking ship batten down the hatches of steerage class, thereby consciously condemning to drown all the happy, jig-dancing Irish working-class passengers locked below. Their action allows the passengers in first class, most of them members of the English upper class, to monopolise the lifeboats. The scene, however, is pure fiction. Titanic's director James Cameron borrowed this and several other fictional incidents and characters from Werner Klingler's 1943 Nazi propaganda film of the same name.
One of cinema's worst Anglophobes is the former Australian actor-director Mel Gibson, whose 1995 paean to Scottish nationalism, Braveheart, portrayed the English as barbaric fiends, while in The Patriot he depicted an entirely fictitious massacre by British redcoats of innocent American churchgoers. Even the Disney cartoon The Lion King gives the treacherous, murderous lion Scar an English upper-class accent, courtesy of Jeremy Irons. Such movies, Roberts observes, are as anti-British today as the Alexander Korda propaganda movies were pro-British during World War II.
Hollywood is not the only offender. Recent British films set in the 1930s often portray the English upper classes in league with the Nazis. Merchant Ivory's 1993 film Remains of the Day was a memorable contributor to the genre.
It was true, Roberts acknowledges, that not only the upper classes but most Britons were in favour of appeasing Hitler for a time. Their principal reason, however, was not sympathy for Nazi ideals but because everyone realised that up to 1938 Britain was in no shape to fight the Germans.
Roberts puts appeasement into perspective. It encompassed a policy of buying time to develop armaments, which was one of the main reasons the Royal Air Force had enough Hurricanes and Spitfires to win the Battle of Britain in July 1940. That victory, Roberts writes, should be ascribed more to Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill who only became Prime Minister in May that year, long after the vast majority of planes had already been produced.
Roberts is keen to reclassify several other historical scandals of the English-speaking peoples. He defends the British commander who ordered the Amritsar massacre which claimed 379 Indian lives in 1919. Although it became a “propaganda god-send” for the Indian Home Rule movement, the incident was a response to an insurrection of anti-European lynching, murder and rape. Soon afterwards, a deputation of Indian merchants and shopkeepers thanked the commander for ending the spate of looting and destruction, while the guardians of the threatened Golden Temple, the central shrine of the Sikh religion, invested him as an honorary Sikh.
An event now commonly portrayed as one of the allies' shameful World War II atrocities, the bombing of Dresden in February 1945, is defended by Roberts. Until Dresden, the concept of unconditional surrender was unthinkable to ordinary Germans. The shock of the city's destruction contributed in a fundamental way to a change of heart. Dresden was a functioning enemy administrative, industrial and communications centre that at the time lay close to the front line. The RAF and USAAF did what they had to do.
Roberts also has a long discussion of the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, which killed 70,000 inhabitants of Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki. The bombing not only saved the lives of a minimum of 500,000 American military personnel who would have died in a land invasion of Japan but, given the earlier experience of the recapture of Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, of hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives too.
The author is scathing about the moral equations used by today's intellectual critics of President Truman's decision. “Fortunately, the English-speaking peoples' wars are fought by professional soldiers under the direction of elected politicians, with intellectuals having very little to do with them until they are safely won, after which they can criticize with hindsight and moral superiority.”
None of this should lead readers to think the book is smug or triumphalist. It is a story of falls as well as rises. The nadir of the book's tale comes in 1975–76, undoubtedly, the author assures us, the worst peace-time twenty-four months in the history of the English-speaking peoples. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Communists on April 30 1975 and across the globe the West was subsequently on the defensive, suffering some of its worst defeats of the Cold War. Most of Angola fell to Marxist MPLA guerrillas. The Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and began a genocide that killed over a quarter of its citizens. Euro-communists formed part of the new government of Italy. Dictators like Idi Amin (who declared himself Uganda 's president for life) and Jean Bokassa (“emperor” of the Central African Republic ) were able to play the capitalist West and the communist East off against each other. In November 1976, Jimmy Carter, “easily the least effective American president of the twentieth century”, was elected to office.
Other notable disasters of Roberts's story include the partition and transfer of power in India in 1947. It and the subsequent massacres that took place in the Punjab and the North-West Frontier cost the lives of somewhere between 750,000 and one million Indians. Although one of the most shameful moments in the history of the English-speaking peoples, the Atlee Labour Government always boasted of the handover as a great achievement.
The man directly responsible for the debacle, Lord Mountbatten, heads a list of post-World War II British political failures who Roberts never shrinks from singling out. They include Anthony Eden, the worst British premier of the twentieth century according to a 1999 poll; Harold Wilson, who brought British politics to a new low and personified the Seventies, “an era that was deceitful, defeatist, and distinctly grubby”; and John Major, “a Conservative hack politician rather than a Tory statesman, and essentially unfit for high office, let alone the premiership of the United Kingdom”.
The list of crimes, follies and misdemeanours of the English-speaking peoples also includes: underestimating the Turks at Gallipoli and the Japanese before Pearl Harbour; failing to dismember Germany in 1919; not strangling Bolshevism in its cradle in 1918–20; treating France rather than Germany as Britain's more likely enemy in the 1920s; not opposing Hitler's remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936; allowing too few visas to Jews wanting to escape Nazi Germany; not doing enough to publicize the Holocaust once the truth was known; transporting non-Soviet citizens to Stalin after Yalta; the US State Department fervently supporting closer European integration after World War II; allowing Nasser to nationalize the Suez Canal; encouraging the Hungarians to rise in 1956; Britain misleading Australia and New Zealand about the implications of its joining Europe; waiting for a century after Lincoln's Emancipation Address to genuinely emancipate black Americans; fighting only for a stalemate in Vietnam; Jimmy Carter pursuing détente long after its initial purposes were exhausted; appeasing the Serbs too long after the collapse of Yugoslavia; failing to overthrow Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War; encouraging the Kurds and Shias to rise against him while allowing Saddam to keep helicopter gun ships; treating the Al-Queda assaults of the 1990s as terrorist-criminal acts rather than acts of asymmetric warfare; relying too much on intelligence-led WMD arguments to justify the Iraq war; not establishing a provisional Iraqi government immediately after Saddam's fall.
This amounts to “a long and at times shameful catalogue of myopic and failed statesmanship,” Roberts admits, “but other powers would have done worse, and a century is a very long time in politics.”
This book must rank as one of the great interventions in the Culture Wars of the past three decades. Roberts's assessments overturn prevailing liberal attitudes about so many contentious issues that the work amounts to a seismic shift in historical interpretation. Even though he draws his conclusions from much of the best and most recent scholarship, he will infuriate many of his academic critics when they see how he has put it to use.
He is bound to either revive or spark anew a number of debates on the book's more sensitive topics. For instance, he argues it was not John Fitzgerald Kennedy but Nikita Khrushchev who bested his rival in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The 1980s was not the “decade of greed” dominated by asset-stripping takeover merchants but “a splendid period of history … one of the most innovative and exciting decades in the history of the Free World”.
The author's reputation among academic critics would not have been enhanced by George W. Bush's disclosure in October last year that he was reading the book, nor by his gift of it to Tony Blair during a White House visit in December. Australian Prime Minister John Howard read it over the Christmas holidays.
There are good reasons why any political leader of the English-speaking peoples should study this book carefully, not only to provide a perspective on his own role but also for some practical advice.
Roberts's narrative concludes in December 2005 when events in Iraq were generating more optimism about developments in that country than there is today. He treats the invasion by America and its allies, the overthrow of Saddam and the establishment of a constitutional, democratic government as another victory for the English-speaking peoples. His critics will now comfort themselves that he spoke too soon. Nonetheless, the long-term historical record he traces does contain seeds for optimism amidst the present gloom.
The English-speaking peoples have been there and done all this before, and history is one place to understand what might be required again. For example, Roberts offers a cameo of the man he calls Britain 's greatest imperial administrator, Sir Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer, who was proconsul of Egypt from 1883 to 1907. One of Cromer's central achievements was to keep his realm free of Islamic fundamentalism, as virulent then as it is now. He was constantly exploring ways to undermine the attraction of what he termed nationalist demagogues and religious fanatics. Cromer's policy was to keep at bay the “political regeneration of Mohammedism” by progressive projects in the fields of irrigation, education, taxation and fiscal practices, as well as by acute military intelligence.
In all the major conflicts in which the English-speaking peoples have engaged in the past century, there has been a similar pattern of engagement: a painful defeat at the outset followed by a determined course to victory. Roberts shows this has been true from the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898, the Boer invasion of Cape Colony, the retreat from Mons in 1914, the evacuation from Dunkirk, the attack on Pearl Harbour, the fall of Seoul, to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and beyond. Every one of those reverses was eventually turned into victory, except in Vietnam. The War on Terror began with a similarly painful strike. Whether the English-speaking political culture of our own time retains enough resolve to rebuff its domestic detractors and pursue its Islamist attackers to a satisfactory conclusion must remain an open question for now. But the historical record that Roberts traces in this exhilarating book does not give our enemies much comfort that we won't.
 A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, by Andrew Roberts, HarperCollins, 752 pages, $35