A Dirge or a Song of Celebration

The final paragraph of Andrew Roberts’ 2007 book, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900, reads as follows: “It is in the nature of human affairs that, in the words of the hymn, ‘Earth’s proud empires pass away’, and so too one day will the long hegemony of the English-speaking peoples. When they finally come to render up the report of their global stewardship to History, there will be much of which to boast. Only when another power—such as China—holds global sway, will the human race come to mourn the passing of this most decent, honest, generous, fair-minded and self sacrificing imperium.”

In fact, Roberts’ book is intended to convey the idea that the ascendancy and influence of the English–speaking peoples (primarily Great Britain and the USA) over the last quarter millennium has brought a great boon to the world in the form of liberal democracy, free market capitalism, the rule of law, individual liberty, the defeat of totalitarianism (OK, Nazism and Communism are buried, but the last manifestation in the form of Islamic radicalism has yet to be tamed), life-saving scientific and medical discoveries, and a sort of pax englishana that has brought more peace and prosperity to more corners of the Earth than could have been imagined.

The book is an unabashed recitation of the achievements of the Brits and Yanks during the twentieth century. In line with the title of his book, Roberts also points out that, with the exception of Ireland, all the other English-speaking nations of the world—namely, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and even the tiny nations of the British West Indies—have made salutary contributions to the epic ventures pursued by England and America. Naturally, he asks what is it about the English-speaking peoples of the world that has allowed them to defeat their mortal enemies, create enormous wealth, advance the arts, science and engineering to great heights, and to manage growth (both in size and diversity) of their populations in such a way as to create multi-cultural, yet harmonious and dynamic societies? Roberts’ answers are not totally transparent or definitive, but he does offer several thought-provoking possibilities:

  • A single-minded pursuit of mastery of the sea and air;
  • Laissez-faire capitalism—invented by the Dutch, but adopted and perfected to a high degree by the sea-faring English-speaking peoples;
  • The cultivation of spirituality among the people and the promotion of virtue and morality according to commonly accepted spiritual guidelines;
  • Trust in people and their entrepreneurial skills with a concomitant program to limit the size and power of government;
  • Military prowess and innovation, and a patent ruthlessness in deploying same;
  • Understanding the role of prestige in world affairs, and protecting that of the English-speaking peoples.

With those as backdrop, Roberts presents an episodic description of the main ideas, movements, catastrophes and triumphs, and heroes and villains that strode the world stage during the twentieth century—always with a focus on the role played by the English-speaking peoples. He is careful not to ignore their warts and failures. In particular, he highlights: the too long fight to end segregation in America; the plunge into a centrally managed economy, following the 1929 Stock Market crash, which only intensified and prolonged the Depression; the mismanaged peace following World War I; military calamities such as Gallipoli, Pearl Harbor, and of course 9/11; the tendency to rely on appeasement (of Nazis in the 1930s, of Communists in the 1970s and of Islamists in the 1990s); the occasional failure to live up to our own ideals (e.g., the incarceration of innocent Japanese-American citizens during World War II); and the also occasional failure to maintain the unity of the English-speaking peoples (e.g., in the Suez crisis in 1956).

Despite these failures, the power, global influence and supremacy of Great Britain, and then the USA only grew during the twentieth century. Roberts postulates that at the inception of the century, this was not foreordained. Other powers, such as Germany, France and Russia could have grabbed the mantle of leadership. Well, despite the fact that two of the three tried to do so, they fell short and in the end, the century belonged to the English-speaking peoples. Moreover, according to Roberts, that this occurred was a blessing for mankind—the English-speaking peoples have been in the main, a force for good around the globe.

Since its publication, the book has come under scathing attack from the Left. Here is a representative example from amazon.com: ‘The [sic] is, unfortunately, a long history of some of these talented writers getting wrapped up into the politics of others and for the most part getting it wrong. There is a surplus of such writers who became expatriate parts of the neo-con revolution that catapulted conservatives into power—and brought such shame and disgrace to the United States with torture, incompetence and block-headed stupidity. Mr. Roberts may be stupid or flip or just careless. This book is unworthy to be associated with a title connected to Winston Churchill, who knew how to write and how to use facts, even if he did on occasion spin them to his advantage.’

Nevertheless, to me—and I believe to most Americans—the fact that America has been a force for good (far more often than the reverse) is totally self-evident. Alas, it appears that a substantial number of American people disagree. I think this is unprecedented in our nation’s history. From its beginnings, most Americans shared President Reagan’s vision of America as a ‘shining city on a hill,’ that we had reinvented the world with our concepts of a federal republic, individual liberty, limited government, freedom and justice for the people and that our exportation of our political and economic ideas and practices has brought great progress and joy to those portions of the globe that saw the value of our ways. Not any longer—at least not for the segment of the population I hinted at above. The last assertion would definitely have been false a hundred years ago, and probably similarly false fifty years ago. Not any more. What happened during this period to cause a large number of American citizens to lose faith in the role, even in the ‘mission’ of the United States of America? Such discontent with our society’s role in the world, even in the nature of the society itself is a calamity for our country. How did it come about?

I believe the answer is found in two monumental transformations that occurred in the US—the first during the first half of the twentieth century, the second in the latter half. In my recent book, ‘Liberal Hearts and Conservative Brains,’ I argue that America, from its founding through the end of the nineteenth century, was a fundamentally conservative society. There was a broad consensus about the limited role of government in the lives of the people, a deep reverence for the traditional culture, and an acceptance that the rules laid down by our founding fathers were to govern us for the indefinite future. (For more on this argument, see Chapter 5 in the aforementioned book, which can be found online at http://home.comcast.net/~ronlipsman/excerpts.html). The first major cracks in the consensus occurred early in the twentieth century under the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, aided and abetted by various muckrakers and ‘social reformers’ like John Dewey. In short, for the first time, the country questioned its fundamentals: the federal system of government, the WASP culture, but especially laissez-faire capitalism. Many of the new ideas and attitudes on these subjects were imported from Europe with the massive waves of immigration that swept our shores on both sides of the turn of the twentieth century. Some of the manifestations of the revolutionary work of these reformers included: anti-trust legislation and two Constitutional amendments that legalized a federal income tax and converted the election of Senators from the State legislatures to popular vote. The concurrent movement toward a collectivist government and a centrally directed (if not planned) economy accelerated greatly under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and, arguably even more rapidly, under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Though the changes wrought in American society were profound, the ‘reformers’ are not yet satisfied. They seek to take America further down the road toward a European-style socialist society, but they have been held in check to a tremendous extent by a conservative counter-revolution over the last quarter century.

The second transformation is, I believe, in some sense a consequence of the first. If one accepts that American society is not a beacon or model for the rest of the world, then what right do we have to hold ourselves up as an example to be admired and copied? Indeed, at mid century, the Left seized on the USA’s shortcomings—some legitimate, some merely perceived—and broadcast them forcefully to the nation and the world. They harped on: slavery and segregation, maltreatment of American Indians, discrimination against women and minorities, colonialism in the Philippines and Latin America, internment of Japanese-American citizens, the fire bombing of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the great disparity in wealth between the country’s richest and poorest citizens, industrial pollution, corporate greed, mindless patriotism, urban crime, uptight religiously-dictated morals, and maybe ring-around-the-tub too. Their alienation came to a fever pitch in their opposition to what they viewed as an immoral war in Vietnam. In fact, the Left’s stance on the Vietnam War was a major harbinger of the attitude, which still stands today, that in fact the United States of America is definitely not a force for good in the world. So small wonder that copious calumny has been heaped upon poor Mr. Roberts for his ill-conceived and manifestly wrong thesis.

When those who have lost faith in America look at the bulleted list of reasons (third paragraph above) for why the USA and the English-speaking peoples have led the world, they are appalled by and dismissive of all (except perhaps the first). Next January, when Obama is President and a huge left-wing majority has captured control of Congress, they will set out to remake America according to their vision for the country: socialist, highly secular, demilitarized and pacifist, guided by a malleable Constitution, no better or worse than any other of the world’s nations, a realization of some sort of utopian ‘brotherhood of man.’ Roberts’s book is a celebration of America’s achievements as he sees them during the twentieth century. I wonder what his great-grandchild will write a hundred years hence about America’s role in the twenty first century. I fear it will be a dirge instead of a song of celebration.