- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
“Vietnam was our Raj,” one of its old field hands once said to me. The CIA does indeed carry on the traditions of the Indian Political Service, the ethos of Kim and the Great Game; it has assumed the mantle once worn by Kirn’s masters as if it were a seamless garment. American politics may waffle, and Washington civil servants choke on their worries about reconfirmation by an incoming administration. The tenured ranks of the Republic’s professional intelligence officers continue to learn difficult languages, deal in the history of minority peoples, delve into faction, sect, and subculture, dissect the dangerous foreign politics of dissident states, discuss the way the world works in a spirit of detached realism some dying echo of which I had caught in youth among the dwindling servants of the British world systern on which the sun was then setting. Theirs is an urbane and sophisticated service, closer in spirit to the higher bureaucracies of the old European powers than any other body I know in the United States. It is not surprising that it attracts the suspicions of populists, anti-Washington politicians, and, above all, investigative journalists. The ethos of American journalism—disrespectful, hypercritical, self-confident—is one of the most potent gifts the Republic has transmitted to the European world.
What is admirable about the CIA, as it is about the State Department and the armed services, is that it persists in its task and holds to its standards despite the dirt thrown at it. Foremost among those standards is an intellectual approach to the eternal problem faced by a dominant civilization of exercising power in the world. Power tends to corrupt individuals; civilizations are prone to corruption also. American civilization by its essence finds the exercise of power profoundly antipathetic and is consequently drawn to a blundering, clumsy, and overviolent response when its vital interests are threatened. Unchecked, unguided, America has always risked being a Cyclops in world affairs, a blinded giant striking wildly at cunning outsiders. High-minded public servants—George Marshall and Dean Acheson are exemplars—have succeeded in the era of American world power in constraining and directing such impulses, but they could not have succeeded had they acted alone. American public service—that of its regular officers, career diplomatists, professional intelligence analysts—has supplied an essential underpinning. America undervalues their patriotism and dedication, wisdom and intellectuality. I have learned not to do so.
The CIA carries on the traditions of the Indian Political Service; it has assumed the mantle once worn by Kirn’s masters as if it were a seamless garment.
Becoming a newspaperman after a lifetime as an academic historian, I found my American acquaintanceship widened. My newspaper encouraged me to seek interviews with high officials of state, and their familiarity with my books facilitated, to my surprise, the arrangement of personal meetings. In this way I met William Casey’s successor as Director of Central Intelligence, two Supreme Allied Commanders Europe, several Ambassadors to the Court of St. James’s, two Secretaries of Defense, a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an Army and an Air Force Chief of Staff—and Henry Kissinger.
I suppose, had it not been for this gradual initiation, that I might have timorously declined the invitation to meet the greatest of America’s public officials when it eventually came my way. Most of us are modest enough to recognize that we have little to say of interest or importance in the wider world; I, except as a military historian, have never thought my opinion on anything worth tuppence. In the spring of 1994, however, military historians suddenly found themselves courted by the media and governments. The great public event of the year was to be the commemoration of the invasion of Europe fifty years earlier. Late in May a former editor of an American magazine on whose masthead I appear telephoned to inquire whether I planned shortly to be in Washington. I suppose I could be, I answered; “Why?” The President, he explained, was convening a conference of Second World War historians in the White House to acquaint him with the outlines of the campaign and also to suggest to him appropriate messages to transmit to the participant countries. I would, I said rapidly.
I had been inside the White House once before, as a tourist in 1957, when Washington was an empty city and queues were short. A vague memory of stuffy rooms and clumsy furniture lingered. I did not know what to expect. We would, I was told, each speak to the President for five minutes, answer questions, and then dine with him.
The White House is an island of tranquillity inside Washington’s bustle. Beyond the railings and the poweroperated gates, one might be in the gardens of a great Southern plantation house, cut off by rose arbors and ornamental groves from the world outside. Once admitted, moreover, one is made to feel a guest, not a visitor. At 10 Downing Street on party evenings the throng passes through an electronic scanner and pockets are emptied for police officers. At the White House a charming girl told me that I would find the others at the end of the hall; “you’ll hear voices.” I wandered away through a succession of corridors, past the open doorways to rooms of perfectly arranged and exquisite furniture—Jackie Kennedy’s hand, I thought to myself—all dusted and polished a moment before, and found some grave, graying, black, tail-coated footmen offering iced tea outside the theater in which the President would hear us.