- 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
Inside were some familiar faces: Paul Fussell, cultural historian of the Anglo-American war experience; Carlo d’Este, master of the documentation of the Normandy campaign; Stephen Ambrose, biographer of Eisenhower; Forrest Pogue, the official historian who interviewed wounded survivors of Omaha Beach offshore on hospital ships in the evening of D-day; Gen. Hal Nelson, U.S. Army Chief of Military History. They and I were the briefing team. There were other faces I recognized without knowing their owners: Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, Lloyd Bentsen, the Secretary of the Treasury. I felt in a slight blur. It was suddenly borne in on me that I was the only non-American present in a gathering of the great Republic’s establishment; and we were waiting for the President.
There was a delay. The President was detained at a meeting discussing most-favorednation status for China. Conversation buzzed on; I was surprised by the absence of unease. British subjects in Buckingham Palace are on stiff best behavior; these American citizens in the Executive Mansion were courteously relaxed. There was no stir when the President entered; hands were shaken; “Thank you for making the long trip,” he said to me; we settled down to work. The historians sat on a row of fragile gold chairs facing the President; he balanced a notebook on the arm of his seat and took notes relentlessly. Abstractedly I observed that he is left-handed. Maps were arranged on an easel, sequences of events described. I had been told I would be the last to speak. I wondered what to say. Gradually it dawned on me that my American colleagues were not simply making presentations. They were also telling the President what he should say in the speeches he would have to make when he visited Europe ten days hence. He must remember to emphasize the contribution of the French Resistance. He must pave the way—even though the Germans had not been invited—for the reconciliation that should be the theme of the 1995 commemorations of the end of the war. “The Germans suffered too,” repeated several speakers. You weren’t bombed by the Euftwaffe, I thought, and bit my tongue; but when my turn came, I found the words I wanted. “Remember the Canadian contribution,” I said (I know how overlooked Canadians feel when the capture of one of the five D-day beaches was wholly their achievement); “Remember the Poles” (it was they who plugged the Falaise Gap); most heartfelt of all, recalling my childhood, “Remember that the British date the making of the great alliance to the coming of the GIs.” My generation does not forget. You do not need to remind us of what America did. We know, and we shall be grateful to our graves.
“I’ve kept you too long,” said the President. He led us upstairs to dinner. China so beautiful I scarcely dared put knife to plate, presentational cuisine, almost invisible service; not long before, I had been a guest at a similar evening in a British royal palace and reflected on the differences. There is a certain knockabout quality to palace life, old retainers grown saucily familiar, odd bits of obsolete serving equipment parked in corners, polished silver boxes full of spent matches, beautiful liveries but shabby shoes. The White House is like the grandest of grand hotels, in which the major-domo pounces unforgivingly on the slightest failing by kitchen or waiters. The President is cocooned by perfection. He is not, however, allowed to think for one moment that he is royal. Head of state he may be, but his fellow citizens speak their minds directly and unaffectedly. At my palace evening the guests spoke hesitantly and into the middle distance. In the White House the President’s guests addressed him over dinner face-to-face and made polemical points. A senior congressman warned him that America’s place in the world rested on its possession of preponderant military force. A former commanding general emphasized that the armed services require recruitment from the country’s best. An old Washington power broker dismissed the idea of interdependence as an American alliance policy and declared that there is no substitute for leadership.
I was, I realized, present at an occasion when the American voice makes the American mind unequivocally clear to the chief of the nation. I could imagine no similar occasion in England. We defer to not only our hereditary but also our elected leaders. Collectively we are as independent and as difficult to govern as any people on earth; individually we shuffle and stumble our words and bob our heads and hope we have not broken any of the rules. There are no rules between Americans, except those of the common politeness that ought to govern free people. I love America. I have long wondered and tried to explain why, most of all to myself. After my evening with the President, I grasped a little more of the answer. The Americans are truly free and equal people. It was I who had “Sirred” and “Mr. Presidented” in a reflex of the manner I would have used at home. The Americans had “Mr. Presidented” also, but as the preliminary to statements of what he ought to say, what he ought to think. I had been listening to a process of the making of policy, not much different perhaps from the process that had made the Constitution at Philadelphia in 1787. The stakes, of course, were of an altogether lower order. The temper of the meeting cannot have been much dissimilar. I had seen the President as a first among equals, a relationship that is the essence of the American political system. I went back to England—followed by a signed letter of thanks so charming that I framed it to hang on my study wall—pondering even more deeply on the differences between monarchy and republic.