- 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
I love America. I wonder how many englishmen can say that. Most of us know it too little to feel strong emotion one way or the other. New York, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Florida holiday resorts—that is the America of most English people. My America is larger altogether. I have visited, for reasons that will emerge, thirty-two of the fifty states and most of Canada as well, and I have been making those visits for nearly forty years. In an idle moment I counted up not long ago the number of U.S. Immigration Service entry stamps in my passports and found nearly fifty. “Boston,” the first one says, in a passport from which a schoolboy face stares back at me.
Then there is a gap of exactly twenty years, 1957 to 1977. After that the stamps come thick and fast. The face gets older, the travels spread wider: Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newark, Boston again several times, Denver, Seattle, Honolulu. Had my passport been stamped every time I touched down at an American airport, what a kaleidoscope there would be: Charlotte, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Montgomery, Alabama; Colorado Springs; New Orleans; Manchester, New Hampshire; Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Missouri, and a host of small places I can scarcely decipher from the pages of my travel diaries. Most of those small places have blurred into one: the strip of concrete surrounded by a prairie of brown grass, the concrete terminal, sometimes unconvincingly advertising itself, after the place-name, as an “International Airport,” the porterless luggage collection point, the photographs of local scenic attractions, the advertisements for local commerce, the Avis and Hertz car-rental representatives staring speechlessly into space, the welcome sign from the Lions or Kiwanis or Rotary, the breathless hush of the encompassing car park, the hint of habitation somewhere beyond the horizon.
No matter; I like small American airports. Their sameness is reassuring. It is a guarantee that just a car drive away there will be small white single-story houses, neat streets, chain-link fences, signs at corners signaling Sunday services, white plastic letters behind glass for Church of Christ, gold-leaf Gothic for Episcopalian, and then, as the town center nears, grass verges, spaced elms, Victorian villas in gardened lots, verandas, parked cars, lonely bus stops, doctors’ signboards, funeral chapels, and the first outcrops of shopping and eating. LIQUOR in neon lighting, sometimes with an arrow that flashes on and off, is familiar; so, too, are the Chinese Garden with parking space for diners, the hamburger place, the cocktail lounge with smoked-glass windows, the gun shop, the sportinggoods store, the magazine and book outlet, insurance and travel and savings and loan offices, city hall. Small American airports, like small French railway stations, are the prelude to something fixed and unchanging. English visitors look forward, when they detrain from a branch line in the French provinces, to finding white tablecloths and iron chairs at the edge of the town square, the scent of limes as they take their aperitifs, tomato salads and white Burgundy with their omelettes fines herbes . I look forward, when I deplane in Tennessee or Montana or Ohio, to something quite immaterial: a sense of timelessness, an absolute similarity of architecture and street plan, a pervading calm, a curious slowness—Europe, not America, is the continent of fast driving and pedestrian bustle—the certainty of identical food and service and accommodation and friendliness and uncuriosity.
At cruising height, i like, i positively crave, the undeviating sameness of America from the air. It is what America is about; it is the story of America.
I like that. uncuriosity is one of the reasons I love America. In France, though I speak French well, my accent brands me as an Englishman. In England my accent brands me as—what? Other Englishmen could tell: Accent is the first characteristic by which English people make judgments about one another. In America my accent means nothing at all. When I first visited the country in the 1950s and foreigners were exotic, my voice excited interest. Now, when America is almost as cosmopolitan as anywhere else, it passes without comment. Nothing about me causes comment. I am one of the crowd, simply another atom in a great, shifting, restless, busy, amiable, almost undifferentiated multitude that is the American people. There are other large countries on earth: Russia, China, India. Only the Americans have succeeded in creating a society of complete cultural uniformity, in which one can travel for a thousand, two thousand miles in the sureness that at the end of the journey one will emerge from airplane or bus or motorcar to hear a common language being spoken in an identical form, to find people living in identical houses, to see the crowd dressed in identical clothes, to walk streets built in identical style, to find towns served by identical schools, businesses, public utilities. To an outsider the uniformity of America is profoundly relaxing. America makes no demands on one, imposes no expectations, asks no questions. I love passing through. A curious, delectable, weightless, freefloating trance possesses me when I stop for a moment in places like Hardin, Montana, or Half Moon Bay, California, born of the knowledge that no one will ask who I am or what I do or whence I come or whither I am going.
Where am I going? Usually to the next small airport, to park my rented car amid the acres of shimmering metal, to check my bags with Ozark or Comair or Skywest or Precision, to thank the dentured desk clerk for the return of my ticket, to emplane through Gate 1, to take seat 22F, to listen to the pilot confide intelligence about height and speed, to hear the door close, to watch the brown grass accelerate past the porthole, to see the water tower and high school football field and insurance skyscraper and freight yards and highway interchanges of Harrisburg or Madison or Tallahassee or Buffalo or Wilmington dropping away behind me, to detect the aircraft reaching cruising height in the great, continental, horizonless, cloud-flecked blue, and then to sink into the dream of American domestic aerial travel. I like, I positively crave, the undeviating sameness of America from the air. It is what America is about; it is the story of America.
For the American landscape that creates the flight of dream across its endlessly unfolding, neat, and productive geometry is the most rapidly constructed large artifact in the world. It is not, at close hand, beautiful as the English landscape that surrounds the village in which I live is beautiful. England really is a garden, whose beauty never ceases to entrance me, and I find nothing like it in the United States or Canada, where the seasons are too harsh, the hands of humans too few to give the landscape that temperate, trimmed, frost-free, succulent look and feel that pluck at English heartstrings. American hedges are rough, field boundaries straggle, woodland is choked with the debris of years of fall and rot, grasses are slow to green and lie long sere and yellow; under the microscope the American countryside is coarse and unkempt. It is from a distance, above all from an altitude, that the beauty of the landscape asserts itself, comes into focus, demands a response from the onlooker. The response I make is simultaneously aesthetic and historical and mystical. Mystical because, like the aerial photographers who have discovered the Mexican dust drawings too large to have been executed by any earthbound eye, I wonder how the haphazard work of farmer and forester can have combined to construct the work of art that the American landscape is; aesthetic because that landscape is a great work of art, a perfectly modulated pointillism of sepia and umber and ultramarine and viridian and ocher and auburn and sable and cobalt and Payne’s gray that alters with the play of sunlight and varies with the change of season but never, even under snowfall, loses its form and subtlety; historical because I know that every straight line, mathematical curve, sharp edge, softened gradient, flattened contour, raised hollow, rectilinear rivercourse tells of the effort of people’s labor on the face of the continent. It is impossible to re-create in the imagination what England must have looked like before the forest went four thousand years ago; it is impossible in America not to feel the power of the forest or the desert or the rivers lurking at the edge of what people have wrought, watching for a moment of inattention or a relaxation of effort, waiting to return.
Over the years the drama of the American landscape has ceased to be simply a spectacle. It has awoken in me a powerful and continuing curiosity in what it means for what I do. I am a military historian. Rivers, mountains, forest, swamp and plain, desert and valley and plateau: these are the raw materials with which the military historian works. In constructing a narrative, in charting the movements of armies, the facts of geography stand first.
It is not accidental that Champlain, the founder of French Canada, was a skilled mapmaker or that George Washington, the victor of the War of American Independence, was by profession a surveyor who had recorded the topography of wide areas of the backcountry over which he was later to campaign.
So when I look now at the American panorama from thirtyfive thousand feet, before my conscious mind unrolls a running list of speculations and questions. They are, I know, the same sorts of questions soldiers always ask in unfamiliar country. I continue to seek answers on the ground. How, I asked an interviewer as we sat in the offices of the Toronto Globe and Mail , with Lake Ontario under our gaze, did it connect for navigation with Lake Erie, since Niagara Falls was the natural waterway between the two? The Weiland Canal is the answer, but he did not know and neither then did I. Where is the South Pass through the Rockies, the gateway to Oregon and the Northwest, whose discovery opened settlement in the early nineteenth century? I thought I identified it from an airplane on a flight to Seattle, only to be told that it is so inconspicuous wagonmasters often missed it on the ground.
All these conundrums of intercommunication, still so difficult for the individual to solve from hazy memory of exact and available information, were total and almost impenetrable mysteries to the pioneers. They were solved only by dangerous and half-blind ventures into the great American forest, by laborious boat journeys up uncharted rivers, running rapids, portaging past shallows, by unguided voyages across lakes as big as seas, by pack trailing over into the featureless and apparent infinity of the Great Plains. Finally and miraculously, when the pieces of the jigsaw had been cut out one by one, they had been assembled into the man-made wonder of settled America. It is the most stupendous achievement of military as well as human history.
My discovery of the United States continues. I take a growing pleasure in adding to my acquaintance with an American dimension that Americans ignore and are constantly surprised to find of interest to Europeans, which is the oldness, the growing and surprisingly extensive oldness, of their civilization. “I live in an old house,” and then, hastily, “not old, of course, by your standards.” How often that has been said to me. It was said by a young, vaguely Marxist and highly Europeanized professor at Princeton. I pointed out to him that as he lived in colonial Nassau Street, his house was certainly older than mine, built in 1810, and, just to emphasize the point, that the dean’s building, Nassau Hall, was older by forty years than that in which I taught at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Princeton is not unusual in its oldness. The length of the Atlantic Coast and parts of the interior are dense with clusters of eighteenth-century buildings, not just in such famous beauty spots as Charleston and Savannah but in hundreds of other settlements as well, where, contrarily, they are often neglected and decaying. I have found a disfavored eighteenth-century waterfront quarter in Manchester, New Hampshire; much of Alexandria, Virginia, is Georgian in a raggle-taggle state; the Federalist riverfront in St. Louis, Missouri, is being pillaged for its bricks; Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island, one of the most magnificent Georgian townscapes on either side of the Atlantic, is only slowly being brought back from decrepitude.
The language and law that the English and Americans share is delusory: no two peoples on earth capable of intercommunication can be less alike.
To linger in old America, however, or to look for it where it no longer exists, is to misunderstand the continent. Space, not time, I once heard George Steiner reflect in a lecture, is the American dimension. Many of the old cities have lost their hearts because they were built by people who thought at a foot’s pace, journeyed by horse. The vastness of America, for all the heroism of early journeys made by foot or horse into its unexplored interior, demanded other means of motion, the locomotive, the motorcar, the airplane, means of devouring space, not of submitting to it. It is the space that surrounds American cities, the interminable distances between them, that have done for small streets and town squares, felled the shade trees, left the porticoed churches standing amid desolation, driven freight yards and interchanges and airport expressways into the order that once was. It could not have been otherwise. Once Americans decided to command their continent from coast to coast, all three thousand miles of it, to have no internal frontiers, to spend a common currency, to obey, often not to obey, a uniform code of law, to recognize a single government, to be one people, the life of the small city, the shape of the pedestrian neighborhood, was doomed. Traveling America confronted set- tied America, and traveling America triumphed.
I am a traveler in America, and I travel farther and faster there than I ever do at home. In England I alert my wife if I am going down the village street to the post office, decide the day before on a journey to our market town eight miles away. In America, at a publisher’s behest or a personal whim—“I must walk the Malvern Hill battlefield again”—I whirl about the continent. I always travel with elation, looking forward to arrival in new places, old places, looking forward again to moving on.
And yet there is something terrifying about a country, a society, a people that lives not in the dimension of time but space. Time is space for Americans; in England we say “five miles” or “fifty miles” and time our departure accordingly. Nowhere is more than an hour or two from anywhere else. “Nine hours,” Americans say when they discuss a car journey, or “a day” or even “two days.” American space devours time, dominates lives, can consume whole swaths of years on earth. “I travel a lot,” Americans say, or “I used to travel a lot.” Decades of a lifetime have been paid out on interstates, over small airport check-ins, at car-rental returns in Ramadas and Holiday Inns. Space has grayed hair, lined faces, made a history of itself in personal memory, a history of coming and going, stopping over, moving on. It has made a history in the collective life of America, a country always moving on inside itself, never stopping over for very long. The history of America is the history of its vastness, of people’s wandering over its face.
A people who live in space, not time, are different from others, certainly different from the peoples of Europe, and different most of all from the English, seagirt in their tiny gardened island, on whom space scarcely intrudes at all but where history circumscribes everything they think and do. Their transmission of a common language and law to the Americans creates a resemblance entirely delusive. No two peoples on earth capable of intercommunication can be less alike than they. I love America, but I am not at home there. I love the mystery of America, but mystery it remains to me. I love Americans, but even American friends are strangers. America has changed my life. America has saved my world, the European world threatened by two pitiless dictatorships that overshadowed my childhood and growing up. Yet, though I think of America always with admiration and heartfelt gratitude, I go there in a mood of exploration and wonder. Who are they, these people from the great spaces of their continent? They have a secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth. What it is I am still trying to find out.
Where did I first see an American? On celluloid, I suppose, for the cinema of my childhood was an American possession. It was American films we queued to see in wartime Britain, not their tepid domestic imitations, and American stars we took as our heroes and heroines. I was entranced by the way the men in Destry Rides Again or Stagecoach walked, with that loose, let-me-at-the-horizon lope, and even more so by the way they spoke, as if one word were almost too much for them and a second would choke in their throats. It was not only the cowboy films that cast a spell; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town , that sleepy epic of plain folk, caught me up in what I suppose I would now call the American dream, and I was riveted by an Anglo-North American film, Forty-ninth Parallel —blatant propaganda it would seem today—in which an escaped U-boat crew, at large in Canada, tries but fails to bring down the Four Freedoms.
All these misty experiences must have come to me in Britain’s glory time, between Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor, when Hitler’s army stood on the French coast and only a filigree of Spitfires hung between my unthinking self and invasion. No inkling of that impending danger touched my childish happiness in what I remember as an eternal summer, no shadow fell over the hay meadows where we played, not a single tremor of anxiety disturbed the serenity of our family life. I suppose my parents must have discussed between themselves what hope Britain had of extricating itself from its perilous isolation as Hitler’s only enemy. I suppose, too, that they must have pondered—as Winston Churchill, we now know, did day and night—whether the United States would come to our rescue and, if so, how and when. I am sure that what hopes they had were pinned on the United States alone, for I clearly remember that the peremptory alliance with the Soviet Union that followed Hitler’s surprise attack of June 22, 1941, pleased my father absolutely not at all. He not only was fervently anti-Bolshevik but held unwaveringly to the view that we had entered the war to defend Poland, of which country he rightly identified the Soviet Union to be as deadly an enemy as Nazi Germany. Yet if we were waiting for the Americans, not a single word of reproach for the delay do I remember hearing from my parents.
Then, suddenly, in 1942 there were real Americans among us. Soon after Pearl Harbor American servicemen—GIs, as they came instantly to be called—started to arrive by ship and airplane to begin building the great military base from which the bomber offensive against Hitler’s Germany and then the seaborne assault on his Fortress Europe were to be launched. Americans turned out to be flesh and blood, not celluloid, after all. Moreover, they were friendly, indeed positively eager to make friends, and fluent in what unmistakably was a common language. The American voice, I now know, is not classless, but it seemed so in 1942 in England and thus hearteningly refreshing to a people whose accents constantly set them at social sixes and sevens, who spoke too boldly if they felt sure of themselves, mumbled or kept silent if they did not. The idea of equality among Americans was perhaps the one reasonably accurate belief that had taken root, and the British inability to distinguish by ear alone between Bronx and Boston Brahmin, any more than between midtown Manhattan and Manhattan, Kansas, strongly confirmed it. Because the Americans did not lower or raise their voices but maintained an even tone to whomsoever they were speaking, because they seemed to communicate by plain talk, they were taken for plain folk, making their arrival a threat to the natives with a stake in the social order but an excitingly subversive solvent of old rigidities to the majority, who felt excluded.
There was a practical as well as social dynamism to the Americans. They got things done. They brought a breath of fresh air from the New World. Britain’s miraculous age of industry, which had made it the richest country in the world while Americans were fighting over slavery, was long gone by 1942. The railways had been built, the factory towns were in decay, the enormous wealth of the Victorian age was draining away in a desperate and unwanted war; so too was the manhood, already decimated in the war of the trenches a generation earlier. Britain’s second war effort was halting and makeshift; it was inspired by flashes of the old inventive genius—in the development of radar, in high-grade aeronautical engineering—but it was geared to handicraft industries, was undercapitalized, and lacked the consistency of a massproduction economy. Not so America. The GIs descended on the English countryside like the pioneers of a new Industrial Revolution, tearing up the soil to build runways for the strategic bombing campaign, covering farmland with townscapes of hutted camps and hospitals, piling up enormous dumps of ordnance and equipment, and filling an antique road network with endless convoys of trucks and transporters.
Americans in the Eisenhower years must have felt there was nothing their country could not do. That was certainly the spirit exuded by the ones at Oxford.
This was a wonder time in english life, one I remember vividly to this day. So it was with a half-formed appreciation of what America meant that I first began to make friendships with the American undergraduates I found at Oxford when I became a student there in the fifties. Americans formed the largest of the foreign groups and were particularly numerous at Balliol, to which an outpost of old members at Harvard sent Rhodes scholars in a steady stream; others came to us from Yale, Princeton, the great Midwestern campuses of Michigan and Illinois, and the leading liberal arts colleges, like Swarthmore. What impression did they make? Visual impressions were the most immediate. The Americans looked American, just as in those days the French looked French; the bland, indeterminate international style had not yet been invented. Their hair was crew-cut, and they wore large, heavy, highly polished shoes, waistless tweed jackets, and, whether they had been in the service or not, khaki cotton trousers winter and summer. They threw themselves into rowing—the domination of the University Eight by Americans dates from those days—into hockey and lacrosse, even into rugby. Americans had a passion for debate and took their political differences with a seriousness British undergraduates did not feel in theirs. There were, as it happened, real differences between the programs of the British Conservative and Labour parties not matched by the conflict between Republicans and Democrats, but few of us were committed one way or the other.
Americans, on the other hand, clearly believed in the power of politics to alter the future. Their convictions foreshadowed the future that their own achievements had already preordained for them. They were a national elite—the elevation of the Rhodes scholarship to the status of undisputed prize for “most likely to succeed” in institutions as dissimilar as Harvard and the U.S. Military Academy is the subtlest of the many cultural holds Britain still exerts over the United States—and they knew it. All were of outstanding ability, and a few of exceptional intellect; one of my Balliol contemporaries was to become a Nobel prizewinner. The majority of the Americans were not, however, purely academic. Those with whom I became friends included a future senator, a head of the Exxon Corporation, a leading Wall Street lawyer, an ambassador, a writer of distinction.
Americans in the Eisenhower years must have felt there was nothing their country could not do. That was cer
tainly the spirit exuded by the Balliol Americans; it touched those British undergraduates with any imagination; it touched me. I made friends with every American in college; I remember each one of them vividly; many remain my friends to this day. The making of friendships between America’s and Britain’s best had been a prime purpose for which Cecil Rhodes had left his money. I would certainly not count myself among the British elite, but a surprising number of my Balliol contemporaries were destined to join it. My Balliol years formed a talented group, and the friendships that the foremost of them made with the Americans have lasted, to the very great benefit of my country and with some, I hope, to theirs. Through such friendships Britain succeeded in sustaining the mutuality that the victory of 1945 had bequeathed. The 1950s were the Eisenhower years. The United States bestrode the world militarily, diplomatically, scientifically, industrially, financially. The Oxford Americans of my youth were fitting representatives of the United States at one of its high moments. They were public-spirited, they were able, they were attractive in looks and character, they were brimming with self-confidence, about their own futures and that of the world we shared. Little wonder that I found in them confirmation of my parents’ assertions that the United States was neither a pale imitation of England nor a land of Hollywood fairy tale but a civilization in its own right. There was of course no hope of seeing it for myself. Britain in the 1950s was semibankrupt and in the grip of a dollar famine. Even had I had the money to finance a transatlantic visit, I would not have been allowed to exchange it.
Then, in 1956, a strange rumor began to circulate at Balliol. An American who had been at the college before the war had conceived the idea of founding a sort of Rhodes scholarship in reverse, confined to Balliol undergraduates, so that young Britons could get to know the United States as Rhodes scholars knew the United Kingdom. He was rich, he was serious, and he did not want those selected to attend universities but simply to travel through America in pursuit of some interest in the country that they could justify to the selecting committee. The first group of six departed that year. In 1957 I submitted a proposal to make a tour of the battlefields of the Civil War. As I had chosen military history as my special subject in the Oxford final exams, my proposal was taken seriously. There were months of anticipation. Then, just before graduation, I was told I had been successful. Tickets and money would be sent on. I was going to go to America.
A flight of twenty-eight hours would not today leave me in any condition to receive lasting impressions of an unknown country on arrival. Yet I remember with almost physical recall deplaning at Boston. Heat of a sort I had never experienced struck as we descended the steps to the runway and was to oppress me throughout the remaining months of an American East Coast summer. Air conditioning, also a new and for a moment gratefully experienced sensation, had an equally oppressive effect. It upset my allergic balance, causing me to suffer violent bouts of hay fever whenever I went through a temperature barrier. So was formed my first impression of the New World. It has—I have not changed this view and I do not apologize if it causes offense—one of the world’s worst climates.
I melted, drooped, and sneezed for the next three months. There were compensations. The first was an expedition to buy new clothes. The Englishmen of my youth wore the same clothes winter and summer: gray flannel trousers and tweed jackets. The day after arrival I descended, with the first installment of dollars my scholarship provided, to the Coop in Harvard Square and outfitted myself with chinos and a seersucker suit. This was an intense excitement. New clothes were still a novel experience for my wartime generation. New clothes that gave one a different identity were fancy dress. I did not quite dare the seersucker suit for several weeks and wore it first when I took the train for Washington at Pennsylvania Station in New York. Late and flustered, I threw my bags into a coach at the feet of two very large and black sleeping car porters, who saluted my appearance with a cry: “Here comes a Princeton man.” I have cherished it ever afterward as a compliment.
I do not suppose that today a Princeton man would stand out; the Princeton undergraduates I knew when I was a Fellow were no better or worse dressed than any other young Americans. America had changed in thirty years. The America, particularly the New York, I encountered in 1957 was a more stratified country than it is today; safer too. I have never encountered anything but kindness in the United States. Statistics seem to show, nevertheless, and Americans clearly believe, that they live now in a violent and dangerous society. Before my seersucker sortie I had spent a solitary fortnight of perfect serenity in New York, in an apartment lent by briefly encountered friends of Oxford American friends. Across the way was a diner where I ate lunch. In the square in the evenings clusters of passersby listened to soapbox orators denouncing the supporters of causes they held repugnant, a mixed bag of revivalists and civil libertarians. During the noon hours I retired from the tropical heat. In the cooler evenings I wandered the streets, sometimes as far as Central Park, forty blocks northward, sometimes just around the corner to Gramercy Park, Stuyvesant Town, and down to the tavern called McSorley’s, not yet a tourist attraction. I loved New York then. It was an exotic city, rich with instant friendship, but easy and slow-moving. I wish I could say the same about it today.
I would have lingered longer in New York, but an arrangement made with a fellow traveling scholar, now by chance my brother-in-law, required me to be in Washington by a certain date; it was that which put me at Penn Station in my seersucker suit. He had the car in which we were to set off to the South. He also had an identical seersucker suit, bought at the Harvard Coop on the same day. So outfitted, we set off together in a Ford station wagon one morning in July 1957 to discover the United States.
In a tiny backwoods place, we were mistaken for traveling revivalists—“You-all preachers?”; seersucker suits had a different semiology south of New York.
Sonnenreise the young Goethe called his expedition to the lands of lemon blossom. He set a fashion among young Northern Europeans for expeditions southward that lasts to this day. Neither Maurice nor I was a young Goethe, but we were little traveled, overeducated, abrim with reading about the Civil War, and filled with expectation of what we would find in the old Confederacy. Our journey, I see now, was to be a sort of Sonnenreise , a passage of new and strange and wholly un-European experience, steamy, tropical, alien, alluring, cast through a landscape and among peoples that had no equivalents in the green, chilly, and formal little island from which we had begun.
Today long-distance travelers by road in the United States make their way along the great interstate highways. There were no interstates in 1957, only the old numbered federal highways that wandered the stagecoach routes between city and city. U.S. 1 was the route we chose southward out of Washington on an itinerary only partly planned, and it took us to Richmond, Virginia, then—Americans still laugh when I tell them—we headed over to Goldsboro, North Carolina, thence to Charleston, South Carolina, and so to Atlanta, Georgia. Gentle memories of Goldsboro, hick town though Americans may think it, remain with me still. I liked it because in the middle of unfettered space, its citizens had chosen to build what then passed for a skyscraper in the South, a touching symbol of civic pride. I liked it because it was the first town in which I stayed in a motel, that brilliantly creative American contribution to the conveniences of travel, the American caravanserai, without vermin, camel smells, importunate hangers-on, or unspeakable sanitation. I liked it because in the growing cool of a Southern evening, I could sit outside above the dust of an unpaved sidewalk and watch the beautiful legs of girls otherwise unseen in the dying twilight walking—where? I longed to know. I longed to follow. The English girls with whom I had grown up wore skirts below their knees. Southern girls, even in 1957, wore abbreviated shorts above golden, athletic thighs.
Then Charleston, as perfectly classical as Bath, but softened by palmettos, bougainvillea, and flowery, trailing tendrils. I was enchanted by Charleston at first sight, decided then that it was the most beautiful city I had ever seen, a decision from which visits to Venice and Aix-en-Provence have scarcely deflected me, and settled down to enjoy it. Introductions brought us meetings with eccentric Charlestonians; explorations down side streets and along waterfronts introduced us to oysters in hot tomato sauce drunk with arctic-cold beer; pressings on doorbells took us to Colonial interiors that seemed scarcely changed since Barbadian sugar merchants had unshipped their English furniture and silver into them two hundred years earlier.
Charleston tempts one to linger and calls one back. I have been there since, more often than to any other small city in the United States. In 1957 I had to leave, sooner than I wanted, for Georgia and the deeper South. In a soda fountain in a tiny backwoods place, we were mistaken for traveling revivalists—“You-all preachers?”; seersucker suits had a different semiology south of New York—and made our first encounter with red earth roads, verandaed, ramshackle cabins, and the watermelon culture; however cold the interiors of the Coca-Cola chests from which melons were sold by the roadside, I never acquired the taste.
Deep, deep in Georgia, drawn by Maurice’s inexplicable urge to visit something called the Okefenokee Swamp, we spent one of the most memorable of our dozens of nights on the road. In Lumber City— POPULATION 69 said the signboard at the city limits—there was only one place to eat, we were the only diners, and the dinner hour was already over before our arrival. The proprietress nevertheless relented, covered a wooden table with what she had to offer, and left us with her father and infant son to pick through dishes of okra, grits, black-eyed peas, pork, and potatoes. Grandfather remembered Lumber City as a thriving place, full of immigrants who had come to cut timber from the virgin pine stands. He had difficulty placing us. “England? New England?” When we said no, he mused while the little grandson surveyed us with wide eyes in a silent face. Grandfather tried again. “How long you-all been over?” Six weeks, we said. He mused some more. “You sure have learned the language fast.” In memory I see planked walls, planked floor—can I have imagined oil lamps? The heavy insect sounds of a Southern night filled the gaps in conversation. Second-growth timber stood close about the shanty. It might have been a sinister setting. I remember kindness, gentle hospitality, the innocent curiosity that travelers among remote peoples report.
Just over the border in Florida we turned west to begin our circuit of the Gulf Coast. Beyond St. Augustine with its tiny, bastioned fort—the first outpost of Spanish power in the Americas north of Panama—on a morning of pearllike stillness, we crossed the St. Johns River, filled with mothballed destroyers surviving from the Battle of the Atlantic, and then moved on by daylong hops to Tallahassee and Pensacola and Mobile and Biloxi toward the mouth of the Mississippi. We had a date with friends of friends at, I forget now, either Bay St. Louis or Pass Christian. I remember our arrival and the blissful days that followed. The friends of friends either were rich or had found that way of living without money that seems rich. It had no equivalent on any of the shivery, shingled English strands where we had spent our childhood summers. Their beach houses had sandy surroundings that merged with each other and with the shore, about which they padded in permanently bare feet, unfussed by work, timetables, or set hours for lunch or dinner. Fires were lit, fish suppers cooked in the light of the flames, strong cocktails passed from hand to hand. Sunburnt boys and girls emerged out of the twilight in scraps of ragged clothing that might once have been sold over the counter at the Harvard Coop, beautiful, different, utterly uninterested in Europe or England or anywhere a dozen miles distant from Bay St. Louis.
Sonnenreise . I would, at twenty three, willingly have settled for life in that corner of the Gulf Coast, but we were bidden onward to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi Valley: oily meanders a mile wide between levees, long, ditched tracts of cultivation leading to the flat horizon, causeways over standing water. Somewhere hereabouts, where AfricanAmericans were then a majority, we had our first encounters with black America. We gave a lift to two young black men, eavesdropped in a country store on a courteous conversation about cotton between a white farmer and his grave, elderly black tenant, conspired with a respectable black salesman at a gas station over use of the lavatory—“I’ll wait until you white folks have gone on.” Unimaginable today the apartheid of American life only forty years ago. A little farther on we encountered the issue of apartheid in tangible form. The governor of Arkansas had called out the National Guard to keep nine black students from entering the Central High School in the state capital, Little Rock. There had been riots. There was the threat of more trouble. On an impulse, we crossed the Mississippi and the vast rice fields that lay beyond and drew up outside the school, an unpleasing concrete monolith. There was not a bayonet in sight, not even a state trooper. We ventured into Little Rock’s black quarter. I would like to record that we were hissed in the streets. On the contrary, I recall sensing a certain surprise on the part of the inhabitants at the sight of two young white men in seersucker suits tramping about between shop signs advertising palm reading and hair straightening but otherwise only friendliness, greeting, and concern that we had lost our way. There was trouble again later, which would eventually prompt the Supreme Court judgment ruling school segregation unlawful but not a hint of it in the Little Rock we saw. What a quiet revolution America’s revolution in race relations was to prove; when I next visited the country in 1977, twenty years after Little Rock, it was as if to an India that had abolished caste.
Somewhere beyond Little Rock, Maurice and I parted. He was shortly due back in England. We had done much else that I have not recorded. We had visited the Tennessee Valley Authority, that Rooseveltian experiment in the public ownership of natural resources that liberal America then foresaw—visitors from England watching the mismanagement of the national economy by civil servants could have warned otherwise—as the way of the future. We had taken a long hike in the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains, conceived some sense of the vastness of the American forest, without parallel in Europe west of the Russian border, a brooding presence at the verge of settled land. We had visited black public housing and grand white-fenced horse farms where owners and trainers made pets of their lithe black stable lads.
The South retains for Europeans a trace of cultural familiarity. Pain is a dimension of old civilizations. The South has it. The rest of America does not.
We had seen a great deal of the Old South, the elegant summer retreats of Natchez, the New Orleans French Quarter, preserved plantations approached through hanging avenues of Spanish moss, sanitized slave cabins, most of the battlefields—the ostensible purpose of our great journey—of the Civil War. We had also seen much of the New South: smoking oil refineries at the Mississippi mouth, a vast new automated glass factory somewhere in Arkansas where the handful of workers wore Hawaiian shirts and seemed possessed by holiday mood, courts of justice, city halls, public hospitals, the beginnings of what I suspect must have been one of the first interstates. New it may have been by contrast with the antebellum world of plantations and horseflesh; it struck me then, as the memory still does strike by comparison with the South I know today, as an unchanging and almost empty land, short of people, settlement, and traffic. I remember hours of scrub pine landscape on roads untraveled by another car, advertisements for Burma Shave or pecan pie in towns miles ahead through which we had passed before realizing they were intended stopping places, poor little farms, pretentious placenames, tired soil, weary people, dull, hot skies, interminable, featureless distance. Oddly, I came to like the South and still like it more than any other part of the United States. It retains for Europeans a trace of cultural familiarity, as the rest of the country does not. Sonnenreise . I have often tried to analyze why I should have a sense, however slight, of being at home in Dixie. Class system, yes; history, yes; but more important, I suspect, the lingering aftermath of defeat. Europe is a continent of defeated nations; even Britain, the offshore survivor, has had occasion to lick its wounds. Victorious America has never known the tread of occupation, the return of beaten men. The South is the exception. Its warrior spirit, which supplies the armed forces with a disproportionate flow of recruits, is a denial of the decision of 1865. The famous femininity of its women—not a myth, not to European men at least, who find them feminine as other American women are not—is a quality that comes from grandmothers who found a strength their men had lost, learned to comfort, helped to forget, never, never said the unsayable thing. Pain is a dimension of old civilizations. The South has it. The rest of the United States does not.
I left the South with regret. I was to spend several months longer in the United States, but after the mystery of the South the spell had somehow gone. I felt my future life was in England, with parents, sisters, brother, contemporaries, known places and things. I was not brave enough for the great adventure of emigration. As the American winter of 1957 began to cast the leaves from the trees, I took ship aboard the old Queen Elizabeth and sailed homeward.
I thought I should never see America again. For twenty yeans I did not. I had conceived the odd aim of becoming a military historian and quickly identified on my return that the only place where I might be paid for pursuing my private interest was the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, Britain’s West Point. At twenty-five I joined the Sandhurst staff, settled down to learn my trade, began an exploration of the anthropology of the British army, which remains a lifelong interest, married, raised children, and experimented with writing. In 1972 I started to write a book eventually entitled The Face of Battle . In 1976 it was published, and shortly afterward I found myself a celebrated author, curiously more celebrated in America than at home. The Face of Battle was chosen as a Bookof-the-Month in June 1977, bringing me enough money to pay my elder son’s fees at the expensive boarding school at which I had imprudently entered him. Its publication also brought me an invitation to lecture at the National War College in Washington. Other invitations followed, to the University of Chicago, to West Point, to Harvard. I was to see America again after all.
America after twenty years made an impression as indelible as America in 1957, but different. I was different, less lighthearted but more self-assured. America was different, less itself, more like anywhere else. I regretted both changes. There could be no Sonnenreise for me again, no pearl-like mornings crossing the St. Johns River toward Bay St. Louis, barefooted evenings on the beach, hopeless gazings at blonde girl-children whose heroes were the teenage victors of yesterday’s regatta. Equally, there could be no old America again, the America of Lumber City whose inhabitants thought only Americans spoke English. Americans had ceased to look American. The faces were the same, the gait, the gestures, but the American haircut—the coir mat crew cut, the iron perm—had gone, and so had distinctively American clothes, the waistless suit, the universal shirtwaister dress, bobby socks, enormous shoes. Americans dressed like Europeans, just as we all dressed rather like Americans. The great age of international air travel had begun. In my twenties I had been almost unique among my English contemporaries in having traveled widely in the United States, in having been there at all. In the 1970s an American summer tour was becoming an ingredient of student life; in the 1980s all my children would cross the Atlantic quite as casually as they would cross the English Channel. Americans were making the journey in the opposite direction in large numbers, and Europe was becoming demystified for them in the process. The extraordinary inwardness of America, which was part of the spell it had cast upon me, was dissolving. Casements, not so magic when opened, were letting in light from both directions.
America was changing, too, because its people were changing. In the 1950s there had been only white Americans and black Americans. By the 1970s a new tide of immigration was beginning—as it also was in Europe, until 1950 a completely white continent—to blur the division; there were Chinese, Indian, and Hispanic faces on the streets in increasing numbers. The most important racial change, however, had been in relations between black and white. Returning on a book promotion tour to Atlanta, a city where in 1957 the only black person with whom I had passed the time of day was the barman in the Atlanta Athletic Club, I found that all the interviewers who gave me time on their television or radio programs were black. Well educated, professional, they gave no hint of having passed through a revolution; such was their self-assurance that all the questions I longed to ask about the transformation of their expectations, in less than half my lifetime, died in my throat.
But then for me the time of questioning, of the nightlong conversation, of heartfelt revelation and inquiry, was over. I was older. I was also a transient, coming and going, living on impressions rather than deep experience. From 1977 onward I began to visit the United States two or three or sometimes five times a year, at first to lecture, then also to promote books or to write for the London newspaper that, after a long academic career, I joined in 1986. I gathered impressions in sheaves, first and most plentifully about American university and college life. Its richness has never ceased to surprise or to delight me. In the England of my youth there had only been twenty universities; at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when college founding was almost as American as town building, there had been only two. On the great circuit of the college lecture tour into which literary success cast me I encountered the results of the American passion for higher education in wonderful variety.
Some of the places to which invitations brought me were rich, world-famous, and intellectually intimidating. Harvard I knew, but only as the alma mater of old friends who had treated it with easy familiarity. As an academic society, briefly giving a visitor its attention, it proved formidable and demanding. Nowhere, not even at Oxford, had I encountered a professorial that exuded such a sense of academic aristocracy. Scholarly eminence, security of tenure, wealth, knowledge of the world—these were the marks of the Harvard historians and political scientists before whom I tried to show my paces.
I felt more at home in that uniquely American institution, the liberal arts college, the reason being, I surmise, that it is much like the English public school. Liberal arts colleges are a point of aspiration to the educated parents of many American children. They offer a degree but, more important, the friendship of professors, usually remote figures on the great campuses, social grooming, an all-round education, and, in many cases, an emphasis on moral purpose in life. I came to know liberal arts colleges in their many forms, from Swarthmore, the most celebrated of them all, a virtual forcing house for Rhodes scholars, to the small religious foundations, Lutheran or Unitarian, that cluster so thickly in Ohio and the rest of the Midwest first settled by God-fearing, hardworking German immigrants in the nineteenth century. I grew very fond of St. Anselm’s, a small Catholic college in New Hampshire, centered on its magnificent chapel, where jolly young Franciscans mingled in their brown habits at lunchtime with boys and girls in sneakers and T-shirts. I got to know even better Colorado College in Colorado Springs; “rich kids’ place,” a state university professor described it, but I found it governed by teachers of awesome fidelity to the ideals of truth and learning. “You,” my closest friend there said to me, “are an Oxford humanist.” You, I felt like replying, are an Abraham Lincolnian populist, believing in the equality of all before the book as well as the law.
Between the English educational system of my youth and the American one already beginning to prevail on my first visit there, I see no middle way.
I also came to know the great public universities, where a clever instate student can acquire, given desperately hard work and a willingness to wait at table or wash dishes, an Ivy League education at a fraction of the price. Athletic prowess also sees a student through. The large private universities came my way, too, New York University, the University of Southern California; between them and their state equivalents I could detect no difference at all. The students, it seemed to me, enjoyed no better facilities, no greater intimacy with professors. They were merely exercising a choice the poorer students did not have, even if it was only the choice to waste their parents’ money. But choice is the essence of American higher education, and so is wastefulness. The dropout was unknown in my Oxford years; if you were admitted, you graduated. There was no studying for a year or two, taking time out, going to another place, graduating eventually in a discipline entirely different from that in which you had started out. English university education was ruthlessly elitist. The tiny group that secured entrance was destined to be a national elite, theoretically guaranteed a secure career for life ever after.
Between the English system of my youth and the American system already coming to prevail when I first visited the United States, I see no middle way. The first makes for a society of haves and have-nots, well organized, well governed but unequal, and destined, in a post-Industrial Revolution world, for economic inertia. The second, though it may lay the seeds of discontent with prevailing government and organization, fertilizes creativity. Education ought to be wasteful, as American education is. It ought to offer chances to the greatest possible number and ought to offer them in manifold variety and over and over again. No social scientist ever born has been able to predict who will benefit from education, or when.
In 1977 the Vietnam War was not long over. Indiscipline had ceased to plague the military, but the groundswell of doubt over why the war had been fought still swirled. Indeed, I ascribe the success of my book The Face of Battle , an inquiry into the origins of human failings before danger as well as of triumph over it, to the troubled self-inquiry of America in the post-Vietnam years. I had asked questions not usually put, not easy to answer in a country at odds with itself for the first time since the Civil War over a great national military purpose. My friend John Erickson, the master historian of Russia’s resistance to Hitler, had found himself in the Cold War years invited by Soviet generals to pro- nounce on their problems, impartially, they thought, because his was an external voice. Lesser historian though I am, Americans accorded me similar status. My opinion over “combat motivation” was sought; my responses were accorded quite undeserved respect. Nevertheless, I could detect in the 1970s that all was not well. At Fort Carson, visiting a tank battalion, I noted that the commanding officer’s clerk, seated in one chair, feet in another, did not rise when the colonel and I entered his office. He was delighted to see us and full of news; I could only think that in a British regiment he would have been quivering at the sound of the colonel’s footfall.
Over the next decade things changed. The dress and turnout of private soldiers recovered style and glitter, noncommissioned officers began again to stand apart, officers resumed the expectation of instant obedience. When in the mid-1980s I visited the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, I found an organization of exact hierarchy, manifest purpose, pride in work. Every member, from staff officer to enlisted man, bristled with pleasure at the appearance of the commanding general, who made himself my escort. They overflowed with eagerness to tell him what they were doing, emphasize commitment, listen for his word of approval. This was an army responding to the decision, taken by stalwarts like Norman Schwarzkopf after Vietnam, to persist with the institution and return it to its old traditions; when I came to interview him after the Gulf War, he told me that his life’s fulfillment had been to see the dispirited formations of the 1970s transformed into the relentlessly battle-winning elements of the expeditionary force that had secured victory in Kuwait.
It was an un-uniformed service, however, that I came to know best and to admire very greatly, the Central Intelligence Agency. Casually remarking one day to an American met at an academic conference that I thought “order of battle analysis”—the reconstruction from scraps of evidence of the organization of armies—the most intriguing of all problems in military history, I received some months later an invitation to lecture at a CIA training course on the appropriate techniques. The lecture was a success, and the invitation was repeated. When I next turned up at Langley, it was to a more elaborate reception. The escorting officer who collected me at the airport told me that we would be going to the main building, not the training block. After I had completed some elaborate paperwork, I was let into the secret that the Director, then William Casey, had expressed a desire to meet me.
My escort set off confidently up a series of elevators and down anonymous corridors. After a while he was, I could see, flagging. We were on the wrong floor, then another wrong floor. There was embarrassed whispering with bypassers. Eventually, behind an anonymous door in another anonymous corridor, the Director’s office was run to earth. Some very large and fit-looking young men occupied the floor space of the antechamber. Much of the floor space of the room within, a modestly sized, book-lined study, was occupied by the Director himself. William Casey was—fatal disease already had him in its grip—a large man. He had an anomalously small voice and a habit of swallowing his words. Placed at the corner of his desk, I found myself edging forward to catch what he was saying. As a newspaperman, which I had then become, rather than as a writer of history, I had jumped to the conclusion that a scoop was in the offing—some confidence about the Russian campaign in Afghanistan perhaps. In fact, when a senior subordinate joined us, there was a revelation—that America was supplying Stinger missiles to the Mujahedeen—on which I should have jumped. By then, however, I was disoriented. The Director of Central Intelligence, I had at last identified, was talking to me as one historian to another. The purpose of our meeting was to discuss our common craft. What was my working technique? Did I write longhand or on a word processor? Did I make a point of visiting the battlefields about which I wrote? I stumbled out answers as best I could. After a long passage or almost mutual incomprehension, the Director rose to his feet, plucked a book from his shelves—it was to prove of the greatest value to me in my work—inscribed it, and said, I presume, good-bye.
In the corridor outside, my escort had been joined by others I already knew. “What did he have to say?” they asked.
“I’m not altogether sure,” I answered. “I couldn’t really understand.” There was suppressed, insider laughter. I was looking at the book I had been given. It was entitled Where and How the War Was Fought: An Armchair Tour of the American Revolution by William J. Casey.
“We call him Mumbles,” a member of the group commented, “the only man in Washington who doesn’t need a secure telephone.”
Casey’s cover was clearly very deep indeed: a second identity as a historian in a Le Carréesque disguise of great sophistication. Oddly, when a year or two later I was met at the entrance to the Pentagon by an escort who told me that the Secretary of Defense had also expressed a desire to meet me, I found on entering Caspar Weinberger’s office (what a contrast with Langley: vast space, colonial antiques, portraits of American military paladins at the door, Cinquecento paintings lining the walls within) that he, too, wanted to talk about our common craft, writing, history, the literary analysis of the trade of diplomacy; but by then I was attuned—and anyhow, Weinberger enunciated our common language with exquisite clarity. I like the American Foreign Service very much and take great pleasure in the perpetuation by so many of its members of the Dean Acheson look and manner: neat mustaches, the slightly pained expression, an accent more Canadian than American. I continue to find, however, its sister intelligence service the more interesting.
“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.
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.
War is at the root of the differences between American republic and British monarchy. The British state, for centuries the most centralized in the world, was made by conquest. The English, in a warlike continent, became an exceedingly bellicose people who would not rest until they had incorporated the rest of their archipelago—Wales, Scotland, Ireland—into their polity. While the interior of the home islands was decastellated, British forts were springing up in the islands of the West Indies, on the coasts of the New World, in Africa and India and the Mediterranean. Fortifications bristled along British coasts also; a people who had chosen to take the world as its empire could not afford to leave their best harbors unguard ed when the fleet was sent to roam great waters.
A people numerically weak who challenge the world bind themselves with heavy chains: oppressive taxation, protectionist and costly tariffs, the cruelties of the press gang, fierce treason laws. They bind themselves thereby to relentless political continuities. A war-making people cannot afford revolution. English monarchy survived and became British monarchy because it served British purposes, as a focus of popular loyalties but also as a vessel of the national will. The British may bob their heads and bite their tongues, but through the symbolism of crown and scepter they ground away century after century at carrying the ethic of conquest that had constructed their state to half the world. India, Arabia, the East Indies, the South Seas, Africa from Cairo to the Cape—even in my boyhood that was where the flag flew. British ships, British cannon, British castellation commanded half the globe. The British crown was the symbol of all these outposts; British power was the substance.
To me the pattern of fortification that human settlement has left over the past four hundred and fifty years is a key to the American mystery.
America was the exception in the pattern, the blank space on the map where British forts did not stand. We all know why. The Americans had escaped from the engirdlement of British power. They had no desire, moreover, to engirdle others. Jefferson, at his inauguration as President in 1801, had set out the national ethic, utterly at odds with that which had made Britain a power to be reckoned with wherever ships could carry cannon. “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none… .” Not only did the young United States eschew all idea of overseas involvement, but its first act of major public expenditure, already undertaken before Jefferson’s election, was to wall itself in against the outside world. The government was raising money to build huge coastal fortresses at the mouths of the Chesapeake and the Hudson and off the Gulf Coast, whose purpose was to proclaim that the United States was a land apart. Jefferson’s successors were to ram the message home through the extension of a chain of fortifications around the whole periphery of the United States, from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi to San Francisco Bay; Alcatraz, before becoming home to America’s most dangerous federal criminals, was a link in the Republic’s Third System of coastal defenses. Within the enceinte the United States was intended to go its untroubled way, taking its laws from elected representatives, submitting their interpretation to an independent judiciary, and accepting leadership from a head of state whose least responsibility was to declare or conduct foreign wars. A greater difference between its national philosophy and that of the belligerent transatlantic monarchy with which it had severed the umbilical tie in 1783 cannot be imagined. Britain, retiring to lick the wound of the loss of its first empire, would shortly embark on the conquest of a second; within a century it would add the emperorship of India to the titles of its crown. The United States, kingless, lawful, peace-loving, would retire inside its continental frontiers to construct a new sort of civilization.
But though the Founding Fathers may have wanted to wall off their American world from the rest of the globe, Americans could only begin to make the interior of the continent their own by repeating within it exactly the same process of step-by-step fortification of key points through which Britain had made an empire around the oceans of the world. The interior of America might, in one sense, be seen as an ocean in its own right, an ocean of forest, of grass, of desert, through which navigable ways had to be found and, once found, secured and fortified. Many of those ways had been found before the Declaration of Independence, and many forts built. By the end of the French and Indian War of 1756-63, North America was one of the most fortified regions of the world, and the number of forts was added to by the British and Americans in the revolutionary war that followed. The young United States built forts in the Old Northwest, the country between the Appalachians and the Mississippi and the Tennessee; it built forts along the Mississippi and up the Missouri; by mid-century it was building forts along the Platte and the Kansas rivers, in the Rocky Mountains, in the desert, and on the Pacific coast.
Over forty years my travels in the United States and Canada have taken me to many of these places. The network they form within the geography of North America is an essential key to the understanding of its natural barriers and highways and so to the military and thus the human geography of the continent. Chance was to make the continent home to the most elaborate and sustained effort to found a revolutionary civilization, based on philosophical principle, freed by distance and inaccessibility from external interference with its process of development. No one interested in history can ignore that of America. To me, a military historian, the pattern of fortification that human settlement has left since Europeans first began to venture inland from North America’s coasts four hundred and fifty years ago is a key to the American mystery.
For me, nothing better epitomizes the conflict between the ideals of the United States and the history of North America than the constructions that crown Liberty Island in New York Harbor. Topmost stands the Statue of Liberty, given by France, the losing power in the struggle for the continent, to its sister republic at the moment when the United States was about to overtake Britain, the victor, as the dominant state in the world’s economic system. On the base of the statue the visitor can read Emma Lazarus’s words: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me”—which have become an unofficial poetic expression of the American dream. Beneath the base of the statue the visitor may also notice the distinctive star-shaped bastions of a fort. These are the traces of Fort Wood, built on what was then known as Bedloe’s Island to defend the harbor against the Royal Navy. The fort was adapted to be the foundation of the Statue of Liberty when it was erected in 1885, but it remained a military station until 1937. Throughout the period when nearby Ellis Island, also fortified as part of the Second System, was receiving up to a million immigrants a year, therefore, the symbol that had drawn them, “tempest-tost,” from the Old World was still a link in the fortification chain designed to hold the Old World at arm’s length. Here is a paradox between the idea of openness and the practice of seclusion, between free settlement and state power. North America is a land for everyone; it is also a land where the strongest do best.