- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

A HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES SINCE 1900

By Andrew Roberts

HarperCollins, $35, 736 pages

REVIEWED BY RICHARD HORAN

Back in September when Hugo Chavez railed against President Bush in his speech before the United Nations and menaced the audience with a copy of Noam Chomsky’s thin 250-page volume “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance,” it’s too bad that Andrew Roberts wasn’t on hand with his hefty 650-page book “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900” to deliver a sound response.

Picking up where Churchill’s famous four-volume work of the same name left off, Mr. Roberts unabashedly dotes on the English-speaking peoples, explaining how it is they have managed to become and remain the preeminent culture since the beginning of the 20th century.

He is not concerned with past mistakes (he sums up “the number of sins and errors committed by the English-speaking peoples since 1900” in one paragraph); rather, he is concerned with raving about “the most decent, honest, generous, fair-minded and self-sacrificing … global stewardship to History.” I suspect many on the left will dismiss this book as typical right-wing rodomontade, but the tremendous depth of Mr. Roberts’ scholarship will silence his critics.

Divided into 17 chapters, “A History of the English-speaking Peoples Since 1900” begins with Teddy Roosevelt and ends with Islamicist terror and the world after the attacks on September 11.

Like the great Athenian historian, Thucydides, who synthesized the four successive wars between Athens and Sparta into one great narrative he called “The Peloponnesian War,” Mr. Roberts does the same by taking “the four distinct but successive attacks on the security of the English-speaking peoples by Wilhelmine Germany, the Axis powers, Soviet communism and now Islamic fundamentalism” and posits that they “ought to be seen as one overall century-long struggle between the English-speaking peoples’ democratic pluralism and fascist intolerance of different varieties.”

In extolling the virtues and heroism of the English-speaking peoples during the 20th century, Mr. Roberts has no qualms about disagreeing with the prevailing views of modern-day historians. For example, Howard Zinn in his “People’s History of the United States” wrote about the overwhelming evidence of brutality, racism and greed in America’s occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. Contrarily, Mr. Roberts writes:

“The justification for the American presence in the Philippines has been assumed by some historians and economists to be almost solely exploitative, but this entirely fails to take into account the genuine sense of mission that actuated American policy makers of the day … By increasing trade and commerce in the islands, they believed that the United States would help the Philippines towards prosperity in the region and eventual self-government. In the long run, they were proved right.” For Mr. Roberts, the means always justify the ends.

Perhaps Mr. Roberts’ greatest skill as an historian is his creative analyses of the numbers. Like a scientist with a microscope, he studies them from all angles until they yield a never-before-seen truth. For example, with the final numbers of American casualties during World War II, he calculates:

“The proportion of American deaths in combat during the Second World War was remarkably consistent state by state, with thirty-five states losing between 0.204% and 0.283% of their population in the conflict … Because of an initial reluctance to recruit and deploy blacks, however, the states that lost the lowest proportion of their populations were Florida (0.150%), Louisiana (0.156%), Mississippi (0.163%), Georgia (0.177%), South Carolina (0.178%), and Alabama (0.182%).” With every conflict from Gallipolis to the Falkland Islands, an analysis of the numbers is similarly rendered.

Mr. Roberts has a touch of Shakespeare in him because he delights in offering comic relief at just the right moments to offset the horrors of history. Writing of the death of the first British Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1905-1908), he quips: “His last words were, ‘This is the end of me,’ which can either be taken as a profound statement of faith or just another politician’s broken promise.” The wit is quintessentially British-dry.

Another of Mr. Roberts’ comic shticks is to find instances where average blokes at the Brooks Club in London wager on the outcomes of history: “Percy Bates bets Roderick Jones one bottle of port (vintage) that Germany invades Denmark before the end of March.” These jocular asides are peppered throughout.

Of all the many factors that have contributed to the primacy of the English-speaking cultures over the past 100 years, first on Mr. Roberts’ list is the military industrial complex and air supremacy: “By staying at the forefront of almost every advance in civil and military aeronautics throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first … was to become a central part of the reason why the English-speaking peoples survived and prospered so successfully since 1900.”

He certainly has his heroes among the leaders of the English-speaking peoples. He credits Theodore Roosevelt for creating the groundwork for what would eventually be dubbed “the American Century” with his expansion of the U.S. Navy and the building the Panama Canal. He showers FDR with praises for his wisdom in dealing with Stalin at Yalta. He lauds Churchill for inculcating the critical value of “The Special Relationship,” articulated so eloquently in the famous 1943 speech at Harvard University:

“I am here to tell you that, whatever form your system of world security may take, however the nations are grouped and ranged, whatever derogations are made from national sovereignty for the sake of the larger synthesis, nothing will work soundly or for long without the united effort of the British and American peoples. If we are together nothing is impossible.”

Ronald Reagan he applauds for putting Soviet Communism out of business with his specious Star Wars Initiative. Margaret Thatcher he esteems for her iron will and conservative politics. And Tony Blair he enthusiastically supports for his adherence to the doctrine of “The Special Relationship.”

The author also has his heels: He chastises Woodrow Wilson for his failure to champion the Versailles Treaty, “perhaps America’s most fateful and worst decision in the history of the twentieth century.” He describes Neville Chamberlain as a vain molly-coddle whose policy of appeasement in dealing with Hitler led directly to World War II.

He vilifies Mahatma Gandhi for suggesting during the London Blitz: “Invite Hitler and Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island with its many beautiful buildings. You will give all this, but neither your minds nor your souls.”

Eamon de Valera, Prime Minister of Ireland (the black sheep of the English-speaking family), he paints as a scoundrel who sent condolences to Germany upon Hitler’s death, yet did not even bother to acknowledge Roosevelt’s passing. He especially despises intellectuals, “who have by and large disgraced the twentieth century.” As for Jane Fonda: Forget about it!

Of all the events covered in the book, it is his inspired re-creation of D-Day that stands above the rest. The calculus of the decisive battle of World War II is breathtakingly chronicled. It is without a doubt one of the most in-depth accounts on that subject ever written and could stand alone as a work of literature.

“A History of the English-speaking Peoples Since 1900” is a feel-good history, a much needed shot in the arm for all English-speaking peoples who may be inclined at the present moment to feel a bit uncomfortable about their place in the scheme of things.

Richard Horan is the author of “Life in the Rainbow” and “Goose Music.” He teaches composition at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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