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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Flight of the Eagle’
Remarking on the choice of the bald eagle for America’s national symbol, Benjamin Franklin observed that the eagle is “too lazy to fish [and] a rank coward.” Nevertheless, Franklin accurately foresaw the new nation’s metaphoric flight into the blazing blue sky of continental and global power.
Conrad Black, controversial Canadian media mogul turned prolific and confident historian, recalls that ascent in “Flight of the Eagle” — and is justifiably impressed. He examines American leaders across the full sweep of the nation’s history, starting with those who presided over the 175463 French and Indian War.
Mr. Black’s judgments return time and again to the achievements of Franklin, whose bespectacled “everyman” persona disguised a wily diplomat who aligned the 13 Colonies with England to expel France from Canada in 1763. Franklin then manipulated Paris into helping the republican Americans trump London. However, he was not operating in a leadership vacuum. Mr. Black rightly asserts that during this period, George Washington’s generalship shined, James Madison’s push for checks and balances afforded the country a stable but dynamic start, and Thomas Jefferson added “purse power” to statecraft by purchasing expansive Louisiana on the cheap.
Turning to the Civil War, the author illustrates how Abraham Lincoln added emancipation to preserving the union as a war aim, promoted skilled generals and inspired his people. Under his watch, the United States energetically began to industrialize, building a country that was moving toward global prominence. However, Mr. Black’s praise for Woodrow Wilson’s entry into World War I misses the mark. The author depicts the preacher’s son as breathing the soul of high principle into the muscled body of U.S. power, saving French and English democracy from Germany, but the author does not address the 321,000 American casualties or the complicated legacy of this war.
Jumping ahead to Vietnam, Mr. Black criticizes Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy for not stopping Hanoi from infiltrating guerrilla invaders along the Ho Chi Minh trail into South Vietnam. Is his indictment more than partly fair? He fails to note that the two presidents could not transmute Laos, Vietnam’s divided and corrupt neighbor, into a stable ally: “Lay-os rhymes with chaos,” lamented U.S. advisers. Only about 650 communist guerrillas penetrated South Vietnam annually then. On July 23, 1962, Kennedy neutralized Laos, but the guerrilla trickle swelled into a red tide.
Mr. Black is correct that the Pentagon’s failure regarding the Ho Chi Minh trail undermined its justifiable war. But he insists that Washington should have sent in Southeast Asia Treaty Organization troops, yet omits that the Laos treaty proscribed these. Although the focus of the book is America’s role in the world, a short review cannot address all the hot spots that Mr. Black revisits in often convoluted fashion. Regarding Iran, Mr. Black suggests that President Carter and the shah should have used more force against Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. However, that likely would have backfired because too many Iranians backed the mad cleric. Wouldn’t force have turn the hostage crisis into a mass funeral?
Next, Mr. Black defends President George W. Bush’s decision to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The author remembers how the cheating dictator draped himself in a blanket of suspicion with his defiance of the 17 U.N. resolutions mandating disarmament. Nevertheless, Mr. Black does not make a convincing case for pre-emptive invasion. On the Iraq controversy, in Mr. Black’s telling, a nonpartisan magistrate must call it a draw for Bush critics and supporters.
How does a reader assess Mr. Black’s overall analytic perspective across such a broad swath of history? Sometimes, as an example of strategy, the author cites men who carefully selected means to achieve limited ends, e.g., the revolutionaries who pulled triggers for freedom. But he also awards points to President Andrew Jackson for compromises on slavery that postponed a martial showdown until the growing North could vanquish the South.
So Mr. Black’s woolly analysis of what underpins the eagle’s flight spans the wind of brave warriors and brilliant politicians plus the mixed currents of “God, Providence, fate or the muse.” Mr. Black fails at finely discriminating scholarship, but his broad narrative is ambitious. The book’s conclusion canvasses America’s parlous present, disfavoring its faltering schools and national debt. He castigates its present leaders as “mediocre strivers,” but he realizes the American people are resilient and inventive. He predicts they will again water their living tradition’s seeds of renewal to become “sensible” and even “exemplary.”
Victor Fic is a freelance writer in Toronto.
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