It looks like you're using an Ad Blocker.
Please white-list or disable AboveTopSecret.com in your ad-blocking tool.
Some features of ATS will be disabled while you continue to use an ad-blocker.
WHAT DOES MODERN HISTORY have to teach us about the age of American empire? The final chapters of the British Empire offer lessons and parallels aplenty. Empires don't last forever, and the combination of martial victory, popular ennui, and liberal anti-patriotism is a dangerous mix for a superpower.
But after the conclusion of the first World War, Britain's imperial psyche began to fracture. "After the survivors of the Western front came home," Manchester writes, "Britons wanted nothing more to do with war; most of them hoped never again to lay their eyes on an Englishman in uniform, and they were losing their taste for Empire." Winston Churchill despaired of this change. "The shadow of victory is disillusion," he noted. "The reaction from extreme effort is prostration. The aftermath even of successful war is long and bitter."
A deep desire to avoid conflict, even at the price of letting the Empire dissolve, permeated British society. In 1931, the House of Commons passed the Statute of Westminster, the first step toward independence for Britain's dominions. In 1932, a poll found that 10.4 million Britons supported England's unilateral disarmament, while only 870,000 opposed it. Historian Alistair Horne observes that, after World War I, it took just about 10 years for the "urge for national grandeur" to be replaced by "a deep longing simply to be left in peace."
In 1933, the Oxford Union - a debating society and one of the strongholds of liberal elite opinion - held a debate on the resolution "this House will in no circumstances fight for king and country." The resolution passed. Margot Asquith, one of England's leading liberal lights, wrote that same year, quite sincerely: "There is only one way of preserving peace in the world, and getting rid of your enemy, and that is to come to some sort of agreement with him. . . . The greatest enemy of mankind today is hate."
Churchill disdained the new liberalism, mocking one of his opponents as part of "that band of degenerate international intellectuals who regard the greatness of Britain and the stability and prosperity of the British Empire as a fatal obstacle. . . . " So deep was this liberal loathing of empire that even as the first shots of World War II were being fired, Churchill's private secretary, Jock Colville, witnessed at a theater "a group of bespectacled intellectuals" who, to his shock, "remain[ed] firmly seated while 'God Save the King' was played."
These elites could see evil only at home. The French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir did not believe that Germany was a "threat to peace," but instead worried that the "panic that the Right was spreading" would drag France, Britain, and the rest of Europe into war. Stafford Cripps, a liberal Labor member of Parliament, feared not Hitler, but Churchill. Cripps wrote that after Churchill became prime minister he would "then introduce fascist measures and there will be no more general elections."
In an important sense, the British Empire's strength failed because its elite liberal citizens stopped believing in it.
The parallels with 21st-century America are striking. In little more than 10 years, England went from victory in World War I to serious discussions about completely disarming herself. Talk of a "peace dividend" began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and culminated 10 years later with a major draw-down of forces and the abandonment of the two-war doctrine.
Where the Great War robbed England of a generation of its best and brightest, in America the baby boom generation was lost in Vietnam or, perhaps worse, in Canada, in the Air National Guard, and in the universities, where they learned to hide and not lead. This has taken its toll. Our two baby boom presidents have been exceedingly imperfect. (As Edmund Burke once cautioned, "A great empire and little minds go ill together.")
Stagger on, weary Titan
If you want to know what London was like in 1905, come to Washington in 2005. Imperial gravitas and massive self-importance. That sense of being the centre of the world, and of needing to know what happens in every corner of the world because you might be called on - or at least feel called upon - to intervene there. Hyperpower. Top dog. And yet, gnawing away beneath the surface, the nagging fear that your global supremacy is not half so secure as you would wish. As Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, put it in 1902: "The weary Titan staggers under the too vast orb of his fate."
The United States is now that weary Titan. In the British case, the angst was a result of the unexpectedly protracted, bloody and costly Boer war, in which a small group of foreign insurgents defied the mightiest military the world had seen; concern about the rising economic power of Germany and the United States; and a combination of imperial overstretch with socio-economic problems at home. In the American case, it's a result of the unexpectedly protracted, bloody and costly Iraq war, in which a small group of foreign insurgents defies the mightiest military the world has seen; concern about the rising economic power of China and India; and a combination of imperial overstretch with socio-economic problems at home.
Iraq is America's Boer war. Remember that after the British had declared the end of major combat operations in the summer of 1900, the Boers launched a campaign of guerrilla warfare that kept British troops on the run for another two years. The British won only by a ruthlessness of which, I'm glad to say, the democratic, squeamish and still basically anti-colonialist United States appears incapable. In the end, the British had 450,000 British and colonial troops there (compared with some 150,000 US troops in Iraq), and herded roughly a quarter of the Boer population into concentration camps, where many died.