I’ve commented more than once in these essays on the way that so many people on the leftward end of today’s American politics act as though America’s current empire is unique in the history of the world, either in scale, malevolence, or some combination of the two. In any form, this notion is impressively absurd, and it presupposes an equally impressive ignorance of history; still, I’ve come to think that there may be an unexpected factor behind that bit of historical blindness.
The factor? The complete inability of most Americans today to take Britain seriously.
Americans these days, by and large, think of Britain in much the same terms that the British think of Luxembourg: a darling little country, quaint and colorful, and of interest mostly as a destination for touristm—oh, and they’re stuck in a strategic position, poor dears, so we had to send the troops over there a few times, didn’t we? If the technology existed to project the average American’s notions about Britain onto a screen, you’d get to see a giddy collage of Big Ben, Befeaters, half-timbered houses, ivy-covered castles inhabited by ivy-covered aristocrats, Her Majesty the Queen imitating everybody’s grandmama as she waves to the crowd, and a mishmash of misremembered history in which King Arthur, Robin Hood, the other Queen Elizabeth, Lord Peter Wimsey, Jeeves, and maybe a blushing war bride or two, all jostle one another against the backdrop of a green, pleasant, and very small land.
Mind you, America functions as the same sort of projection screen for fantasies in the British imagination. Most of a decade ago, while visiting England, my wife and I stopped at a supermarket in St. Albans to pick up travel food. Out in front was one of those rides for small children that give parents something to use as a bribe for good behavior inside the store, the sort that rumble and lurch around without actually going anywhere; the vehicle that did the rumbling and lurching was a little plastic convertible with the roof down, and in front of it, to fuel the riders’ imaginations, was a flat panel with a landscape meant to represent America: on one side, a desert fitted out with some badly rendered saguaro cactus and a cow skull; on the other, a city consisting entirely of skyscrapers; straight ahead, a sweep of cowboy-infested plain with mountains in the distance, and a long straight road that vanished into infinity. It was a fascinating glimpse at the other side of a complex cultural relationship.
No doubt it doesn’t help Britons understand America much to have images of that latter kind stuck in memory. I’m guessing this because of the corrosive effects of the corresponding American imagery of Britain, not merely Americans’ understanding of Britain, but on their understanding of the last three centuries of world history, not to mention the nature of modern empire. As long as my American readers think of Britain as a cute little country, all this is out of reach.
It’s out of reach because, until quite recently as history goes, Britain was not a cute little country. It was an arrogant, ruthless, rapacious global hyperpower with the world’s largest and most technically sophisticated military machine and the largest empire in human history. Around a quarter of the world’s land surface, and roughly the same fraction of the human race, was ruled outright from London, and anyone in that empire who objected to this state of affairs too loudly could expect to have their attitude adjusted by the business end of a Maxim machine gun. The world’s maritime transportation routes—then as now, the primary arteries of global trade—existed subject to the whim of the Royal Navy; when patriotic Britons belted out “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves,” they were stating the single most important fact of 19th and early 20th century economics and geopolitics.
It’s become fashionable in recent years, among a certain faction of historians, to paint the British Empire as a global force for good and a model for all the things to which more recent empires—yes, the United States is the usual target for these exercises—ought to aspire. In reality, though, the British Empire exercised its power with a breathtaking amorality. Consider the Opium Wars, in 1839-42 and 1856-60. Britain bombarded civilian targets along the Chinese coasts and followed this up with a full-scale invasion, not once but twice, to force the Chinese government to reverse its decision to ban the import of opium and try to control what was then a pervasive and hugely destructive drug problem in China. To the British, the fact that British merchants could make plenty of money at China’s expense by selling opium to Chinese addicts was enough to justify what, even by today’s loose standards, was an unusually blatant abuse of power. That’s not a part of British history you’ll find discussed much these days; nor, for that matter, is it usually remembered that concentration camps were invented by the British, and used with great enthusiasm (and a substantial death toll), during the Boer War of 1899-1902.
Now of course it’s only fair to say that this is the way all the European empires of the 19th century behaved; Britain may have had far and away the biggest empire, but it was no worse than most and significantly better than some. It’s equally fair to note that as the age of European empire peaked and began its decline, and the first two non-European nations began to establish significant empires—those were the United States and Japan, for those who weren’t paying attention—they didn’t behave any better. Empire is a brutal business, and the notion that moral considerations ought to guide the behavior of the great powers is usually a talking point wielded by declining empires, which no longer have the resources to conquer other countries, to criticize the rising powers that will eventually supplant them. Still, this last point is getting well ahead of our story.
When the United States began taking its first uneasy steps down the road to empire in the last decade of the 19th century, modern notions of cute little England were nowhere to be found in the American consciousness. To a great many Americans, in fact, Britain was almost by definition the national enemy. The American national anthem, remember, commemorates the defense of an American fort against a British invasion force; the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 played a much larger role in the nation’s collective imagination than they do today, when the bicentennial of the latter war is slipping past almost completely unnoticed; on a more immediately pragmatic level, a great many Americans worried about their nation’s northern border, and the possibility that the hostile superpower that ruled the other side of that border might someday decide to send an invasion force south to reclaim its former colonies. As late as the 1930s, in fact, the standard scenario for the US Army’s annual exercises each summer was defense against a British invasion from Canada.
I don’t know that meaningful polls were ever done, but these Anglophobe attitudes were probably shared by a majority of Americans in the 1890s. There was also an Anglophile minority. America’s enduring cultural divide between the poor, patriotic, and Christian hinterlands and the wealthy, internationalist, and skeptical coastal cities had, during those years, attitudes toward Britain as a core litmus test; one side celebrated the Fourth of July with a noticeable animus toward the redcoats and their Union Jack, and talked earnestly about the evils of free trade and the plight of the Irish, while the other kept up with the latest British literary and intellectual news, copied London fashions, and faked an English accent when they thought they could get away with it.
Behind these vagaries lay a serious question. As the United States took control of its first handful of overseas colonies, naval bases, and treaty ports, it was venturing into a world that was dominated by British fleets and, more broadly, by British political and economic power. By the 1890s, the major powers had already begun to sort themselves out loosely into pro- and anti-British factions, though it was by no means certain who would end up on which side; until the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, informed opinion considered France as likely to end up as Britain’s enemy as her ally. The question that faced America’s people and politicians in the years between 1890 and 1917 was whether to ally with Britain or with the younger powers, notably Germany, that were pretty clearly headed toward a confrontation with the British Empire.
It really could have gone either way. In 1895, Britain and America very nearly ended up at war over the border between British Guiana and Venezuela. The Venezuelan government, at that time an ally of the United States, appealed to President Grover Cleveland to pressure Britain into arbitration; the Cleveland administration did exactly that, in belligerent language; British prime minister Lord Salisbury responded dismissively; public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic yelled for war. It took the sudden outbreak of a new crisis in South Africa—the Jameson Raid, one of the foreshocks of the Boer War—to provide enough of a distraction for passions to moderate and cooler heads to prevail.
Still, it’s significant that Cleveland, who was ready to challenge Britain even at the cost of war, was also the last effective opponent of American empire to be elected President. McKinley, elected in 1896, personally opposed imperial expansion but lacked the strength to counter the rising popularity of the pro-empire faction, and his assassination in 1901 handed the presidency to Theodore Roosevelt, a passionate imperialist and an equally passionate Anglophile, as well as a personal friend and disciple of naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. From 1901 until 1912, the presidency was in the hands of enthusiastic imperialists, and until 1920, of Anglophiles; during this same period, America and Britain settled their remaining differences and moved gradually into an informal alliance that the First World War would make official.
A significant number of people in both countries, for that matter, envisioned something considerably closer than alliance. In a Sherlock Holmes story published in 1892, “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,” Arthur Conan Doyle had his famous detective say, “I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a Minister in far gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.” Doyle was far from the only intellectual on either side of the Atlantic to raise that prospect. Americans on the Anglophile end of the national spectrum, as often as not, felt they had more in common with the British upper classes than with the culture of the Anglophobe end.
Britons, for their part, had good reason to want the United States on Britain’s side. Those in Britain who dismissed the United States as an irrelevance in international politics received a series of abrupt awakenings in the half century following 1860, as the Civil War demonstrated America’s ability to fight an extended land war on a continental scale, the explosive growth of US industry and technology put Britain’s industrial dominance at risk, and the remarkably swift production of a world-class navy after 1890 gave notice that the United States was rapidly approaching the same ability to project force worldwide that the British Navy considered its private property. British politicians thus made conciliating the United States a central element of policy from 1890 onward, a decision that almost certainly saved Britain from defeat once war came.
What very few people grasped in the years before the First World War, in fact, was just how brittle the British Empire had become, and how badly it would turn out to need help from across the Atlantic. The root of the trouble was that perennial bane of empires, the long-term impact of the wealth pump on the subject nations that were being fed into its intake. The torrent of wealth that Britain extracted from its global empire left its subject nations starved of capital, and this put a limit on how long the torrent would keep on flowing. At the same time, the rise of Germany had forced Britain into a horrifically expensive arms race, especially at sea, where rapid advances in naval technology gave each generation of warships a shelf life of not much more than a decade before it had to be replaced, at steadily increasing cost. Thus Britain was being squeezed at both ends; income from its imperial possessions was faltering, while the cost of defending those possessions and countering potential rivals was soaring.
Then war came, and Britain found out the hard way that it had invested far too much of its military budget in the wrong things. The mighty British battleship fleet spent most of the war sitting in port, waiting for the smaller German fleet to come out and fight; the German fleet finally did so in 1916, the inconclusive Battle of Jutland followed, and then both fleets returned to port and basically sat out the rest of the war. Meanwhile, British naval forces had to improvise ways to counter the depredations of German submarines, while the land war turned into a nightmare of trench warfare for which the British army was utterly unprepared.
Very nearly the only thing that kept the Allies going through the First World War was American aid. Until 1917, that came under a flag of neutrality—public opinion in America was forcefully opposed to involvement in the bloodbath in Europe—but US President Woodrow Wilson, a passionate Anglophile, arranged for Britain, France, and Russia to borrow immense sums of money from American banks to pay for food and munitions, while shutting out Germany and its allies. When the war reached crisis in 1917—Germany succeeded in that year in knocking Russia out of the war, and was preparing to turn its whole military force against the Western Front—American neutrality went out the window.
Wilson won reelection in 1916 under the slogan “He Kept Us Out Of War,” but with Britain on the ropes, he did a 180° spin of a kind familiar to more recent observers of American politics. He got a declaration of war from Congress, sent the first of what would eventually be 1.2 million American soldiers into the meatgrinder of the Western Front, and backed up that force with a sharply accelerated program of financial and military aid for the remaining Allies. Those steps provided the edge that allowed the battered Allied armies to stand their ground against Germany’s final offensive, then turned the tide and ramped up the pressure until Germany was forced to sue for peace.
In the wake of the Allied victory, Wilson launched an ambitious program to create a new world order centered on a permanent Anglo-American alliance and locked into place by a new international organization, the League of Nations. Wilson’s rush to war and his attempt to weave the United States into a global system of entangling alliances, though, alienated far too many people back home; Congress decisively rejected US involvement in the League of Nations, and the 1920 presidential election was an overwhelming victory for the Anglophobe majority. For the next twenty years, the United States did its level best to stay out of transatlantic politics, and concentrated instead on establishing its control over Latin America. We’ll talk about the consequences of that move, and America’s final embrace of global empire, in next week’s post.
Some of The Archdruid Report’s readers may be interested to hear about a new book of mine that’s just out from Weiser Books, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology. It’s on a subject I don’t usually discuss in this blog, my own spiritual and, to use an unpopular term, religious beliefs; that is to say, it applies seven essential concepts of ecology—wholeness, flow, balance, limits, cause and effect, distinct modes of being, and evolution—to those basic questions of human life that spiritual and religious teachings are meant to address. Yes, it’s as unusual as it sounds, but a bridge between spirituality and ecology, it seems to me, is one of the great needs of the present, and that’s what this book tries to provide, at least in outline.
Thanks to the folks at Weiser, readers of this blog get a 30% discount off the price of the book when ordering it off the Weiser Books website. The code to use at checkout, to get the discount, is MYST.
It’s always a challenge to take ideas from one culture and import them into a very different culture, without reducing them to nonsense. Promoters of the current belief that the Mayan calendar’s rollover in 2012 predicts the end of the world, a great transformation in consciousness, or any other of the modern pop culture notions applied to it might want to keep this in mind. One good example of the sort of thing that can happen when the difficulties of translation aren’t recognized may be found in the career of Hong Xiuquan.
Hong was a farmer’s son in Guangdong province in southern China, one of countless upwardly mobile young men in the middle years of the 19th century who aspired to an official position through the traditional Chinese process of competitive examination in the Confucian classics. Despite repeated attempts, though, he failed to get a sufficiently high score. It was after his first failure that he met a Christian missionary and got from him an assortment of religious pamphlets and Chinese translations of parts of the Bible.
After his final failure in the examinations, the ideas he absorbed from the missionary literature began to shape his thinking in strange ways, as he reinterpreted Christian concepts in terms drawn from Chinese folk religion. By 1837 he was preaching his own unique version of Christianity to a growing audience. Eventually he came to see himself as the younger brother of Jesus, God’s second son, who had been sent to Earth to purify China of the worship of demons. His proclamation of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace did not prevent him from organizing armed bands of followers, and when the Chinese imperial government took exception to this, Hong responded by proclaiming himself Heavenly King and going to war.
Twelve years and more than twenty million casualties later, Hong’s Heavenly Kingdom was finally defeated by government forces backed by European "technical advisors," to use a slightly later euphemism. Hong’s decomposed body was found by government troops in his palace in Nanjing; the sources differ as to whether he committed suicide by drinking poison or fell victim to an illness. His religion does not seem to have survived him.
—story from Apocalypse Not