Conrad Black, Author, Flight of the Eagle
Thinking in Public
September 30, 2013
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Baron Black of Crossharbour, Conrad Black, has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2001. He is the author of critically acclaimed biographies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. Lord Black is the former head of Angus and Hollinger, once the world’s third largest newspaper empire, which published London’s daily telegraph and the Chicago Sun Times, among many others. He is a columnist now at Canada’s National Post, a publication which he founded, as well as a columnist at National Review Online. His latest work is Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies that Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership.
Lord Black, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Black: Thank you, Dr. Mohler. Thank you for inviting me.
Mohler: Well I have enjoyed your previous works greatly and about those we’ll say more later, but in terms of your newest book, Flight of the Eagle, you’re talking about a major work here written by someone who’s looking at America from the outside, but also from a very close relationship. This is a major work on the story of America in terms of its role in the world. How did you come about the writing of this book?
Black: Of course there’s a vast literature on the history of the United States and much of it is very well written and much of it is extremely rigorous scholastically, so if it was just a matter of trying to replicate that there would be no point to it. The field is very well covered. But it seemed to me, and this is confirmed by Henry Kissinger in his introductory note, that there had not been a study of the specific aspect of American history of the strategic decisions taken by American statesmen at key points that advanced the country stage by stage from being the colonies of 250 years ago to the tremendous, unique imminence the United States has had in the world in our times. The temptation is there to say that, well, the US just grew because it had the ability to attract immigrants to a very rich continent, and that was, of course, a key ingredient. But if that were the full story, then Brazil, for example—which is a very important country, but nothing like as important as the United States—would have had a history comparable to that of the US and it has not. And in the case of the United States, apart from the advantages of inheriting the English Language and the common law and the legal traditions of the British, even though the independence of the country was accomplished at the expense of the British, it was on the basis of principles that were in fact British principles and were proclaimed to be so even by the founders of the country. That fact coupled to the geographic benefits mentioned gave the United States something of an advantage over other the New World countries, but these actions by these statesmen—who were for the most part famous men, well-known and well-celebrated, but not particularly for the things I described in this book—did give the United States an edge that enabled it to more almost steadily upwards in the world in its influence and its objective strength, and I think that there is nothing even remotely parallel to it in the history of the world for a country to rise so quickly in two hundred years from a few colonies to a tremendous preeminence in the whole world.
Mohler: I found reading your book fascinating, and I wondered at points if you were intentionally offering what modern historians might call a revisionist history, because you’re certainly telling the story. For one thing, you are leaping over a lot of the contemporary academic debates that have certainly fractured the academic study of American history, but you told the story in a way that certainly draws attention to, and perhaps even corrects the impression by your judgment, of how the American narrative is told.
Black: I wouldn’t put it in a quite so authoritarian way as that, but I think that I have a slightly different aspect of these things in some cases. For example, I think the element of the Revolutionary War that was really the British saying, “Look: we doubled our national debt largely to get rid of the French from your borders, and you have thirty percent of our population, and you’re the wealthiest part of the British world (as you know that Americans at that time were British citizens just as the British were), and we want you to help with this.” Now they didn’t do it properly; they made terrible mistakes and I don’t gloss over that, but the fact is that it wasn’t an unreasonable position for them to take. But they did it in a very stupid way and then the Americans very intelligently devised this theory of no taxation without representation. And in theory that’s right, but in practice, of course, nobody every taxes themselves unless they have to, but if the British had had the presence of mind to say at the start of the Seven Years War, the French and Indian Wars as they are known in the US, “Look we’ll take care of the defense of the American colonies, but we want you to help us with it in raising a temporary tax to help pay for it,” the Colonies would have done it. They just didn’t think of doing it that’s all. I don’t negate or lack respect for the American Revolution. If you’ve read that section of the book, you can attest to the great admiration I expressed for Franklin and Washington and a number of the other founders, but I think you’re right that I do offer a slightly different view to the one that is standard in the US and, I must say, standard in Britain as well. I mean, so successful was the immense propaganda machine conducted by Thomas Jefferson that this revolutionary war was the dawn of human liberty that the British even bought into some of it.
Mohler: Well I have indeed read every word—and, frankly, enjoyed reading every word—and yet I may as an American see a greater difference in terms of the way you see the story than you may see it yourself, having been raised in Canada and now a peer of the British House of Lords. I do want to say you’re very generous. As a matter of fact, the entire book, the project itself, is very generous toward the United States.
Black: It deserves no less. It is a great country. I mean, I, as you know, have had my differences with it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great country. And Americans are right to be proud of it.
Mohler: Well as you tell the story, and this is where I think that many of our listeners may not have really seen this perspective before, you talk about several different phases—nine, indeed—by which America emerged as a major world power after, well frankly, the most humble beginnings imaginable, but the first phase you talk about is really cooperating with the British to limit the military threat and even the political presence of the French from North America. And, as you point out in the so-called Seven Years War, what Americans call the French and Indian War, England took on massive debt, the people of Great Britain took on a massive debt, and that’s what you’re talking about when you say that much of the pretext for the American Revolution was actually Britain’s—well you’re arguing straightforwardly—it’s legitimate claim that America ought to help for that military effort that had offered it so many benefits.
Black: Well I believe that to be true, but I have to say and I did write in the book, as you know, that the achievement of these colonists—and they were at first not numerous. They weren’t quite the scattering of rough lumberjacks and land clearers that mythology would hold. They were about a third of the population of the British Isles and they had a bigger population than some well-established European countries, like Denmark and Portugal and so on, and they weren’t that much smaller than Frederick the Great’s Prussia at that time, but with that said, their achievement in helping to persuade the British to remove the French and persuading the French to help them remove the British from America, these colonists in effect manipulating the two greatest powers in the world, it was an astonishing achievement. And I don’t think revered figured though Benjamin Franklin is, and as he deserves to be, I don’t think he is given his full level of credit for one of the greatest diplomatic triumphs in world history in his mission to France. I mean, there was a country that was an absolute monarchy: no parliament, nothing resembling a parliament or a legislature, had sat since the young Richelieu dismissed the Estates General in 1614. That was 164 years before. And Franklin persuaded them to enter the war on the side of republicanism, democracy, and succession from empires.
Mohler: Well to put it a different way: because they hated the British so much.
Black: They were rather annoyed at the rough treatment they got in the French and Indian War, that is true, but still the French are nothing if not clever people and, yet, Franklin persuaded them to do this.
Mohler: I want to talk more about Franklin in just a moment, but, first of all, I want to suggest that a part of what you’re doing in your book that I think is, if not completely new, then certainly recently new to the literary world, is that you’re placing the development of America in the larger world seen in a very intentional way, including the Colonial Era, the Revolutionary Era, and the Early Republic, in a way that I don’t know others have done. But just to put this into a very concise summary, you argue that in the first two phases, as I understand it, of America’s emergence as a world power, the first phase was cooperating with the British to rid North America of the French and then basically cooperating with the French to rid North America of the British.
Black: Rid the central part of North America. They did not, of course, remove them from Canada.
Mohler: No, but you more or less intimate that at least Washington would have had the ambition to do so.
Black: Oh, he certainly had the ambition, and Franklin and then-loyal-to-the-revolution Benedict Arnold actually conducted a military mission to achieve that, but it was turned away.
Mohler: I want to ask you now, looking at those first two phases, do you believe that there was any inherent American logic to this? Or is this reading backwards in history and seeing a pattern that those who are living in it wouldn’t have seen? These two phases, cooperating with the English to the expense of the French and then cooperating with the French to the expense of the British, did any of the American founding fathers or founding generation actually have that as an explicit plan or did it just happen?
Black: I think it more just happened, but the events came up and the tactics to follow to try and achieve the end that had been adopted commended themselves, but that was superimposed over a broad view that Franklin and Washington, in particular, did have that the American colonies would grow, they would grow quickly, and Franklin predicted in the 1740s that in a hundred years, the Americans would be more numerous than the British, and he got it within a few years. He was very, almost exact, very close to being exact in his timing, and even before the revolution began, Franklin made a number of comments living in Britain that the entire natural population growth of the British Isles was moving to America. The extent to which the population grew each year represented the number of immigrants, not, obviously, identical people, but the almost equivalent number of immigrants who packed up from Britain and Ireland and moved to America. And so they saw the trend, but they knew that they had to get rid of the French. I mean, there wasn’t the French-Canadians; there were only sixty-five thousand people and they weren’t going to be a problem, but, of course, France was a great military power and it had the ability to move arm forces to Quebec and then advance into New York and New England, and they did from time to time, and that was a threat and they needed the British to help them get rid of that. Once Britain had done that, the American leaders realized right away that it changed the balance of forces, the correlation of forces and influence between the Americans and the mother countries. Namely the Americans did not actually need the British as much as they had done before and so they clearly had it in their minds to agitate for local self-government, autonomy in the colonies, and not just in effect ruled by decree from overseas. And then the British completely mishandled it. It must be said that all indications are that a third of the Americans opposed the Revolution and a third of the British opposed the king’s policy in trying to suppress the Revolution. And the leading statesmen in Britain—the Elder Peel, the Earl of Chatham, and Edmund Burke, and Charles James Fox—all attacked the official policy in terms just as violent as those who were employed at the Continental Congress. And if the king had relied upon his most capable political advisors rather than the king’s friends and be put into to do what in his somewhat uninformed state he wanted done, then it would have been worked out. And this is what Franklin was agitating for, some kind of a commonwealth where you had one monarch over it all, but a constitutional monarchy where there’d be democracies in the different units – somewhat with what happened eventually with Canada and Australia, but, of course, the United States as it became had a head start on those countries and a bigger population.
Mohler: You used two phrases in speaking of the United States, or at least the first one perhaps the nation that became the United States. You refer to America as “the aspirant state” and later, several times, as “the predestined nation.” Can you expand on those two terms?
Black: Well it seemed to me, on the basis on my research, that as early as the 1740s, and certainly the 1750s, informed opinion in the American colonies wanted an enhanced status, an enhanced political and governmental jurisdiction for the colonies. And Franklin, being the visionary he was, wanted a greater unity between the colonies and, of course, that was an issue only resolved with the Constitution after the revolution was successful. But there was this aspiration to make something distinct and political out of the Americas. When the first settlers arrived, they were just seeking a better life. They didn’t have any political ideas at all. The religious groups, of course, the Puritans and the Quakers and the followers of William Penn and so forth, but they were just building communities; they weren’t trying to think in terms of building a country. And it just gradually emerged and had emerged by the time this book begins just at the start of the French and India War that the leading people, in most of the larger colonies anyway, people like Franklin and Washington, Jefferson and so forth—John Adams, Madison—they wanted the American colonies, they aspired to a political identity that would be new and an improvement on the old world. That’s what they aspired to, so it was an aspirant state, and then once they achieved independence and had written themselves a Constitution that would work and put an end to the disunity and political chaos that had preceded it and so bedeviled Washington during the revolution, as long as they could surmount the issue of slavery—and I believe that section of the book gets over that bridge—once that was accomplished, all the intelligence statesmen in Europe realized that it was a giant that was growing quickly. Napoleon sold Louisiana, which of course is much larger than the present state of Louisiana—it was the whole center of the country—to the Americans because he knew that he did not have the naval power to sustain it. The British Navy could cut off the ability of France or any other country to sustain an overseas territory, and so he sold it deliberately to the Americans with the view that would help the Americans rise up and challenge the British, and, in effect, usurp their position as leading English-speaking country. What he could not foresee was that when that happened, the British had the intelligence to adapt changing circumstances and form an alliance with the Americans. But in the latter part of the 19th century, the great German chancellor and founder of the German Empire, Bismarck, said, “The fundamental reality of world affairs is that the British and the Americans speak the same language.” Everyone then could see the United States coming; they were just effectively waiting for when it would come out in the world scene, and that really started with Theodore Roosevelt.
Mohler: We’re not sure if Otto von Bismarck actually said this, but he’s credited with having said, “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” In any event, it is known that he saw America rising.
Black: He was an amusing, if a somewhat cynical, phrasemaker. I mean, his comments on the Balkans have been often cited, you know, that the great powers had to stay away from the quarrels of the sheep stealers and things like that. It was amusing to hear all that quoted during the unfortunate Bosnian events about fifteen years ago.
Mohler: I wanted to ask you very quickly as we transition to think about the larger narrative of the story here. When you’re talking about America as the predestined nation, you’re using that word in a secular sense. In what sense then was America predestined for its rise among the nations?
Black: Well because as soon as the Civil War was over, it was effectively, along with the British and the Germans, the post powerful country in the world. I mean, prior to the Civil War, it had been an important country, but there was this terrible question mark over how that was going to sort itself out (the whole issue of slavery and secessionism), but once the United States demonstrated its ability to raise an immense army and put very talented generals at the head of it and elevate in a time of supreme emergency a leader of such genius as Lincoln and had crushed the insurrection, it’s population of 35 or 36 million was slightly smaller than France or Britain or Germany, but the economic strength, even with the war damage, was towards the top of the European powers. And then everyone could see that the immigration that was coming in, the Westward Expansion, and laying down of railways, the laissez-faire economic system, was going to create an immense country very quickly. And it did, in fact, almost triple its population between the Civil War and World War I, and in the 1880s, the United States had an approximately equal-sized economy to Germany (at the beginning of that decade), but it put up GDP increases of eight percent a year each year in that decade. It fluctuated slightly, but it was an average of eight percent for each year. I mean, these are the numbers that third-world countries like China, bootstrapping itself out of the extreme primitiveness, can do for a while, but not the greatest economy in the world just building on what it had. And so in that phrase that I eventually got to, in reference to Pearl Harbor because Mr. Churchill wrote in his diary on that, at the end of that day, from the former British Foreign Secretary Edward Gray, said that “the United States is like a gigantic boiler: once it’s stoked up, there is no end to what it can generate.” And people could see that coming because it was just growing at such a fantastic rate and, as I say, it went from 35 million to 91 million people and, in that time, I think France went from 38 million to 39 million. Now it lost two provinces to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, but it’s still a starkling contrast. And a great share of the natural population growth that the British Isles, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, all of those areas, just immigrated to the United States in that era.
Mohler: It’s one thing for a secular historian to write of America as “the aspirant state;” it’s another thing altogether for a secular historian to speak of America as “the predestined nation.” That is a very interesting category. Not only historically, but, when you think about it, it’s interesting in terms of how that word now finds itself in a very natural understanding in American history. Lord Black, of course, is looking backwards. This is an argument that is best made backwards, but what he brings to this argument is the fact that he is actually saying that if you looked at America, even in that Colonial Era, if you looked at it honestly and you saw it in the context of the world stage, you saw America headed on a trajectory toward leadership in that world, even as he acknowledges in the very subtitle of his book that America was then in a situation described as “colonial dependence.” It didn’t stay there for long, and Lord Black is arguing it was assured in terms of the world picture that it would not.
In terms of your book’s expansive story, you begin with a nation that is not yet a nation and then you arrive at, at the end of your book, a nation, the United States, as you explained that is actually threatened only by itself, a very unique position, a privileged position, in terms of the world. In terms of how to tell the story between those two points, how would you summarize your narrative in terms of this predestined nation, this aspirant nation, arriving on the world scene?
Black: The Americans, when they set up their country, they made it clear that it was a sort of light unto the nations and they were going to show the whole world how to build a free country and a country not paralyzed by a class system or anti-merited traffic system of unjust retardations of people’s efforts and rights. And they set out to do that and, it must be said, that the claims that it was the only democracy in the world were not true. I mean, at the end of the American Revolution, they had no more rights than they had had before, other than that they had a government resident in the US and not an overseas one. And they had no more rights than the British citizens or Swiss or Dutch or Swedish citizens, but that isn’t the point. They had this mystique, this mythos, of being the torch bearer for democracy. And as the country grew and grew rapidly in the result of the slavery issue, this immanence of America as a democratic, meritocratic place steadily grew. And while the founders had proclaimed their separation from Europe, a Europe with which some of them were very familiar—and Franklin spent much of his adult life there. And while Washington never went to Britain, he certainly dealt with the British army a lot, with all these, for the most part, incompetent commanders they sent over. And, of course, Jefferson knew parts of Europe quiet well. Even the Monroe Doctrine, while it said that the United States was opposed to powers outside the Americas, attempting to increase their interests in the Americas beyond what they then were, they also said in the Monroe Doctrine that the United States for its part renounced any interest in intervening in Europe. Now, of course, it was completely fanciful in 1824 because they had no power to do that anyway nor did they have any power to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. They were relying on the Royal Navy for that, but that’s not the issue. The point is the Americans always retained—particularly the principle academic and commercial interests in the East Coast cities, in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and so forth—always retained an interest in Europe and always retained some connection to it. And once the United States had risen to great power and absolute power in its hemisphere and had been invited into world affairs, and Theodore Roosevelt was asked to mediate the peace in the Russo-Japanese War and he was asked to take a position in the controversy over Morocco between France and Germany—and up to a point he was eager to make America’s influence known in the world and that was part of the rationale for the Panama Canal. At a certain point, the Americans were bound to recognize that it was in their interest to support the relatively like-minded countries in the world against the forces of tyranny. And this reasoning ultimately asserted itself in World War I, though we had to rely—I am using the Alliance “we” now; the whole of the Alliance that ultimately won World War I—had to rely on the stupidity of the German emperor in attacking American-flag merchant shipping to bring the US all the way into the war. And then, and I think again he’s not received adequate credit for this, Woodrow Wilson was the first person to inspire the masses of the world with the vision of enduring peace. It didn’t work, of course, but it was a prophecy that still inspires people and he was the first to make it. But this became even more evident in the Second World War where the moral contrast was so stark. I mean, up to a point, you could say, well King George V and Keiser Wilhelm II were first cousins. You know, George V was a more benign man and he ran a democratic monarchy where the German emperor didn’t and was something of a war-monger, but the fact is you could sort of lump them together a bit if you wanted to—and the czar, of course, was a cousin of theirs too and obviously even more of an anti-democratic society. But you couldn’t do that in World War II. I mean, even Lindbergh couldn’t seriously say that Churchill and Hitler were morally indistinguishable and equally preferable or objectionable from an American standpoint. They weren’t. I mean, Churchill was half-American; he spoke English. He was a man of parliament. He wouldn’t even accept the be named a duke at the end of his career he was so attached to the whole system that he said was based on the phrase, “Trust the people.” And Americans immediately identified with him as a champion of democracy, a very great champion of democracy. Hitler, of course, was a satanic character who was an absolute enemy of democracy. This was a kind of combination of natural cultural affinities with the national interests to bring the US out of its own hemisphere and to play in the world a role appropriate to immense power.
Mohler: As an American reader of your book about America, after all, I found one of the particular aspects of your writing to be of tremendous interest. You care deeply about people and personages on the world’s stage and you offer some very interesting readings of leading people connected with the American story. And I have to say, it begins with Washington, and it actually begins with your very first reference to Washington. So if we just go through several of these people to kind of tell the story, just in sum, what is George Washington’s role in all of this and what does he have to do with America’s arrival on the world stage?
Black: Of course his role is an immense one and the huge prestige that he has enjoyed ever since the prime of his career throughout the world, it was entirely earned. This was not a myth. I mean, there’re myths about the cherry tree and that sort of thing, but in fact he deserves to be so admired. And you would know that there is a statue of him in London in Trafalgar Square, right in front of the National Gallery; just as there is of Lincoln in Parliament Square in front of the parliament buildings. But I would say that the greatness of Washington and the relevance to the story is he had the vision of America. He took upon himself the burden of conducting the military struggle. It was most of the time a guerilla war. It’s not frequently recognized to be so, but it was. But not a vicious guerilla war of the kind that we have seen in modern times. I mean, he certainly observed the proprieties with the enemy and never had anything to do with abusing civilians or anything like that, and, in fairness, the British conducted themselves, for the most part, in a reasonably civilized way also. But he had that vision; he had the faith it took. It took a tremendous act of will as well as ingenuity and courage to conduct that war as he did for seven years. It was a lonely struggle.
Mohler: You point out something else about Washington and I think that this is a very keen insight. You’re quite honest about his beginnings and the fact that he wasn’t a great military success at the beginning, but, nonetheless, emerged as something of the absolutely essential leader. But when he became president, you point out that he had no precedence from which to learn. There were no other constitutional governments.
Black: Dr. Mohler, he not only had to establish what the presidency was and what the president should do, but when he laid down his symbolic sword as commander of the Continental Army, his officers, including Hamilton, urged him just to take over the government because they all knew that the politicians couldn’t do it, particularly under the structure they had. And he declined to do that. He said, “We did not fight a revolution for that.” I put it to you and to your listeners that that distinguishes the United States as much as any other thing in political terms from the history of Latin America, where the corresponding people—and they had some great revolutionary leaders there—simply to seize power. There was not much attention paid to the state papers by which power was exercised through the formalities and constitutional niceties by which these things were done. If you could take power, you did it and held it. And Washington wouldn’t have anything to do with that. And then when he had served two terms as president, he did not accept a salary, had only his out-of-power expenses paid, made the famous address to the Jewish synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and to the Roman Catholics in Maryland that they and their ancestors had fled sectarian oppression and as president of the New Republic he guaranteed that they would never face that in this country. They’re terribly moving statements in principle and at the end of the two terms he was urged to continue. He said, “No, I would be a bad president and I’m not going to do it. I’m going to retire.” And he was a, in some ways, not as brilliant a man as Jefferson and Franklin and didn’t have the economic insight of Hamilton, but he was a great leader. He had broad shoulders, good judgment, courage, stability, and his advice was practically all of it right: stay out of entangling alliances, seek good relations with everybody, but remember states have interests and not friends, and we’re trying to build a republic here, not project ourselves elsewhere. And he was just very sensible.
Mohler: I’m having to skip a good deal of territory, not to mention history here, but you offer a very interesting reading of Abraham Lincoln and of the actual function of the American Civil War, in terms of projecting America on the world’s stage.
Black: Well Lincoln felt profoundly that for America to be believable in its moral claims it had to resolve the slavery issue. You just couldn’t have people owning other people. And he believed that if that could be resolved, then the potential for the United States to be by example, in particular, an immense influence in the world and a very positive influence was almost unlimited. And I think that you can cite various passages in his writing and speeches that he gave to show that he thought that it was the preservation of the integrality of the country, that it should be fought for and defended chiefly because of the potential America had to be a benign example to the world. And he had that view not in a jingoistic or arrogant way at all, but in a way that was rather fraternally minded to all people and he saw that the role of America would be to show what free people could do and how a free society could function and that slavery made a mockery of this. And the endless threats of the South to secede were intolerable and it had to stop. And not far from where you’re sitting, Dr. Mohler, in Cincinnati, Ohio—just across the Ohio River from your state—he gave a famous address I think in 1859 and he said, “You’re brave people, you Southerners”—a lot of Southerners had crossed the river to hear him. He was known to be running for president at this point. He said, “You’re brave people, as brave as anyone, but you’re not braver than we are and you’re not as numerous, and if you insist on fighting us, you’re not going to win.” And he saw it coming and yet he knew that the North was mobilized towards suppressing the insurrection, not to emancipate the slaves, so he tucked the emancipation of slavery in a very tactically, artistic way inside the war aims by saying that we are emancipating the slaves that we don’t have. I mean, I can’t emancipate any slaves; we have no slaves. We’re emancipating the slaves that are in the Confederacy and they will rise up and make life difficult for the Confederacy and assist our war aims. Now he didn’t put it quite as crudely as that, but that was the line that was officially taken so that the Northerners who were much more enthused about crushing the rebellion than they were—although they disapproved of slavery, they weren’t prepared to die end it, but they were, need be, as Julia Ward Howe’s anthem said, they were prepared to die to suppress the insurrection.
Mohler: Prior to your publication and writing of this book, you wrote two, I would even say, magisterial biographies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon. They also played parts in this story. Just with a few minutes remaining, let me ask you, where do you place those two, not only in terms of your previous biographies, but in terms of this storyline? Why those two men and what do they mean?
Black: Well I wrote about them because I thought, again, it was like this book, I thought that they had not been correctly interpreted. In the case of Roosevelt, he was caught between his absently worshipful admirers who thought he could do no wrong and was a saintly man, and those who disparaged him as a socialist and a man out of his depth in world affairs who was fleeced by Stalin. And I don’t believe either version really to be true or even remotely true. He was an extremely brilliant statesman. I don’t agree with every single thing that Roosevelt did, but he was a very great leader and his program to end the Depression gets perhaps two-thirds grade as economics, but it gets an almost perfect score for catastrophe avoidance. When he was inaugurated, the entire economic system collapsed. The banks were closed, the stock and commodity exchanges were closed, the unemployment rate was over 30 percent and there was no direct relief for them. The unemployed could starve, steal, or beg; that was it. And he had to do something. And my friends, and many of them are friends of mine, on the Right, on the intelligent, conservative Right, who criticize him and lay at his door all the excesses of the welfare state that would have appalled him as much as they appalled his critics, don’t understand that he didn’t have time to wait for economic cycles to sort it all out. Immediate relief was necessary and he put the people to work in these work-fair programs and the country benefited from it. I mean, it got tremendous conservation in public works programs, what today would be called infrastructure, at bargain prices until the private sector could reemploy people. And as a war leader, he kept the British and the Canadians in the war. He saw that if Britain went down that the entire rest of the world, apart from the Americans, would be in the hands of Hitler, Stalin, and the Japanese, and it would be an extremely dangerous situation. And he kept the British and the Canadians in the war, he moved in time to prevent Stalin from making separate peace with Hitler, then when the US was attacked, he set up a war effort that was not only unheard of it in the quantity of production that it was capable of, but where it was in fact coordinated by General Marshall and with Eisenhower and MacArthur and Nimitz as theatre commanders, you could not ask for a higher level of commandability than that. And they were, of course, were completely successful, all of them, and it was a just war. And the argument about the peace—in 1940, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan were dictatorships hostile to the English-speaking countries, and in 1945, they were all reintroduced into the West and became flourishing democratic Allies of the English-speaking countries. And Stalin took 95 percent of the causalities fighting the Germans and we took 90 percent of the strategic assets. I mean, the man was a genius.
Mohler: My own understanding of Roosevelt has changed over the last several years and you’re at least a part of the reason for that. It was George Wills’ recommendation that led me to read your biography. At the same time I was reading many other things, and in my most recent book, I cite something that supports your point very much. Alter tells the story of the inaugural day for FDR when one of his friends came in to see him and said, “Franklin, if you pull this off, you’ll be considered the best, most successful president in the United States. If you fail at this, you’ll be considered the worst president of the United States.” And Roosevelt turned to him and said, “No, if I fail, I will be considered the last president of the United States.” I think most Americans do not realize just what kind of catastrophe America then faced and you do make that clear in this most recent book.
Black: It was a terribly grave crisis. Mr. Nixon, I would say—of course, that’s a different type of story—it seemed to me, if I may say this to you and your listeners, the country was still saddled with this theory that he was a uniquely, morally unfit person to hold that office, and he wasn’t. He was patriotic man. He never touched a tainted scent. He was somewhat of a scenic and he was slightly narcotic at times, but if you look at the Watergate charges now, they’re nonsense. They are absolutely rubbish. The only one that has the slightest possibility of holding any water at all is the argument of advancing money to defendants in exchange for altered testimony, but there’s never any evidence of that. I mean, I’ve listened to all these tapes. When he said, “Give the million dollars to Howard Hunt,” whose wife had just died in an air crash—one of the Watergate people not right in the building, but made up the plot, the plan, such as it was—he doesn’t say do it so that he’ll lie under oath. He never asked for that particular. I mean, there just isn’t much evidence that Nixon did anything to justify the horrible treatment he got, but, unfortunately, for reasons that we will never know and although we’re all unlicensed psychiatrists, none of us can speculate about it knowledgably, he, in effect, cooperated with his enemies because uncharacteristically for men with such an acute sense of self-preservation, he bundled the investigation. But, can I just say this, in 1969, when he was inaugurated, there were 550,000 draftees in Vietnam, coming back 200 to 400 each week in body bags. No one really knew what they were doing there. There was no goal of victory. There was no definition of the national interest that was particularly plausible. There were no relations with the Chinese or the major Arab powers. There was no peace process in the Middle East. There was no armed control discuss going on; nothing productive with the Russians. There were riots everywhere in the country, all over: race riots, antiwar riots, assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, skyjackings—the country was in shambles. And four years later, he’d extracted the United States completely from Vietnam with well-preserving and noncommunist government in Saigon, signed the greatest arms-control agreement in history with the Soviet Union, which reestablished American superiority by the way, opened relations with China, had started a peace process in the Middle East, abolished the draft, stopped the assassinations, stopped the riots, stopped the skyjackings, ended segregation—ended it; got no credit for that—and founded the environmental protection agency and the people reelected him by a margin that’s never been equaled before since—18 million votes because he was a very good president. Now he had his faults, but he was a very good president and let’s do justice. That’s all I was trying to write.
Mohler: Well I think you did it very convincingly, as a matter of fact, and, of course, your major theme in that book, at least by the time you come to the analysis at the end, is that to a degree probably not matched by any other modern-American politician, he genuinely reflected the American people.
Black: He liked to go bowling and he liked to watch Archie Bunker on TV and he liked football and things like that. And that wasn’t the entire Nixon. He was a man who knew two hundred concertos, for example, on the piano, but he couldn’t read music. He memorized them all, which is astonishing. I mean, he was a very average person up to a point and then beyond that point, he was an extremely brilliant person, but he was complicated. But he was a very considerable president. He was an uneven president, but a very considerable one.
Mohler: Well, all I will say in affirmation of that is that when I first read his book, written when he was vice president, entitled, Six Crises, that’s just an eye-opening view into the mind of a man who had immense world experience and wisdom before he ever came to the White House as you unfortunately compare that with more recent presidents who have arrived with hardly any foreign policy experience at all.
Black: And that remains one of the finest political memoirs written by any American president; one of the very best.
Mohler: Lord Black, it has been a privilege to discuss your most recent book, Flight of the Eagle. It may seem a bit greedy, but, at the same time, I think it’s appropriate to ask, what’s next in terms of your literary interests?
Black: Well I’m re-launching my commercial and media career. We’re just starting a television program up here in Canada, which I think actually may be available in the US after a few months, but whether it will attract any viewers or not is something else again. But, in terms of writing, I’m writing something that’s probably not of much interest to your listeners, but there is some need for it up here. I’m writing a history of Canada because I don’t think it’s been done in one volume in a way that’s accessible to readers who are interested in history but want a reasonably interesting read. The ones that are available are perfectly rigorous and fair, but terribly, terribly turgid and difficult to read.
Mohler: I have to tell you one other thing. You, on the one hand, and Judge Richard Posner, on the other hand, absolutely intimidate to the rest of us, I think, in terms of the fact that you both have completely full lives. Judge Posner is a federal judge and you in terms of massive business interests, and, yet, you found the time over the course of less than twenty years to write three massive and very well-respected books. I’m tempted as a final and rather selfish question to ask, how is the world do you do this?
Black: Well I write relatively quickly and I’m afraid I’m not the greatest model of engaging in sporting activities. I take a bit of exercise just to keep reasonably fit, but when other people are playing golf or even playing cards or something, I like to go to a nice dinner party with friends and have good conversations. Apart from that, I—in this one area I agree with Richard Posner. He is a man with whom I have had an exceedingly unsatisfactory encounter, but he wrote, I believe, in that famous interview, or at least the sketch of him, in The New Yorker magazine about twelve or thirteen years ago that he invited people in for dinner once a week and the rest of the time he thought he learned more staying at home and reading and writing. And I’m afraid I’m a bit like that.
Mohler: That sounds very much like Machiavelli in The Prince, who said that he had to deal with people he really didn’t care to deal with all day, but then he would go home, bathe, dine, change into his finest clothes, and go into his library to have a conversation with men that mattered. That sounds very similar.
Black: I like most people and I find everybody has their story to tell, so I am happy to be quite convivial and social, but not all the time. And I’m just trying to organize a balance here that keeps me active in the areas I’m interested in, but it’s a crowded schedule and I often find it hard to get everything done.
Mohler: Lord Black, thank you so much for this conversation and thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
Black: Well thank you, Dr. Mohler, very much for your very gracious reception of me. I hope our paths cross again.
Mohler: There are certain questions that simply loom large in terms of our intellectual environment. And one of them is, or certainly ought to be, how the United States emerged as the leading nation in the world that it is, often described as the world’s only superpower. We were able to talk with Conrad Black about only a very small portion of his argument. Perhaps the portion, however, that is least known to most living Americans; that portion that speaks of America in the Colonial Era working with the British at the expense of the French, and then with the French at the expense of the British in order to emerge as a nation.
But Conrad Black speaks as an outsider, as a friend of America, but as one who was raised in Canada and is now a British citizen and a member of the British House of Lords. He writes about America from a perspective of some critical distance, but also some very obvious affection and tremendous respect. What he writes about, however, is that America as it progressed through several distinct stages or phases toward its projection on the world stage was also brought to that point not only by the external events and the context, the demographics, the economic factors, and all the rest, but by very significant leaders. Leaders he writes about with tremendous insight.
At the very top of that list is George Washington. At the beginning of this story, he’s only twenty-two years old, but by the end of the story, he is known internationally as an iconic symbol of what it means to stand for freedom, for liberty, and for constitutional government. But he is also a man who arrived on the world scene making a tremendous impact by his character and his integrity and, if nothing else, his willingness to step away from an office like the presidency of the United States, an office that didn’t exist until he was its first incumbent, and go back to private life. Nothing quite like that had happened in the entire history of the world until George Washington did it.
To be honest, I gained a new appreciation for Benjamin Franklin and his role in America’s emergence as a nation by reading Conrad Black’s narrative and, I have to say, that I am in fundamental agreement with him in terms of his assessment of Thomas Jefferson, a man of unquestioned brilliance, but of erratic political temperament and sometimes downright dangerous ideas. One of the patterns he makes clear in his book is that when America was most vulnerable it was vulnerable largely because of the absence of the kind of leadership the nation needed at the time. But, as he writes, when America needed a specific quality of leader the most, that leader tended to arrive on the scene.
After Washington, the next leader to arrive in that sequence is Abraham Lincoln, and Conrad Black offers some revisionist, but not cynical observations about Abraham Lincoln and his greatness, a greatness that is reflected not only in the United State, but on the world scene. And he credits Lincoln with offering the national leadership to allow America to resolve that time bomb that had been imbedded at the very core of its existence from its founding and that was the problem of slavery.
I appreciate very much his very honest evaluations of men like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, as well as his insights about presidents such as Grover Cleveland, but I think that many American readers will find the book most interesting in terms of when it picks up in the history that is most recent, and that is, of course, World War II and the years that followed. That’s where Conrad Black also gets to write about at least two men that he had written about so extensively in times past, and those are Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Milhous Nixon. Both of his biographies on those men, by the way, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard Nixon: A Life in Full, those are very much worth your reading. As a matter of fact, it is hard to argue that Black’s biography of Richard Nixon has ever been exceeded and his biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is just a tremendous read. In his most recent book, Flight of the Eagle, Conrad Black offers insights in every chapter and many of these could come, I think, only from someone who is not an American. For instance, in writing about Ronald Reagan, a man he describes as one of the most astonishing men ever to be elected president, he includes the very interesting observation that we see America’s role in the world in a new way and Ronald Reagan’s role in it as well when you look at his funeral. At President Reagan’s funeral, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher both spoke. Interestingly, Conrad Black notes that was the first time foreign heads of government had ever spoken at the funeral of an American head of state.
One of the responsibilities of the intelligent Christian is to attempt at all times to come to a better understanding of the world around us. The world as it is, the world as it was, and the world as it is soon likely to be. Books such as Conrad Black’s Flight of the Eagle assist us greatly in this and even where readers may disagree with points of assessment or evaluation offered by the author, they’re likely to think better thoughts simply by the fact that they have been forced to think about some arguments in order themselves to think more clearly. Christians reading a book like the Flight of the Eagle may come across another very interesting observation. Even secular historians tend to use profoundly unsecular language. When Conrad Black writes of the United States as “the predestined nation,” he does intend to use that word in the secular context, but it only has secular meaning because it had a previously understood theological meaning. Perhaps one insight from all of this is that even secular historians trying to write in entirely secular terms can’t avoid entirely what can only be described as a providential understanding of history. And there is no question of world political history that more defies the attempt to speak in non-providential language than the story of the emergence of the United States of America as a nation and on the world scene.
In a final observation, every conversation on Thinking in Public is interesting in its own way. In that light, it was interesting to talk to a man who has had a titanic role in terms of international business and no small role in terms of international controversy. He’s known to some as a figure of political controversy and to others as a man who has faced titanic legal challenges, but, and this is the point, in spite of all of these challenges, he’s the author of three very important books, each one of them worth our consideration and our conversation.
Thanks again to my guest, Lord Conrad Black, for thinking with me today. Before I close, I want to invite you to join us on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on Tuesday, October 29th, through Thursday, October 31st, for the Expositor’s Summit 2013. This year’s Expositor’s Summit aims to contribute to the health of local churches by restoring the primacy of expository preaching in the pulpit. Preachers, pastors, students, and all who love the Scriptures are invited to hear H.B. Charles, Jr. and Alistair Begg who will join me as keynote speakers at this Word-driven event.
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.