Conrad Black on his strategic history of the U.S.

In conversation with Brian Bethune on his new book, America’s best presidents—and his take on China

Conrad Black on America’s best presidents—and his take on China

Photograph by Christopher Wahl

Conrad Black— British peer and American felon, former newspaper baron and current newspaper columnist—is also the author of two erudite and distinguished biographies of U.S. presidents. Now he’s turned to the broader sweep of the American story with Flight of the Eagle: A Strategic History of the United States. Black, who has already begun a history of Canada, wanted to correct what he saw as a common notion: that America, when it wasn’t being what Richard Nixon called a “pitiful, helpless giant,” was a happy, oblivious one, blundering its way through world history.

Q: Discussion of strategy is normally restricted to military or foreign affairs. What distinguishes a strategic history? Why write it?

A: My effort was to write something different in the vast literature on the history of the United States—if you can’t bring anything to that, you shouldn’t bother. But I think there is a widespread view that the United States just grew and grew as a power because it had half of a rich continent and attracted immigrants and it just happened. There’s some truth to that. But it still wouldn’t have happened if American statesmen had not taken, at decisive points, very important and often imaginative and courageous decisions.

Q: You make a very good case for how two of the founders—Benjamin Franklin and George Washington—in particular had a far-seeing strategic vision.

A: They were the main strategists, the ones who realized the historical trends were with them—more than a fifth of British subjects already lived in America, and the demographic future was America’s. Jefferson was a genius propagandist but he wasn’t a strategist, and Madison was a wonderful Constitution writer but he wasn’t even a particularly good president. Hamilton set up the Treasury and the financial institutions brilliantly and foresaw the economy, but he was odd. Great ability but uneven, whereas Washington was a steady pair of hands, a capable, distinguished man. Franklin we often think of as whimsical and amusing and a brilliant inventor, but he was one of the great diplomatic manoeuvrers in history. He should rank with Richelieu and Bismarck and Metternich and Talleyrand: a diplomatic genius. For him to persuade France—a country where nothing resembling a parliament had met for 160 years—to go to war with Britain on behalf of republicanism, secessionism and democracy, which effectively bankrupted the country and brought down the monarchy and sent them all to the guillotine, was an astounding achievement. As soon as Franklin had what he wanted—what he and Washington wanted—from the British, he ditched the French. They didn’t get anything out of that war.

Q: The period between the War of 1812 and 1865, however, can raise doubt about the very idea of American strategy. You write about the “strategic challenge” of those years—to preserve the union—not the strategic thinking.

A: Only in part. We’re really talking about president Andrew Jackson—did he have a strategy? And was it furthered by his most assiduous continuator, James K. Polk? The majority of Americans wouldn’t be aware that they had a president with that rather odd name, but Polk was a very able man, and a very successful president, and they owe the statehood of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah and Colorado to him. The original constitutional deal—going back to Jefferson and Madison—was, “We will accept slavery in this country but it will stay, as it turned out with the Missouri Compromise of 1821, in the South.” Jackson added, “We’ll do that, and the federal government will protect slavery, and it will flourish in that area, but we will not tolerate secession.” He threatened to hang his [secession-friendly] vice-president. Now, when Jackson made that threat, governor Hayne of South Carolina said to senator Thomas Hart Benton, “Surely the president is exaggerating,” and Benton replied, “I’ve known Gen. Jackson a great many years, and when he speaks of hanging it’s time to look for rope.” Jackson was a prickly, difficult man, and he did some terrible things. I mean, he tore up the Indian treaties, he transported them forcibly to the West, and 250,000 died. But he did keep his country going for 30 years.

Q: Was Jackson a slave owner?

A: He was—he actually thought it was a good thing—so that is why I wrote that I don’t think he was particularly trying to keep things going until the non-slave states were strong enough to suppress the slave states, if they attempted an insurrection. I don’t think he thought in those terms, though that was the result, but he did think in terms of the preservation of the union and the absolute unacceptability of secession by anybody, slave or non-slave state. So there was an element of strategy, but an element of inadvertence, too. Polk carried it on. I think in some ways Polk, because he was a younger man, had a better knowledge of what was really happening than Jackson did, in terms of the [non-slave part of the] country growing until eventually secessionism and slavery could be dealt with.

Q: The obscure Polk is not the only instance where you were unusual in your presidential rankings. You seemed to downgrade Ike Eisenhower a bit, and you give John F. Kennedy the benefit of the doubt for what he might have done.

A: No, no, I thought I was pretty good with Ike. Eisenhower was actually a distinguished president; I would rate him as one of the second-ranked group of unusually talented (if you accept there are three or four great presidents). But the ones I would put there also who would be thought a bit unusual would be Polk and Nixon. Nixon’s presidency ended badly but he was a very able president and accomplished a tremendous amount. As for Kennedy, he was an attractive president, and he was right on civil rights. He came to it late, but he was right on it. I suspect that he would not have been drawn into Vietnam like Johnson was, but we don’t know.

Q: There’s a kind of a tension—or maybe better to say a two-pronged approach—in your book right from the first sentence: “The long, swift rise of America.”

A: Yeah, both long and swift. I had my American editor, who’s a very brilliant man, say, “Isn’t that contradictory?” I replied, “No, it isn’t. It’s been a swift ascent but it’s also been a long ascent.”

Q: But it nicely illustrates the two flight paths you discuss very well. America has always been favoured by circumstances, but it’s also needed a fair bit of luck.

A: And they had to face the music, sometimes. They only preserved the union after a war in which 750,000 people were killed and five of the states were smashed to rubble and scorched to ashes. It was not a pretend war. There has been a lot of violence in American history, even in contemporary things like the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Even the gay rights issue, I mean, Harvey Milk, the city commissioner in San Francisco, was assassinated. It is a comparatively violent nation. Not compared to Germany or Russia, but to Canada, for instance.

Q: Where luck plays the biggest role in American history in your account is in unlikely leaders at unlikely moments—unlikely in both senses, “Who are these guys?” and “How did they get through our political system?” You need to have the cunning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which is almost off the charts . . .

A: They retired the trophy after him. He was the all-time champion of political manoeuvre in the democratic world.

Q: . . . Plus a moral vision. But don’t all lucky streaks come to an end?

A: Well, my reason for optimism about America is not that I disagree that lucky streaks come to an end but that I’m placing my bet—and very consciously—that another truism is more applicable; namely, that a system that works will go on working. I don’t think it is exactly a lucky streak that the U.S. does get great leaders when it needs them. I think there’s some ineluctable element in the way the country functions, the national mentality and the governmental system, that the prize is so great to be president of the U.S. and the level of American patriotism—no matter how aerated it is with collective self-delusion at times—is so motivating that even though you can’t prove it from the people who have contested the office recently, you will get a number of exceedingly capable people running for it and being elected to it, even and perhaps especially if their talents are unsuspected. I mean, absolutely nobody expected either Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt to be particularly good presidents.

Q: Do you stand with Winston Churchill, then, that the U.S. can always be counted on to do the right thing, once it has exhausted all the alternatives?

A: I don’t share that resigned view that Americans will take an inordinate length of time to do the right thing. I think actually they’ve conducted their affairs, in general, as intelligently—or more intelligently—than any European power, including the British. All sorts of absurd and corrupt things have happened—and it is quite a corrupt country by British standards—and it has many foibles that are more or less endearing, but I think the rise of America makes a powerful case that they have played their cards quite well. Now, I don’t think that since the Soviet challenge stopped and the Cold War ended that they’ve yet figured out how to do things right, and I think they’ve made some serious mistakes. The U.S. led the free world to victory in the Cold War, and democracy and the market economy have spread throughout much of the world, and we have the Americans to thank for that. But the irony is I don’t think the United States is a very well-functioning democracy now.

Q: Is it even a liberal democracy?

A: There’s room for argument about that. But in fact it isn’t exceptional other than in matters of scale. The scale of that country is still extraordinary—a $17-trillion economy and over 40 metropolitan areas with more than a million people in them. It’s a very big, powerful country. And terribly America-centric. You can understand it up to a point, but there’s an element of narcissism about it. I find Americans are quite tolerant of foreigners, more than the British are, for example, but they’re not interested in them.

Q: You wrote that the 1856 election was distinguished by candidates “utterly inadequate” to the task before them. Did that put you in mind of 2012?

A: In fairness, it was worse in 1856. President Obama is clearly a very clever man and he has some qualities of leadership. Now, I don’t think he’s been a very effective President, but he can’t just be dismissed. And Romney, not a very capable candidate, has a somewhat impressive CV as a man.

Q: Over a century ago serious statesmen like Lord Salisbury and Bismarck considered the rise of America as the single most important geopolitical fact of their time. Should their successors today be thinking the same of China?

A: Not really. Obviously China has to be respected and it would be an insane statesman who treated China in a cavalier way, or didn’t take it seriously, but China is not going to fast-track its way into world leadership the way conventional wisdom holds. They still have half their population living like they did 3,000 years ago, and they don’t have political structures that really work. Ultimately everything depends on the army. No one really knows what’s going on there. And it’s still largely a command economy, without social services for the population, so they have to have a very high savings rate because the Chinese know that no one is going to take care of them in their old age. They’re not optimists like Americans. Americans are chronically optimistic, which is a strength most of the time but not always, but the Chinese don’t really believe it, you know? They’ve seen it all before. Nixon and Henry Kissinger both told me that every time they saw Mao Zedong at any formal occasion they would propose a toast to him and to Zhou Enlai as people who had changed the lives of a quarter of the population of the world, and Mao would always reply, “No, no, no, the premier and I have changed the lives perhaps of a few people in the suburbs of Beijing, but nobody changes China.”

Q: You discuss the recurrent moral panics Americans have, including the war on drugs.

A: That’s just a political gasconade, a shambles. There are over a million incarcerated people in the U.S., almost all of them for Mickey Mouse offences—you know, driving a truck with marijuana. There are 48 million Americans with criminal records. Now, about 20 million or more of them are driving under the influence 10 years ago, or being disorderly at a fraternity party 25 years ago—not the sort of thing that would influence anybody into wondering, “Will I hire this man?” But it’s still on their records, and even if they expunged all those, the total would still be over 20 million. There aren’t 20 million criminals in the U.S.! The ones who end up in prison sit there like zombies and then go back not empowered to do anything to earn a livable amount of money than the sort of conduct that got them in there in the first place. That’s if they’re actually guilty of anything, which you can’t necessarily presume.

Q: Given what you call the “carceral nation” and the role of money in politics, do you think the Americans need some serious changes to their 200-year-old Constitution?

A: Yeah, I do. I don’t think it’s working well now. To start with they’ve got to restore individual liberties. Their whole claim to being the land of the free is the Bill of Rights, and it’s been put to the shredder. For notorious reasons I could wax quite declarative on this subject and I won’t inflict that on you, but the fifth, sixth, eighth amendments have all gone over the side. That’s what American exceptionalism has come down to. But you’re right about the money. I’m a capitalist, money doesn’t embarrass me—you know capitalism is the only system that works because it’s the only one that’s aligned to people’s desire for more. But we’ve got to try and work around it and channel it into ways that are as constructive as we can. But, that said, you know, emergency waiting rooms in hospitals are full of hustlers trying to harvest organs, and congressmen and senators are fundraising virtually every night of every week. Elections are so expensive—a billion dollars for each presidential candidate. This is nonsense.