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Blood, Class and Empire
The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship
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BLOOD, CLASS AND EMPIRE
In the United States, it is considered extremely insulting to say of somebody that he or she is “history.” To be told “You’re history” is to be condemned as a has-been. I know of no other country that has this everyday dismissal in its idiom. But then, I know of no other country that has such a great weakness for things that originate in England—the has-been country par excellence. (A British person, seeking to be extremely self-deprecating about something in his or her own past, might say modestly and dismissively, “But that’s all ancient history.” I trust the distinction is plain.)
In fact, no nation can quite do without a stock of historical and mythical and semi-literary reference, and the United States is anything but an exception. It has a powerful need for evocations of grandeur, which makes it the more noticeable that, when reaching for such necessary evocations, it so often ignores its own past and letters. On a surprising number of occasions, the preferred imagery is derived from England, and from the British Empire. Often, those who deal in this rhetoric are public figures who dare not risk an obscure or a confusing allusion, and who presumably have reason to think (if only because their advisers tell them so) that these points of reference are familiar and customary. Even as I was writing this book, on these themes, my attention was caught by a bizarre little exchange in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington. On December 9, 1986, I was following the first public appearance made by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who was in the process of igniting a huge national debate about secret government, overseas intervention, American will, and—descending abruptly to bathos—his own decision to plead the Fifth Amendment. Two California congressmen, Robert Dornan and Mervyn Dymally, had a verbal exchange as North was completing his bombastic and contradictory testimony. His own voice almost as gravid with emotion as North’s had been, Congressman Dornan hailed the errant soldier:
Then I have just one observation. Almost a century ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote a rather tragic poem about the ingratitude of all peoples toward their military forces in time of peacetime, and I will just paraphrase the first of six lines: “He is Ollie this and he is Ollie that. Get him out of here, the brute. But he is the savior of his country when the guns begin to shoot.” Thank you for your service, Colonel North.
MR. DYMALLY: Will the gentleman yield?
MR. DORNAN: I will be glad to yield.
MR. DYMALLY: There is another line: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow the night, the day thou canst be false to any man.”
The fascinating thing about both these impromptu West Coast interjections (Representative Dornan, a farouche Orange County right-winger, may have polished his a little beforehand) was not the mangling of the quotations but the relative accuracy with which they were rendered. True,~Kipling’s “Tommy”—though no tragedy—is one of his better-known doggerels, and not even Allan Bloom would claim that Polonius is no longer taught in schools. But it seemed automatic for these two legislators to reach for these tags when debating about matters of empire, war, and destiny. This is a supreme, if oblique, compliment to the depth at which the so-called special relationship between the two countries and cultures operates and obtains.
Although it is expressed in idealistic terms and based upon a carefully cleansed reading of “history,” this relationship is really at bottom a transmission belt by which British conservative ideas have infected America, the better to be retransmitted to England. The process of transmission has been made easier, admittedly, by those Americans who are themselves receptive to the temptations of thinking with the blood, or the temptations of empire, or the temptations of class and caste superiority. But it was always in the British mind to press these ideas upon them. If you want to know what, and how, people really think, then catch them talking in private during wartime. Here is what British Security Coordination, the special organ of Winston Churchill and Sir William Stephenson (“The Man Called Intrepid”), wrote in its secret history of the campaign to mold American thinking between 1939 and 1945:
In planning its campaign, it was necessary for BSC to remember the simple truth that the United States, a sovereign entity of comparatively recent birth, is inhabited by people of many conflicting races, interests and creeds. These people, though fully conscious of their wealth and power in the aggregate, are still unsure of themselves individually, still basically on the defensive and still striving, as yet unavailingly but very defiantly, after national unity and indeed after some logical grounds for considering themselves a nation in the racial sense.
British self-confidence about American vulnerability on these scores was based on a careful appreciation of “history” and upon the old and trusted verities of blood—the very tie they had been exploiting since Kipling. With the advantage of ethnic solidarity and homogeneity, and with an instinct for social hierarchy and “the right people,” the British Establishment was enabled to fight at far beyond its own weight, and to behave for some time as if it controlled a much larger country than it really did.
But, having inculcated imperial habits and disciplines into their larger, clumsier cousin, the British had in time to accept that they, too, could be manipulated. The self-congratulatory tone of BSC in the 1940s is matched if not surpassed by another secret memorandum, this one from the 1960s. It is Richard Neustadt’s report to President Lyndon Johnson, written in July 1964, about the possibility of taming and domesticating an incoming British Labor government. Neustadt had been talking to the right people in London, and knew his Harold Wilson. He proposed some intensive ego-stroking on a forthcoming Washington visit that Wilson was to pay:
Numbers of things can be done on the cheap to avoid shocking his sensibilities. For one, the President might ask for his advice on a short list of replacements for David Bruce. For another, Averell Harriman might figure prominently among his hosts. . . . It will be worth our while to ease the path for Wilson, pay him a good price.
It is amusing and ironic to see an American plan to use the embrace of American aristocracy—the Bruce-Harriman Georgetown network—to captivate an untutored British politician. But such is the nature of the special relationship. Nor was this all. Emulating the British tactic with America, Neustadt proposed to his President that use be made of domestic British sympathizers. As he boasted:
What follows has been drawn from conversations with politicians (mainly Wilson, Gordon Walker, Healey, Brown, Mulley, Jenkins—and Heath), with officials (mainly Hardman, Cary, Palliser, Armstrong, Bligh) and with spectators (mainly Gwynne-Jones, Buchan, Beedham, Duchene). Before I left, I swapped appraisals at our Embassy with Bruce, Irving and Newman.
Neustadt here demonstrated a very shrewd knowledge of the inside track that runs between the Foreign Office, The Economist, the stately home think-tank at Ditchley Park, and Grosvenor Square. Since the central matter was the securing of continued British conformity with American nuclear policy, it was essential for Neustadt to be exact. In fact, he was well equipped by these conversations to be prescient. Noting that Wilson wanted to be viewed in his own Cabinet as “first brains-truster on the model, he says, of JFK,” he minuted:
When officials get their hands on the new Ministers, Foreign Office briefs presumably will urge affirmative response to us (assuming we stand firm) and then hard bargaining about terms and conditions. Assuming Gordon Walker is the Foreign Secretary (he almost certainly will be) I expect he will submit with little struggle. . . . Assuming Denis Healey is Defense Secretary (he seems confident he will be), his own interest in a mission East of Suez (and in sales of British aircraft), his mistrust of continentals, his disdain for MLF, comport well with the bulk of these official views.
Seeking to massage British pride over the loss of sovereignty in nuclear matters, Neustadt first stressed the main point, which was that there could be talk of Atlantic consultation on strategy and policy “up to the final decision on the trigger, which is yours and must remain so.” Having thus reassured LBJ, he suggested some easy reassurance to the Brits: “some symbols both for public satisfaction and for Gordon Walker’s amour propre (to say nothing of Wilson’s). Symbolically, if there are British colonels now at Omaha, could we have them ostentatiously replaced by generals?”
At one level, this is ordinary Washington “bottom line” talk. At another, though, it is the distilled essence of a “special relationship” that has been built up in an ad hoc fashion to suit the needs— sometimes contrasting, sometimes harmonious—of two elites. The hypocrisies of this marriage of convenience have often been occluded, at least partially, by an apparent cultural and linguistic familiarity. (Even Neustadt employed Kipling’s famous phrase “East of Suez” as if it were natural to him.) This is evident whether one is considering—as I shall be—the relationship in its thermonuclear, its racial, its imperial, its espionage, or its poetic aspects. The rituals of Anglo-Americanism and Anglo-Saxondom, so often unexamined, reveal the subtext of this mutual manipulation, and suggest that the English connection has been used to seduce and corrupt America, the better to suborn itself. This is “history,” and not all that ancient either.
On a smoggy evening in the spring of 1989, I found myself standing under the palms of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, outside the ornate ugliness of the Beverly Hilton Hotel. This was one of many incongruous locations where I had pondered the question: What is it that explains the special place occupied by Englishness in the American imagination? That evening, Ronald Reagan was due to receive the Winston Churchill Award at the hands of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and the consort to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The master of ceremonies was to be Bob Hope, assisted by Rosemary Clooney. In this labyrinth of clashing images, I hoped to find a few intelligible threads.
The Beverly Hilton is owned by Merv Griffin, and its ballroom was for years the setting of the Academy Awards dinner. At first, the evening looks like any other tuxedoed rally of California show biz, with the paparazzi shouting questions at celebrities from behind a police line. But tonight, when these celebrities reply automatically that they are “excited,” they are replying to a different question. Here comes Marvin Davis, head of 20th Century-Fox and, if not a big noise in the oil industry, certainly a very loud report. When he tells the boys he’s “wild about it,” it’s because they have asked him: “How does it feel to be dining with Royalty?” Of course, by “Royalty” the celebrity-hardened Los Angeles reporters could mean Princess Caroline of Monaco, or some princeling of the Gulf whose tankers bear the American flag, or King Juan Carlos of Spain. But there is an unspoken capital R which comes with British Royalty; the cachet of the real thing. Combine this with the evergreen and potent name of Churchill, and you have blue-chip Anglo-Americanism on its highest deportment.
There is a deal of received wisdom about this blue-chip status, which derives itself from solemn and sound observations about the common blood, common language, shared history, and recognizably similar institutions that span the Atlantic and the years. This, preeminently, is to be an evening of reaffirmed speechifying along such well-established lines. The Churchill Foundation, a coalition of American businessmen which is hosting this weighty soirée, is only one part of a nexus of scholarships, trusts, foundations, and institutions devoted to the care and feeding of what the British— but no longer the Americans—are still given to calling the “special relationship.” An educated American knows, when prompted, that his country’s “oldest ally” is France. Many Americans, if given a word-association test for “special relationship,” would probably reply “Israel.” Yet there is something to the texture of mixed affections and impressions, summarized in the frequent use of the phrase “the Old Country,” or even, in sentimental moments, “the Mother Country,” that reserves the British a singular place.
For one of the many mutations of this Anglo-Americanism, one need search no further than the Beverly Hilton’s bar. On a ground floor, only a few yards from the neon and deco of Wilshire Boulevard, and wisely screened from all natural light, one discovers the Red Lion. Here, the simulacrum of an English country pub or “snug” has been lovingly faked. In the bogus grate burns a phony, heatless log fire. Beer pumps draw up franchised, tasteless American lagers with German names. Unconvincing paneling combines with rounded and “aged” wooden tables and chairs to sham the dingy atmosphere of a “Dickensian” alehouse as shown off to willing American tourists. (Eight time-zone hours ahead, in London, any pub with a trace of Sam Weller or Mr. Pickwick is being hurriedly converted into an L.A.-style cocktail bar.)
There are pubs like this, often in airport terminals for some reason, that demonstrate the strength of British traditional imagery all over America. The word “tradition” is in fact the key to an appreciation of Brit kitsch. Evelyn Waugh, on an earlier exploration of the special relationship and its Los Angeles dimension, did very well with the Church of St. Peter-Without-the-Walls, created by the visionary Dr. Kenworthy to lend tone to his Whispering Glades burial plaza:
For this is more than a replica, it is a reconstruction. A building-again of what those old craftsmen sought to do with their rude implements of by-gone ages. Time has worked its mischief on the beautiful original. Here you see it as the first builders dreamed of it long ago.
Later dreamers have improved on Dr. Kenworthy, by importing the Queen Mary and London Bridge to American climes.
Quitting the Red Lion for the ballroom is exchanging a poor microcosm of Anglo-American fellowship for the full-dress reproduction of all its most distinctive features. The ceremonial part of the dinner begins with Walter Annenberg, former Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s and formerly indicted newspaper tycoon, giving the toast to the House of Windsor. With unusual unction and deference, he insists on giving it the full title of “The Loyal Toast”; a mark of etiquette which would make him appear ostentatious even among English royalists. In reply, Prince Philip proposes the health of the President of the United States.
Then come the national anthems, played by a smart Marine band. “God Save the Queen” commends itself, as usual, for its brevity and is, after all, the selfsame tune as the American standby “My Country Tis of Thee.” “The Star-Spangled Banner” takes longer. Written in 1814 after its author, Francis Scott Key, had watched the British bombard Fort McHenry in Baltimore on their way to burn Washington, it has a third verse which is increasingly omitted from official printings. Referring to the British, it declares: “Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.” It goes on to say:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.
As a slight salve to British honor in the squalid matter of 1814, the music to the national anthem was composed by an Englishman named John Stafford Smith, who lived between 1750 and 1836. We have, alas, lost his original words, though the song was called “To Anacreon in Heaven” and was meant as a ditty for a young men’s drinking club, in a tavern as unlike the Beverly Hilton’s Red Lion as it is possible to imagine.
Since Ronald Wilson Reagan is no longer President, we are spared a rendition of “Hail to the Chief,” the words of which were taken from a ballad by Sir Walter Scott in The Lady of the Lake, and set to music by the Englishman James Sanderson. But we do get the Marine Hymn, one of the few official American ditties to which English people seem to know the words. Expressing as it does the first American ambition to be as far-flung as the coast of Libya and the heart of Mexico, it answers to some chord in the British breast; perhaps confirming that the errant former colony could still recognize the right colonial and martial stuff when it saw it.
The ex-Chief, Ronald Reagan, is only the fourth person to be honored by the Churchill Foundation. Previous recipients have been W. Averell Harriman (a mandarin among foreign service mandarins and a special confidant of the Atlanticist class as well as a relation by marriage of the Churchill family), H. Ross Perot, and Margaret Thatcher. Perot, who is usually described by nervous subeditors as “the eccentric Texas billionaire,” has run a foreign policy all his own on the gross revenues of innumerable corporations, and could by a stretch be said to have that odd word “swashbuckling” in common with Sir Winston.
Prince Philip, the social centerpiece of the night’s events, is in fact following in his son’s footsteps as a bridge builder of the “special relationship.” Prince Charles was the one who put the Churchill medallion around the neck of H. Ross Perot in 1986, and he also can claim to have bestowed the royal warrant upon Mr. and Mrs. Walter Annenberg. In their protracted struggle to acquire the patina of “class” for their operations and for their many charities and promotions, they have found the patronage of the Prince of Wales to be essential and continuous. When she was Ronald Reagan’s chief of protocol, Mrs. Annenberg once so far forgot herself as to curtsy publicly to Charles when greeting him at Andrews Air Force Base; an impromptu gesture of fealty that did minor damage to the stipulations of the American Constitution and which led to some growling from those who still remember the United States as a republic.
In Los Angeles at any rate, visiting British crowned heads get, as it were, two bites at the cherry. They can appear in the vestments of former British glory and pageantry, much as they do elsewhere, and represent the astonishing historic continuity of the United Kingdom. But they also constitute a uniquely appetizing morsel for those who live by the codes of stardom and who hunger for a star with “class” and magic. I found this out for myself by making an appearance on Sonia Live, the upbeat bicoastal chat show hosted by Sonia Friedman and transmitted on the Cable News Network with the Hollywood logo in the background. In front of a primetime audience of daytime viewers, I was asked to comment on the Charles and Diana marriage, and the rumors of its impending breakup. When I said that I thought the whole thing was a press bonanza, and that the obsession with monarchy was beginning to bore even the British, the tempestuous Sonia was appalled. “Mister Hitchens,” she intoned in reproof, “how can you sit there with that lovely English accent and say such a thing? That wedding was a fairy tale for all of us here.” It was as if I had offended a specifically Californian household god. Which in a way, I had. In 1988 it was announced that Princess Diana had been, by a large margin, the woman most often featured on the covers of American magazines in the course of that year. One could scarcely enter a supermarket without seeing her photograph on the rack, or barely utter a sentence in an English accent without inviting friendly inquiries about her. Across a swath of the imagination of America, it seemed, England was understood principally as the home of the Windsors; a sort of theme park for royal activities and romances. Without the monarchy, ran the unstated question, what would be the point of the old country?
This attitude, to which the British embassy defers as a matter of course, was amply catered for in November 1985, when Prince Charles and his bride paid an official visit to Washington. The much-hyped joint appearance was timed to coincide with an immense exhibition, “Treasure Houses of Britain,” at the National Gallery of Art. Taken together, the Prince and Princess and the country-house trove could have been designed to reinforce the impression of Britain as a museum run by people of a certain faint breeding, a museum, moreover, uniquely accessible to monied Americans. I can still recall the half-embarrassed frenzy which seized the nation’s capital in the days before the momentous opening; the pseudo-debutante flurry of “coveted invitations,” protocol crises, and etiquette hysteria.
Republican values were the loser in this carnival. The British Tourist Authority inserted a special supplement, consisting of one hundred and sixteen pages, into The Washington Post, in which the first paragraph misidentified John Adams as the third President of the United States. This did nothing to quell the general enthusiasm. The “Style” section of the Post forgot itself completely at the reception for the country-house owners, writing: “With guests like the Duke of Bedford and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the wave of Anglophilia continued to wash over the town. After all, laughed Chinese ambassador Han Xu, ‘they were here before.’ ‘I think Washington has always been Anglophile—since Churchill,’ said Clare Boothe Luce. ‘I think we’re all Anglophiles,’ noted Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin. ‘How can we fail to be Anglophiles? Unless we hate ourselves.’ ” (In 1961, Mr. Boorstin published a celebrated book called The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.)
John Adams (the second President of the United States) wrote to Thomas Jefferson in July 1813: “I read in Greek a couplet, the sense of which was ‘Nobility in men is worth as much as it is in horses, asses or rams; but the meanest blooded puppy in the world, if he gets a little money, is as good a man as the best of them.’ ”
In reply Jefferson, the third President of the United States, wrote: “The passage you quote . . . has an ethical rather than a political object. I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. . . . There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.”
This correspondence might as well never have been written for all that Georgetown could have cared during that week. Gushed the Post in still another special spread: “Susan Mary Alsop, Senator Jay Rockefeller, Katharine Graham, Evangeline Bruce, philanthropist Ethel Garrett and Washington doyenne Polly Fritchey— there may not be titles before these names, but they are Washington’s social nobility, the kind of people who don’t pay a couple of pounds to visit the Treasure Houses; they stay there as guests. It will be old money, old power, old china and lots of familiar faces.” The echo of “social mobility” in the tautology “social nobility” is very, very distant.
But note, again, the latent connection between British “style” and American “class.” The existing Georgetown aristocracy, already heavily inflected with Anglophilia, so to speak recertifies itself as aristocratic by its ease of access, not to an exhibition about stately homes but to the homes themselves. Thus, between the cult of vulgar celebrity and the cult of wellborn good taste, the English have the rather maddening ability to score twice. They can produce genuine dukes and real lineages to set against Dynasty, that most suggestively named soap opera. They can also produce a princess who eats lunch with John Travolta and Donald Trump, and a presenter named Robin Leach for that great yearning, fawning, televised exercise Life Styles of the Rich and Famous.
It may be no coincidence, then, that the era of Ronald Reagan was at once a celebration of the nouveau riche and a stage in the evolution toward a monarchic and ceremonial presidency. The ground for this had admittedly been manured well before, with the slightly risible term “Camelot” being coined to give a tinge of mystic English Arthurian splendor to the rather tacky and modern court arrangements of the Kennedy clan. Indeed, one of the more startling journalistic conventions, on the accession of a new American President, is the publication of his bloodline as it relates to the English monarchy. There is even an ornate appendix to Burke’s Presidential Families of the United States, entitled “Presidents of Royal Descent.” Starting with George Washington, who devoted most of his life not only to expelling the British monarchy but to ensuring that it could never return to America in mutated form, the tireless Burke “credits” him with a descent from Edmund Crouchback, John of Gaunt, and Henry III, with a collateral line tracing itself to Edward I, King of Scotland.
Thomas Jefferson is by various byways connected to David I, King of Scots. President Monroe is argued to have had the blood of Edward III and John of Gaunt coursing in his veins, while both William Henry and Benjamin Harrison descend from Henry III, and John Quincy Adams from Edward I. President Buchanan could be traced to the loins of Robert II, King of Scots. Even Abraham Lincoln is depicted as descending from Edward I through a rather tortuous Welsh byway, and President Grant could also count David I, King of Scots, as an ancestor. With a little creativity, President Garfield can be connected to Rhys ap Tewdr, founder of the Tudor dynasty, and Theodore Roosevelt to Robert III, King of Scots. Of all the nineteenth-century American Presidents, none were of other than English descent save the unassuming Dutchman Martin van Buren, who was also the first to be born an American citizen and one of the few to be elected President having been Vice President. The next Vice President to succeed directly to the White House was George Herbert Walker Bush, and the day after his election in 1988, Mr. Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke’s Peerage, was widely quoted in the American press as disclosing that the President-elect was a distant relation of Britain’s reigning Queen Elizabeth II. Mary Tudor, said Brooks-Baker, had become an ancestor of the Bushes by her marriage to the Duke of Suffolk. “Most great American Presidents were of royal descent,” he purred, “but none as royal as George Bush.”
- On Sale
- Mar 19, 2004
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- Bold Type Books