From Boethius to Bonhoeffer, many authors have written their most famous books in prison. In rare individuals down the ages, the predicament of incarceration seems to have unleashed great creativity. Some of the results are prodigious works of imagination: Don Quixote transformed European literature; The Prince revolutionized political thought. But there is also Mein Kampf, the work that crystallized the evil fantasies of a monster and poisoned the minds of a generation of Germans.
Conrad Black’s Flight of the Eagle is also largely the product of imprisonment. As a feat of historiographical memory, it does not quite compare with Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World or Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean. While these historians were not entirely denied books (respectively, in the Tower of London and a Nazi prison camp), Black had access to the Internet in the two Florida correctional facilities where he was held between 2007 and 2012, including a period from 2010 to 2011 when he was released on bail pending his appeal to the Supreme Court. Yet unlike so many academic histories, every page of this book has the authentic touch of a historian who knows countless facts and figures by heart. When he mentions a warship, for example, you can be sure that he would be able to reel off all her vital statistics on demand.
Even if its author had not been a prisoner at the time of writing, however, this book would rank as one of the most remarkable achievements of a remarkable man. The spartan circumstances of its composition have concentrated and distilled the reading of a lifetime — a lifetime evidently spent accumulating intellectual as well as financial capital. This book had its origins in lectures given to those uneducated but intelligent prisoners eager to learn and to escape from a life of crime, for whom such an erudite and commanding presence must have been a godsend. For Black, himself an autodidact, teaching was a welcome outlet for energies otherwise liable to be consumed in the ultimately fruitless quest for full exoneration by the courts. What makes this history of the United States so gripping and lucid is, in part, that it arose from the author’s need to hold the attention even of convicts, most of whom, like him, had their grievances against American justice. This eagle could spread its wings and take flight only behind bars.
Though Black was no ordinary convict, and would never have gone to jail for such obscure and dubious offenses either in his native Canada or in his adoptive Britain, he makes little of his ordeal in this book. In fact, he does not mention it until the penultimate page, when he appends a footnote by way of disclosure to a passage in which he denounces the “evils of the [U.S. judicial] system,” whose “rogue prosecutocracy terrorizes the country.”
So much for the author and the background. What about the book itself? It is, as the subtitle announces, a strategic history of America, describing the arc that led it “from colonial dependence to world leadership.” It is not a conventional political, diplomatic, or military history, but an amalgam of the three, peppered with vivid pen portraits of all the dramatis personae. Some attention is paid to domestic politics and economics, mainly insofar as these had a bearing on American prestige and policy abroad. Little or none is devoted to social, cultural, or intellectual history, except where they throw light on the main players. The result is in one sense quite old-fashioned: This is history seen from the top. But Black writes with a keen eye to the factors that really mattered at the time. He has no patience for the anachronistic attitudinizing of the academy, which emphasizes structures rather than charismatic individuals, or makes too much of the masses at the expense of the elite. For him, the great men (they usually are men, though he does not ignore the women) make the strategic decisions and hence make history. In his excellent introductory note, Henry Kissinger defines “national strategy,” Black’s key concept, as “the goals [a society] seeks to achieve and the contingencies it seeks to prevent”: “It unites a people’s core interests, values, and apprehensions.”
That Americans have pursued such a grand strategy since the days of the Founding Fathers Black takes for granted. Whether or not they have generally agreed, either in war or in peace, on what precisely these interests, values, or apprehensions might be, there has indeed been a broad consensus that the “manifest destiny” of the United States was, in John L. O’Sullivan’s resounding declaration of 1845, “to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty.” What later came to be called “American exceptionalism” may have been, as Black insists, “always to a degree a fraud,” but it has been the nation’s secular religion ever since the 1750s. Already at that time, Benjamin Franklin was predicting that the American population “will in another century be more than the people of England, and the greatest number of Englishmen will be on this side of the water.” In a letter to Lord Kames, he expressed his view that “the future grandeur and stability of the British Empire lie in America,” but Black comments that Franklin “was essentially sketching out the future of America, not Britain.”
The period from the Seven Years’ War to the “transatlantic civil war,” as Black calls the revolution that gave the colonies independence, was such a short time that many opponents in the latter had fought as comrades in the former. Once the French had been expelled from America, British rule had outlived its usefulness. “No taxation without representation” was a good rallying cry, but only a pretext for the urge to go it alone.
There is little to whet Black’s appetite for grand strategy during the century between the “silly little war” of 1812 and World War I: “Alone among the world’s Great Powers, the United States had no serious business to conduct diplomatically.” But he has a high regard for Lincoln, for him one of the Big Four presidents along with Washington, FDR, and Reagan. These four each won decisive victories and, in Lincoln’s case, his emancipation of the slaves did away with the hypocrisy of America’s claims to speak for liberty. But it was Woodrow Wilson who involved America in the power games of Europe and conceived the notion of making the world safe for democracy. Strategically, this was the big shift.
For Black, however, the greatest strategic triumph of all was FDR’s achievement between 1937 and 1945. Before the war, the United States was primus inter pares; afterwards, even the Soviet Union had to play second fiddle. Conservative readers may balk at Black’s panegyric to the man who irreversibly centralized federal power. Still, as the author of a full-length biography of Roosevelt, Black knows this material inside out and makes a good case for his hero: “President Roosevelt had made it America’s world to lead, a world largely safe for democracy, at last, as long as the United States was involved in it.” (Whether democracy was indeed safe outside the Anglosphere is another matter.)
Coming to the post-war era, Black has a bold conjecture: He castigates Truman for firing General MacArthur during the Korean War. The hero of the Pacific War had demanded the resources to exploit his military ascendancy over the North Koreans, in order to destroy Communist China’s military capability and, if possible, replace Mao with Chiang Kai-shek. MacArthur’s point was that it is immoral to sacrifice young American lives for anything less than victory — a point that still resonates today. Black dismisses fears at the time of a nuclear escalation, both in this episode and in the Cuban missile crisis, but of course he speaks with the benefit of hindsight. Kennedy’s brinkmanship was quite enough to unnerve his allies without pushing his luck further.
Not for the first time, Black champions Nixon, above all for the 1969 “silent majority” speech, in which he declared: “North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” Replace “North Vietnam” with the name of any other enemy, and Nixon’s words hold true today. But his strategic vision was not matched by his personal integrity, so it was left to Reagan to pick up the pieces and restore American morale after Vietnam.
By the time Reagan had left the Soviet Union in the dust, the eagle not only had taken flight but was almost out of sight. Black sees this lack of rivals as the real challenge: The U.S. had to “sustain a will to greatness when it had nothing left to prove.” He concludes with a somber indictment of present decline, of which Barack Obama is more a symptom than a cause. Yet Black is confident that a restoration of sound strategic leadership is imminent, for when the nation has needed such leadership in the past, it has found it: “The United States remains incomparably the greatest and most successful country there has ever been.” This brave book, a call to arms in dark days, is worthy of its subject.
– Mr. Johnson is the editor of Standpoint, a London-based political and cultural monthly magazine.