An Evening with the President

Becoming a newspaperman after a lifetime as an academic historian, I found my American acquaintanceship widened. My newspaper encouraged me to seek interviews with high officials of state, and their familiarity with my books facilitated, to my surprise, the arrangement of personal meetings. In this way I met William Casey’s successor as Director of Central Intelligence, two Supreme Allied Commanders Europe, several Ambassadors to the Court of St. James’s, two Secretaries of Defense, a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an Army and an Air Force Chief of Staff—and Henry Kissinger. “Like meeting Metternich,” I remember saying to a colleague who asked me about the encounter. It was an off-the-cuff answer but accurate none the less. So many notables are uninteresting in the flesh, uncommunicative or preoccupied or patronising. Henry Kissinger was none of those things. Committed though he was to take an aeroplane in an hour or two’s time, he devoted breakfast in a grand London hotel to witty characterisations of other world statesmen, reflection on the problems of war and peace, courteous dissection of my own views on the subject. Acolytes hovered, room servants announced taxis at the door. Kissinger withdrew to a sofa, installed me in another, introduced the Congress of Vienna, embarked on an analysis of the Reagan–Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik. “What a wonderful man,” the concierge breathed as we finally slippered him into a car for Heathrow. I was too breathless to assent.

I suppose, had it not been for this gradual initiation, that I might have timorously declined the invitation to meet the greatest of America’s public officials when it eventually came my way. Most of us are modest enough to recognise that we have little to say of interest or importance in the wider world; I, except as a military historian, have never thought my opinion on anything worth tuppence. Military history, moreover, is an antiquarian calling; however its practitioners flatter themselves to the contrary, it impinges little on the real world. It helped me to predict, accurately, the outcome of the Gulf War; I did not think that my familiarity with battles long ago would prove of contemporary applicability again. In the spring of 1994, however, military historians suddenly found themselves courted by the media and governments. The great public event of the year was to be the commemoration of the invasion of Europe fifty years earlier. Anyone who had written about the subject—as fortuitously I had—was in demand. I signed up for a raft of articles in British and American journals. Late in May a former editor of an American magazine on whose masthead I appear telephoned to enquire whether I planned shortly to be in Washington. I suppose I could be, I answered; why? The President, he explained, was convening a conference of Second World War historians in the White House to acquaint him with the outlines of the campaign and also to suggest to him appropriate messages to transmit to the participant countries. I would, I said rapidly, be there. He could count on me.

I had been inside the White House once before, as a tourist in 1957, when Washington was an empty city and queues short. A vague memory of stuffy rooms and clumsy furniture lingered. I remembered better crossing the Mall and climbing by the internal staircase to the top of the Washington Memorial, a feat of Alpinism which would be quite beyond me today. I did not know what to expect. We would, I was told, each speak to the President for five minutes, answer questions, and then dine with him. The arrival at journey’s end had a familiar routine, a student escort, a chauffeur-driven car; but the student was a White House intern, bubbling with excitement at learning his political science on the hoof, the chauffeur a Transportation Corps sergeant in sober plain clothes. He dropped me at my hotel and said he would be back. At the dinner hour he reappeared: “We shall be going to the Diplomatic Entrance.” The White House is an island of tranquillity inside Washington’s bustle. Beyond the railings and the power-operated gates one might be in the gardens of a great Southern plantation house, cut off by rose arbours and ornamental groves from the world outside. Once admitted, moreover, one is made to feel a guest, not a visitor. At 10 Downing Street, on party evenings, the throng passes one by one through an electronic scanner and pockets are emptied for policemen. At the White House a charming girl told me that I would find the others at the end of the hall; “you’ll hear voices.” I wandered away through a succession of corridors, past the open doorways to rooms of perfectly arranged and exquisite furniture—Jackie Kennedy’s hand, I thought to myself—all dusted and polished a moment before, and found some grave, greying, black, tail-coated footmen offering iced tea outside the theatre in which the President would hear us.

Inside were some familiar faces: Paul Fussell, the great cultural historian of the Anglo-American war experience; Carlo d’Este, master of the documentation of the Normandy campaign; Stephen Ambrose, biographer of Eisenhower; Forrest Pogue, the official historian who interviewed wounded survivors of Omaha Beach offshore on hospital ships in the evening of D-Day; General Hal Nelson, U.S. Army Chief of Military History. They and I were the briefing team. Among the other guests I knew was General Andrew Goodpaster, a former Supreme Allied Commander, an incarnation to me of the George Marshall world of high-minded public service; as a young colonel, convalescing from wounds suffered in Italy, he had served both Marshall and Stimson, the Secretary of War, as confidential secretary. General John Eisenhower, Ike’s son, a distinguished military historian himself, was there; we had met a few months earlier in Washington. There were other faces I recognised without knowing their owners: Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, Lloyd Bentsen, the Secretary of the Treasury. I felt in a slight blur. It was suddenly borne in on me that I was the only non-American present in a gathering of the great republic’s establishment; and we were waiting for the President.

There was a delay. The President was detained at a meeting, discussing most-favoured nation status for China. Conversation buzzed on; I was surprised by the absence of unease. British subjects in Buckingham Palace are on stiff best behaviour; these American citizens in the Executive Mansion were courteously relaxed. There was no stir when the President entered; hands were shaken; “Thank you for making the long trip,” he said to me; we settled down to work. The historians sat on a row of fragile, gold chairs facing the President; he balanced a notebook on the arm of his seat and took notes relentlessly. Abstractedly I observed that he is left-handed. Maps were arranged on an easel, sequences of events described. I had been told I would be the last to speak. I wondered what to say. Gradually it dawned on me that my American colleagues were not simply making presentations. They were also telling the President what he should say in the speeches he would have to make when he visited Europe ten days hence. He must remember to emphasise the contribution of the French Resistance. He must allude to Italy’s co-belligerency. He must pave the way—even though the Germans had not been invited—for the reconciliation which would be the theme of the 1995 commemorations of the end of the war. “The Germans suffered, too,” repeated several speakers. You weren’t bombed by the Luftwaffe, I thought, and bit my tongue; but when my turn came I found the words I wanted. “Remember the Canadian contribution,” I said—I know how overlooked Canadians feel, when the capture of one of the five D-Day beaches was wholly their achievement; “Remember the Poles”—it was they who plugged the Falaise Gap; most heartfelt of all, recalling my childhood, “Remember that the British date the making of the great alliance to the coming of the GIs.” My generation does not forget. You do not need to remind us of what America did. We know and we shall be grateful to our graves.

“I’ve kept you too long,” said the President. He led us upstairs to dinner. China so beautiful I scarcely dared put knife to plate, presentational cuisine, almost invisible service; not long before I had been a guest at a similar evening in a British royal palace and reflected on the differences. There is a certain knockabout quality to palace life, old retainers grown saucily familiar, odd bits of obsolete serving equipment parked in corners, polished silver boxes full of spent matches, beautiful liveries but shabby shoes. The Prince Consort noted the deficiencies when he married the young Victoria. The White House is like the grandest of grand hotels, in which the major domo pounces unforgivingly on the slightest failing by kitchen or waiters. The President is cocooned by perfection. He is not, however, allowed to think for one moment that he is royal. Head of State he may be, but his fellow citizens speak their minds directly and unaffectedly. At my palace evening the guests spoke hesitantly and into the middle distance. In the White House the President’s guests addressed him over dinner face-to-face, and made polemical points. A senior congressman who had fought for his country warned him that America’s place in the world rested on its possession of preponderant military force. A former commanding general emphasised that the armed services require recruitment from the country’s best. An old Washington power-broker dismissed the idea of interdependence as an American alliance policy and declared that there is no substitute for leadership.

I was, I realised, present at an occasion when the American voice makes the American mind unequivocally clear to the chief of the nation. I could imagine no similar occasion in England. We defer, not only to our hereditary but also to our elected leaders; collectively, we are as independent and as difficult to govern as any people on earth; individually, we shuffle and stumble our words and bob our heads and hope we have not broken any of the rules. There are no rules between Americans, except those of the common politeness that ought to govern free people. I love America. I have long wondered and tried to explain why, most of all to myself. After my evening with the President, I grasped a little more of the answer. The Americans are truly free and equal people. It was I who had “sirred” and “Mr. Presidented” in a reflex of the manner I would have used at home. The Americans had “Mr. Presidented” also, but as the preliminary to statements of what he ought to say, what he ought to think. I had been listening to a process of the making of policy, not much different, perhaps, from the process that had made the Constitution at Philadelphia in 1787. The stakes, of course, were of an altogether lower order. The temper of the meeting cannot have been much dissimilar. I had seen the President as a first among equals, a relationship which is the essence of the American political system. I went back to England—followed by a signed letter of thanks so charming that I framed it to hang on my study wall—pondering even deeper on the differences between monarchy and republic.

War is at the root of the differences between American republic and British monarchy. The British state, for centuries the most centralised in the world, was made by conquest. The Roman conquerors made Britannia, the Anglo-Saxons first broke, then rebuilt it, the Normans inherited it by force of arms. Their England, which nature had placed athwart the sea entrances to Northern Europe, never ceased to be at war with its neighbours thereafter and the dynasties that succeeded them sustained the struggle, forever seeking to exploit the maritime advantages that fine harbours and strategic position bequeathed them. The English, in a warlike continent, became an exceedingly bellicose people, who would not rest until they had incorporated the rest of their archipelago—Wales, Scotland, Ireland—into their polity. Meanwhile they were extending the tentacles of their maritime power into the surrounding seas, the Channel, the North Sea, sometimes the Baltic, eventually the Mediterranean, and then the great oceans. Fortified footholds of British power began to appear on coasts far from home. While the interior of the home islands was decastellated—English kings were the most ruthless in Europe in slighting the strongholds of over-mighty subjects, so that by the sixteenth century the only castles that counted were royal castles—British forts were springing up in the islands of the West Indies, on the coasts of the New World, in Africa and India and the Mediterranean. Fortifications bristled along British coasts also; a people who had chosen to take the world as its empire could not afford to leave their best harbours unguarded when the fleet was sent to roam great waters.

A people numerically weak who challenge the world bind themselves with heavy chains, oppressive taxation, protectionist and costly tariffs, the cruelties of the press gang, fierce treason laws. They bind themselves thereby to relentless political continuities. A war-making people cannot afford revolution. The English may have killed a king and founded a parliamentary democracy; but the warlord who sent the King to the scaffold became a sort of king himself and the parliament he used as an instrument of his power arrogated executive power to itself when he was gone. English monarchy survived and became British monarchy because it served British purposes, as a focus of popular loyalties but also as a vessel of the national will. The British may bob their heads and bite their tongues; but through the symbolism of crown and sceptre they ground away century after century at carrying the ethic of conquest that had constructed their state to half the world: India, Arabia, the East Indies, the South Seas, Africa from Cairo to the Cape—even in my boyhood that was where the flag flew. The pincers of the trading forts the British had bult at Calcutta and Madras had closed on the Mogul Empire; from the citadels of Malta and Gibraltar they had made the Mediterranean a British mare nostrum; the fortified coaling stations of the Gulf and the Red Sea had subdued the dhow kingdoms to their power; slave castles on the fever coast had made them masters of the African west and then the east also; captured Dutch forts had given them the Cape; bastions and redoubts had assured anchorages for the White Ensign from Singapore to Hong Kong. British ships, British cannon, British castellation commanded half the globe. The British crown was the symbol of all these outposts; British power was the substance.

America was the exception in the pattern, the blank space on the map where British forts did not stand. We all know why. The Americans had escaped from the engirdlement of British power. They had no desire, moreover, to engirdle others. Jefferson, at his inauguration as President in 1801, had set out the national ethic, utterly at odds with that which had made Britain a power to be reckoned with wherever ships could carry cannon: “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none”; he might have added, “No fort-building either.” The young United States not only eschewed all idea of overseas involvement. Its first act of major public expenditure, already undertaken before Jefferson’s election, was to wall itself in against the outside world. The Monroe Doctrine—which, paradoxically, would draw on British naval power to define its separation from the bad Old World—lay in the future. Meanwhile Washington was raising the money to build huge coastal fortresses, at the mouths of the Chesapeake and the Hudson and off the Gulf Coast, whose purpose was to proclaim that the United States was a land apart. Jefferson’s successors were to ram the message home, through the extension of a chain of fortifications around the whole periphery of the United States, from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi to the Bay of San Francisco; Alcatraz, before becoming home to America’s most dangerous Federal criminals, was a link in the republic’s Third System of coastal defences. Within the enceinte, the United States was intended to go its untroubled way, taking its laws from elected representatives, submitting their interpretation to an independent judiciary, and accepting leadership from a Head of State whose least responsibility was to declare or conduct foreign wars. A greater difference between its national philosophy and that of the belligerent transatlantic monarchy with which it had severed the umbilical cord in 1783 cannot be imagined. Britain, retiring to lick the wound of the loss of its first empire, would shortly embark on the conquest of a second; within a century it would add the Emperorship of India to the titles of its crown. The United States, kingless, lawful, peace-loving, would retire inside its continental frontiers to construct a new sort of civilisation.

So no forts abroad, no forts in the interior for those dissenting from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet America is full of forts, Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Fort Smith, Fort Wayne—these are outposts that have grown into international or regional airports. Then there are the great military posts of the interior, Fort Sill, Fort Dix, Fort Knox, Fort Riley, Fort Carson, Fort Bragg. There are forts that have faded away altogether or been lost beneath city street—who could find Fort Duquesne under the Pittsburgh Triangle? There are forts once important which have become backwaters, suburbs, or townships—Forts Adams, Clark, Cobb, Collins, Davis, Dodge, Fisher, Gaines, Garland, Thomas, Towson, scattered between North Dakota and Oklahoma. There are forts which are now but names in history books, Fort Carillon, Fort Necessity. What were they for, why do some still exist, why have some—perhaps the vast majority—gone back to forest or grass?

The answer is that, though the Founding Fathers may have wanted to wall off their American world from the rest of the globe, Americans could only begin to make the interior of the continent their own by repeating within it exactly the same process of step-by-step fortification of key points through which Britain had made an empire around the oceans of the world. The interior of America might, in one sense, be seen as an ocean in its own right, an ocean of forest, of grass, of desert, through which navigable ways had to be found and, once found, secured and fortified. Many of those ways had been found before the Declaration of Independence and many forts built. Indeed, almost the first thing done by Jacques Cartier in 1536, when he found the estuary of the St. Lawrence, the “great highway into the continent,” was to build a fort under the headland on which his successors would construct the citadel of Quebec. The Dutch, the Swedes, and the English would pepper the coasts, inlets, and estuaries of the Hudson and Chesapeake with forts during the century of their struggle to win dominance over the Northeast, and their settlers would fortify, against the French, the Indians, and each other, further inland. The French fortified on a continental scale, down the St. Lawrence, around the Great Lakes, into the Northwest, up to Hudson Bay—where the English fortified also—in the Ohio and Illinois country, and down the Mississippi. By the end of the French and Indian Wars of 1756–63, North America was one of the most fortified regions of the world, and the number of forts was added to by the British and Americans in the revolutionary war that followed. Such forts as were useful—they guarded portages, landing places, isthmuses, narrows, mountain passes, harbours—and remained from earlier stages of conquest, discovery, and exploitation were incorporated by the United States into its military infrastructure; those at West Point, for example, which had denied the narrows of the Hudson to the British, became the site of the military academy; others were abandoned or survived only because they became—as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) did at the Forks of the Ohio—a focus for town-building.

Even with the incorporation of the most important forts, however, the United States still had much fort-building to accomplish if the interior were to be secured—against British Canada, Spanish America, and, above all, the native Americans. The young United States built forts in the “Old Northwest”—the country between the Appalachians, the Mississippi, and the Tennessee; it built forts along the Mississippi and up the Missouri; by mid-century it was building forts along the Platte and the Kansas rivers in the Rocky Mountains, in the desert, and on the Pacific coast. Some were government forts, some those of trappers and traders; the difference between the two was not always sustainable: Fort Laramie, for example, which began as a trading post, eventually became one of the most important centres of government power in Indian territory during the era of settlement beyond the Mississippi.

Over forty years my travels in the United States and Canada have taken me to many of these places. The network they form within the geography of North America—overlaid though it now largely is by the network of modern roads and airline routes—is an essential key to the understanding of its natural barriers and highways and so to the military and thus the human geography of the continent. Chance was to make the continent home to mankind’s most elaborate and sustained effort to found a revolutionary civilisation, based on philosophical principle, freed by distance and inaccessibility from external interference with its process of development. No one interested in mankind’s history can ignore that of America. To me, a military historian, the pattern of fortification that human settlement has left since Europeans first began to venture inland from North America’s coasts four hundred and fifty years ago is a cipher to the American mystery. Forts mark the footsteps of the human venture into the interior—French forts the endeavour by a European kingdom to win an empire in the New World without settling it with people, English forts the strategy of another European kingdom to create an alternative empire by sea power, American forts the piecemeal and often conscience-stricken attempt to accord native Americans their rights to historic territory while making room for the millions of non-native Americans who sought space for a new life far from the Old World.

For me nothing better epitomises the conflict between the ideals of the United States and the history of North America than the constructions that crown Liberty Island in New York harbour. Topmost stands the Statue of Liberty, given by France, the losing power in the struggle for the continent, to its sister republic at the moment when the United States was about to overtake Britain, the victor, as the dominant state in the world’s economic system. On the base of the statue the visitor can read Emma Lazarus’s words—“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me”—which have become an unofficial poetic expression of the American dream. Beneath the base of the statue the visitor may also notice the distinctive star-shaped bastions of a fort. These are the traces of Fort Wood, built under the United States’ Second System of coastal fortification of 1807–12, on what was then known as Bedloe’s Island, to defend the harbour against the Royal Navy. The fort was adapted to be the foundations of the Statue of Liberty when it was erected in 1885, but remained a military station until 1937. Throughout the period when nearby Ellis Island, also fortified as part of the Second System, was receiving up to a million immigrants a year, therefore, the symbol which had drawn them, tempest-tost, from the teeming shore of the Old World was still a link in the fortification chain designed to hold the Old World at arm’s length. Here is a paradox between the idea of openness and the practice of seclusion, between free settlement and state power. North America is a land for everyone; it is also a land where the strongest do best. That, I suppose, is the theme of this book.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!