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The Big Bow-Wow

Conrad Black's magnum opus on what made America great in the world.

By From the September 2013 issue

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Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America From Colonial Dependence to World Leadership
by Conrad Black
(Encounter Books, 746 pages, $35.99)

SIR WALTER SCOTT, writing in 1826 of his admiration for Jane Austen’s “talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life,” contrasted it with his own abilities. Austen’s common touch was, he wrote, beyond him, but “The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going.”

And so can Conrad Black, author of well-received biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. Black, founder of the Canadian National Post and member of the British House of Lords, served three years in an American prison as the result of a highly politicized Chicago-style trial and verdict. But no whining. Black is a big man, and while imprisoned used the experience to write a splendid book, A Matter of Principle. And despite the miscarriage of justice, he remains a champion of the United States, embracing the ideals that have shaped this country, grateful to those Americans who stood with him and to whom he dedicates Flight of the Eagle, among them Bob Tyrrell. 

His admiration for this country is on full display, in this elegant survey of American history from the beginnings to the Obama administration, rendered in his distinctive rolling cadences, a book in which, as Henry Kissinger writes in his introductory note, Black has “evoked the key events, strategies, and dilemmas inherent in America’s rise. Through thoughtful sketches of the key actors—especially the presidents—and their policies, he has provided a book that will be indispensable reading for those who want to understand the past as well as the future.” 

In the early years, as the French and British battled for New World primacy, Black singles out Benjamin Franklin as a master diplomatic strategist, urging the British to expel the French from Canada, then persuading the French to support the colonists in the war against Britain. Franklin’s consistent successes, Black writes, grew out of “his unshakeable conviction that America was predestined to surpass Great Britain and all other nations of the world.”  This view of predestined national greatness was shared by the founders, including George Washington, whom Black treats with due respect for all the right historical reasons. He praises Washington’s brilliance both as a regular army officer and a guerrilla leader who for seven years kept his ill-sorted, ill-equipped, chronically unpaid, and frequently replaced troops on the move, hitting the British where least expected, then melting away, regrouping, and striking again. And with the war won, Washington, “by his character and sagacity created a distinguished presidency.”

Black credits Thomas Jefferson for selling “a tax and jurisdictional dispute as the dawn of human liberty and individual rights,” James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay for writing “a brilliant and novel Constitution,” Jay and John Marshall for building “a strong federal state from the bench,” and Hamilton for designing “the economic destiny of a country that in barely a century would operate on an economic scale that the world had not imagined possible.”

As a result, “The new republic was splendidly launched; Jefferson and Polk each added as much territory as the Thirteen Colonies had had at the nation’s outset.” The spread of slavery, “the nation’s Achille’s heel,” was contained by Andrew Jackson and his rival Henry Clay through a series of compromises, “until the slave-holding part of the country was reduced by natural growth to a quarter of the free population.” The strategy during this period was “to exalt growth over internecine differences until the strength of the Union was insuperable within the country.”

Of Lincoln’s successes, he writes: “The tactics of founding the new party, taking it over, and leading it to victory, and the strategy of formulating the issue and the execution of the conduct of the war, were all masterpieces of surpassing brilliance and nobility.” 

Black’s section on the Civil War is a model of concision. Much of it necessarily familiar territory (few events have been more written about), but he manages to illuminate aspects of the conduct of the war that are frequently overlooked, among them the central role played by General Winfield Scott, a hero since the War of 1812 and still the U.S. Army’s commanding general, who designed the Anaconda Plan that ultimately defeated the South.

Scott, who had previously led many of the best military commanders—both federal and rebel, Grant and Lee among them—during the Mexican War, urged caution and sought to avoid rushing raw recruits into battle against southerners trained in the use of guns. It’s understandable that there are few if any rousing movies or TV specials featuring Winfield Scott. His nickname was “Old Fuss and Feathers,” and at the time of the Civil War, he was, writes Black,  “an ample septuagenarian”—or, less elegantly, very old and very fat, so much so that he needed significant help in getting on a horse. Though not suited for a role as a dashing Civil War officer, apparently his brain was neither fat nor old. In the end, it was his strategy of blockading Southern ports, building a numerically superior fighting force, keeping the pressure on Richmond, splitting the eastern Confederate states from the western, and mounting a drive from Tennessee south through Georgia that won the war. 

What followed, Black writes, was

a third of a century in which the national leadership was almost irrelevant; there was no need for a providential Washington, Jackson, or Lincoln, immigration was open, the economy was unfettered, and millions of people poured from the bowels of European famine and oppression and pogroms into this astoundingly fecund country.…The strategy was to let America be itself, and it was a brilliant strategy, the more so because it required almost no execution at all.

OVERSEAS, HE CREDITS Theodore Roosevelt with establishing the United States as a world power and Woodrow Wilson, “the desiccated but erudite and eloquent intellectual,” with concurring that “the United States would now be an influence in the whole world, by its power and moral authority.” After Wilson “lost his health and his judgment was repudiated,” Black writes, “there followed a false era of hedonism and foreign policy posturing, and economic insouciance.” The whole economic system “that had fueled the meteoric rise of the nation” was at risk. 

But then, writes Black, “There came now Franklin Delano Roosevelt to revive American optimism, reassert the nation’s exceptionalism, reform the system sufficiently to renew it and revive its inexorable rise, to restore America’s exalted destiny, and to lead it to its rightful place…at the head of all nations and all peoples of the world.” Black’s unqualified admiration for FDR may raise hackles, as will certain revisionist assumptions, among them that FDR invited the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, he makes a strong, cogent case for Roosevelt’s effectiveness as leader during the war and Great Depression.

Harry S. Truman, writes Black, “left office with a minority of Americans approving his performance, but was soon and is now durably regarded as a capable president and a man of unpretentious courage and integrity and wisdom,” and Dwight D. Eisenhower, despite a proliferation of trouble spots, gave the nation a sense of normality and stability and “retained to the end the essential strategic sense to preserve America’s commanding presence in the world, and to avoid impetuosities that would bedevil some of his successors.” The Eisenhower years “were the best the United States and most of the West had known,” Black concludes. 

As for John Kennedy, just how much responsibility his brief administration shoulders for the “infelicitous and strategically disastrous events” that befell his successors is a matter for academic argument. “On balance, and as far as he went, John F. Kennedy was a good and beloved president, who remains yet in the heart of the nation and the world, nearly 50 years after his tragic death.” 

Lyndon Johnson created his own disasters, largely through his ruinous economic and social policies and his inability to develop a Vietnam strategy beyond mindless escalation. LBJ chose not to run for reelection (“The president of the United States,” writes Black, “was chased from office by a ragged little Vietnamese communist, a goateed former salad-mixer for Escoffier”) and dumped the whole mess into the lap of his successor, Richard Nixon. 

Black calls attention to Nixon’s many achievements, especially in foreign policy. In Vietnam, the Nixon strategy involved a gradual withdrawal, executed under adverse military conditions, accompanied by the intense diplomatic efforts of Henry Kissinger aimed at our allies, the leadership in the North, and the Chinese. Those efforts, culminating in Nixon’s trip to China and establishing a new relationship between the two nations, also threw the Soviets badly out of balance.

Nixon recalibrated the international balance of power and, by eliminating the root cause of much unrest, also restored a significant measure of domestic tranquility—precisely what he was hired to do. Black writes of other accomplishments, among them resupplying and ultimately saving Israel from defeat during the Yom Kippur War.

Gerald Ford “never sought nor expected to be president, entered the office in very difficult circumstances, and was, in his unpretentious plainness, a very distinguished president.” His successor, Jimmy Carter, proved both inconsistent and inept. 

As for Ronald Reagan, Black ranks him as president with Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. “His calm firmness, gift for self-deprecation, constant good humor, sure political instincts, remarkable human qualities, absence of any officiousness or pomposity, and his unblustering espousal of good intentions impressed the nation and ultimately the world.” 

Of George W. Bush, he writes that “if Iraq finally emerges with any reasonable power sharing, his strategic influence, with democracy finally advanced by a major Arab country, could be quite positive and significant (though at time of writing, such an outcome did not appear the most likely).” As for our current president, he writes of a growing “unease” that Barack Obama does not “really appreciate the highest qualities of America,” and is to some degree “a factional and not national leader, as the office requires.” During these last years, Black concludes, “the United States seems to have lost its vocation for greatness in the absence of any rivals to it.” 

But that is most likely a temporary condition. With serious leadership once again in place, “Americans will return to the manifest destiny of being a sensibly motivated…country again, long before they have forfeited to any other long-surpassed nation the preeminence for which America long strove, which it richly earned, and which it has more or less majestically retained.” 

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).