In 1858, as British and French forces pushed their way to Peking in the Opium Wars, Josiah Tatnall, commander of the neutral American naval squadron, intervened to save the British ships from Chinese guns and tow them safely out of range. When asked why he had abandoned his government’s official neutrality, Tatnall replied: “Blood is thicker than water.”
That is one of the many captivating and little-known anecdotes dredged up by native Briton Christopher Hitchens in this excellent and surprising book—surprising because the leftish Hitchens, columnist for The Nation, has either mellowed or else managed to stay in an excellent mood throughout the writing of it. Although his thesis is that America has been snookered by perfidious Albion, first into copying and defending its Empire and lately into taking the shards of it into receivership, Albion comes off as much less perfidious than one would expect, while the author’s attitude toward America is one of sympathetic understanding and affectionate humor.
The phrase “special relationship” might make most Americans think of Israel on a word-association test, says Hitchens, but in actual fact it refers to a fine romance that supposedly broke up in 1776. “The ‘special relationship’ is the transmission belt by which British conservative ideas have been passed into the American psyche,” beginning at Valley Forge when Washington’s troops were entertained by performances of Addison’s Cato and heard lines such as “What pity is it that we can die but once to serve our country” that were later attributed to American patriots.
The transmission belt has been humming merrily ever since. Public figures, who know the extent of American ignorance and who dare not risk unfamiliar or too-intellectual allusions, readily quote Kipling, like Congressman Robert Dornan in Iran-Contra: “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.” To this mangled quatrain Congressman Mervyn Dymally promptly replied with an equally mangled quotation from Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow the night, the day thou canst be false to any man.”
Unwitting conservators of the special relationship pull out all the stops when they get to Churchill, “the resort of choice for a politician who is on the ropes.” Nixon’s “Churchill said” rationalizations mounted as Watergate progressed, John Tower’s supporters boasted of Churchill’s diet of alcohol, and according to a computer survey that Hitchens serves up with infectious glee, one of every four columns by William Safire makes at least one reference to Churchill, while 1,200 allusions to him appeared in leading American newspapers between April and December 1984—”a period selected at random.”
What Hitchens calls “Brit kitsch” is everywhere, but its worst manifestation stands in once-isolationist Middle America. The Country Club Plaza in Kansas City boasts a bronze statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill called “Married Love.” Next to it is a speaker that plays the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” peroration at the press of a button.
Hitchens’ best jabs are aimed at the kind of liberal intellectual snobs who never miss his column in The Nation. The special relationship rests in many respects on mutually sustaining elites in the two countries, he says, and so . . .
The Masterpiece Theatre Sunday evening debauch of Englishness is one of the standbys and continual referents for students of Anglophilia and its American mystique. When Alistair Cooke assumes the leather armchair, the free association begins and Englishness takes on its varied guises and incarnations: the civilized country house; the strained but decent colonial civil servant; the regimental mess; the back-to-the-wall wartime coolness under fire, the stratified but considerate social system. . . . As the cameras roam the room before discovering Mr. Cooke, they linger upon marble busts, oil paintings, carefully bound first editions, and sporting and military prints.”
And then, at long last, the camera zooms in on “Mr. Cooke’s perennially reassuring features.”
The American Achilles heel that makes such seduction possible is our obsessive commitment to democracy. We are afraid to say the word “class” out loud, but the overpowering Englishness of Alistair Cooke & Company in our cultural life permits the permutation of class into “style.” One enthusiastic laborer in the vineyards of permutation is James “Scotty” Reston, whom Hitchens calls “one of the all-time ‘special relationship’ apparatchiks.” Others are Rhodes scholars (eleven in the Kennedy administration alone) who get a dinner jacket allowance and a charge account at an Oxford bookstore as part of their grants. But lest we forget, there are also the “skinheads,” whose prole version of the special relationship is based, says Hitchens, on the behavior of English soccer fans.
High and low, we are all victims of an identity crisis that was articulated in a secret document of the British Security Coordination, an organ of Churchill and Sir William Stephenson designed to mold American opinion between 1939 and 1945. Although America is rich and powerful, said the analysts, the American people “are still unsure of themselves individually . . . still striving after national unity and indeed after some logical grounds for considering themselves a nation in the racial sense.”
The special relationship in all its forms—political, cultural, social, economic—was designed to benefit England while serving as our security blanket, and it has worked. Hitchens finds Waspness triumphant over the immigrant version of the American Dream even as late as the 1988 elections, when the successful “Mayflower imagery” of George Bush and his family triggered subconscious racial and religious connotations represented by the opposition: “Television advertisements featuring a notorious black criminal named Willie Horton also showed Michael Dukakis without a shave and looking distinctly swarthy.”
Attempts to break off the special relationship have been short-lived and futile. Hitchens provides an entertaining description of the flurry of post-Revolution enthusiasm for making classical Greek or Hebrew the official language of the U.S. government—in itself a Waspy move since all the leaders had been classically educated after the British fashion. Noah Webster’s campaign for a distinct grammar of American English and Theodore Roosevelt’s executive order for “Simplified Spelling” in government prose (“thru” for “through”) came to naught despite the cooperation of Anglophobes like Colonel Robert McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune. In 1923 an “American Language” bill was introduced in the House, but its tone of provincialism and frontier brag—”Let our writers drop their top-coats, spats and swagger sticks, and assume occasionally their buckskin, moccasins and tomahawks”—was ridiculed by critics like H.L. Mencken (who, ironically, was an Anglophobe).
Language also figured in Churchill’s many wily schemes to save the British Empire by turning it into an Anglo-American consortium. To this end he proposed joint citizenship, currency, trading areas and bases, and “Basic English,” the brainchild of an Oxford don to reduce the language to 850 necessary words that the whole world could learn in time to be ruled by the “English-speaking peoples.” An unimpressed Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Churchill if he could have inspired his country with “blood, work, eye water and face water,” and promptly turned the Basic English question over to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, a Tennessee mountaineer famed for his colorful cussing, who shelved it. Basic English was never heard of again, but Hitchens believes it inspired George Orwell’s “Newspeak.”
Hitchens sees U.S. English as the latest example of Anglophilia, and one with clear designs on U.S. immigration policy. He traces the group back to the Pioneer Fund of 1937 to study applied genetics in Germany, and uncovers a private organization called WITAN, from the Anglo-Saxon “Witenagemot,” or “conclave of wise men,” which he hints is up to no good. This gets a bit darkling but it is still a far cry from full-throttled Groucho Marxism. Hitchens has written a controlled and very witty book that often takes on the flavor of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. He might not consider that a compliment but it is meant as one.
[Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies, by Christopher Hitchens (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 398 pp., $22.95]
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