That imperial anthem, the hymn of the U.S. Marine Corps, is today somehow an obscure exercise.  The halls of Montezuma? The shores of Tripoli?  Our gum-popping, Gucci-schlepping youth can no more respond to its referential difficulties than could the Ivy League-credentialed savants of the War Party.  What’s more, the pseudopatriots would be shocked to know that the music to the hymn was written by a croaking frog, Jacques Offenbach, for his opera bouffe, Genevieve de Brabant, in 1868.

Our latest Bush-directed engagement with another host of wogs may have the benefit of stimulating some historical reflection, such as that Mesopotamia, a.k.a. “Iraq,” has been called the Cradle of Civilization, and for good reason.  Another reflection is that our country has had some experience in dealing with violent Muslims, and we would do well to recall what has been so elaborately forgotten (or, I should say, erased).  And it is just at this point that Richard B. Parker, diplomat and professor, has made such a useful contribution.

Mr. Parker has served as ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon, and Morocco and taught at the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University, among other institutions.  His sense of the past and of cultural distinctions is both practical and academic, and he has brought this sense to bear most effectively is this latest of his books.  His point, if I understand him, is that our experience has been both forgotten and misunderstood.  Parker insists on a diplomatic history of events that are dimly and erroneously recalled as military history.

The Algerine and Tripolitan wars of the early years of the 19th century actually began as hostage conflicts in 1785, when America had no navy and no British treaties to hide behind.  The North African policies of privateering and enslavement were not so much outrages as routine business that had long since developed into cozy corruption.  It is remarkable to think how far-flung the slave-raiding sometimes was.  Algerian corsairs took 302 men, women, and children from Iceland in 1627 and 129 men, women, and children from Baltimore, Ireland, in 1631.  As late as 1798, the Tunisians took 900 captives, the majority of whom were women and children, from the village of Carloforte on the island of San Pietro off southwestern Sardinia.  Of course, slave-raiding in the opposite direction was far from unknown.  Many French, Spanish, and Italian galleys were manned by North African slaves at the oars.  As the years passed, the hostilities in the Mediterranean had become something of an arrangement.

As the Americans tried to take control of their own affairs, they found that jingoistic attitudes were not effective.  Thomas Jefferson said one thing and did another, as political situations often require.  “We prefer war in all cases to tribute under any form and to any people whatever,” he wrote, but John Adams disagreed, and his views were justified by events.  Jefferson recommended and signed off on deals to buy captives, because he had to.  And this is the part that is remembered wrongly, if at all.  Decatur’s naval engagements were brilliant but not decisive.  Eaton’s march on Derna (“the shores of Tripoli”), over terrain the Afrika Korps and the Desert Rats would later know, was of no consequence.  His heroics had been overtaken by events, and his allies were betrayed.  Considering all the huffing and puffing, the many thousands of dollars that the Americans actually paid to the sleazy ransom artists of Algeria, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco are rather astounding.

The myth is all on the other side.  The motto, “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute,” was not uttered by Jefferson, nor by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, but by Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina, in 1798.  Jefferson did say something to the same effect about Barbary, and the motto was a popular rallying cry during the Barbary crisis.  In truth, however, the United States paid off.  And she paid off to the Iranians in 1980, under the table; and the Algerians were very helpful in these negotiations!  In Iran and in Lebanon, diplomacy, not force, secured the release of American prisoners.  As Parker says, “When things go wrong, as they often will, it may help to remember that George Washington saw nothing immoral about buying our way out of a fix in 1795.”  And as he also says, “It is possible for diplomacy to work without force, but force will not avail much in the end if it is not backed up by effective diplomacy.”

There are many benefits and pleasures to be derived from Parker’s study.  One of these is the registration of connections, such as with Napoleon and Talleyrand, not to mention the roll call of Founding Fathers and the presence among the early diplomats of Joel Barlow, who wrote that ponderous epic The Columbiad and the delightful mock-epic The Hasty Pudding, which would be the greatest work of its kind in English, were it not for Pope’s Rape of the Lock.  I think that Royall Tyler’s Algerine Captive of 1797 could be mentioned here, for obvious reasons, as perhaps the finest fiction written in America in its day.

There is one other implication, at least for me, in Richard Parker’s imposing and provocative study.  Without at all intending to do so, this scholar and career diplomat has written the most powerful argument for isolationism that I have seen in a long time.


[Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History, by Richard B. Parker (Gainesville: University Press of Florida) 285 pp., $59.95]