to Richard Nixon, the Technological Revolution and the FLQ

HUGH MACLENNAN February 1 1972


to Richard Nixon, the Technological Revolution and the FLQ

HUGH MACLENNAN February 1 1972

In the last 18 months Canadians have learned that they can’t hide from the 20th century. Remorselessly it teaches us those lethal lessons that break the hearts of small-l liberals: that good intentions do more harm than good if they ignore the nature of the human animal; that nice guys deserve to lose if they insist that their niceness deserves a fat reward; that no welfare state can fare well if it aims at nothing more than care of the physical; that nothing costs more mental sacrifice than freedom; that in a culture cut loose from its roots it is often difficult to tell the difference between a politician and a Mafia capo; that most of our liberal leaders can think of nothing else but to tranquilize the violence that always erupts when a culture betrays or outgrows its original content.

In such a time the usual cautions are useless. The only caution that can save is the caution of a wary fighter circling the ring against a much stronger man, knowing the gamblers have all laid their bets against him. Canada is in the ring now. Not the next 10 years, not even the next five, but the next two are likely to decide whether we shall win enough decisions to survive and create some spark of new life on this self-devastated continent or be processed into its mass as our old farmers’ cheeses have been homogenized into products that look, in their cellophane, so much cheesier than any natural cheese there ever was.

In such a time the character and personality of the national leader are far more important than in seasons when the winds blow soft. He becomes a target, a focus, a catalyst, more than a mere man.

So it is impossible to detach Pierre Trudeau the man from Pierre Trudeau the prime minister, besieged by a multitude of interconnected and often contradictory forces which have grown out of past history, insane economics, the uncertain future of technology and American pressures impersonally aimed at a total economic and political take-over of our whole country. Can he serve as a focus and a force to release in us the saving energies that have been lulled to sleep ever since the Second World War?

Over against Trudeau stands another man whom history has by the throat, so it becomes impossible to see Trudeau solely within the cage and pressures of his office at home. He must also be seen within the cage and pressures that have imprisoned Richard Nixon. When Pierre Trudeau was a private citizen, which seems only yesterday, I met him several times and flattered myself we were at least casual friends. But soon after he became prime minister, I heard people who had known him for 30 years admit with chagrin that they did not know him now. If Trudeau has become an unknown quantity to his old friends, the explanation may be a simple one. He is rare in many respects, but in none more than in this: he had to reach his late forties before discovering that the only job that really fitted him was the highest and loneliest in the land.

Though I was never an intimate friend of Trudeau’s in those early days, I can at least say that thus far my estimate of the private man is still in accord with my estimate of the public one. The first time we met, I thought he had the clearest, most succinct mind I had ever encountered. When he assumed office in 1968, I was sure he would try to expose some of his ruthless clarity to the Canadian people, who had been conditioned by years of Mackenzie King to believe that haziness is the supreme mark of the mature statesman. I expected him to force certain issues so that Canadians would have to stand up and be counted for or against their leader’s ideas of how this country must think and act if it is to survive.

He wasted no time in doing just that. Indeed, he set to work while he was still minister of justice. He saw very clearly that his first task was to defuse or at least isolate the paralyzing argument between Quebec and the rest of the country, because if this continued the country would fall helplessly into the waiting arms of the multi-national corporations. He saw that he must make the confrontation visible, and this he did in his showdown with Daniel Johnson at the federal-provincial conference. For a day and a half he sat mute while Johnson seemed to be running off with the show. What Johnson wanted was an impossibility, an associated state of Quebec which would be both inside and outside Canada. Then suddenly Trudeau turned and knocked Johnson cold with a single unforgettable stare and a single contemptuous question which demanded of Johnson what right he had to assume that a French Canadian elected to the Quebec legislature was any truer spokesman for his people than a French Canadian elected to the federal parliament? All along Trudeau had been sure that Quebec’s intellectuals did not speak for Quebec’s core and that Quebec’s core wished to stay in Confederation. This could explain why he has been tough with intellectuals to the point of contempt.

His next move was to call the federal election for the day after Saint-Jean Baptiste and then to appear on the dignitaries’ platform in Montreal during the parade. This was a direct, deliberate challenge to the separatists and they could not and did not ignore it. Several million Canadians saw him on television that night keeping his seat at the risk of his life and staring down the mob. The next day the nation not only gave him a plurality, but Quebec came close to giving him a clean sweep.

None of us had been accustomed to a leader with this athlete's combination of daring, preparation and fine calculation of the balances. But there was more than this in Trudeau and in the fall of 1970 a purely accidental meeting with him drove me to the personal conclusion that our Prime Minister is probably a genius.

My wife and I had been to a late wedding reception at the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal, and when it was over and I was hunting for a taxi I suddenly saw Trudeau with his back against the hotel wall engaged in what seemed to be a hot discussion with some youths in jeans, who had apparently buttonholed him on the sidewalk. We caught sight of each other, he came over, I presented my wife to him and he spoke with her, then he went back to the kids. Something was coming out of his eyes with sudden, inexplicable force. Light shone out of them in contrast to the glaucous opacity seen in the eyes of so many politicians. But when I tell you it was a good light, let me tell you also it was a Gioconda light of such subtle and curious intensity I doubt if even the painter of Mona Lisa herself could have captured it. It had its impact on me and on those boys, who were very different from me. Some might call it charisma. I saw it as a reflection of a kind of genius.

This chance meeting occurred exactly nine days and nine hours before James Cross was kidnapped. In the month following, the nation and such of the world as was interested discovered that our Prime Minister’s apparent casualness is usually a mask for highly concentrated action. In those horrible days when we all hung close to our radios, Trudeau seemed almost to be idle. Soon afterward we learned he was far from that. He was preparing to send troops into Montreal and was massing them; he was consulting legal experts and we may never know how many times he was on the phone to Premier Bourassa. Then he struck — like lightning, at three o’clock in the morning.

Well, I’ve gone out on the end of a long limb in this guess that Pierre Trudeau is a genius, so perhaps I should give my own idea of what I mean when I use the word. My idea of a genius is a person who can reach a destination without having traveled there, which is pretty well what Trudeau did when he reached No. 24 Sussex Drive.

Now it is the essence of genius that it is often dangerous. It changes worlds as Einstein learned to his grief. Most dangerous of all is the genius in politics, of whom the greatest example is Napoleon. The statesmen who have best served their countries have been those whose boldness was tempered by exceptional judgment, and since it is only in revolutionary times that a genius has a chance in politics it is worth noting that the greatest ones have been those who were able to convert revolution into evolution.

These have been so rare you can count them on the fingers of your hand. In ancient times the supreme examples were Moses, Solon and Augustus Caesar. In modern times, Queen Elizabeth I of England and George Washington, with the possible additions of Tito and Mao. Both Elizabeth and Washington functioned in the eyes of epic revolutions and both of them contrived workable harmonies between revolution and the old human tradition.

It is obvious that Canada, and especially Quebec, has been in the throes of a multi-sided revolution for a number of years. The winds of change blow into all quarters of our lives and confound our morals, values, politics and economics. I think that Trudeau has understood the nature of this multi-sided revolution better than any of our other public men. From the evidence of his speeches and actions before and during his public career, it is clear that he has worked relentlessly to convert revolution into evolution.

I think, though I cannot be sure, that for a long time he has known that the decisive catalyst in the Canadian revolution had to be the United States. When several years ago he declared his anxiety about the wash-over of American problems into Canada, I’m pretty sure he was thinking of something more substantial than drugs and student activists. Even two years ago he must have been preparing for what any clear-sighted man knew was sure to come — a showdown with the United States over the entire question of the independence we had been brainwashed into presuming we possessed. This surely explains his urgency in forcing Quebeckers to move from ambiguity into clear positions on the older question of Quebec separation.

Now Trudeau finds himself polarized in the posture he defined for himself and the rest of us. Most intellectuals detest him, or profess to detest him, especially in Quebec. Small-l liberals and socialists like him no better, as they proved during and after the kidnapping crisis. Businessmen locked in traditional attitudes toward the United States and the multi-national corporations fear him most of all because they sense he will not shrink from a political confrontation with our neighbor if he is driven to it. As for the press and the media, they have been frustrated by the unfathomable quality in the man, and if he has any avoidable and obvious weakness it is his evident amusement in keeping the press off balance whenever he can.

Last August, of course, our smoldering crisis with the United States at last came into the open so blatantly that not even a people trained in double vision could pretend any longer it was not a crisis. God knows they had had plenty of warning in recent years of what to expect: the way the State Department bullied the report of the O’Leary Commission on Publications out of existence; Nixon’s bland proposal in 1970 of the resources-energies package deal which, if implemented, would have left us in effective control of perhaps 5% of our energies and resources; the flamboyant passage of SS Manhattan through our Arctic waters; the alarms sounded by American scientists that their native supplies of oil, water and energy were shrinking to the danger point; the sudden swamping of our universities by a flood of American teachers and academic bureaucrats who often behaved as if they owned them and almost invariably appointed Americans to the staffs in preference to Canadians.

When Nixon finally pressed the button on August 15, many Canadians made the old pathetic plea, “Say it isn’t so, Dick.” They tried to pretend, though Trudeau didn’t, that this was just one of those temporary things. Having been trained since the war to become great wasters themselves, they could not bring themselves to admit that an economy based upon built-in obsolescence and technological waste on the gigantic scale required by the Pentagon had somehow to be paid for, probably because they knew they would have to pay some of these bills themselves. But what they understood least of all was the profound change that came over the collective mentality of the American people during the 1960s.

The changes the Americans are passing through are different in kind from ours. They are undergoing a shocked reappraisal of themselves as the last, best hope of mankind, the universal world benefactor elected by Manifest Destiny, a people so confident of succeeding in anything they attempt that Lyndon Johnson believed he could create what he called The Great Society at home while at the same time offering unstinted American aid and troops to any region of the world that felt itself threatened by what he called Communism.

I would like to step back for a few minutes into ancient history, not because I believe that history repeats itself literally but because men and their politics change so little that history often develops similar patterns.

It so happens that a politico-military defeat astonishingly similar to the American one in Vietnam has happened before, and in an empire which still called itself a republic, an empire to which the United States has often been compared by Americans themselves. I mean Rome in the time when Augustus considered himself not as a supreme monarch but simply as the chief executive and commander-in-chief of the army.

The Rome of Augustus also believed in Manifest Destiny. Not since her infancy had Rome lost a war. The Roman people ruled, if loosely, over the countries now known as Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Syria, the Lebanon, Greece, some of Turkey, the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia and the islands of the Mediterranean. Their garrisons were firmly entrenched on the left bank of the Rhine and the right bank of the Danube and soon they would round out their empire by the occupation of Britain.

In 9 A.D. the Roman general Quintilius Varus crossed the Rhine with three legions, his mission to set up in the heart of Germany a Romanized state. But something went wrong with Varus’ mission. Perhaps it was Roman arrogance; probably it was the territorial imperative. At any rate, in dense forests where traditional Roman tactics could not function, the German chief Arminius, a supposed ally of Rome, turned on Varus and annihilated him and his entire army. When the news reached Augustus, that man of icy control nearly broke. He paced his floors crying, “Quintilius Varus, Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

Five years later Augustus died. In a long reign he had made order out of the total revolutionary chaos he had inherited. He had created the Roman Peace. But he had been forced to make two decisions whose ultimate effects were to be of catastrophic importance.

The first, based on his experience that no empire can be successfully or economically defended by conscripted troops, was the creation of a permanent professional army and a permanent praetorian guard. Thirty-seven years after Augustus’ death, the guard and the army began the practice of making and breaking emperors. The second decision was the direct result of Varus’ defeat in Germany. It was to establish a policy based on the curtailment of further territorial expansion. The chief task of Augustus’ successors was to stabilize and hold the frontiers along the Rhine, the Danube, the Black Sea and the Sahara.

From our present point of view, the most interesting decision was the latter. It meant that Roman energies turned inward, that Roman bureaucrats and businessmen concentrated their efforts within the Roman area of direct influence and control. This meant a deliberate effort to Romanize all those diverse, gifted, territorially based peoples of the ancient world, to make them accept Roman customs, Roman methods, Roman values. The result was not so much a Romanization as a homogenization into a weary decadence leading to the end we all know.

To return to the present. It seems that what Germany was to the Rome of Augustus, Asia has become to the America of Nixon — the final, impenetrable frontier. What else is the overall meaning of Nixon’s about-face policy save a disguised admission that the American politico-economic empire has reached its limits of expansion? What can follow from this admission save a concentrated effort to establish the United States as the economic and cultural master of all her associates? Even more could be in the cards. Shortly before Nixon became President, he suggested that a time might come when America would have to develop a professional army. Should that happen, the President would of course be the Commander-in-Chief. The Roman word for that was Imperator. Has Nixon, then, been driven by events to emulate Augustus?

Outwardly, any comparison between the patrician Augustus and Richard Nixon belongs more to the theatre of the absurd than to history. For two decades the cartoonists and journalists of his own country have been depicting Nixon as the all-American hall-room boy, an uptight upward-mobile straight out of McGuffey and Horatio Alger, but streamlined, eager-beavering his way to the top with his mouth on a slant and what looks to be a bulge of muscle on the side of his right jaw. Yet this man is far more than a complex of caricatures. Until he finally reached the White House it was legitimate to believe that Nixon felt guilty; that his brand of small-town puritanism had made him identify failure of ambition with sin. But now, in the greatest political comeback in American history, he has arrived where those famous train whistles of his youth summoned him long ago from the little western town where he grew up. He has at last earned the right to a tragic fate. Not many men can claim that much.

In his case the tragic flaw could be his uncritical acceptance of the old American myth based on the direct road from the log cabin to the presidency. In nothing he has so far said or done has Nixon given any indication of the kind of mature political and human philosophy that animates the mind of Pierre Trudeau. It is hard to imagine that he has ever pondered the wisdom and the un-wisdom of Plato. Billy Graham would mean much more to him than the ancient Greek. It is all too possible to believe that he would never have read the abridged version of Arnold Toynbee's Study Of History if Time magazine had not run a cover story on Toynbee. As Vice-President he had things thrown at him by students in Venezuela, but he never walked through a country in revolution as Trudeau did in his younger days in China. He never paddled canoes through wilderness rivers, or scuba-dived with Cousteau, or studied the movements of fish, birds and wild animals in their native habitats. He never learned the art of gaiety with charming girls or the warmth and goodness of a variety of mature women. Nixon is no Trudeau.

Neither is he the villain his domestic enemies say that he is. His face reveals him as a lonely, puzzled man more certain of his need to be great than of his real power to become so. He holds the levers of enormous power and knows it. But which one to pull? It is not impossible to imagine him as one of those puzzled later Roman emperors, born in a remote province, who had longed for the purple and stopped at little to get it, only to discover that the Empire was hardly worth the effort; that it had become so big, so constipated in its mind, so adulterated in its moral and genetic inheritance that nobody could govern or even understand it any more. Such an emperor, and in the long Roman anguish there were many, always sought a confident adviser.

This adviser Nixon seems to have found in Secretary of the Treasury John Connally of Texas, whose countenance fits perfectly among the Roman imperial busts in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Having been taught to believe that the American nation is divine, Nixon will wish to be head of it as long as he can. In his acceptance speech in Miami in 1968 he said that neither Washington nor Lincoln had to face the problems the next President would have to face: and he was right. So there stands Nixon on the bridge of an eyeless juggernaut, surrounded by banks of computers, driving into a future he has not been prepared to understand, while in the juggernaut’s bowels the turbines throb, fueled by greed insatiable.

He has told us that Arnold Toynbee was an inspiration to him. Well, it was Toynbee’s nightmare after the Second World War that the whole world might turn into a universal state like the Roman Empire, carrying within itself the sure seeds of decay and ruin. This cannot happen now on a world scale because the United States is balanced by Russia, Europe and China. Against Russia and China, the United States has maintained a standoff, but on neither of them has it been able to impose its will. Europe owes it a vast debt, and in recent years some of this debt has been collected. Now, the logic of events could force the United States to resign herself to the role of a Fortress Western Hemisphere, and this could become a military-economic universal state behind the securest of all possible frontiers, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In such a system Canada could simply disappear.

Since it is to the interest of Canadians and Americans unborn that no such state should exist, least of all one based upon suicidal technological waste, Canada’s survival as an individual nation takes on far more than a selfish importance. I am sure Trudeau recognizes this, for his patriotism has never been parochial. In the face of this challenge he will either be broken or emerge as one of the world’s few great and beneficent statesmen.

His success or failure will depend to no small degree on his fellow countrymen. Will enough of us be able to understand just what is involved in this challenge? Will we have the acumen to resist the hidden pressures which already are being brought to bear? Will we yield to the mean but all too human temptation to further the whispering campaign already set in motion both against Trudeau and Canada? Will we have the guts and tenacity to take risks which only five years ago were unthinkable because they then seemed unnecessary?

We can begin by assessing coolly our position; first of all by admitting that Washington has taken Canada so thoroughly for granted that Nixon and his friends thought we were already in the bag. How otherwise explain his now famous statement that Japan was the closest trading partner of the United States? When Trudeau finally asked Nixon whether he was out to obliterate Canadian nationhood, his answer was a sincere no — inspired perhaps by the belief that we had already obliterated it ourselves. And after C. D. Howe and our vacillations of the Sixties who could blame him?

We may assume further that Washington is following what looks down there like inexorable logic. Connally himself laid it on the line. The U.S.A. must come first because it is the richest and the strongest and is tired of being everybody’s whipping boy. It cannot (though this has not yet been stated publicly) remain for long the richest and the strongest without assuming essential control over Canada’s energy resources and much of her water. Therefore Washington’s economic pressures, which are regarded there as gentle, are intended to bring little Canada to its senses.

But there is another logic much more fundamental than any that has revealed itself to John Connally, and that is the logic of ecology and the human future.

To trade resources with a neighbor is one thing, but it is another thing entirely if the neighbor is going to use them to promote what his own best scientists have told him is a long-term suicide course. This is pretty well what the multi-national corporations and technocrats have been doing. If they continue at their present rate of consumption and waste they will exhaust most of the continent’s non-renewable resources within the lifetime of children now being born.

To base our national sovereignty, worthless as a thing in itself, on a resistance to demands of this nature will give Canada a moral ground that could be formidable. To insist that cultural differences are life-giving and that cultural homogenization is life-destroying is merely to insist that we should not be expected by anyone, no matter what his power, to assent willingly to behave like history’s fools.

I feel pretty sure that Pierre Trudeau understands these things much more precisely than I do. His move toward Russia was clearly intended to balance the onrush of the American technological juggernaut. It was the boldest move made by any Canadian leader since Macdonald.

Trudeau is now the target of many people, some hidden, some known; some naïve, some professional. He is resented by many of his own countrymen as bold and brilliant men have always been. He is fallible because he is human and he has already made mistakes; he is sure to make more. But I cannot believe that any other living man is more likely to release in Canadians the will to survive.