In this defeatist climate, it’s a shock to remember three who changed the world
When leaders showed courage
In this defeatist climate, it’s a shock to remember three who changed the world
BY MARK STEYN “It feels like August,” wrote the National Review's editor, Rich Lowry, about eight months after 9/11. August 2001, that is: he meant America’s war on terror seemed to have lost its urgency and the “sleeping giant” appeared to be resuming his slumbers. Five years on, it’s worse than that: it feels like the seventies.
Now as then, America seems less a sleeping giant than a helpless one, ensnared by Lilliputians and longing for release. Some Republicans distance themselves from the President’s “surge” in Iraq, others dutifully string along with it, but without any great confidence it will make a difference. Democrats, meanwhile, are all but urging on defeat. Explicitly threatening to cut off funds for “Bush’s war,” Senator Ted Kennedy trotted out the old Vietnam “quagmire” analogies but added a new charge, bizarrely formulated: “In Vietnam,” he recalled, “the White House grew increasingly obsessed with victory, and increasingly divorced from the will of the people and any rational policy.”
“Obsessed with victory”? In the history of warfare, most parties have been “obsessed with victory” to one degree or another, ever since Caveman Ug first clubbed Caveman Glug. If you’re not “obsessed with victory,” you probably shouldn’t have got into the war in the first place. It would be more accurate to say that Kennedy and his multiplying ilk are obsessed with defeat, and they’re prepared to do what’s necessary to help inflict it. The famous photographs of the departing choppers lifting off from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon with pleading locals clinging to the undercarriage are images not just of defeat but also of the betrayals necessary to
accomplish it. “In reality,” writes John O’Sullivan in his splendid new book The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister, “the betrayal was truer than the defeat. America had not been defeated on the battlefield and South Vietnamese ground forces had themselves defeated a full-scale North Vietnamese invasion in 1972 when they still enjoyed U.S. air support. Not only did the United States withhold such support in 1975, but Congress also refused to supply even the ammunition and military supplies that it had promised when the American forces left. For some perverse psychological motive, the American establishment acted as if the United States would not be genuinely free of involvement in Vietnam until its allies were conquered and occupied.”
To be sure, not everyone was abandoned. The U.S. ambassador sportingly offered asylum to a former Cambodian prime minister, Sirik Matak. “I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion,” he replied. “I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty.” As O’Sullivan adds: “It was worse than that. In the final hours, America switched sides.” Sirik Matak stayed in Phnom Penh and was murdered by the Khmer Rouge, but so were another 1.7 million people, and in a pile of skulls that high it’s hard to remem-
her this or that individual. Still, it’s startling, given the appalling slaughter that arose in the wake of “peace,” to find vulgar braggarts like John Kerry and Pinch Sulzberger (the New York Times publisher) still preening and congratulating themselves for their stance three decades later.
O’Sullivan’s book is not about the seventies but about their antidote: Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul IL I ought to declare a slight interest: he and I have the same publisher. On the other hand, my book is concerned with the vast impersonal tide of humanity—the demographic decline in Europe, Russia, China and Japan (and Canada), and the great surge of Islam, the millions of nonentities who cumulatively make up the numbers in the vital statistics databases. O’Sullivan comes at the big picture from the opposite end: a trio of decisive individuals who weren’t swept along by the currents but instead, through sheer force of personality, stopped historical inevitability cold in its tracks.
He subtitles the book “Three Who Changed the World,” and that’s undeniable. What’s more open to question by the end is whether the three “saved the world.” Mrs. Thatcher’s reign in particular is looking more and more like a magnificent interruption in Britain’s bizarre remorseless self-dissolution: whether or not the British people were worthy of her efforts, her own wretched party certainly wasn’t. The Conservatives’ current leader, whose name escapes me, is a philosophically
unmoored squish of almost parodie modishness who demonstrates political “courage” by boasting about how much of Thatcherism’s core values he’s willing to toss overboard. O’Sullivan thinks this a mere phase the Tory party is going through: “Once it recovers from its continuing nervous breakdown, it will surely set her next to Churchill in its pantheon.” But it’s not clear it ever will recover from its breakdown, which makes admission to its pantheon somewhat moot. As for the Pope, whatever his achievements in eastern Europe and beyond, in the Catholic heartland he was unable to halt the Church’s long decline and the literally morbid self-absorption of post-Christian Europe.
And what of America? Of all three figures, Ronald Reagan, buoyant and optimistic, would seem to be the one most obviously in tune with his people. When I first read an advance
copy of this book a week or two before America’s mid-term elections, it was heroic and inspiring. Rereading it again a couple of months later, the early section on the seventies—“The Nightmare Years,” in O’Sullivan’s admirably blunt designation—now seems unnervingly topical. He puts a question mark after “The Decline Of The West?” but it was pretty much a given in those days. “The Carter administration,” he declares, “was a postAmerican administration before the concept of post-Americanism had been invented... They assumed that the ‘American century’ had come to a premature end.” It wasn’t just that Carter was woefully inadequate to the challenge of the times but that his inadequacy was presented as a kind of moral virtue. His promise of a government “as good as the American people” is characteristic of the man both in its vanity and its casual slur of his predecessors. One line, from a commencement address at Notre Dame, captures the style:
“We are now free of that inordinate fear of Communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear.” As O’Sullivan notes, that single sentence performs multiple tasks: it “exonerated the Soviets,” “indicted the United States,” and advertised a new hostility toward “unrespectable allies” who shared traditional views of the apparently non-existent Communist threat. The Carter administration was not homogenous: it was a freak-show coalition of sanctimonious narcissists committed to specious concepts of “global justice,” sixties radicals reflexively attracted to whichever option conflicted most with America’s interests, and foreign-policy “realists” who’d concluded that Soviet Communism was a permanent but stable feature of the global scene.
The realists were unreal on both counts: the Commies proved in the eighties not to be permanent, but in the seventies they were certainly profoundly destabilizing, gobbling up previously Anglo-American real estate across the planet from Vietnam to Aden to Grenada, and, through dupes like Trudeau, neutering much of the West under the euphemism of “détente.” Reagan, Thatcher and the Pope refused'to accept these “new realities.” They were fighting not just foreign adversaries but the domestic conventional wisdom, too: when John Paul interrupted the Sandinistas’ attempts to hijack a papal Mass in Managua by crying “Silencio\” and striding downstage to wave his crozier, it was surely more discomforting to Harold Pinter, John Kerry and Ortega’s other Western groupies than to audiences in Latin America.
The single episode that symbolizes the repudiation of Carterian “malaise” is the Falklands War. To Moscow and the world, Carter had embodied the West as a smiling eunuch, a ditherer who belatedly dispatched the helicopters to Iran only to have them crash in the desert and sit by as cocky mullahs poked the corpses of U.S. servicemen on TV. Why would the toothless arthritic British lion prove any more formidable? But O’Sullivan reminds us not just of Mrs. Thatcher’s determination to win the war, but of the demented pressure she faced in the wake of liberation to reward Argentina for its aggression—to, in effect, give away her victory. “We were prepared to negotiate before,” she said, “but not now. We have lost a lot of blood, and it’s the best blood.” Or as a British sergeant put it: “If they’re worth fighting for, then they must be worth keeping.”
He’s right. Yet the unreal realpolitik cynics know the tactical price of everything but the strategic value of nothing. The Falklands were an itsy-bitsy colonial footnote, costly to win and hold. But, says O’Sullivan, “Thatcher saw that a much larger prize was at stake. To make
a diplomatic retreat the climax of what had become a great national cause would have confirmed and perpetuated the dismal myth of postwar British decline.” Instead, “victory produced what became known as the ‘Falklands effect’—a revival of British self-confidence across the board and of Britain’s reputation internationally.”
The Falklands wasn’t just about the Falklands, any more than Iraq is about Iraq. In Congress today they’re re-subscribing to the defeatist myths—the invincibility of the insurgent, then Marxist, now Islamist, but plus ça change. This invaluable book reminds us that while threats come and go, the pathologies of free societies remain distressingly constant. It feels like the seventies, and it shouldn’t. M
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