BOOK REVIEW: ‘Flight of the Eagle’: U.S. Not Exceptional Any More, But Still Capable of Finding Leadership When It’s Needed

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 

“God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America.”–Otto von Bismarck….this is disputed by some historians, although Walter Russell Mead used part of it, “Special Providence,” for the title of a book.

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else” — Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965) British prime minister, journalist, historian and American on his mother’s side.

Conrad Black’s “Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership” (Encounter Books, 760 pages {press material says 834, but I counted 760}, with an introductory note by Henry A. Kissinger, $35.99,  discounted by Encounter and is a sprawling, often unruly book –like the writer himself — but one which begs to be read by anyone who wants a candid — dare I say warts and all  —  look at U.S. history.

It’s a fast-forward look at the nation’s history, from colonial beginnings to the present day. Through his analysis of the strategic development of the United States, from 1754-1992, the Canadian-born   former newspaper baron describes the nine “phases” of the strategic rise of the nation, in which it progressed through grave challenges, civil and foreign wars, and secured a place for itself under the title of “Superpower.” He addresses the present times and America’s future in the hopes that it will return to the dynamism of great leadership and pre-eminence in the world, which it richly earned and still shows signs of today.

The nine “phases” are not specifically outlined in the book — as they should have been — but are outlined below in an email sent to the present reviewer by the publisher:

  1. Collaborating with the British in the eviction of the French from America. (Franklin, Washington)
  2. Inducing the French to help evict the British from America. (Franklin, Washington)
  3. Setting up workable republican institutions with a leader who set the example of avoiding recourse to military intervention in government and voluntary withdrawal from the highest office, and recognizing the potential for economic growth. (Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Jay)
  4. Balancing the continued existence of slavery with refusal to tolerate secession until the North grew strong enough to be able to suppress the insurrection when it came. (Jackson, Polk)
  5. Waging the Civil War to suppress the insurrection and tucking emancipation of the slaves into it as an ostensible furtherance of the chief war aim, as well as for moral reasons. (Lincoln)
  6. Allowing America to be America and grow rapidly and freely in population and economic productivity with a strong currency and no foreign distractions. (Grant, Cleveland, McKinley et al.)
  7. Taking its place among the Great Powers with both the sinews of national strength and an uplifting moral purpose. (Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson)
  8. Restoring prosperity and an equitable distribution of it, setting aside isolationism, helping vitally to keep Britain and Canada and Russia in the war, engineering an entry into WWII with a united national opinion, conducting the war brilliantly so that the West retrieved Germany, France, Italy, and Japan, but Russia took 95% of the casualties fighting the Germans, and recognizing the strategic necessity of American involvement with Western Europe and East Asia. (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
  9. The containment strategy of deterring international Communism and inducing its gradual decay and collapse without a general war. (Truman, Marshall, Acheson, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Kennan, Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan)

From the front flap of the dust jacket: “Like an eagle  American colonists ascended from the gulley of British dependence to the position of sovereign world power in a period of merely two centuries. Seizing territory in Canada and representation in Britain; expelling the French, and even their British forefathers, American leaders George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson paved their nation’s way to independence. With the first buds of public relation techniques—of communication, dramatization, and propaganda—America flourished into a vision of freedom, of enterprise, and of unalienable human rights.”

In the warts department — the reference is to British 17th Century leader Oliver Cromwell,  who instructed his portrait painter to not make him flawless — Black describes slavery, from the start of the nation perhaps the biggest wart of all. He deals with the hypocrisy of slaveowners talking about liberty; about presidents like Jefferson and Jackson and their contempt for Native Americans, our seemingly endless land grabs that drastically reduced the land area of Mexico; our flimsy excuses for the Spanish-American War and the non-existent “Gulf of Tonkin” incident in 1964 that fueled the needless Vietnam War. Etc., Etc. Etc. Those et ceteras  include the non-existent weapons of mass destruction that led us into another useless “search of monsters to destroy” in Iraq, Black notes, adding that our biggest mistake in the 2003 invasion, aside from the invasion itself, was disbanding the almost 500,000 strong Iraq army and letting the nation descend into chaos.

In the passage “Seeing America Plain,” beginning on Page 697, Black writes that the U.S. (in 2012) was in “full decline by all normal measurements. Its economy was sluggish, misprinted to discarded criteria of mindless consumption, low investment, and no savings; its justice system was corrupt and oppressive….” (in a footnote on page 698 Black describes his own conviction and incarceration in a federal fraud trial; I’ve reprinted that note below the “About the Author).

While I was preparing to write this review, I came across a fascinating essay by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in New York magazine (July 21, 2013)  headlined “The Blip” that poses the question: “What if everything we’ve come to think of as American is predicated on a freak coincidence of economic history? And what if that coincidence has run its course?” Here’s the link to this essay:

Black, the author of critically acclaimed biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, is kind to those two outsized, immensely talented and often flawed leaders. I agree with him that both men, all aspects consideredl, are far superior to our recent run of presidents, including Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama. Those who base their view of Nixon on the tawdry but minor Watergate burglary shouldn’t forget that Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and — with the superb diplomacy of Kissinger — established diplomatic relations with Communist China and paved the way for the destruction of the Soviet Union as a competing superpower.

FDR was the indispensable president, Black says, even though it’s pretty clear that he provoked Japan into its horribly misguided attack on Pearl Harbor through oil and scrap metal embargoes.

Truman gets his due for the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in a part of the book that will not sit well with a fair amount of readers. Black describes the battle of the “almost” Home Island  of Okinawa in early 1945 and says that the actual Home Islands of Japan would be defended to the death, resulting in horrendous American casualties and the virtual destruction of Japan.

Any book of this size is bound to have some errors, but considering the relatively poor state of book copy editing these days, “Flight of the Eagle” had relatively few. Here are two that I found:

1.) Henry Gassaway Davis, the vice presidential choice of Democratic Party presidential nominee Alton Parker in the 1904 election, was a West Virginia coal baron, not a Virginia one (Page 291).

2) The WWI German foreign secretary behind a purported telegram that precipitated the U.S.’s entry into that unnecessary war (most are) was Arthur Zimmermann, not Zimmerman as Black spells it (Page 317).

My final grading of this idiosyncratic, high opinionated work of history: I liked it. Black’s assessments and summings up probably won’t satisfy either liberals or conservatives — whatever they are these days — but Black’s views agree with mine so many times, I couldn’t help smiling as I read on. We’re both pre-boomers, so that might have influenced me. I was born in a border state — Michigan — that is always aware of Black’s native Canada and has today a good relationship with Ontario, in particular. Michigan recently had a Canadian-born governor — an outstanding one, in my opinion — Jennifer Granholm.

Conrad Black

Conrad Black

About the author

Conrad Moffat Black, Baron Black of CrossharbourPCOCKSG, born August 25, 1944 in Montreal,  wrote acclaimed biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. He was the chairman of the Telegraphnewspapers in Britain, 1987-2003, and founded the National Post in Canada, where he remains a columnist. He also writes in the National Review OnlineThe New Criterion, and the Huffington Post. He has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2001. He lives in Canada.

He graduated from Carlton University with a bachelor’s degree in History in 1965 and completed his law degree in 1970 at Université Laval. He completed a master’s degree in history in 1973 at McGill University.

* * *

Here’s that Page 698 footnote about Black’s conviction and incarceration:

“Disclosure: I was charged with 17 counts of financial and related crimes in 2003, of which four were abandoned, nine rejected by juries, four unanimously  vacated by the Supreme Court of the U.S.  and two spuriously and self-servingly retrieved by a lower-court judge whom the high court had excoriated but to whom it remanded the four counts for assessment of the gravity of his own errors. I was sent to prison for three years and two weeks, where I was a tutor and teacher [Black has an undergraduate degree in history and a law degree], able to help over a hundred fellow inmates to matriculate. The chance that I would eve5r have committed a crime have always been less than zero, and I was able to assess the terrible imbalances and excess of contemporary U.S. justice.”


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