02 May 2008

Nicholson Baker's World Wars - Part 4

Reviewers (especially British ones) of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke seem to have lost sight of an important fact. In 1938, London ruled over something like a quarter of the world. This wasn't any federal system, but more of a hodgepodge of regimes that had a direct relationship to the British monarchy. (Like the Trinity, the British monarchy is actually made up of multiple persons, in this case the Crown and Parliament.) If you were white, and living in the right place, you had some control over your affairs through local parliaments that let themselves be bound by London's foreign policy. If you weren't white, or lived in the wrong place, more than likely you had to do what you were told.

For some Americans, this situation was something to be protested. If an American opposed segregation, lynch law and the less lethal effects of prejudice against African-Americans, there was little in Britain's behaviour in its colonies to lend any regard to the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster. If you were a Zionist, or even just not hostile to Zionism, British conduct in Palestine during the 1930s, when it halted Jewish settlement, supplied grounds for Anglophobia. And one of the most vehement champions of the empire was the discredited Tory politician Winston Churchill.

As an American who did not see anything particularly democratic about government in London, where half the legislature were the sons of aristocrats who owed their place in authority to the fortunes of birth, one could also stand on an Atlantic shore, look east, and wonder just how much Europe's troubles really mattered. Your country has a strong navy. Aeroplanes can't fly three or four thousand miles easily, as Lindbergh's flight illustrated. (He was flying on fumes at the end.) The fields of the republic rolling westwards behind you are rich in natural resources, well developed, with an educated work force and plenty of entrepreneurial spirit.

How, in practical terms to this American, might the Nazi Reich in April 1940 differ from the Kaiser's Reich in May 1915? Both were undemocratic regimes where anti-Semitism was rampant. Both were militarized societies where accidents of birth counted for more than talent in securing social prestige. (If anything, Herr Hitler represented a more progressive situation, if a less cultured one.) Both were hotly opposed to left-wing socialist thinking. Both were aggressive states which had thrust Europe into conflict. The United States had little to show (except casualties) for Wilson's folly in 1917, as his political opponents declined to participate in his potentially catastrophic schemes to hamper the United States' freedom of action in diplomacy. We had pulled the chestnuts of a beleaguered British aristocracy - fat on the profits sucked out of India, Africa, and the Orient - out of the fire once before. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Baker is not embracing this argument in its entirety. He is coming at the war from an American perspective but in a more idealistic mode. However, what is curious in the response to Baker's book, the fact that a perfectly respectable political coalition was active in the United States during the period covered by Baker's book is glossed over. The coalition embraced pacifists like Baker, but also at least one ex-president and several senators of progressive, anti-corporate views - as well as the heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh.

What killed the coalition, which was focused on keeping America out of the European war, was not a sudden understanding of the true nature of the Nazis, nor the manipulations of Anglophile propaganda, but the diplomatic manouevres of the Roosevelt administration toward Japan. These gradually strengthened the hands of hard-liners in Tokyo, until they were able to compel a strategy of attack. All except the pacifist anti-war Americans could hardly sustain their position with the country under attack.

We are back to J. H. Plumb's Past, or as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once said - "it is only...present experience, our present reconstruction of the past,that is real, not the past as such." So what is this past that weighs so heavily on the critical response to Human Smoke, and how do its sins of omission actually constitute not history, but politics?

(to be continued)

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