Tag Archives: British Empire

The Strange Bedfellows in US Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June 2009. Today, Egyptians are protesting to remove Mubarak from power. Photo via the San Francisco Sentinel

At one point, the United States, a beacon of democracy and freedom, turned to a despotic, autocratic tyrant for friendship and alliance during a volatile period.

As soon as the situation was resolved, however, that very same despotic regime caused mixed feelings among Americans, often leading to violent confrontation.

By the way, I’m not talking about Egypt.

It was 1778, and a young United States turned to France, an absolute monarchy almost completely anathema to the ideals of the young nation, as an ally in its war for independence against the British Empire.

When that very same regime became engulfed in revolution a decade later, the new regime divided Americans as never before—and confused US foreign policy into a “quasi-war” with France from 1798-1800.

The recent turmoil in Egypt has us looking at the often strange decisions made in the name of national interest.  In looking at the protests aimed to oust Hosni Mubarak, many classrooms will be full of questions about the situation.  They range from the mundane (“Where is Egypt?”) to the profound (“How can we resolve the situation?”) and even the profoundly dumb (“Who cares about Egypt?”).

Yet one question cannot be avoided: “Why are we friends with a guy like Mubarak in the first place?”

It’s time to teach your kids the painful truth about American diplomacy—it makes for strange bedfellows who tend to stay too long in the sack.

It doesn’t stop at Mubarak and the corpulent king of France.  Josef Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong (once he was dying), the folks in China after Mao kicked the bucket, Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, the entire Thai government, Ngo Dinh Diem, Syngman Rhee, the assholes after Syngman Rhee, Islam Karimov, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein (before he got greedy),The Saudi Monarchy, The monarchies of the rest of the Gulf states, Mobutu Sese Seko, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the white regimes in both Rhodesia and South Africa, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza (plus the other Somozas), Manuel Noriega (before he got greedy), Marcos Perez Jimenez, Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Banzer, Alfredo Stroessner and the host of lovable scamps involved in military governments in Brazil and Argentina.

All of these people rotting in hell (we hope).  All of these people received, at one point or another, the blessing, cooperation, and (the important part) funding from the most powerful democracy on Earth.

We were often taught that the United States was “special” amongst its brethren nations in that its high moral purpose and philosophical vision would mean its actions would also be of such moral stature.  The US wouldn’t stoop to make treaties with dictatorships, nor “torture” prisoners for information: Americans “just don’t do that sort of thing.”

Well, not only do we do “that sort of thing,” but we’re real good at it—since we’ve been doing it since our founding.

Foreign relations, one learns quickly, has very little to do with lofty philosophical ideals or moral imperatives.  To be sure, the base of diplomacy lies more in the market bazaar than the debating hall: economics and mutual security drive national ties far more than shared ideology.

Today’s diplomatic landscape certainly owes much to our wallets.  In the United States, most people worry about gas and consumer prices. Thus, we make nice with two nasty regimes that take care of our needs. The Saudis and their autocratic buddies in the Gulf take care to juice up our SUVs and assorted land monsters.  The Chinese and their sundry client states around the South China Sea make sure your little brats get everything they want for Christmas—as well as stock your shelves at Wal-Mart and Target.

During the Cold War, the United States’ biggest diplomatic priorities were thwarting Communism and spreading American ideals—in that order.  To wit, many of the people we cozied up to from the 1940s to the 1990s shared only an intense anti-Communist streak.  Being that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the US looked the other way as dissidents were slaughtered in soccer stadiums, tortured with electrodes, and subjected to inhuman conditions while everything, at least on the surface, looked rosy.

As far as Egypt goes, the mutual enemy isn’t Communism but rather Islamic fundamentalism.  The Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal Islamist group that allegedly masterminded the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 (leading to Mubarak’s accession), is the great bogeyman of the Egyptian government.  Mubarak fears that his departure would cede Egypt to the Brotherhood, thus plunging the ancient country into the darkness of an Islamic state.  I’m not completely convinced this is the case, considering the impact of the military on the country, but it’s been reason enough for the United States to stand by Mubarak for three decades.

The United States is not alone in allying itself with distasteful regimes.  Other countries, notably in Europe, have done the same thing. To an extent, these connections provide the United States with many of the products, materials and resources we need at the prices we want.  The average American has, on the whole, benefitted at least economically from these questionable partnerships.

Yet as you think about the people risking their lives in Cairo, Alexandria and all over Egypt, one can’t help wondering: is it worth it?

There’s no easy answer to that.  We cannot judge all foreign policy as a whole: relations with each country have their own characteristics.  Yet the better students can see how all aspects of national identity—economic, military, financial and ethical—affect international relations, all the better for the American diplomats of the future.

The following are some resources about US foreign policy with dictators as well as about the Egypt crisis:

An article from Salon.com featuring three authoritarian regimes that are friendly with the US.

A Report about US policy towards dictatorships from the Cato Institute made during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.

A 2002 Global Issues article about support for dicatorships and terrorism.

YouTube compilations of news coverage of the Egyptian protests.

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In Defense of “The King’s Speech”

During my winter break, I saw one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

A week later, I saw a review of that movie—from a respectable magazine—that missed the point entirely.

I’m a bit of an Anglophile at heart, and watching The King’s Speech reinforced my love of all things British. Tom Hooper’s magisterial film about the accidental accession—and heartbreaking speech struggles—of George VI (played by Colin Firth) is one of the best films I have seen in a long time. It reminded me of how movies used to be made: with purpose, elegance, painstaking detail and thoughtful gravitas.

As a director, Hooper is already developing a fan base among my students. As the force behind the HBO miniseries John Adams, Hooper gets serious kudos in the classrooms where I integrate his work in my lessons. The direction and lighting of the Boston Massacre scene in the first episode is particularly noteworthy, and gets plenty of airtime with my students.

That said, it was something of a shock when I read Isaac Chotiner’s review of The King’s Speech in The New Republic last week. In a scathing blast, Chotiner dismisses the work as “historically inaccurate, entirely misleading, and, in its own small way, morally dubious.” Specifically, he cites the downplaying of Edward VIII’s pro-Nazi tendencies, the “distortion” of Churchill’s character, and the supposed ingenuous conclusion that “Bertie”, George VI’s nickname, was anti-fascist from the beginning, overlooking political missteps.

Chotiner’s review, apart from dripping with Anglo-hatred and smug intellectual doubletalk, suffers on two points. He is very selective himself of certain historical inaccuracies. Furthermore, in his nitpicking, Chotiner neglects to see the film for what it is.

Anyone can pick and choose the facts that best suit them, and Chotiner gives us a smorgasboard.

Yet the best facts are those that are overlooked.

While Chotiner harps on Edward’s flings with Nazis in 1937, subsequently to be put out of the way as governor of the Bahamas, he neglected to look at things from the German point of view. Hitler, even before Edward and Wallis’ visit, had a fond view of Britain, especially her colonial empire. This was cultivated not by any crowned head, but a former prime minister, David Lloyd George, who visited Hitler in 1935 and had got along smashingly with the Fuhrer.

Looking at Operation Sea Lion, Germany’s presumptive occupation of Britain, supports this view. The occupation had no role for Edward, partly due to his place in the Caribbean, but mostly due to Nazi understanding that more important leaders, such as Lord Halifax, could manage the occupied British Empire, especially her other dominions. Edward’s threat to British liberal government is thus grossly inflated.

Churchill, an early supporter of Edward, also warrants scrutiny, according to Chotiner. Here he bears some credit—some. Winston Churchill was a steadfast supporter of Edward during the 1936-1937 accession crisis, a fact glossed over by the film (although in the film, it isn’t clear at what point in the crisis Churchill discusses the succession with Bertie). Yet although his decision was shocking to his allies, as Chotiner claims, it was not so deplorable to the majority of British voters that supported Edward as well.

Churchill was (gasp!) practicing good politics in supporting the wayward Windsor, even as the political elites in both parties expressed disapproval. Edward, as a dashing force for modernizing and de-formalizing the royal family, was seen as a humanizing force by the British public, who overwhelmingly supported Edward over his stammering younger brother Albert.

In bad taste? Most certainly. Yet Churchill the politician was simply pandering to the electorate, which keeps in line with his political comeback of the 1930s.

Lastly, Chotimer claims that the future George VI was a reluctant anti-fascist, although the film supposedly depicts him as anti-fascist throughout. His evidence is the viewing of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 at Buckingham Palace after the Munich agreement, an agreement that postponed World War II for less than a year.

Really?

Show off your own prime minister off a balcony and he’s an appeaser who “violated protocol” in endorsing the actions of a prime minister—which were disastrous in HINDSIGHT?

It’s flimsy, to say the least. And he neglects to paint the same bleak picture when George VI does the exact same thing with Winston Churchill on V-E day in 1945. He certainly endorsed a prime minister then for his foreign policy: shouldn’t he merit the same scrutiny then?

There is plenty of evidence that proves George VI’s loyalty and duty to his people. He worked a remarkable personal relationship with Franklin Roosevelt and his wife during the desperate period of the Battle of Britain. When advisors warned him to escape, George stayed in London with his beleaguered people, enduring blackouts, rations and boarded-up windows at Buckingham Palace (just ask Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited). A German bomb landed on their lawn, to demonstrate the danger. George and his family made a point to visit military bases, towns, bombed-out factories and villages all over the British Isles, even at great personal risk.

That was just during the war. The New Republic being a more liberal tome, it would hearten Chotimer to see George’s early advocacy of racial equality. He was the first royal to play tennis with a black man in 1927 in Jamaica, which shocked local elites as a perceived sign of racial equality. In 1947, in a tour of South Africa, George was appalled when the white racist government insisted that the king shake hands only with whites. He would have none of that, referring to the South African security forces derisively as “The Gestapo.”

In sum, although Chotimer brings up interesting points about the film’s subject matter—even alluding that it would make a superb film—he misses the point entirely, largely due to a bias against royals and for deeper accuracy at the expense of quality filmmaking.

Chotimer remarks, in words dripping with disdain, that

“This heartwarming tale plays out predictably and unsubtly—The King’s Speech is one of those films that is not content to show us a friendship developing over two hours; no, the characters must also tell us how much the friendship means to them.”

Liberals don’t like to be told anything. Heck, I can’t stand being told things myself.

Yet in a vapid cinematic landscape, where amateur directors bend over backwards to be subtle, ironic, and overly symbolic to the point of tedium, we often need to be reminded—not TOLD, but reminded—of the way films used to be made, of heroes and foils, of dark times and heroic deeds that gets lost in the minute inconvenience of fact.

I saw The King’s Speech with my sister, herself a left-leaning liberal with a low opinion of the royal family. We both wept numerous times during the film. She turned to me and asked in the most sincere way, “Where are the people like that today?”

Where, indeed.

George VI, to be sure, was a reluctant monarch who had his faults and would misstep during his reign. Yet the film was not about his politics. It was not about Edward’s appeasements or his Nazi sympathies. It wasn’t about Winston Churchill. It certainly wasn’t about Hitler.

At its heart, The King’s Speech is not about king nor about any one address he gives. It is about a man with a tough childhood that produced a debilitating speech impediment. He gives up on his improvement until fate, and world events, hand him an enormous responsibility. In building a relationship with his teacher, as well as confronting his own demons, George VI learned to overcome his disability to deliver a message of hope and encouragement to his people when they really needed it.

It’s about how a man from who little was expected could deliver so much to his people.

This is what made George VI among Britain’s greatest monarchs.

It is why I loved The King’s Speech. I only wish that others, especially other writers, felt the same way.

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This Day in History 11/29: The 1781 Zong Massacre

Print of the crew of the Zong throwing sick Africans overboard (1781)

Movements can often be sparked by the most inane and ordinary of circumstances.

In the case of abolition, one could argue that it all began with an insurance fraud case.

On November 29, 1781, the Zong, a slave ship carrying Africans to Jamaica, had a problem.  Two months before, in their zeal for profits, the crew of the Zong stuffed the hold of the ship with more Africans than it could carry.  By November, malnutrition and disease had taken the lives of seven crew members and almost 60 enslaved Africans.

Luke Collingwood, captain of the Zong, now made what he considered the best decision to stem the losses for his bosses in Liverpool.  If he continued sailing, and delivered a pile of corpses to the Kingston docks, the owners had no redress.  If, however, the sick Africans were lost at sea, then the shipowners’ insurance would cover the loss.  Under the “jettison” clause, enslaved persons were considered cargo, and their loss would be covered at £30 per head.

So on November 29, Collingwood did the “logical” thing: he ordered 54 sick Africans dumped overboard.  Another 42 perished the next day, and 26 the day after that.  10 Africans voluntarily flung themselves overboard, in an act of defiance against the captain’s decision.  In all, 122 Africans were thrown overboard.

Yet when the ship owners filed their claim with the insurance company, things went downhill.  The insurers disputed the claims of the captain and the owners–largely on the testimony of James Kelsall, First Mate on the Zong.  According to the insurance claim, the Africans were thrown overboard “for the safety of the ship,” as there wasn’t enough water for the cargo and crew to survive the rest of the voyage.  But Kelsall–who expressed doubts early on to Collingwood about the scheme–testified that there was plenty of water for the remaining leg of the journey.  Indeed, when the Zong reached Jamaica on the 22nd of December, there was 422 gallons of drinking water in the hold.

The case went to court, and the court ruled in favor of Collingwood and the owners.  During the appeals process, an ex-slave and author, Olaudah Equiano, brought the case–soon to be known as the “Zong Massacre”–to the attention of Granville Sharp, one of Britain’s leading early abolitionists.  Sharp immediately became involved in the prosecution of the appeal, even though eminent jurists such as John Lee, Soliciter General for England and Wales, dismissed the affair stating “the case was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” This time, the court ruled that the ship owners were not eligible for insurance since the water in the hold proved that the cargo was mismanaged.

Sharp and his colleagues tried to press murder charges against Collingwood and the owners, but to no avail.  The Solicitor General, John Lee, stated that:

“What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgement of an experienced well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”

Lee hoped the matter would rest with his decision.  Instead it unleashed a firestorm.

Within a few years of the Zong Massacre, abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and James Ramsay issued pamphlets and essays condemning the conditions of the slave trade.  Together with Sharp and Equiano, they would approach a young member of Parliament from Yorkshire, William Wilberforce, to take up the cause of abolition.

Beginning in 1784, Wilberforce would lead a 50-year struggle in Parliament to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  The efforts of abolitionists such as these led to the 1807 law abolishing the slave trade.  26 years later, the British Parliament outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire.  The British abolition movement inspired similar movements worldwide–including a burgeoning anti-slavery movement across the Atlantic that would lead to civil war and eventual emancipation.

And to think…it was all sparked by insurance fraud.

For more information about the Zong Massacre, here are some helpful sites:

Information about the slave ship Zong (1781)

Lesson Plan about the Zong case

Gloucestershire, UK County Council website about Granville Sharp and the Zong Massacre

British National Archives catalog of documents relating to the Zong affair

A Jamaican perspective on the Zong incident

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