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book review

Conrad Black sits down for an interview with the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente on May 14, 2013.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Americans know that theirs is a great country. They may not particularly like their government or its policies, but they rarely doubt its fundamental greatness. This was brought into focus for me several years ago when, as a newly transplanted American, I stood in front of a University of Toronto history class and tried to explain American exceptionalism to a roomful of (mostly) Canadian students. Puzzled and skeptical, they kept asking, "Where do Americans get this idea that they're so great?"

Now comes Conrad Black with his new book, Flight of the Eagle: A Strategic History of the United States, to provide an answer. American exceptionalism, he tells us, is no accident of geography and happenstance; rather it was created by strong leaders making smart strategic decisions. (The American edition is subtitled "The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership.") The book is a straightforward diplomatic-military-political narrative (Black gives us the vote counts and electoral college counts for every presidential election from John Adams to Barack Obama). Readers looking for social, cultural or intellectual history will not find it here. Instead, Black reviews the grand strategic performances – and some not so grand – of each presidential administration. The book is a top-down history, and a selective one at that.

Academic historians have long gone over this same ground but have come up with more complex, multifaceted answers than just great men and grand strategy with an occasional dollop of Providence. Michael H. Hunt's The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance finds that, in addition to reliable leaders and a strong state, the rise of the United States was fuelled by economic development (actively promoted by government), technological innovation,and a shared national mission or purpose.

Michael Adas, in Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America's Civilizing Mission, argues that technology was more than a tool of American expansion; it was often the driving force in the "civilizing mission" that led to global dominance. And William O. Walker III, in National Security and Core Values in American History, points out that it was not confidence but fear, born out of the colonists' sense of enveloping danger, that generated the "security ethos" that motivated the nation's global engagement – while simultaneously jeopardizing the values of freedom and civil liberties that Americans hold dear. In the context of these and other historians' work, Flight of the Eagle does not offer much that is new.

The book outlines four phases in America's rise to global power. From the beginning, the founders of "The Aspirant State," George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, "exuded confidence in the exalted and exceptional destiny of America." Black credits these early leaders, plus James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, with the far-seeing strategic moves that produced independence, a superb Constitution, strong presidency and well-charted economic and foreign policies. But if America was "predestined" to greatness, how necessary were these "great men"?

Part two, "The Predestined People," covers an entire century, from the politics of slavery in the 1830s to the crisis of the Depression in the 1930s. That's a lot of history to pack into 180 pages, and the author necessarily omits quite a bit, including industrialization and the growth of cities, the displacement of native Americans, and the women's suffrage movement. He implies that westward expansion and economic growth were natural and "organic," but in fact the federal government made a strategic decision to subsidize railway expansion through enormous land grants and highly favourable financial terms. Among Black's highlights are the strategic brilliance and moral leadership of Abraham Lincoln in keeping the country together, the accomplishments of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt that established America as a great power and the strategic vision (if flawed execution) of Woodrow Wilson.

From 1933 to 1957, Black dubs the United States "the indispensable country." The dominant figure here is Franklin Roosevelt, about whom Conrad Black has written a hefty biography. Roosevelt, Black writes, led the nation "with consummate talent and astuteness" through Depression and war and "made it America's world to lead." As the United States took up the responsibility of leadership in the immediate postwar period, Black gives mostly high marks to Harry S Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles for their skillful handling of a succession of military and diplomatic challenges.

These men, however, were often merely reacting to one crisis after another, out of fear rather than grand strategy. Understanding little about the world beyond Europe, they frequently mistook homegrown nationalism for Soviet-directed aggression, with tragic or disastrous results. Black, however, believes it was a "smart move" for the Central Intelligence Agency to engineer the ousting of Mohammad Mossadegh from Iran in 1953, and he has only the mildest of comments on U.S. involvement (the CIA again) in the 1954 Guatemala coup. He considers the U.S. response to the Taiwan Strait crisis "a triumph" in facing down China (it could also be seen as Chiang Kai-shek yanking Eisenhower's chain).

In the final section, covering 1957 to the present, the United States becomes "The Supreme Nation." Black critiques John F. Kennedy's handling of the Bay of Pigs ("a debacle"), the Cuban missile crisis (mixed), and the Berlin Wall (courageous). The Vietnam War occupies a substantial place in the narrative, and Black deems Lyndon Johnson "a poor war leader" though "in some respects, an outstandingly capable president," which seems fair enough. (He also labels South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem "reasonably competent," a more dubious proposition.)

Richard Nixon, another biography subject of Black's, comes out best in the sorry tale of Vietnam – although Black counts among his successes the infamous bombing of Cambodia. Over all, Black deems Nixon a brilliant foreign policy president and considers Watergate a trumped-up episode, motivated by partisan politics. Ronald Reagan is another hero for his foreign strategy, his role in bringing down the Soviet Union, and even his economic policies – though Black approves of episodes such as the Grenada invasion, not a shining moment in U.S.-Caribbean relations.

After the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, the United States faced fewer major strategic challenges, and Black believes that the nation began to lose its edge. Even the 9/11 attack and the subsequent "War on Terror" did not call forth the same brilliant strategic leadership, though Black argues that George W. Bush did quite well in the Iraq war. "The United States in 2012 was in full decline by all normal measurements," he opines, citing a fundamentally unsound economy, faltering education and a corrupt judicial system (Black feels especially strongly about the latter).

Yet – like most Americans and unlike my Canadian students – he retains a basic faith in America's greatness. "God, Providence, fate, or the Muse have not withdrawn His or its blessing," he concludes, "and the Americans will return to the manifest destiny of being a sensibly motivated and even exemplary country again." Not everyone would agree that U.S. policy has been sensible or exemplary, or that America has always used its supremacy well. But when you have faith, who needs history?

Carol Chin teaches the history of U.S. foreign relations at the University of Toronto. She was born and raised in the United States.

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