A great force for good

Posted: Feb 18, 2006 9:05 AM
Is the United States good? Or bad? For the average American reading the paper or watching the news, the answer is obvious -- and wrong.

Just this week, CNN unveiled “new” photos from abu Gharib prison in Iraq. Meanwhile, The New York Times told of a United Nations’ report that criticized our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The U.N. urged the U.S. to “refrain from any practice amounting to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, discrimination on the basis of religion and violations of the right to health and freedom of religion.” Sound advice -- right from the folks who put Sudan on a human rights commission.

Of course, pessimism about the U.S., our methods and our goals is nothing new. Last year at this time, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., warned that in Iraq, “Our military and the insurgents are fighting for the same thing -- the hearts and minds of the people -- and that is a battle we are not winning.”

Amid such negativism, it’s always welcome to catch a glimpse of sunlight -- and that’s just what readers will find in Martin Gilbert’s new book “Churchill and America.”

Gilbert is a decorated historian, prolific author and Winston Churchill’s official biographer. He has literally written the book on the great British prime minister, a larger-than-life figure who lived through most of the 20th century and did much to shape it.

In this volume, Gilbert focuses particularly on Churchill’s relationship with the United States, which he saw as a great force for good in the world. Rather than push the U.S. away, Churchill wanted to embrace it. “Never be separated from the Americans,” he warned his cabinet just before he stepped aside as prime minister in 1955. He’d spent the preceding decades making sure Britain took his advice.

That’s because Churchill recognized that American military power would spread peace and prosperity around the world. The United States, he announced in 1946, was “at the pinnacle of world power.” That power, he warned, came with “an awe-inspiring accountability to the future.” It would be up to Britain and America, the great democratic nations of the world, “to guard the homes of the common people from the horrors and miseries of another war.”

Together, we have. That would certainly have made Churchill proud, although he’d be less pleased with the United Nations he helped create. “We must make sure,” he announced in his famous Fulton, Mo. speech, “that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words.” Sadly, the U.N. has fallen far short of that ideal.

Churchill respected American military might, but he also recognized our creativity. “If I were to be born again, there is one country in which I would want to be a citizen,” Churchill told President Harry Truman in 1946. “There is one country where a man knows he has an unbounded future.” The United States.

Near the end of his life, Churchill realized that dream when he became an honorary citizen in 1963. Gilbert reports it was the first time Congress ever granted honorary citizenship to a foreigner.

Yet for all the positives Churchill saw in the U.S., he was also perceptive about our difficulties.

During his first tour of the U.S. in 1895, the 20-year-old Churchill noted the country had excellent railways but unattractive money. “The communication of New York is due to private enterprise while the state is responsible for the currency,” he observed. “I come to the conclusion that the first class men of America are in the counting houses and the less brilliant ones in the government.” More than 110 years later, having watched the government bungle the response to Hurricane Katrina while private companies excelled, who could argue with that observation?

In 1954 Churchill noted “that America could stand alone in the world.” But he suggested we shouldn’t, because we needed to guard the planet “against the intolerable philosophy of communism.” We did that, just as we’ll now guard against the intolerable philosophy of terrorism and radical Islamism.

When he was invited to address Congress in 1941, Churchill told lawmakers, “if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own.”

Churchill was “very proud of his blood connections” to the U.S. We all ought to be -- no matter what the newspapers say. The “essence of American journalism,” Churchill wrote in 1895, “is vulgarity divested of truth.”

In fact, the media is better than Churchill reported. But so are we the people of the United States -- no matter what journalists say.