For some years I've possessed, and often browse, a book titled, "The Collapse of British Power," by well-known British writer on war, Corelli Barnett.
I was telling a friend of Barnett's thesis: that the British (who seems to have done everything, built an empire and lost it, in "a fit of absent-mindedness") absent-mindedly collapsed just because they'd let their industrial plant decay. The world's one superpower after Napoleon's defeat, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, the "workshop of the world," by World War I Britain had already been overtaken industrially by Germany and America.
To wage that war, they actually had to buy machine tools from Germany, the nation they were fighting, secretly, through neutral countries. To win it, or rather be on the winning side, they had to have us, fighting alongside, and pouring out money and materials.
By the 1930s, Britain's leaders, the notorious "appeasers" of Nazi Germany, tried appeasing Hitler simply because they sensed, even if they didn't really know, that Britain no longer had the industrial base to wage total war against an industrial powerhouse like Germany.
Chamberlain, the arch appeaser, admitted he knew nothing of foreign affairs. As a former businessman, he worried only about the bottom line. If Britain splurged on military preparedness it would lose its remaining shriveled foreign trade and go broke.
When tough guy Churchill replaced him, Britain began arming itself all-out. But as early as December 1940, hardly a year into the war, the mighty British Empire stared bankruptcy in the face. Save for America, first mercilessly selling, afterwards charitably giving, the British money and material, the Brits wouldn't have won through. Even as it was, they won through only as our dutiful "client." He who laid down the money, as usual, laid down the law.
My friend, to whom I told this story, said, "We're doing the same thing. Our industry is moving to China and elsewhere." Will we be trying on the side to buy steel, machine tools, etc., from the Chinese while we're at war with them, sometime in the not-so-far future? It sounds awful, suicidal. The one hope seems to be that future wars may not depend on overwhelming money and material, as in the past. It's the "information age," we're told, not the mere steel age any longer. The fax machine overthrew Russian communism, they say. We're still the inventors, if not the manufacturers, of the traditional sinews of war. We still hog the Nobel prizes for science. One or two bunkerbuster bombs, nuclear-tipped or not, into Iran's or North Korea's underground witches' cauldrons, and it'd all be over. And we could sort out Iraq in two weeks (as we could've Vietnam) if we weren't so all-fired softhearted, so bemused by false doctrine. Islam (which has never yet won a Nobel prize) isn't going to pose us any mortal peril any time soon, merely a bloody nuisance. They want to stay in the Middle Ages. Let 'em! China, as far as one can see, poses us our only real danger. I'd feel a lot better if at least some of our old industrial powerhouse stayed here at home.
Bringing us back to Corelli Barnett. One cause of Britain's slide was its idealistic clinging to free trade, while the rest of the world (including us) built tarrif walls. Britain's agriculture died of cheap Argentinian beef and American wheat, even as our industries die of cheap foreign steel, etc. Oh, but NAFTA, etc., are good for the consumer! Like Chamberlain, our governent, "our" soulless multinationals, we ourselves, seem mesmerized by mere economics. The sacred "free market" is all very well, but not during "war or rumors of war." And just why did Britain let its industry decline? A passel of related reasons adding up to, in a word, yes, liberalism. With Napoleon whipped, Britannia ruling the waves, the Brits fancied their superiority was innate, would go on forever. They relaxed. Meanwhile a mushy new evangelical religion was sweeping the land, swamping the older, sterner Christianity (mankind is evil, depraved, damned!). No, no, man is innately good! If we can just get shed of those old social ill-arrangements, all will be well, we'll all live happily, peacefully, ever after.
So influenced, the buccaneers and robber barons who'd built imperial Britain sent their sons to those famous "public schools," where they were turned into "gentlemen." And nothing was good enough for a gentleman but the army, the church, law, medicine, government service, or mere leisure. "Trade," money-grubbing, just wasn't "good form." Dad's quaint, clanking old Dickensian factory brought in money enough. Never mind those crude Germans and Americans busy building superfactories, making a "second industrial revolution." Britain's 1930s leaders, afterwards known as "the guilty men," "the men of Munich," as Barnett points out, all came out of evangelical homes, out of schools where it was deemed more important to "play the game" (play fair) than actually to win. These men, Barnett says, had the sweet-reasonable worldview of "a country parson or a maiden aunt." If I can just sit down with Hitler and be nice to him, reasoned Chamberlain, all will be well. When war broke out, Hitler reassured his generals, "Our enemies are worms! I saw them at Munich." And worms they were. Civilization was saved by that very unwormlike, tough-minded mid-Victorian buccaneer-at-heart, Churchill.
We too, like the Brits, suffer that so-called "AngloSaxon fatal flaw" of "fair play," of considering the other fellow's case and interests even before our own. It's a cruel, harsh world out there! Let us "hold up our own tails, as every dog must do." Let us face reality: that there's such a thing as evil, evil men, evil empires, as Reagan knew and said. Liberals seem so eager to forget or deny all this, summed up in that illiberal old symbol, Original Sin.
I'm not a total pessimist about our future. Our heritage has yet the perfect consolation for us: "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong ... but time and chance happeneth to them all" (from the usually cheerless, super-pessimist Ecclesiastes, 9:11).
We might just survive, despite our own present seeming "fit of absent-mindedness."