Illusions of Collusion
BLOOD, CLASS, AND NOSTALGIA: ANGLO-AMERICAN IRONIES, By Christopher Hitchens. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux. 398 pp., $12.95 IT has been said that an Oxford graduate (such as Christopher Hitchens) can speak brilliantly on any subject at all - for five minutes. As proof, consider this free-swinging concoction, in which a five-minute critique of the long, complex Anglo-American political and ideological ``special relationship'' has been puffed up into nearly 400 pages of sneers, simplification, and speculation. The result tells us much about what celebrity journalists can get away with, what publishers are willing to underwrite, and what readers are offered.
Hitchens is indeed a quasi-celebrity, writing regularly for The Nation and Harper's, and frequently for other periodicals both in the United States and in Britain. He is deft at assembling words on a vaguely leftist story line, having written or co-edited five books since 1987. His forte is off-the-cuff polemics that puncture conventional wisdom - and the elites who expound it. For publishers this is reassuring: An author with an assured following is eminently bankable.
But what of actual content, ideas, professionalism? ``Blood, Class, and Nostalgia'' is a disaster, for Hitchens treats the ``special relationship'' as an elite fraud. In doing so, he mixes a lush, pretentious Establishment style - ``Saigon et ses environs,'' for example - with conspiratorial visions, a search for the dirty tricks and secrets that he identifies with the governing class.
Hitchens stands with the British investigative journalists - Duncan Campbell, Philip Knightly, Paul Greenglass, and others - who emerged from the intelligence scandals of the '70s and since have battled Mrs. Thatcher's hard line on press freedom. Their concern is factual, while Hitchens prefers easier work.
His theme here is that the decline of British power from the 1890s onward led the British establishment to initiate their willing American counterparts - he makes much of social connections, of parties, dinners, marriages, and private letters - into the joys of imperialism, the shared goal being to keep ``the lesser breeds'' in thrall throughout the world.
This is, of course, nonsense: The United States, which had invaded Canada in 1775 and 1812, and Mexico in 1846, and had flexed its muscles early on in Florida, the Pacific Northwest, and Central America, needed no coaching in the imperial way. And it is doubly nonsensical because the examples that Hitchens himself presents demonstrate that the ``special relationship'' was more an after-dinner banality than a solid connection, that its high-falutin' phrases were frequently overlaid by competition and conflict: Witness the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the arguments over a Second Front in 1943, and the Suez crisis in 1956. Hitchens's remarks on these frictions blatantly contradict his primary thesis of Anglo-American capitalist collusion, but to this he seems oblivious: His point is that the Establishment is deceitful and manipulative, whether conspiring for world power, or collapsing into civil wars.
Christopher Thorne, David Reynolds, William Rogers Louis, and many other scholars have created a vast scholarly literature on the ``special relationship,'' which Hitchens has plundered for the odd fact or quotation, but which he essentially ignores. And so his factual errors fairly trip over each other.
For example, consider Page 221, with three errors regarding World War II: that the American General Stilwell feared political motives behind British military operations in Southeast Asia (in reality, Stilwell feared everyone's motives and actually wanted a stronger British commitment); that Churchill faced difficulties with the Australians and New Zealanders about the ``indefinite provision of troops'' (Hitchens's phrasing is so vague as to be meaningless); and that General Marshall feared that the British were ``shirking'' a frontal assault on Germany and Japan (true about Germany in 1943, but there never was any question of British troops storming Japanese beaches).
Here is a book that points knowingly to ``ironies,'' yet distorts and trivializes the historical record it purports to respect: There's an irony for you!