In the interests of freedom

John Davidson reviews Niall Ferguson's American colossus

I can only hope that not too many people wasted a whole two hours watching this programme: its political statement was based on that worst of all ‘controversial’ viewpoints - an attack on the US government from the right.

            This was, of course, not any kind of anti-Americanism, but instead an attempt to justify the idea that the various administrations of the last century had failed to perform their supposed duty to follow in the footsteps of the British empire, which is so strongly promoted in a rather pathetic book (titled simply Colossus), written by ‘historian’ Niall Ferguson, the programme’s presenter. And no, he is not concerned with the vicious brutality of British colonialism - he informs us how much better Africans feel now that they can speak English.

            However, he takes this ‘theory’ to bizarre conclusions - we are told that it would have been worthwhile to launch nuclear strikes on the Chinese in 1953 so that they could enjoy the fruits of liberal democracy.

            For someone who has apparently made a career out of lecturing on current affairs, Ferguson is remarkably naive. For this programme was unadulterated nationalism with an absurd unwillingness to stare facts in the face: his theory on the US collapsing in 10 years under the strain of its ageing population was tin-pot economics, since he seemingly had no idea that this result of the ‘baby boom’ will affect the EU much more seriously. Of course, the suggestion that the US does not generate enough wealth to care for its elderly citizens is another absurdity - whether it is willing to do so is a different question.

            The notion that imperialism is anything other than “a force for good” just did not feature in Ferguson’s remit. He was remarkably unaware of imperialism’s raison d’être; while he obviously thinks himself incredibly brave to refer to the US as an empire, the idea that the purpose of such an empire is to spread democracy around the world is rather lacking for a ‘historian’. After all, given that the countries the US has bombed since World War II have not tended to become democracies afterwards, he could only offer Japan and Germany as examples of where the Americans had made a difference in this regard - Ferguson went on to blame the US for following these examples in too few cases.

            However, the learned professor did have an alternative reason why countries such as Vietnam, Libya, Iraq and North Korea have not become democracies, which was that too little force had been employed to impose it. Adopting very much the approach of army generals who use phrases such as ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it’ and ‘Better dead than unfree’, he clearly felt that gung-ho nuclear attacks on cities were the way to go as regards liberation.

            However, rather like British troops shooting down spear-wielding indigenous warriors with repeater rifles (also not the focus of his book), I do not exactly think that this would have been too effective in achieving liberation, except perhaps in ‘saving people from the Cultural Revolution’ - by killing them off before it started.

            However, perhaps the most laughable aspect of this fundamentally flawed programme was the fact that he had such a perverse view on what his profession actually stands for. While he contrasted the myths of US history with the reality, he clearly does not feel that the same exercise is appropriate when it comes to the British empire, since it passed his test of introducing civilisation to barbaric foreigners.

            The programme’s central agenda was such an inane affirmation of the chauvinist idea that certain nations have a manifest destiny to bring order to the rest of the world, that it refused to see that freedom is actually possible where US power does not rule the roost. Indeed, it is impossible for freedom to exist in any genuine sense under either colonial or neo-colonial rule.

            Nevertheless, one of the most interesting parts of the programme was when Ferguson vented his criticism of anti-Vietnam war sentiment across the world. I thought how lucky I was to have such a man explain that my view of the conflict had been shaped by what was an example of “the winners writing history”: I had never realised before that the Vietnamese government was beaming propaganda into my television set.

            Thank god that the likes of Niall Ferguson are able to offer us such an objective account of how the brave US and UK patriots have fought to suppress national self-determination everywhere in the interests of freedom.