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English-Speaking Peoples – Wartime Questions Today: The Doctrine ff Preemption

Finest Hour 129, Winter 2005-06

Page 20

English-Speaking Peoples – Wartime Questions Today: The Doctrine ff Preemption

By Geogre F. Will


WHAT CHURCHILL KNEW: That America may be casualty averse has been a constant recurring anxiety, as Winston Churchill could have told us—and in fact did tell us when he came to North America immediately after Pearl Harbor. Churchill gave a speech in which he said, “We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.” No, we are not. We are much tougher than our enemies understand.


What I will say tonight about the war of terror draws heavily on my earlier life as a professor and student of political philosophy. A long life in journalism and around Washington, D.C., has taught me not just that ideas have consequences, but that only ideas have large and lasting consequences. We are in a war of terror being waged by people who take ideas with lethal seriousness, and we had better take our own ideas seriously as well.

I think the beginning of understanding the war is to understand what happened on 9/11. What happened was that we as a people were summoned back from a holiday from history that we had understandably taken at the end of the Cold War. History is served up to the American people with uncanny arithmetic precision. Almost exactly sixty years passed from the October 1929 collapse of the stock market to the November 1989 crumbling of the Berlin Wall—sixty years of depression, hot war, and cold war, at the end of which the American people said: “Enough, we are not interested in war anymore.”

The trouble is, as Trotsky once said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” And this was a war with a new kind of enemy—suicidal, and hence impossible to deter, melding modern science with a kind of religious primitivism. Furthermore, our enemy today has no return address in the way that previous adversaries, be it Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia, had return addresses. When attacks emanated from Germany or Russia, we could respond militarily or we could put in place a structure of deterrence and containment. Not true with this new lot.

Preemption: Necessary but Problematic

In 1946, Congress held what are today remembered, by the few who remember such things, as the “Screwdriver Hearings.” They summoned J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, and asked him if it would be possible to smuggle an atomic device into New York City and detonate it. Oppenheimer replied that of course it would be possible. Congress asked how it would be possible to detect such a device. Oppenheimer answered: “With a screwdriver.” What he meant was that every container that came into the city of New York would have to be opened and inspected.

This year, seven million seaborne shipping containers will pass through our ports. About five percent will be given cursory examination. How hard would it be, then, to smuggle in a football-sized lump of highly enriched uranium sufficient to make a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon to make Manhattan uninhabitable for a hundred years? The moral of this story is: you cannot fight terrorism at the ports of Long Beach or Newark. You have to go get it. You have to disrupt terrorism at its sources. This is a gray area. It’s a shadow war. But it is not a war that we have any choice but to fight.

This leads us directly to the doctrine of preemption, with which there are several problems. First, we do not yet have—as it has been made painfully clear—the intelligence capacity that a doctrine of preemption really requires. The second problem with preemption is encapsulated in Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn principle,” which Mr. Powell explained to the President before the second war with Iraq began: If you break it, you own it. Iraq is broken; we own it for the moment. And we are therefore engaged in nation building.

The phrase “nation building” sounds to many conservatives much the way the phrase “orchid building” would sound. An orchid is a complex, wonderful, beautiful, natural thing, but it is not something that can be built. We all know it took thirty years in this country to rebuild the south Bronx. And now we have taken on a nation to build.

There are those who say that neoconservatives— and most of my friends are neoconservatives, although I am not quite—have exported the impulse for social engineering that conservatives have so rightly criticized over the years at home. There is, of course, an element in this critique of President Bush’s policies that echoes in part the contemporary liberal version of isolationism. The old isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s was a conservative isolationism, and it held that America should not go abroad into the world because America is too good for the world. The contemporary liberal brand of isolationism—the Michael Moore view of the world—is that America should not be deeply involved in the world because the world is too good for America. This is not a serious argument, even though seriously held.

President Bush has said, in a phrase he got from Ronald Reagan, that it is cultural condescension to say that some people are not ready for democracy. Tony Blair, in July 2003, after the fall of Baghdad, came before a joint session of Congress and gave a wonderful, generous, good ally speech, in which he said that it is a “myth” that our values are simply “Western values,” or simply a product of our culture. Our principles, he said, are “universal,” embraced by all “ordinary people.” The problem is that this belief—that every person is at heart a Jeffersonian Democrat, that all the masses of the world are ready for democracy—might lead you not to plan very carefully for postwar nation building. If this is true, then nation building should be a snap, because everyone is ready for democracy.

Realists know better. They know there was a long, 572-year uphill march from Runnymede to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Even more sobering, our Constitutional Convention was followed in less than seventy-five years by the bloodiest Civil War the world had ever seen, to settle some leftover constitutional questions. We know from our history how difficult regime change is.

The Miracle of America

One of the mistakes our enemies have made— and one of the reasons I wish our enemies would study American history to disabuse themselves of some of their grotesque errors—is their belief that we are squeamish about defending freedom and about the violence of war. They persist in the assumption that we are casualty averse. People have been making that mistake since General Howe made it in the Battle of Brooklyn Heights in the Revolutionary War. He chased us across the East River and figured that was that. It was said again after the Battle of Shiloh in April, 1862—up to that day the bloodiest day in American history. Many observers thought the North would sue for accommodation and, in the words of Horace Greeley, let our erring sisters go in peace. It did not turn out that way.

The First World War produced the worst carnage the world had ever seen, but not once during the war did a picture of a dead British or dead French or dead German or dead American soldier appear in a newspaper of any of those countries. In the Second World War, the first picture of an American soldier dead in the surf in the Pacific did not appear in Life magazine until it had been held up in the War Department (as the Pentagon was then known) for nine months. The war in Vietnam produced more anxiety about graphic journalism, where it was suggested that in fact it was television that caused the American will to break. In fact, the American will never broke—but that is another matter.

This has been a constant recurring anxiety in America, as Winston Churchill could have told us—and in fact did tell us when he came to North America immediately after Pearl Harbor. Churchill gave a speech in which he said, “We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.” No, we are not. We are much tougher than our enemies understand.

Character and the Power of Ideas

One hundred years ago, people believed not only that war was inevitable, but that war was good for us. Without it, they thought, we would have to look for strenuous domestic challenges that would be the moral equivalent of war—something elevating that would pull us out of ourselves and into great collective endeavors as war does. Tocqueville said, “war almost always enlarges the thought of a people and elevates its heart.”

Stravinsky, the great composer, said war is “necessary for human progress.”  All of these men echoed Immanuel Kant, who said “a prolonged peace favors the predominance of a mere commercial spirit, and with it a debasing self-interest, cowardice, and effeminacy and tends to degrade the character of the nation.”

There is much to be said for the commercial spirit, but as Tocqueville warned us, if a people is only concerned with material well-being, only concerned with commercialism, they lack something—they lack the heights of nobility and character and aspiration. But first things first: get people into this enveloping culture of capitalism. Nor is this to say that we are a materialist people. The American people almost never vote their pocketbook as is commonly said, and almost never vote merely on economics. We are a much more morally serious and complicated people than that.

And throughout our history it has not mattered whether we were arguing about abolition, immigration, prohibition or desegregation. All of the great arguments that have roiled American politics over the years have not been pocketbook issues. They have been about the soul of the country and what kind of people we would be.

Well, the kind of people we are is a people who rise to the challenge of the new kind of enemy we have today. Our enemy has ideas. They are vicious, bad, retrograde, medieval, intolerant, and suicidal ideas, but ideas nevertheless. And we oppose them with the great ideas of freedom and democracy, which America has defined better than anyone in the world. And we turn to these people with an energy they could not have counted on. Winston Churchill in his war memoirs recalled the words of a British foreign secretary, Edward Grey: “The United States is like a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate.” And these enemies improvidently lit a fire under us.

We have done this before. In September 1942, General Les McGraw of the Army Corps of Engineers bought for the government about 90,000 acres of Tennessee wilderness along the Clinch River not far from Knoxville. There was nothing there. But soon there were streets and shops and schools and homes and some of the finest physics labs the world had ever seen. And thirty-five months later, on a desert in New Mexico, there was a flash brighter than a thousand suns and the atomic age began. Thirty-five months from wilderness to Alamogordo. That is what America does when aroused, because, as I say, we are not made of sugar candy.

Today we are the legatees of all the giants on whose shoulders we stand. We live in circumstances our parents did not live in, or our grandparents. We live in a time in which there is no rival model to the American model for how to run a modern industrial commercial society. Socialism is gone. Fascism is gone. Al-Qaeda has no rival model about how to run a modern society. Al-Qaeda has a howl of rage against the idea of modernity. We began in 1945 an astonishingly clear social experiment: We divided the city of Berlin, the country of Germany, the continent of Europe, indeed the whole world, and we had a test. On the other side was the socialist model that says that society is best run by edicts, issued by experts from above. The results are clear: We are here, they are not. The Soviet Union tried for seventy years to plant Marxism with bayonets in Eastern Europe. Today there are more Marxists on the Harvard faculty than there are in Eastern Europe.

We must struggle today with the fact that the doctrine of preemption is necessary, and with the serious problems it entails. But what we must have overall is the confidence that our ideas are right. I grew up in Lincoln country and I am reminded that in 1859, with war clouds lowering over the country, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at the Wisconsin State Fair. Lincoln told the story of an Eastern despot who summoned his wise men and gave them an assignment. Go away and think, he said, and come back and give me a proposition to be carved in stone to be forever in view and forever true. The wise men went away and came back some days later, and the proposition they gave to him was: “And this, too, shall pass away.”

Lincoln said: Perhaps not. If we cultivate our inner lives and our moral selves as industriously and productively as we cultivate the material world around us, he said, then perhaps we of all peoples can long endure. He was right. We have and we shall persevere, in no small measure because of the plucky brand of people, true to these ideas, such as those that have formed around the college we here celebrate tonight.


“English-Speaking Peoples” is an opinion series on current questions before what some call the “Anglosphere”—the great democracies Churchill loved—not suggesting what Winston Churchill would make of modern issues, but cast in the light of the his experience. Contrasting views are welcome and will be published. Mr. Will is a Churchill Centre member and a nationally syndicated journalist. This article is excerpted from his speech at Hillsdale College, Michigan on 23 May 2005. Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, the national speech digest of Hillsdale College, with thanks also to President Larry Arnn. For the full text visit http://www.hillsdale.edu/imprimis/2005/September/ or email the editor.

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