18A050 Oceans Apart by Jim Davies, 12/11/2018    


Recently I had the chance to read a kind of history book; the sort that archists don't mind the public learning. It's called An Ocean Apart and relates relationships between the US and the UK from Colonial days through 1989. The authors are British: David Dimbleby, a member of a dynasty of TV anchormen, David Reynolds, a Cambridge historian, and Peter Pagnamenta, a TV producer with whom I was acquainted, long ago, at school. Their knowledge of the subject is detailed, and the book reflects a BBC-TV series of the same name, so it's well presented for a wide readership. I learned plenty about how the two nations, over two centuries, varied from open hostility (1776-81) to a very close association (in WW2 and in the 1980s) and most points in between, rather like an accordion.

Although it hits all the main events of which I was aware - and many of which I wasn't - it is a bloodless account, lacking passion, and sometimes blind, by omitting a seriously needed explanation. It leaves the reader with a chronicle, more than a history; and that shortfall may well reflect exactly the intent of "educators" on both sides of the Atlantic. It is oceans apart from a serious attempt to interpret events rather than simply relate them. The former is what History is really about, and which makes its study fun, and David Reynolds ought to know that.

So for example its chapter on "The Struggle for Independence" conveys none of the indignation that fired the Declaration of 1776 (defective though that document is), nor of the grass-roots dedication of the Patriots' militia. Why were Americans so enraged, by being taxed to pay for that Redcoat army that defended them from all those fierce Indians and Frenchmen? - at being shot, for mounting a protest? Ocean fails to say.

After the unpleasantness of the 1812 War, the two countries became much closer, with half of all US foreign trade being with the UK following 1820, and British investments in the US very extensive. Ocean tells us that the London bank of Barings arranged many of them, but doesn't expressly say whether they were all private or whether Her Majesty's Government took a stake. This forms one of the puzzles of Ocean later in WW1, at which time it says some £3 billion of them were paid over to US arms manufacturers and another £3 billion borrowed; and a billion then might equate to a hundred billion today. Presuming the UK stake in US industry was mostly privately held, how did that money get into HMG's hands as payment for munitions?

The extensive 19th Century trade between the two countries helped set a British preference for the South in the War to Prevent Secession; for while Northern buyers were good customers for British capital equipment, Southern cotton supplied 80% of the important British textile industry. Friction therefore arose between HMG and the FedGov, the more so after the warship Alabama was built in the UK and delivered to the South. But after 1865, good relations were restored.

Germans, I learned, were a majority of recent US immigrants by 1914 so the Brits had to be creative if US help was to be obtained in their war against the former; and while Ocean mentions that the NY banking firm of J P Morgan was busy arranging deals to buy American matériel, it doesn't point out the central role that firm played in bringing direct military help in 1917; Morgan's stake in an Anglo-French victory was by mid-war enormous, and Morgan was a large contributor to Democrat funds. It's not credible that those facts had no influence on Woodrow Wilson's abandonment of neutrality; yet I would not have learned that from this book.

Another crucial factor on which it's silent is the huge propaganda campaign waged in the US by the UK government, lobbying for that intervention, nor the crucial advantage gained in that campaign by the cutting of the transatlantic cable on 5th August, 1914. Evidently, and despite its stated belief that the war would be over by Christmas, HMG was anticipating a much longer conflict and a need for US help. That one action meant that Brits could telephone and telegraph the US, but that Germans could not.

Following WW1, UK/US relations were strained by difficulties in repaying war loans, and Ocean relates that Britain went on and off the "gold standard." However, it fails to explain that term, apparently assuming that its wide readership understands it. I doubt whether more than a few understand it, and wonder whether the omission was deliberate. When a government in control of a currency commits to a gold standard, it is promising to exchange it for gold on demand; in effect, it cannot print money for which it has no gold in store. ("Cannot", that is, without being nailed for fraud.) In effect, it operates honest money, and can spend no more than it has, or which it borrows. Coming off that standard means the backing is gone, and its currency is worth only what other players think it's worth, after assessing how much excess paper is in circulation. Might it be that the authors were not eager to expose such money mischief to public view?

Ocean's account of US/UK cooperation in WW2 is fair, except for the commonplace distortion of Pearl Harbor. Incredibly, it still conveys the fiction that is was a "surprise" attack, even though ample research has long shown that FDR planned and executed it almost as fully as if he had been helmsman aboard the flagship Nagato. My account of the deception appears here and FDR's own draft for his speech to Congress on 12/8/41 has the words "without warning" deleted.

Ocean's account of the post-WW2 period focuses on the US/USSR rivalry, but also mentions Israel. That State suddenly appears in the narative, like a weather event. Its creation by the UN was one of the most destablizing events of the last 75 years, triggering wars, "terrorism" and more recently needless mass migration; yet the book makes no mention that the UK and US combined to obtain that UN action in 1947, nor of the Balfour Declaration that led to it. A deliberate omission?

In those years the two countries got along well, especially during the Reagan-Thatcher years, and Ocean's account ends in 1989, when it was published. Naturally it could not anticipate Mrs Thatcher's ouster, but it also omits any suggestion that the era's preoccupation with US/USSR rivalry was about to come to an abrupt end with the collapse of Communism in 1990. Evidently, that was as much a surprise to these well-informed authors as it was to the CIA.

"History" will change a great deal after governments have disappeared, for hitherto it has largely been the story of their misdeeds. Instead, it will become the story of how mankind climbs out of the morass of domination and conflict and builds a degree of harmony and prosperity beyond my ability to predict. It will be oceans apart from all that's gone before.



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