Tugging Sleeves in Washington: London's Lost Opportunities


Paris. -- Don Cook,who died in late March in Philadelphia, was the very model of an American foreign correspondent. There will be few such in the future. American journalism no longer wants them.

News coverage has been transformed by television or, more exactly, by the degradation of television, since network television news in the 1950s and 1960s was entirely serious. Now, of course, television is driven by image and emotion and by Washington's political agenda; and most newspapers are driven by what television covers. America's misinformation on what goes on internationally is thus an amalgam of disasters, massacres and presidential picture opportunities, all submitted to the Procrustean discipline of "an American angle."

I write of Don not only as a friend and eminent example of a certain standard of journalism but also because of the subject to which he devoted the 43 years of his professional life in Europe -- that of the American relationship to postwar Europe, and first of all to Britain. He covered the story's beginnings, and if he were alive and working today he would be covering what may prove its end.

He did not quote others to explain what was happening. He ordinarily knew more than the person he interviewed. He never took notes during an interview and certainly never used a tape recorder, believing both to be distractions to the interviewed and the interviewer. A journalist of the new generation once said to him, "But that means you make up the quotations in your stories!" Don's reply was, "I have never made up a misquotation."

He became the historian of his subject. His account of NATO's creation, at which he had assisted, was published in 1989, under the title "Forging the Alliance." Five years earlier he had published a biography of Charles De Gaulle that cast much illumination on the general's difficult relations with Franklin Roosevelt and the American government. Before that were two other books on postwar events and statesmen.

In retirement, he investigated the origins of the trans-Atlantic relationship, discovering in Philadelphia colonial archives that had never been properly exploited. From that came a book, "The Long Fuse," to be published on the Fourth of July, which is an account of the American Revolution as seen by Britain's colonial authorities and the British government and by their loyalists in America -- the story of the Revolution as experienced by the losers.

I particularly thought of him last week in connection with the conference on Britain's place in the world that was held in London to mark the Royal Institute of International Affairs' 75th anniversary. For years it has seemed to me that some of the fateful miscalculations made in the late 18th century by the government of George III, and his officials in what then were the American colonies, had an echo in London's postwar policies.

I think in particular of London's disregard for what then were known as the Dominions. Britain showed no interest in developing or consolidating its relationship with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of which had come to Britain's support as soon as the European war broke out. They were rather casually consigned to the new and looser Commonwealth, which was the collecting place for discarded and unwanted ex-imperial possessions.

London set out to make itself Washington's privileged partner (Greeks to America's Rome, in Macmillan's celebrated formulation, which neglected the fact that Rome's Greek advisers were slaves). This, after Suez, unfortunately turned into a kind of sycophancy, all the more humiliating when, with the passage of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Britain was replaced in Washington's affections by Germany and the European Union (as Henry Kissinger firmly pointed out last week to the Royal Institute conference). John Major's tugging at sleeves in Washington this week provides confirmation.

Britain had three possibilities after the war. One seemed the privileged relationship with Washington. The second was to organize and lead West European unification -- which at the time it would have been possible, as Europe's democrats looked to London for leadership and did not find it. The third was to construct a post-imperial relationship among the British-populated Commonwealth states. Had either of the last two choices been made, a new relationship with the United States could have followed, built on the foundation of a relative equality of power, the new Commonwealth (like the new Europe) in possession of independent global political influence.

Britain's authorities made the first choice. Part of the reason was undoubtedly a class issue. Australians, as Churchill himself notoriously said, were "bad blood," while Churchill was one of many British grandees whose families had marital connections with American heiresses of the Gilded Age.

Canadians and New Zealanders, even though many were individually influential in British press and politics, seemed equally of little interest to Britain's postwar governors. Resentment exists to this day, among survivors of the war generation, of Britain's casual postwar disregard for these nations.

Washington was the fateful, and fatal, obsession of Britain's leadership, motivated by the emotional as well as political legacy of wartime cooperation.

Don Cook's was an Anglophile American generation (as was my own), but this only reinforced London's illusion and contributed to the lost opportunities.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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