Lessons of history

February 22, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

BRILLIANT IS not the word one would use for the father of his country. Plodder, perhaps. Slow learner, maybe. The brilliance he left to his advisers, notably Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, those two equal but opposite intellectual forces. Both grew regularly exasperated with their superior, perhaps not realizing he was their superior not only in rank.

Intellectuals rush in where statesmen fear to tread, and Washington had learned valuable lessons the hard way since the French and Indians were his unforgiving tutors. Washington may not have been a genius on the battlefield, at the conference table or in refined company, but what he learned, he retained.

In war, the general thought often of peace. He welcomed the help of the French fleet at Yorktown, where it was decisive and could be bid a fond adieu after the battle was won. But he remained less than enthusiastic about inviting a French army to take Canada from the British, a proposal that struck the usual fools in Congress as a brilliant stroke, particularly since the treaty of alliance with Paris solemnly renounced French claims to Canada; any territory conquered by the French crown would legally revert to the United States. Washington, however, had more interest in what the balance of power and the deployment of forces on the ground would say.

So, while formally presenting to both Congress and his French allies the military case against a Canadian campaign, the American commander also addressed a confidential communication to Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, explaining the political case against such a move. The general's letter might bear rereading now, particularly by those who think victory will ring in a New World Order of peace and justice.

In his private communication of 1778, Washington warned his more innocent countrymen against "the introduction of a large body of French troops into Canada, and putting them in possession of the capital of that province, attached to them by all the ties of blood, habits, manners, religion and former connexions of government. I fear this would be too great a temptation to be resisted by any power actuated by the common maxims of national power."

But what of the treaty that assured American rights to any French spoil in Canada? The French would find some reason to ignore a paper promise if they decided to keep Canada, he explained, and he even suggested one: France could hold Canada as security against the American war debt, leaving the infant republic no recourse but "resentment, reproaches" and finally "submission."

It was not easy or pleasant to raise such prudent points in the heat of war. The French, understandably enough, were being toasted throughout the newly independent states as a gallant ally, and the British understandably damned as selfish tyrants.

"Men are very apt to run into extremes," the now seasoned general observed in his letter to Congress, "hatred to England may carry some into an excess of confidence in France; especially when motives of gratitude are thrown into the scale. Men of this description would be unwilling to suppose France capable of acting so ungenerous a part. I am heartily disposed to entertain the most favourable sentiments of our new ally . . . but it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest; and no prudent statesman will venture to depart from it."

Once this cruel war is over in the Middle East, doubtless perspective will return about the nature of this alliance against only one of its tyrants. Syria's Hafez al-Assad, now our gallant ally, may once again be seen in his true and blacker colors. It would be wrong to call the rulers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia feudal; pre-feudal might be a better description. Once the shooting stops, there will be a surer guide to the future of the Middle East than expressions of gratitude and solemn treaties: the balance of power and the deployment of forces on the ground.

Does anyone really believe that this war, critical as it is, will be history's last? Or that the alliance against Saddam Hussein will continue unchanged after he is no longer a clear and present danger to a stable world? Clear-eyed statesmen will leave the jihads to the enemy and recognize that "holy war" is an oxymoron. It is more of a necessary evil. On this, his traditional birthday, George Washington's cool emphasis on prudence even in the heat of battle remains both old-fashioned and forward-looking.

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