Unofficial Motto: Don't Tread on Me

Don’t Tread on Me: A 400-Year History of America at War” (Crown Forum) is the latest offering from H.W. Crocker III, the senior editor of Regnery Publishing (a HUMAN EVENTS sister company).

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Crocker’s earlier nonfiction works include “Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons in Character,” “Courage and Vision and Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2000-Year History.” He has also published a novel, “The Old Limey” (Regnery).

I interviewed Crocker last week about “Don’t Tread on Me.”

What inspired you to write a history of Americans in combat?

H.W. Crocker: Several reasons: I wanted to bust recurrent myths about American history, including the myth of the Indian as a noble savage; the myth that America has always been a non-imperial power; the myth that the Southern Confederacy was wrong; the myth that the American military relies on big battalions rather than on the extraordinary individual courage and skill of the American fighting man; the myth that we “lost” the Vietnam War (we won and the Democratic Congress shamefully gave it away); and the myth that the Iraq War is a disaster, among others.

If I have one wish for the book, I’d like it to be put into the hands of every serving soldier, sailor, airman and Marine so that he can know that his sacrifice today is part of the great sweep of American military history. I titled the book “Don’t Tread on Me” because that seems to me America’s unofficial motto, the phrase that best sums up the American spirit, especially the spirit of the American fighting man, and that explains our history.

You say it is a myth that the Confederacy was wrong. Yet, the Confederate constitution expressly perpetuated slavery, a racist institution that is intrinsically evil. How can an unjust cause, meant to perpetuate an evil institution, not be wrong?

Crocker: If slavery is the historical trump card, then the War for American Independence was wrong, because many of the founders held slaves and upheld slavery against the British who were willing to abolish it, as a war measure. You remember Samuel Johnson’s great taunt in Taxation No Tyranny: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” And of course Abraham Lincoln initiated the war to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery.

The founders of the Southern Confederacy thought of themselves as following directly in the Founders’ footsteps, which is why George Washington is on the great seal of the Confederacy.

The real issue was best put by Robert E. Lee, who opposed secession and slavery, but turned down command of the Union armies and said: “A Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets … has no charm for me. . . .” He took the position that every humane man could echo: “With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty as an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.”

If the South seceded today, how many of us would think the appropriate response would be to send armored divisions over the 14th Street Bridge here in Washington, to carpet bomb Southern cities, and to blockade Southern ports? Lee believed that Americans should resolve political disputes through gentle persuasion and free assent. He did not believe in waging war against fellow Americans—and neither do I.

Tours of the battlefield at Gettysburg often end on the high ground from which the Union Army cut down Gen. Pickett’s forces in their suicidal charge. One of your earlier books is “Robert E. Lee on Leadership.” In “Don’t Tread on Me” you tell the story of Pickett’s charge. Doesn’t Lee’s decision to order Pickett’s charge cast serious doubts on Lee’s acumen as a leader?

Crocker: No. If Lee had had his way, the federals would have been swept from the high ground on day one, if not day two of the battle. Gen. Richard Ewell let him down on the first day and Gen. James Longstreet let him down on the second and third days. Of course, I’m a Lee partisan, and a Southern partisan, but the fact is what failed at Gettysburg was exactly what had succeeded for Lee at Gaines’ Mill, one of the “Seven Days” battles near Richmond in 1862, where he attacked one side of the Union line, then the other, before ordering a charge that broke the Union center.

You argue that “America’s desire for empire explains her history.” But isn’t there a distinction between Americans’ seeking to create a continental nation, from Atlantic to Pacific, operating under the same Constitution, where all people have the same constitutional rights, and, say, conquering the Philippines and maintaining it as a subject territory? Is the latter something we ought to do as a matter of national policy?

Crocker: It’s a rhetorical dodge to treat Manifest Destiny as something other than imperial expansion. The founders certainly thought of it in exactly those terms. Washington, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton (in “Federalist” One) and Jefferson all refer to America as an “empire” and see her becoming an empire that will be bigger and more powerful than the British Empire: In fact, that is the real driving factor in the American War of Independence. The founders were galled that the British—in order to keep peace with the Indians—had drawn the Proclamation Line of 1763 inhibiting America’s westward expansion. The Founders wanted an empire of their own.

The founders wanted to annex Canada. John Quincy Adams and many other Presidents wanted to annex Cuba, (which would have meant no Fidel Castro and no Cuban Missile Crisis). And Manifest Destiny wasn’t merely a matter of overthrowing the British, but seizing Florida from Spain, and acquiring, in the words of President James K. Polk “an immense empire, the value of which 20 years hence it would be difficult to calculate,” in the Mexican War, a war that ensured that my ancestors (I’m a sixth-generation Californian) lived under an American rather than a Mexican government.

We shouldn’t forget either that we gave the Philippines the first elected legislature in Asia. Our “little Brown Brothers” were great allies in World War II, and a couple of years ago there was a poll that showed that the Philippines, India and Poland were the three most pro-American (and pro-Bush) countries in the world. I think it’s easy to understand why. The Poles are grateful that Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II worked together to liberate them from communism. And India and the Philippines are great allies in the War on Terror because we were in the Philippines and the British were in India and we have given them a pro-Western, pro-market orientation.

It’s simply self-defeating to hide our virtues under a bushel. The only reason the so-called Anglo sphere of America, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, et al. are the way they are is because of the British Empire. It’s certainly as important today—in a clash of global civilizations such as we have with militant Islam—to believe that Western ideas of justice and morality should be upheld, defended and promoted.

Do you think the war in Iraq is a success?

Crocker: Yes—and it should be obvious that it is. We toppled Saddam Hussein, an overt enemy of the United States, and in doing so we convinced Moammar Gaddafi to surrender his weapons of mass destruction program and convinced Pakistan to shut down A.Q. Khan who was the main funnel of this technology to rogue states. Those are singular accomplishments. Our military has performed with extraordinary skill and courage. I wish only that the Bush Administration had learned some of the lessons of history: primarily “divide and conquer” and “reinforce success.” If we had not pledged to uphold a unified Iraq and instead created an independent Kurdistan, an independent Shiite Mesopotamia, and an independent rump state of Iraq, and reinforced our initial victory with a doubling of our troop strength to stem the inevitable initial chaos, our job would be done.

Continuing on this theme of U.S. empire, and mindful of North Korea’s purported nuclear test last week, why should the coming generation of Americans be expected to spend their money and, perhaps, their lives, defending a wealthy and populous nation such as Japan from the threats posed by China and North Korea? Shouldn’t the Japanese be expected to defend themselves?

Crocker: Yes, they should. I’m all in favor of that. Our NATO and Asian allies should be real allies, not countries that rely entirely on us.

Who do you believe was the most brilliant military commander in U.S. history?

Crocker: Let me leave it at three: Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee and George S. Patton. And we shouldn’t forget the Navy, which has always performed splendidly, thanks to the founder of the U. S. Navy, the six-foot, four-inch, fighting Irishman John Barry, dashing officers such as Stephen Decatur and outstanding admirals such as Chester Nimitz—all men of character as well as courage.

Which U.S. commander do you believe made the greatest blunder, and what was it?

Crocker: I’d give that award to one of our commanders in chief, James Madison, who plunged us into the most misbegotten war in our history, the War of 1812, which really was the wrong war against the wrong enemy at the wrong time. American honor was saved only by the great work of our Navy and by “Old Hickory” Andy Jackson, the one general who really knew what he was doing. Jackson, like George Washington, is an authentic American hero.