TD Blog Interview with David Hackett Fischer

On July 14, 2005, I had the privilege of speaking with Professor David Hackett Fischer by telephone from his home in Massachusetts. Professor Fischer is University Professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and is the author of numerous works of note, including Albion’s Seed, Paul Revere’s Ride, and the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for history, Washington’s Crossing. The following are my interview notes, with corrections as provided by Professor Fischer.
The Talking Dog: I always start with this question. Where were you on 9/11?
David Hackett Fischer: I was sitting at my computer terminal, writing a book. I received a telephone call from my son-in-law who told me to turn on the television, and I was glued to the t.v. the rest of the day, like the rest of the country. I wrote about aspects of 9-11 in my book Liberty and Freedom… I’m old enough to recall where I was when I first heard about Pearl Harbor. I was 6; my brother and I were both at home, just having had our tonsils out… I remember my father’s reaction to the news, and it made an indelible impression on me. Like September 11th, which was a warm, clear day in September, I remember it as a warm, clear, December day in Baltimore. The reactions were very much the same as on 9/ll.
The Talking Dog: I understand you are currently writing a book about New Zealand. Can you tell me what it’s about?
David Hackett Fischer: This is a discussion of the values of freedom and fairness, a comparative study of two open systems- New Zealand and the United States, and how the two systems have evolved around these two values. I recall being in New Zealand for their parliamentary bye elections. The election sights were very similar to what we see in the United States, but the sounds were different. We heard different ideas of an open society at work. Here, our vision is based on values of liberty and freedom. In New Zealand (and to a great extent in Australia as well) the problem is how is to create a fair society. In some sense, I’m trying to write the first history of “fairness” (as distinct from “equality” or “justice”.) American ideas of liberty and freedom developed from Britain in the 17th century. New Zealand’s ideas of fairness derived from a 19th century English tradition.
The Talking Dog: How have these two values of liberty/freedom and fairness been reflected back in the Mother Country itself?
David Hackett Fischer: Interestingly, both seem to have faded in Britain itself. But as you know, the United States still seems to be wrestling with notions of liberty and freedom, and Australia and New Zealand are concerned with matters of fairness.
The Talking Dog: Am I correct that this is a similar “values export” from Britain that you observed in Albion’s Seed, where different sets of values migrated to the New World during different migration patterns from Great Britain?
David Hackett Fischer: Yes, exactly.
The Talking Dog: Again, wow. That was a most unexpected bonus, and I thank you. Let me ask you about the apparently sudden surge in the popularity of books about the Revolutionary War era, particularly Joseph Ellis’s recent books about George Washington and about the Founding Fathers, David McCullough’s books about John Adams and now about the year 1776, and your own book about Washington’s New Jersey campaign. Why do you think books about that era are suddenly popular? Do you believe it has anything to do with a resurgence in patriotism since 9-11?
David Hackett Fischer: Before 9-11 there had been a surge of books about World War II. That was driven by an anniversary. There have been many waves of interest in books about the Revolution. There was a prior wave of interest in books on the Revolution in the 1820’s, as we approached the 50th anniversary, and because of a visit from the Marquis de Lafayette, and of course, the simultaneous deaths of Adams and Jefferson on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. In the 1870’s, there was another wave, for the centennial that time. Each wave tends to focus on different figures in the Revolution. In the 1870’s, the theme was nation-building and the major figures were Washington and Hamilton. There was another wave in the 1930’s and 1940’s, when the key figures were Madison and Jefferson, and the interest was “democracy”. The current wave began with books on John Adams. Now the figure of interest seems to be Washington. There is book after book on Washington. In one recent six month publishing season, there are no less than 35 new releases on Washington alone. They are publishing volumes of Washington’s papers, putting knowledge of Washington on a new foundation. Indeed, there are even scheduled re-releases of books written by Henry Cabot Lodge and Woodrow Wilson on Washington, back in print, because there is such a hunger for these things. I do believe, though, that the current surge started with John and Abigail, and mostly it is about character and moral values in public life, and principled leaders. Is patriotism part of it? Yes, I agree. Certainly, as to the patriotism question, there is a sense of belonging to the Republic, similar to what was experienced after 9-11. A sense of identification with the Republic, if you will.
The Talking Dog: Let’s turn to our attention to what the Founding Fathers, and in particular, General George Washington, can teach us about our current era. Specifically, I’d like your comment on a number of themes, five actually, that I found most compelling, from Washington’s Crossing. I must confess, I read the chapter about the Battle of Long Island first, because I’m fascinated by that battle, because, for among other reasons, I live on the battlefield in Brooklyn…
David Hackett Fischer: I often like to read books that way: start with the part you want to read, then go back and read the whole book…
The Talking Dog: First, I was struck by Washington’s improvement as a military commander in the months between the Battle of Long Island in the summer of 1776 and the Battle of Trenton in December…
David Hackett Fischer: This was one of many surprises for me. Washington improved his leadership, to some extent, by trial and error, and grew not merely as a military tactician and strategist, but evolved literally a new model of free and open leadership for a newly free society. Most books on Washington concentrate on specific tactics and specific battles. Of course, our military people study Washington from a standpoint of “operational history”. And what you find is fascinating: Washington certainly lost many battles. But when you look at it from the standpoint of campaigns, and in Washington’s case, there were about nine of them, he won all but one of them. By contrast, the other American generals responsible for running other campaigns during the Revolution lost most of them. Certainly, New York was a disaster, and Washington and the Americans suffered steep losses. But after that, Washington quickly learned about military leadership. In the New Jersey campaign, for example, we know of 80 battles or engagements, around 1/3 of them at regimental or brigade strength, and Washington clearly won the campaign. Similarly, in the Pennsylvania campaign, while Washington lost the major battles, like Brandywine, overall, he won the campaign. The same phenomenon went on throughout the Revolution for Washington himself, and for his two principal lieutenants, General Nathaniel Green, and the Marquis de Lafayette, who led the campaign in Virginia.
The Talking Dog: I was struck by Washington’s insistence on maintaining humane treatment of British and Hessian prisoners, even as he observed their brutality toward Americans, and his insistence on maintaining the moral high ground.
David Hackett Fischer: It wasn’t only the treatment of prisoners, but the humane and proper treatment of loyalists and Tories, which did not necessarily meet with complete success. Washington also insisted that the military be under the ultimate civilian control of the Continental Congress, that there be orderly civil-military relations, and the ultimate subordination of the military to civilian authority that we enjoy today. Indeed, Washington chose to step down from supreme command at the end of his service, which he did again as President, indeed, the model for Presidents after that.
The Talking Dog: I was struck by Washington’s flexibility in taking advantage of weather and field conditions, and mobility, and concentrated artillery, and quick hit strikes, all of which enabled him to defeat a larger, better equipped, better trained and organized fighting force.
David Hackett Fischer: Washington worked out a way to run a campaign that proved to be remarkably effective. Indeed, many, if not all, of our military leaders have followed in the methods developed by Washington. Think of the inventiveness and flexibility of Admiral Chester Nimitz, for example. Or think of George Patton… Indeed, our military leaders in Iraq have adapted to this in this flexible way, though our civilian leadership in Iraq has been abysmal…
The Talking Dog: I’ll be asking you about that a little later…
David Hackett Fischer: Washington developed open councils of war that persist to this day. While Washington was most definitely in command, and everybody knew it, he welcomed comments and suggestions and input among his officers. I understand in the United States Army today, military officers increasingly exchange ideas via the use of the internet. Again, this is a model of leadership in an open society.
The Talking Dog: Another thing that struck me was Washington’s superior use of local intelligence, particularly from local sources, and his evidently superior knowledge of local geographic conditions from the same sources, and in part, taking advantage of a force fighting thousands of miles from their homes, and in another language….
David Hackett Fischer: Washington learned the value of intelligence at New York. New York was a disaster for him. His intelligence during the Battle of Long Island, for example, was wrong, time after time, and the results were catastrophic. He knew this was something he had to improve, and quickly. And he did. He developed a much more open network of intelligence sources than had been thought of before. Indeed, each of his generals had his own intelligence networks. And there were redundancies in the intelligence networks that, when analyzed, provided a degree of insight into local conditions that proved extraordinarily valuable.
The Talking Dog: The last thing that struck me was Washington’s superior ability to maintain the initiative.
David Hackett Fischer: Indeed, Washington maintained the initiative despite incredibly difficult tactical conditions, and despite serious material constraints and privations. The Howe Brothers were quite good at seizing the initiative on their own, and I believe history has been a bit unfair to them; they were quite good at their jobs as commanders. However, at some point, they became baffled as to how to respond to what they were facing. A term in use today is the tempo of events and war. At some point, Washington managed to control the tempo of events. The Princeton engagements and the New Jersey campaign demonstrates how he did this. Another surprising factor is just how good British and Hessian leaders and their armies were. They were of the absolute first class. They do not deserve the contempt that history has bestowed upon them. And this makes Washington’s achievement all the greater: he was quite literally up against the first team.
The Talking Dog: Now I’d like to compare and contrast some of these themes to where the United States find itself now in the war on terror in general, and the war in Iraq and particular, and ask you if you believe some comparisons are appropriate, inappropriate, or if there is insufficient data for such comparisons. First, do you believe we are making a mistake, and I believe it is a huge and catastrophic mistake, in not adhering to Washington’s insistence on the absooutely humane and lawful treatment of prisoners in our custody, be it at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, or wherever, and otherwise not maintaining the absolute moral high ground?
David Hackett Fischer: I absolutely agree with that. We have lost the moral high ground. We had it in the aftermath of 9/11. We had it going into Afghanistan. Mr. Bush might have had it going into war against Saddam Hussein. But he blew it. He just blew it. We certainly have many mortal enemies throughout the Islamic world, not all of it obviously. But many– besides Al Qaeda, Shiite groups in Iran and Palestine and Baathists in Iraq, all dedicated to our destruction. Bush was right to address the problem. And indeed, the Democrats, by and large, are not right to refuse to face up to the problem. Further, Saddam Hussein gave us the cause for war. He attacked United States’ aircraft day after day for months. He supported the murder of our diplomats in Jordan, and indeed, the attempted murder of a former President. He supported Abu Sayef in the Philippines, and he supported Palestinian terrorism in Israel that took its share of American lives. But Mr. Bush blew the just war. He didn’t care about the moral high ground and alienated many supporters at home and abroad.
The doctrine of preemption was also a huge mistake. The last American President who relied explicitly on a preemption doctrine to launch a major war was Jefferson Davis when he authorized the first shot at Fort Sumter before Union forces attacked. But by doing so, Davis divided his own cause, and united his opponents. It was an epic disaster of political leadership. The jury is still out on Iraq, of course. Rumsfeld’s management of war bears no resemblance to Washington’s. The Iraq war planning is entirely for the short run. Washington always planned for the long run, even as his men marched through the winter snows, he was planning future infrastructure, military academies and other long-range visions. By contrast, under Mr. Rumsfeld’s leadership we are neglecting maintenance, manpower, and considering things like base closings.
Consider that our three largest problems in the world right now, North Korea, China and Iran, are all developing submarine fleets, at a time when we are unilaterally disarming in that area.
Worse, we are reaping a whirlwind from things like the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Indeed, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were mentioned by terrorists responsible for the London bombings recently. We are giving terrorists a thin veil of moral authority that is completely unnecessary. There was simply no need to have incurred this level of divisiveness.
The Talking Dog: Do you believe that we find ourselves in Iraq in a similar position to what the British and Hessians found themselves in around the New Jersey campaign, that is, operating in hostile territory thousands of miles from home, under constant sniping where the enemy has mobility and initiative and superior local intelligence?
David Hackett Fischer: I don’t agree with that. I do not believe that the situation in Iraq is analogous to the Revolutionary War. Most Iraqis want the new government to work. Indeed, they are outraged by the handful of insurgents, and horrified by their actions, and many of the insurgents are from outside Iraq. It is a fundamentally different situation. Indeed, there is good reason for hope. The returns are not in, by any means. This may take years, or decades. The American people are not prepared for that, but this may resemble the Malaya or Philippines situation, and take a long time to work itself out.
The Talking Dog: Finally, I like to think “we could use a guy like George Washington right about now.” Do you believe that General Washington has anything to teach us about our current strategic thinking?
David Hackett Fischer: Yes, we’ve touched on many of these points. Doing the right thing. Maintaining one’s own ethical values even in times of the greatest of stress. A quality of leadership, whether in managing a war, or in maintaining a republic, an open form of leadership. A leadership that brought out the strengths of an open society, that took advantage of the talents and initiative of a free people. We should always be learning… Washington listened to others. These days our leaders in Washington tend to assume that everyone who is not completely for them is against them. Both parties bear their share of blame for this kind of thinking. Washington thought differently.
The Talking Dog: What do you think of the fact that there are some who might write off Washington (or Jefferson, for that matter) as a rich White slave-owner?
David Hackett Fischer:Washington was a man of a different world. Our era of political correctness doesn’t take any of this into account, choosing, for example, slave ownership as its sole test for judgment and leaving it at that. This does no one a service. As Davey Crockett once said, “It don’t even make good nonsense.”
The Talking Dog: Professor Fischer, I think I’ve taken enough of your time. I’d like to thank you for being so generous.