instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads


1. Serendipity (2004)

2. On Iraq (first published March 7, 1999 in The Gainesville Sun under the title “A policy gone bad?”)

3. There is a Turning of the Tide (published in Newsweek, March 31, 1975)


photo by Preston Mack
The author in his study in 2003


Life is full of surprises; my life turned out very different than intended.

I was born in the hills of northern Britain 87 years ago, destined to become a weaver. I was taught the skills of weaving, standing on an empty orange crate at my father's side. Mesmerized by the threads and deafened by the clatter, I kissed the shuttle, the priest blessed the looms, and so our bread was won.

In the 1930s, like a creeping paralysis, the looms fell still; the source of our bread dried up. Desperate for a job, my mate and I tried to go to Russia, where there was work to be had. Fortunately, our letter to the Russian consul in London asking for a job was ignored.

Becoming poorer by the day, in 1933 when I was 16, I ran away to London. I finished up as an unskilled laborer in an East End iron foundry. I found half a single bed in the slums and began a new, hard life far from home. At the end of each day I was black with soot and could hardly stand. At least I was not begging on the streets, as many Northerners were.

Two years later, in 1935, I discovered "larning." Learning was something I'd always avoided. With pencil and pad I went to night school - often in dirty overalls. I knew from my Northern training
that a boy could go anywhere if he had the will. With incredible "nerve," I decided that I would become a Labour leader - even a Member of Parliament.

In 1936, my mad dream began to come true. Wonder of wonders, I went to Oxford University on a scholarship. Having left school at 13, I had no idea that such places existed. I got three meals a day - without sweating. I was too conceited to realize that I was 10 years behind. The university knew. They told me that letting me in without an entrance examination was the only concession they were prepared to make. I'd have to meet the same standards as other students or fall out. The foundry's drop hammer began to echo in my head.

At Oxford, everything I touched turned to gold. I not only passed my examinations, I distinguished myself. I even won a wife there.

"Take a first-class degree," my tutor advised, "go to the Bar in London to study law, and I predict you will rise to the top of the Labour movement." I was too young to realize that life defies such predictions. Adolf Hitler stood all of us on our heads.

In 1945, I emerged from the Second World War a different man. No one can walk the valley of death for years and remain the same. My prewar ambition to go into politics had died on the battlefield. All I wanted was the private family life, which the war had denied me. I turned a deaf ear to those who wanted to promote my candidacy in the 1945 general election.

I was demobilized at the beginning of 1946. I must have returned from the war with enormous energy. While doing a full-time university job, I took a bachelor of science, a master of arts, and a doctor of philosophy, one on top of the other. I
went to Harvard as a Fulbright scholar, taught at the University of Illinois, and became a Houblon-Norman Fellow of the Bank of England. Rising in the academic world was plain sailing.

Alas, the quirks of life decided otherwise. In 1956, my wife suddenly came down with cancer. There had been no warning. I got her back to England - away from the extreme temperatures of Illinois - and began to look for another job. I found one at Melbourne University in Australia, where the climate is temperate. In November 1956, we flew "down under." On arrival, my wife collapsed; she died in 1959. Although the war had prepared me for the uncertainty of life and the power of chance, with her death my world fell apart; for months I was adrift.

In 1960, my two sons and I were rescued by a young woman who had just flown in from Zurich to take up her first academic position at the University of Canberra. It was love at first sight, and Helga and I were married that year. "You've ruined my brilliant career," she teased me.

After many adventures in the academic world, in 1965 we joined the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. From there, in 1966, I published my "Impact of Western Man," a study of the extrusive aspect of European civilization. The Institute was as far as I had ever expected to go.

Once more, events intervened. Our only daughter (by now we had three more children) began to have recurrent pneumonia. A change of environment was strongly advised. At that moment we were invited to visit the University of Florida. I quickly realized that Florida's climate might be the solution to our family's health problems, and in late 1966 we arrived here. Florida proved a wonderful choice and we and our children have been here ever since. Six of the seven of us graduated from UF.

In Florida, I began a period of research and writing that has been described by others as prolific; perhaps it was. To keep my teaching skills alive, I regularly taught world history to a sell-out, elective class of 150. My teaching became the basis of my "Concise History of the Modern World," which continues to go from one edition to the next. My family flourished, too. Together with our five children, we discovered the delights of state parks and Florida springs. In the summer we went, time and again, to Sanibel Island. As a family, we never broke ranks. At home or abroad we remained a tightly-knit group. We still are.

In 1996, I retired at 80. I had been at the UF for 30 years, in the classroom for 50. If anything, the pace since then has been faster than before. To my wartime book "Vessel of Sadness," I added two more volumes of autobiography, "The Road to Nab End" and "Beyond Nab End." These have been broadcast around the world by the BBC, serialized, and reviewed at length in the British press.

In April, my work was honored by the University of Central Lancashire. You can now go to my birthplace and join a regularly conducted tour of the "Road to Nab End." It's ironic that the part of my life from which I fought so hard to escape should have become the basis of my present fame.

A British phenomenon, you will say. Not so. The Japanese were the first to translate and publish both books.

I'm often asked how it feels to have this acclaim. It's humbling to wake up one morning and see your face spread across half a page of the London Times. I'm well aware of the illogical and transitory nature of fame. Yet I cannot tell you what a reward it is for an author to be told by his readers that he has given them so much joy. What astonishes me is the extent to which my story resonates in my readers' lives.

The upshot is that whereas I used to sell my books by the hundreds, now, in retirement, I sell them by the hundreds of thousands. An omnibus edition of my "Nab End" books will appear in October. My first novel "Shadows of Glory" appeared in December 2003. And the next book? Who knows? Life always has one surprise and one book left.



(First published March 7, 1999 in The Gainesville Sun under the title “A policy gone bad?”)

America's stand on Iraq increasingly seems fraught with danger.

Our present tactic of armed confrontation with Iraq invites catastrophe. We have gone from a position in the 1980s where we lavished arms and technical aid on that country in its war with Iran ("It is America whose hand can be seen emerging from the sleeve of the Iraqi government," said Khomeini), to a position where we are bombing Iraq daily.

Our bombing of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan would at one time have been condemned as 'acts of war'. The fact that our missiles were meant to kill 'a defiant head of state,' 'terrorists,' or 'destroy manufacturing plants producing weapons of mass destruction,' would not have legitimized such actions. The decision of the Clinton Administration in February 1999 to carry out preemptive strikes against any nation, if it felt such action was justified, has changed the accepted norms of international behavior. For us to make our own rules as to whom and what we can bomb will cause other powers to do likewise. Fortunately, until now, we have had the good sense only to bomb little countries; big countries would bomb right back.

Our business with Iraq should have been settled in January 1991, when under UN auspices (with Kuwait, oil, and the security of Israel at stake), Iraqi forces were defeated in Kuwait. Iraq was not invaded because it was beyond the UN mandate, and might have involved us in a wider war. Moreover, President Bush knew that the moment US troops made for Baghdad, his Arab and Egyptian allies would have deserted him. The domestic bases of the governments of Egypt and the Arab Gulf states were too insecure for them to indulge in an open-ended war against another Arab state.

Unable to get rid of Saddam Hussein by military action, our next move was to try to bring him down by disrupting the Iraqi economy. Harsh UN sanctions were imposed, which until the autumn of 1996 included Iraq's major export - oil. It was not difficult to get sanctions approved by the Security Council; many members of the UN at that time looked upon Saddam Hussein as a dangerous and unpredictable tyrant. Many still do.

In so far as sanctions were meant to cause a disintegration of the Iraqi economy, they succeeded - brutally so. Efforts made by the UN to lessen their severity were (until recently) always opposed by the US. To show leniency, our delegate at the UN argued, would only result in keeping Saddam Hussein in power longer, and his threat to the region (including Israel) alive. The only problem with the attempt to squeeze Iraq into submission was that it failed to achieve its aim. Iraq's defiance continued.

Frustrated by its inability to remove Saddam Hussein, and angry at his government's continuing non-compliance with UN resolutions, in 1998 Washington announced its intention to "take out" Saddam Hussein and his oppressive regime. In passion-charged language, he was denounced as a power-crazed dictator "worse than Hitler." Congress quickly set aside $100 million for his removal. No eyebrows were raised. It was as if the allocation of such a sum to overthrow another country's government was a legitimate, everyday occurrence.
Such action did not go unquestioned at the UN. (The fact that we owe that institution a billion dollars did not help either.) We were accused of vindictiveness - of wanting to destroy rather than punish Iraq. Even the most pro-American observer must regret the unusual element of bitterness that has crept into US-Iraqi relations. (To argue that the Iraqis are getting back what they gave to the Kuwaitis only encourages more hatred.) Blame for the suffering the Iraqis have endured (and which Saddam Hussein dramatizes for his own ends), was placed on our shoulders. According to UN sources, an estimated 700,000 Iraqi children have died from malnutrition and disease. Even if this figure is exaggerated, renewed airstrikes against Iraq can only make a dreadful situation worse.

Washington's response to growing UN criticism (and to keep attention on the threat Saddam Hussein posed), was to introduce the buzz-words: 'weapons of mass destruction' (the old buzz-word was 'oil'). Saddam Hussein, we were told, was about to attack his neighbors (and Israel) with weapons of mass destruction. But UN weapon inspectors (after a record eight years) have failed to produce any evidence that he still possesses such weapons. The largest stocks of weapons of mass destruction are in fact in the US, and the greatest use of them was made against Japan in 1945 (and against the Vietnamese in the Vietnam War).

Weapons of mass destruction have been about since the general introduction of the machine-gun in the 1880s. Chemical weapons were widely used by the Germans and the British in World War I.

Unable to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the argument has shifted from now to the future. If Saddam doesn't possess weapons of mass destruction today, he might possess and use them tomorrow. All countries of course have the potential to do good or harm. Yet to kill people today on the grounds that they might present a threat tomorrow defies common sense, to say nothing of international law. Imagine everyone doing that.

Wherever one stands in the present contest of will between Iraq and the US, the trend of world opinion is moving in Iraq's favor. There is a growing call at the UN for abolishing sanctions. The general feeling is that the human tragedy has gone on long enough. Innocent Iraqis should not have to go on suffering year after year because of the crimes of their leader. The weapon inspections and the no-fly zones, in place eight years after the Gulf War, are coming to be looked upon as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. France has threatened to end sanctions unilaterally. Many UN members, including China and Russia, share the French view. The 'consensus' which the US government claimed to have had on its side against Iraq seems - except for Britain and Israel - to have evaporated.

Our renewed airstrikes on Iraq have added to the criticism leveled against us. Iraq is now cast as another David struggling to resist Goliath. By deliberately attempting to provoke Iraq to hit back, we are portrayed as seeking an excuse for wider involvement. Even those who support the American point of view are uneasy about the danger of escalating the conflict. [The alleged attack on a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin on 2 August 1964 - which proved to be fictitious - opened the door to unlimited US involvement in the Vietnam War and all that followed.]
The greatest criticism of us comes from third world countries who condemn our bombing as 'gunboat diplomacy' (punishment meted out to a colony by an imperial power to ensure submissiveness). What we are doing now is what imperial Britain did before us. That Britain (which ruled Iraq 1920-33, and 1941-47) should join the US in bombing Iraq only adds to the irony of the situation. Iraq now has to get rid of what it sees as its old colonial master for the third time. We tend to forget that with the colonization of Asia ended, Iraq is the last Asian country to have to endure western military intervention all over again.

Iraq's unyielding attitude toward the US has left us with some hard choices. The worst response we can make to growing UN criticism is to leave the UN and wage an all-out war against Iraq alone. If the US were to crush Iraqi resistance, and get rid of Saddam Hussein, it could of course establish a puppet government. Yet (as Britain knows from its earlier failure), such action would have dire consequences. Our impulse to remove uncooperative heads of state has invariably ended in failure. Attempts (with other western countries) to remove Lenin from power in Russia after World War I ended dismally. A military coup in 1963, backed by the CIA, succeeded in removing President Diem of South Vietnam - to our bitter cost. Perhaps because our society focuses its attention on the future, we Americans have a habit of forgetting the lessons of the past.

The alternative to all-out war is to come to terms with Iraq (better sooner than later). The trouble with the diplomatic solution being pressed upon us at the UN is that it requires us to cease hostilities and resort to negotiation - which raises the problem of whether we can abandon our present tactic of confrontation without losing face. Unless France comes up with a formula to which we can subscribe, the odds are we will go on bombing, with the risk of causing a general conflagration. The underlying causes for a wider and deeper involvement of the US in the Middle East will remain.

Having embroiled ourselves in the power politics of one of the most unstable regions on earth - one that is rent with dispute and danger - our exit from the Gulf will prove much more difficult than our entry. Britain has been trying to remove its forces from that area since 1968. The Middle East is a region where there are no final solutions and no fresh starts. It is a place where by-gones cannot be by-gones, where one crisis inevitably leads to another, and where all too often nothing is solved and the finest hopes are blighted. One wonders if there are any solutions at all outside of time and sacrifice. Certainly, nothing will be achieved in that area without unending patience and understanding.

The best we can hope for is to avoid being dragged into widespread war. Our present use of force and rigidity of outlook make that a frightening possibility. To accept a situation where the anti-western feeling of the Arab people is growing is dangerous. The Arabs have been duped so often by the western powers that they no longer trust us. While promising Arab independence for fighting against the Turks in World War I, France and Britain (in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916) intended to enrich themselves at Arab expense. That is how Iraq fell into British hands. Even with the exploitation of oil, the western powers always had the best of the bargain. Anti-westernism was there before Saddam Hussein came to power and it will be there (enhanced by our present actions) after he is gone.

Teddy Roosevelt's advice about carrying a big stick and speaking softly was right. Passion and the unguarded word have always been the enemies of peace. With the possible recovery of Russia and the resurgence of China, his counsel will become doubly relevant. The US is enjoying the last days of being 'the only kid on the block.' Ten years from now we will have more to worry about than Saddam Hussein.

3. There is a Turning of the Tide
(A 1975 Newsweek interview on the publication of America's Impact on the World)