Why America Will Stay on Top

Eminent historian Paul Johnson on Sarah Palin, the tea party, and ‘baddies’ from Napoleon to Gadhafi. 


In his best-selling history of the 20th century, “Modern Times,” British historian Paul Johnson describes “a significant turning-point in American history: the first time the Great Republic, the richest nation on earth, came up against the limits of its financial resources.” Until the 1960s, he writes in a chapter titled “America’s Suicide Attempt,” “public finance was run in all essentials on conventional lines”—that is to say, with budgets more or less in balance outside of exceptional circumstances.

“The big change in principle came under Kennedy,” Mr. Johnson writes. “In the autumn of 1962 the Administration committed itself to a new and radical principle of creating budgetary deficits even when there was no economic emergency.” Removing this constraint on government spending allowed Kennedy to introduce “a new concept of ‘big government’: the ‘problem-eliminator.’ Every area of human misery could be classified as a ‘problem’; then the Federal government could be armed to ‘eliminate’ it.”

Twenty-eight years after “Modern Times” first appeared, Mr. Johnson is perhaps the most eminent living British historian, and big government as problem-eliminator is back with a vengeance—along with trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. I visited the 82-year-old Mr. Johnson in his West London home this week to ask him whether America has once again set off down the path to self-destruction. Is he worried about America’s future?

“Of course I worry about America,” he says. “The whole world depends on America ultimately, particularly Britain. And also, I love America—a marvelous country. But in a sense I don’t worry about America because I think America has such huge strengths—particularly its freedom of thought and expression—that it’s going to survive as a top nation for the foreseeable future. And therefore take care of the world.” 

Pessimists, he points out, have been predicting America’s decline “since the 18th century.” But whenever things are looking bad, America “suddenly produces these wonderful things—like the tea party movement. That’s cheered me up no end. Because it’s done more for women in politics than anything else—all the feminists? Nuts! It’s brought a lot of very clever and quite young women into mainstream politics and got them elected. A very good little movement, that. I like it.” Then he deepens his voice for effect and adds: “And I like that lady—Sarah Palin. She’s great. I like the cut of her jib.”

The former governor of Alaska, he says, “is in the good tradition of America, which this awful political correctness business goes against.” Plus: “She’s got courage. That’s very important in politics. You can have all the right ideas and the ability to express them. But if you haven’t got guts, if you haven’t got courage the way Margaret Thatcher had courage—and [Ronald] Reagan, come to think of it. Your last president had courage too—if you haven’t got courage, all the other virtues are no good at all. It’s the central virtue.”


Mr. Johnson, decked out in a tweed jacket, green cardigan and velvet house slippers, speaks in full and lengthy paragraphs that manage to be at once well-formed and sprinkled with a healthy dose of free association. He has a full shock of white hair and a quick smile. He has, he allows, gone a bit deaf, but his mind remains sharp and he continues to write prolifically. His main concession to age, he says, is “I don’t write huge books any more. I used to write 1,000 printed pages, but now I write short books. I did one on Napoleon, 50,000 words—enjoyed doing that. He was a baddie. I did one on Churchill, which was a bestseller in New York, I’m glad to say. 50,000 words. He was a goodie.” He’s also written short forthcoming biographies of Socrates (another “goodie”) and Charles Darwin (an “interesting figure”).

Mr. Johnson says he doesn’t follow politics closely anymore, but he quickly warms to the subject of the Middle East. The rash of uprisings across the Arab world right now is “a very interesting phenomenon,” he says.

“It’s something that we knew all about in Europe in the 19th century. First of all we had the French Revolution and its repercussions in places like Germany and so on. Then, much like this current phenomenon, in 1830 we had a series of revolutions in Europe which worked like a chain reaction. And then in 1848, on a much bigger scale—that was known as the year of revolutions.”

In 1848, he explains, “Practically every country in Europe, except England of course . . . had a revolution and overthrew the government, at any rate for a time. So that is something which historically is well-attested and the same thing has happened here in the Middle East.”

Here he injects a note of caution: “But I notice it’s much more likely that a so-called dictatorship will be overthrown if it’s not a real dictatorship. The one in Tunisia wasn’t very much. Mubarak didn’t run a real dictatorship [in Egypt]. Real dictatorships in that part of the world,” such as Libya, are a different story.

As for Moammar Gadhafi, “We’ll see if he goes or not. I think he’s a real baddie, so we hope he will.” The Syrian regime, he adds, “not so long ago in Hama . . . killed 33,000 people because they rose up.” Then, “above all,” there is Iran. “If we can get rid of that horrible regime in Iran,” he says, “that will be a major triumph for the world.”

Frank judgments like these are a hallmark of Mr. Johnson’s work, delivered with almost child-like glee. Of Mahatma Gandhi, he wrote in “Modern Times”: “About the Gandhi phenomenon there was always a strong aroma of twentieth-century humbug.”

Socrates is much more to Mr. Johnson’s liking. Whereas, in Mr. Johnson’s telling, Gandhi led hundreds of thousands to death by stirring up civil unrest in India, all the while maintaining a pretense of nonviolence, Socrates “thought people mattered more than ideas. . . . He loved people, and his ideas came from people, and he thought ideas existed for the benefit of people,” not the other way around.

In the popular imagination, Socrates may be the first deep thinker in Western civilization, but in Mr. Johnson’s view he was also an anti-intellectual. Which is what makes him one of the good guys. “One of the categories of people I don’t like much are intellectuals,” Mr. Johnson says. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re an intellectual,’ and I say, ‘No!’ What is an intellectual? An intellectual is somebody who thinks ideas are more important than people.”

And indeed, Mr. Johnson’s work and thought are characterized by concern for the human qualities of people. Cicero, he tells me, was not a man “one would have liked to have been friends with.” But even so the Roman statesman is “often very well worth reading.”

His concern with the human dimension of history is reflected as well in his attitude toward humor, the subject of another recent book, “Humorists.” “The older I get,” he tells me, “the more important I think it is to stress jokes.” Which is another reason he loves America. “One of the great contributions that America has made to civilization,” he deadpans, “is the one-liner.” The one-liner, he says, was “invented, or at any rate brought to the forefront, by Benjamin Franklin.” Mark Twain’s were the “greatest of all.”

And then there was Ronald Reagan. “Mr. Reagan had thousands of one-liners.” Here a grin spreads across Mr. Johnson’s face: “That’s what made him a great president.”

Jokes, he argues, were a vital communication tool for President Reagan “because he could illustrate points with them.” Mr. Johnson adopts a remarkable vocal impression of America’s 40th president and delivers an example: “You know, he said, ‘I’m not too worried about the deficit. It’s big enough to take care of itself.'” Recovering from his own laughter, he adds: “Of course, that’s an excellent one-liner, but it’s also a perfectly valid economic point.” Then his expression grows serious again and he concludes: “You don’t get that from Obama. He talks inparagraphs.”


Mr. Johnson has written about the famous and notorious around the world and across centuries, but he’s not above telling of his personal encounters with history. He is, he says, “one of a dwindling band of people who actually met” Winston Churchill.

“In 1946,” he tells me, “he came up to my hometown because he was speaking at the Conservative Party conference up the road. And I managed to get in just as he was about to leave to make his speech. And I was 16. He seemed friendly, so I was inspired to say, ‘Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?’ And he said without any hesitation”—here Mr. Johnson drops his voice and puts on a passable Churchill impression—”‘Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down. And never sit down when you can lie down,'” he relates with a laugh. “And I’ve never forgotten this,” he says, “because as a matter of fact, it’s perfectly good advice.”

Here he adds the kicker: “Interestingly enough, Theodore Roosevelt, who had a lot in common with Winston Churchill in many ways, but was quite a bit older, said of him, ‘Oh, that Winston Churchill, he is not a gentleman. He doesn’t get to his feet when a lady enters the room.'”

Mr. Carney is editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe and the co-author of “Freedom, Inc.” (Crown Business, 2009).

NOTE: This is a cross post from Wall Street Journal.

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  • Shamim Siddiqi  On March 8, 2011 at 2:17 am

    The conclusion drawn by the historian Paul Johnson is far from truth. Contrary to that the famous American historian PAUL KENNEDY of Yale wrote in his famous book: Rise and Fall of The Great Powers, published in 1988 that “America is fast thinning out”. There are 35 civilizations lying on the death bed of history and the USA is going to be the “36”. His argument is more genuine: USA is expanding its power/commitments more than its capacity and resources.

    The ever expanding gap between the Revenue and Expenditures of the USA is ballooning its deficit gap in Trillions every year due to foolish and nonsensical self-imposed wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, posing as the custodian of world order and overshadowing its foreign policy due to her unethical support to Zionist regime of Israel.

    The “goodness” of America, if any, is, thus, being fast eroding and washed away by assuming the “dictatorial” role of world leadership through coercive means and not through Justice and fair play as it would have been ought to be.

    Shamim Siddiqi

    • Irtaza  On March 8, 2011 at 2:18 am


      How God decides the fate of a nation? Please read and reflect atleast the following two verses:

      [18:59] Many a community we annihilated because of their transgressions; we designated a specific time for their annihilation.

      [10:98] Any community that believes will surely be rewarded for believing. For example, the people of Jonah: when they believed, we relieved the humiliating retribution they had been suffering in this world, and we made them prosperous.

      Does any muslim country at present fall under the category as explained in the verse 10:98 above?!

      Thank you and may God guide me,

      Muhammed Irtaza

      [33:62] God’s Sunnah is unchangeable
      [39:23] The Quran is the best Hadith

      • Shamim Siddiqi  On March 8, 2011 at 2:19 am

        Kindly note that:

        !. Nothing is permanent or eternal in this cosmos except Allah Himself [Ref: Verse # 88 of Surah # 28, Al- Quasars]

        2. Islamic civilization lasted for about 800 years at its prime because it was based on Truth and delivering Justice to mankind. Since the time, it abandoned its ideology and the goal behind, it started suffering from decay and decadence.

        3 Western civilization has neither of the two except material and technical supremacy, hence they are bound to meet their death sooner than expected.

        Where are the British today? America is following the same line as I stated in my earlier note appended below as propounded by the American Historian Paul Kennedy of Yale.

        4. Muslims inheritance of Islam is intact. They can revive their fate afresh if they struggle hard for establishing their Deen in the body politics of their respective countries, deliver Justice to their people and demonstrate the same to the world at large.

        5. This is NOW the only hope of mankind as the rest are dead or dying or are oppressive and do not scatter or promote Justice to the suffering humanity.

        6. Who are ready from amongst us to champion the cause of Islam to deliver Justice to suffering humanity through establishing the Deen of Allah first in the Muslim lands and then offer it as panacea for the rest of humanity?


        Shamim Siddiqi

      • Hassan Essa  On March 8, 2011 at 2:21 am

        For God sake,could you please translate what you have said in
        political terms, without mentioning Qura’n.Do you mean to say
        it was God who had decided fate of Islamic Glory and diminished
        because of their transgressions ?

      • Dr.Muhammad Mukhtar Alam  On March 8, 2011 at 2:22 am

        Itraza saheb,

        From the verse you have cited along with other verses that defines the eternal success of men and nations, we may work out an index of transgressions as individuals and nations. To wit,nations supporting homosexuality may earn the wrath like the people of Lot and therefore governments silencing the voices of upholders of criterion through various means may also earn the wrath. There are many other transgressions that are taking place across the nations where governments instead of creating sets of prohibitive regulations are encouraging the transgressions in the name of liberty and generating revenues.

        Muhammad Mukhtar Alam,Ph.D
        Papers and Presentations at http://slideshare.net/mukhtaralam

        Managing online networks for Movement for Transition to Post Carbon Green India http://transitionurbanindia.ning.com ,Carbon-Neutral Neighborhood Discussions and Leisure for Reducing Emission of Green House Gases http://ecostrategiccommunicators.ning.com

        and Champions of Indian Muslim Economic Development Agency http://imedaindia.ning.com

        Older content at http://muhammad_mukhtar_alam.tigblog.org

      • S U Turkman  On March 8, 2011 at 3:42 am

        Irtiza wrote:
        “Does any muslim country at present fall under the category as explained in the verse 10:98 above?!”
        TURKMAN: None of any Poor Moslim Countries like Pakistan. Because all Moslim countries are corrupt and their people are Characterless. Allah can not help Beggars, who live off others and do not want to do nothing for themselves.

  • S U Turkman  On March 8, 2011 at 4:13 am

    Siddiqi wrote:
    “Islamic civilization lasted for about 800 years at its prime because it was based on Truth and delivering Justice to mankind. Since the time, it abandoned its ideology and the goal behind, it started suffering from decay and decadence”
    TURKMAN: Islamic Civilization was at its Prime when …
    * … QraamTayin had sacked Baghdad in 898 A.D.?
    * … QraamTayin had demolished Kaabaa in 923 A.D., used it as Toilet and raped Daughters of Meccans in its Compound?
    * … Holagu (Halakoo) Khan had sacked Baghdad and built Mounds of Cut Heads of Moslims?
    * … Amir Taimoor Khan had also sacked Baghdad and built Mounds of Cut Heads of Moslims?

    650 A.D. plus 800 = 1450 A.D. If the above was Prime of Islam, who needs such a Prime?
    Moslims never left ideology, they had started worshiping their Mollaas instead of Him so, He had issued warnings but have Moslim headed yet?
    SIDDIQI wrote:
    “Muslims inheritance of Islam is intact. They can revive their fate afresh if they struggle hard for establishing their Deen in the body politics of their respective countries, deliver Justice to their people and demonstrate the same to the world at large”
    Which modern nation has advanced in this world and become a Super Power on Religion?
    What else do we have in our Body Politics but Islam right now?
    When Islam that permits, …
    * … attack on any nation that does not accept Islam or pays Protection Money,
    * … looting of defeated nations,
    * … their enslaving them and Slavery,
    * … 4 Marriages and unlimited number of Concubines, etc, … how can we call it ‘Justice’ …?
    How are you going to impress Non Moslim World with all the above in 21st Century?
    “Where are the British today?”
    TURKMAN: In UK, Canada, USA, Australia and Newzealand with Per Capita Income 35 to 44 times higher than Pakistan, with Democracy, Civil Rights, Justice, Human Rights that Moslims themselves love so much that hardly anyone would be left in Pakistan if they start issuing Visas un-restrain to live off their Charity like half of their brothers, who have emigrated before them are living. … I am not reading the rest of your B.S.

  • S U Turkman  On March 8, 2011 at 4:21 am

    “There are many other transgressions that are taking place across the nations where governments instead of creating sets of prohibitive regulations are encouraging the transgressions in the name of liberty and generating revenues”
    That’s right. Moslims, who do not follow the Basics of Islam and almost every religion of the world like not lying, not cheating, not stealing, not killing, not paying Bribes, not extorting Bribes, not eating Haraam etc have every right to point out to Civil Liberties, Human Rights, etc because only Eating Pork, Consuming Alcohol, Nudity, etc or whatever Sins Non Moslim commit more are Bigger Sins than all the Basic Sins that Moslim commit everyday. Moslims have to just do Rituals and Traditions. They do not have to improve their Character because being born to Moslim Parents guarantees ‘JunnaT’. I understand, sir.

  • S U Turkman  On March 8, 2011 at 4:26 am

    I do not believe USA can stay on the top because Economically, Monitory and Industrially she is not on the top even right now.
    Obama wants Americans to come up with inventions, innovations and ingenuity to make nation get out of this Depression but he is wrong because Americans are doing all that even now. The Problem is what they invent, gets manufactured in China instead of creating jobs in USA.

  • Nadeem Shehryar  On March 8, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    One comment on this blog quoted Paul Kennedy and concluded that, and I quote
    “There are 35 civilizations lying on the death bed of history and the USA is going to be the “36″”.
    It is not just the USA but the civilization that it represents.

    Every one need to think out of the box and look around history and future using your own perceptions and certainly not through the eyeglasses of Paul Johnson and the likes who are Europe centric.

    • S U Turkman  On March 8, 2011 at 10:21 pm

      Civilizations may have been overwhelmed by Civilizations of other nations but it doesn’t matter anymore because there are no Slaughters and Slavery that Islamic Civilization used to have in 7th Century.
      * British Empire died but has British Civilization?
      * Has U.K. been taken over by a Foreign Civilization?
      * Can any country dare to start a real war with USSR, USA, UK, France etc?
      * Sneak Attack Terrorism is not a war and can never make Moslims conquer the world. They are like a nuisance being caught. They are like Cock Roaches in a Kitchen.
      * USSR died but has Russian Civilization?
      * Is USSR still not a Super Power?

      So, if USA choses not to remain Policeman of the world or does not remain World’s biggest Economic and Monitory Power it does not mean USA Civilization would die. China would become Policeman of the World and would be reacting against Terrorism just like USA. What’s there to jump up and down for Moslim if USA is in decay?
      Allah would never let imbeciles run this world. He runs this world, not USA. He knows, what He is doing because He is all knowledgeable.

  • Archie Haase  On March 8, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Americans have a common belief in their nation; expressed differently but united in the need for an almost mythical strong America. In the depth of American politics. In the depth of American financial chaos. In our chaos is order.

    This is what separate Americans from what I see across the world; Americans like to problem solve. Apologetically (sorry) our seemingly self assured ways might annoy some across the world. My hope is Americans harness this/our confidence for good in the world, and away from extremist corporate global politics.

    • Yasmeen Ali  On March 9, 2011 at 1:56 am

      Well expressed Archie!

  • Hasni Essa  On March 9, 2011 at 1:54 am

    The religions are obsolete when the reforms do not proceed from them.

    – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    That may be the reason why America has progressed to become a dominating
    empire of the world and still stayed at top.Whereas, Islamic civilization has
    “abandoned its ideology and goal behind, and suffer from decay and decadence.”

    I could not be leading a religious life unless I identified myself with the whole
    of mankind,and that I could not do unless I took part in politics. – Gandhi

    Man is a thinking animal, and by his own determination can either build or destroy his own making, not God who created man to help his fellow human beings, regardless which God he believes in.

    We just wonder who to blame for “abandoning the ideology and leaving goal behind, …….” God ?.

    Hasni Essa

  • S U Turkman  On March 9, 2011 at 2:38 am

    I agree with Hasni Essa.
    We think, we are Moslim because we were born to Parents, who claimed to be Moslims. We only follow Rituals and Traditions of Islam just like all Ancient Tribes. We do not follow any Basics of Islam but do everything in name of Islam. We forget, our characters are worse than who Allah had called Koffaar in Qoraan.

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