Thinking In Public

November 19, 2020

War, Revolution, and the American Story: A Conversation with Historian Rick Atkinson

Transcript

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Rick Atkinson has made one of the most fascinating professional transitions, from being an award-winning journalist to being an award-winning historian. Actually, he has won awards including the Pulitzer Prize as a journalist, and then again the Pulitzer Prize as an historian. He's written several books, most famously his trilogy on World War II, entitled The Liberation Trilogy, which addresses itself to the unfolding story of the liberation of Europe. And now he has started a second major trilogy, and the first volume in this is entitled The British Are Coming, covering the early years of the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1777.

Rick Atkinson is an author who takes you right into the story, develops character, tells a narrative, and points to some larger issues that will surprise you, and that's true of every volume that he's written. I'm looking forward to this conversation with historian Rick Atkinson. Rick Atkinson, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Rick Atkinson:

Thanks, Dr. Mohler. Thanks for having me.

Albert Mohler:

I really look forward to this conversation. There's a sense in which every time I read a work, I feel like I've had some kind of conversation with the author, but it's different to actually have this kind of conversation. And when it comes to your work as an author, and especially with these two major trilogies, one done and one in progress, you are having a very long conversation with some audience. Who is that audience?

Rick Atkinson:

That's an interesting question. I like to think that the audience is varied, ecumenical, international. The truth is, I write military history, I write about war and have for all of my professional life, so the audience tends to skew male. It tends to be of a certain age, typically. But I particularly am keen to have a conversation with my fellow Americans about our collective history, our history both in the 20th and 21st centuries, writing about those wars as I have, and now our ancient history, back in the 18th century, whence we came, why we revere the founders, why we should be critical of the founders sometimes. And particularly the war that they waged for independence. Why did they do that? Why were they willing to commit themselves to it? I hear from all sorts of people, so I know that there's a broad and deep audience, and I'm grateful for it.

Albert Mohler:

Now, I understand, actually from comments you've made, there are something like 120,000 volumes on World War II, so it has to take a certain amount of ambition and confidence to offer a trilogy, and in your case, The Liberation Trilogy, which is about the European theater predominately, let's say Europe and North Africa, in World War II. And yet your first volume, An Army at Dawn, received the Pulitzer Prize, which was your third, by the way. Congratulations. And the trilogy- actually every single one of those volumes- ended up on the bestseller list. It's amazing to me that one event, the central event of the 20th century, you might offer, still compels that much historical interest. I find that rather encouraging, to tell you the truth.

Rick Atkinson:

I do too. It was an act of faith to some extent when I started out on it. You're right, it's not an undiscovered subject, and I'm not an academic historian. I was a journalist for a long time, wrote about war as a journalist. I was a war correspondent, but not an academically trained historian. So there was a certain amount of chutzpah in taking it on. You're right, there are tens of thousands of volumes on World War II. My thesis was, and I think it's borne out, that the greatest events in human history, just like the greatest characters in human history, are bottomless and that in the case of World War II, there will always be more to write, that it really is a bottomless topic in the same way that people will be writing books about Abraham Lincoln 500 years from now, I hope.

There's more to discover. There's more to write. The archival holdings are so vast. For example, the United States Army alone has records from World War II that collectively supposedly weigh 17,000 tons. That's a lot of paper. No one has ever looked at more than a fraction of that, no matter how assiduous a researcher you are. So there is more to find in that paper, in that archive. Yeah, with some trepidation I took it on, but I quickly came to the conclusion that there were new fields to plow.

Albert Mohler:

When you are writing history, the way you write it as narrative history, it really is, I want to say, extremely compelling. But I also want to say that when I picked up the first volume of your Liberation Trilogy: An Army at Dawn, which basically concerns the American entry into the war and first efforts, especially in North Africa, the defining opening years of the war in so many ways, I have an entire wall, in fact almost a room of military history in my personal library, and so I didn't think I was going to learn a whole lot from the volume, to be honest, but rather that I was going to experience another telling of the account. But actually, you've done an incredible amount of primary research. You've been looking into what I think most historians had overlooked, or perhaps in an earlier period they were writing a more rushed account of history. But I have to tell you that that was my favorite volume of all three of the volumes in the Liberation Trilogy, because that was unfurrowed ground in so many ways.

Rick Atkinson:

It's surprising, isn't it? You would think that ground that had been trod as much as World War II would have very little that had not been dealt with in some respect, but I was surprised to find... I started the project, The Liberation Trilogy, in earnest in 1999. I had lived in Berlin for several years before that and had been there for the endless succession of 50th anniversary commemorations of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and the end of the war and so on. It seemed as though this was very familiar, certain tropes that had become part of the commemorative approach to World War II. But when I conceived of this story as a triptych, three panels, starting where the war begins, as you say, in North Africa, I was really surprised to find there had been very little written about North Africa. It had been considered a sideshow. It was a warmup act for the bigger wars in Italy and particularly in Western Europe.

But my thesis again was, and I believe it proved to be true, to understand what happens in Normandy and beyond, you have to understand what happened before, that the character of that army and the men who led it had a collective history, individual histories also. And for the most part, it starts in North Africa, so that's fertile ground for a story teller.

Albert Mohler:

There are some familiar themes that come up, and you are writing with a lot of honesty, as well as a narrative skill, to be honest, a very elegant narrative skill, incredibly compelling, I would say. You also make judgments along the way, which some historians really don't do, or they make perhaps in only a glancing blow. But reading that first volume of your Liberation Trilogy: An Army at Dawn, I had the same impression that frankly I had completing the first volume of your Revolution Trilogy, which takes us through the first really two, two and a half years of the war, and that is that had Dwight Eisenhower or George Washington died younger, they wouldn't be remembered so well. Neither one of them turned out to be a very good general at the start.

Rick Atkinson:

Well, that's true, and they have a number of things in common. There are a lot of differences between them, obviously, but one thing they have in common is they're not particularly skilled field marshals. They do not see the battlefield spatially and temporally the way great captains like Napoleon do. Eisenhower makes a lot of mistakes. He doesn't see things, and Washington is the same way. Washington is commanding his army tactically. Eisenhower is echelons above reason, and he's thinking strategically for the most part. When he doesn't think strategically, he often makes errors. He just doesn't see things unfolding as they're unfolding.

But the truth is, first of all they survived those errors. Both of them learned from their mistakes. It's not that they don't make more mistakes, but they tend not to make the same mistakes over again. And they're lucky, which is the trait that Napoleon most cherished in his generals. They both have luck going for them. Beyond that, both of them have jobs that are beyond moving battalions around on a map. They are responsible fundamentally for preserving the integrity of the large force that they're leading, very large for Eisenhower, much smaller for Washington, so they have a strategic aspect that is at the core of the jobs they're executing. It includes having the capacity to integrate allies into their respective wars, and they're both quite brilliant at that.

So they've got great skills that turn out to be war-winning skills in both cases, but there's no doubt about it that you want to reach through history and shake them by the lapels at times and tell them to pay attention, because they do make fairly critical errors, and when you make critical errors as a general in a war, young men die. And now, young men and women die. It can be heartbreaking at times.

Albert Mohler:

I want to try to take this in kind of a sequential order, dealing with The Liberation Trilogy and then moving to the first volume of The Revolution Trilogy. But looking at World War II, it's just impossible not to make massive moral judgments, because there are few wars quite so immediate in moral impact, when you look at Nazi Germany and the threat that it posed. And then look at the moral complications of the Allies, including Stalin and Soviet Russia, and then the democracies of the United States and England and other Allies. Americans look at World War II, with Britons, in a certain way. Western Europe looks at it in a certain way. Has any great work been written from the perspective of the East? I mean, there were Soviet histories, but that's one of the questions I came to. I thought, well, Rick Atkinson's going to be exactly the right man to ask this. Is there a liberation trilogy written from the Russian perspective?

Rick Atkinson:

Probably not in Russian. There are some terrific historians who've written about the East. My friend Anthony Beevor wrote a book called Stalingrad, which is marvelous. David Glantz writes about the East, honored recently for his military histories almost exclusively about the East. There was a historian at the University of Edinburgh named John Erickson, now deceased. He wrote The Road to Stalingrad, and then the sequel was The Road to Berlin. Those two volumes were long considered to be the standard. It was difficult to get into Soviet archives frequently, so a lot of what happened on the Eastern Front was unknown or only partially known for a long time. So there has been over the last couple of decades, really beginning with Glasnost in the 1980s in Moscow, a greater understanding, a greater accessibility. Whether there is a Shelby Foote or a Bruce Catton writing in Russian, I don't know about them. I don't think so. I know that there are some good individual histories, but I don't think that anybody has done the big narrative sweep.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, that's something that came to my mind. Obviously, you have the great Russian literary figures, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but he had to put his work into largely fictional form- The Red Wheel and his massive works. And then western historians trying to get into some of those same archives, yes, it's different than it was under the Soviet Union, but a work like Timothy Snyder's work, Bloodlands, that gets a lot of doors slammed in your face. There's not an openness to a lot of this history.

Rick Atkinson:

It's true, and it's gotten worse under Putin. I know from my friends who toil in those vineyards that it can be extremely frustrating. You know the stuff is there. Sometimes they let you in and you find it's not there, or they don't let you in at all. So yeah, my hat's off to those who are persistent about it and who recognize that understanding that aspect of the war, where of course it's a much bigger, nastier war, the Russians are the critical component in winning the war for the Allies. As much as we like to think as Americans that we are the critical component, it's not true. It's the Russians. It's estimated that Soviet soldiers killed nine Germans for every one German who was killed by British and American troops combined. 26 million Soviet citizens died during the war. It's 14, 15% of the entire Soviet population, so it's an extraordinary catastrophe from the Soviet point of view. And frankly, understanding what happened on the Eastern Front provides us with clues about why the Russians seem to be so weird sometimes. I think you have to understand what happened in the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets call it, to understand who Vladimir Putin is, why they are so suspicious, why they are so isolated. A lot of it stems from what happened to them in World War II.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. And putting that in the great tapestry of world history, Peter the Great articulated the fact that Russia's great vulnerability was that there was basically nothing between Moscow and Europe but open plains. There was no mountain range, there was no ocean, and thus Russia was always vulnerable. And then along would come Napoleon and Hitler to make that point. To make your point, I think we can understand why history looks a little different from that perspective.

Rick Atkinson:

It does. And I think we don't have to forgive them for the sins that they have committed since 1917 and even before that, but I do think understanding their history is important for us in politico-military terms to understand how to deal with them today.

Albert Mohler:

Well, and not as any allowance for Soviet communism and the experience and the repression in the Soviet Union, but I meant looking just at Russia as a landmass and understanding why it always feels the needs for buffer states, because if it lacks those, then Mother Russia itself is absolutely vulnerable and has been throughout all of its basic more than millennium of history.

Rick Atkinson:

Well, that's true. I mean, it spans 11 time zones, and it has vulnerabilities. It's got a lot of neighbors, and a lot of neighbors who don't necessarily wish them well. Their experience with Germany in two wars certainly made them wary of enemies to their west. So yeah, it's a very complex place.

Albert Mohler:

Now, you were with The Washington Post. You were a journalist. You covered a lot of territory, including covering war. You won a Pulitzer Prize and then another. Then you made a transition of sorts. Talk to us about how you made the transition from being a journalist to being an historian, and how much is the same and how much is different?

Rick Atkinson:

Yeah. I started my professional career. I thought I wanted to be an English college professor, and that didn't look too promising in the mid-'70s when the job market dropped out. And so I started working on a small paper in Southeast Kansas, Pittsburg, Kansas, and then I moved to Kansas City. And then I did go to The Washington Post, and I worked there for some time. I was in Berlin for them. I had a lot of great experiences as a journalist, but frankly, the voice of the newspaper began to feel kind of strangled to me, a little screechy. I tend to write, when I'm writing books, these doorstops, so writing for the space allotted to you in a newspaper was very constricted to me.

I decided in 1998, I was running investigative reporting at The Washington Post at that time, having come back from Berlin. I had written a couple books, having taken leave, both of them about war, American wars, but decided I would take a flyer and try to make myself into an historian. The owner of The Washington Post before my time, Bill Graham, was quoted as saying that journalists write the first rough draft of history. So I knew how to write the first rough draft of history, but then writing something that's more enduring and that embraces fully, acknowledges and embraces the standards of academic confirmation of sources, complete and thorough acknowledgment of your predecessors, all of those things, having been a graduate student, I'm aware of the standards that are required. But then going on and doing it required a different set of skills and a different set of muscles really.

I didn't know, for example, having done very little archival research, how I would like it. Well, it turns out I'm an archive rat. The mystery of the next unopened archival box is something that keeps you going day after day, week after week, month after month through these dry, often uninspiring records. But then you find something that is really enlightening. And if you're willing to do that, then you've really got the basis in primary sources for what I think can be new ground.

When I started The Liberation Trilogy, I live in Washington, DC, not far from the National Archives, and I would be out there for months really, collectively. It never got old to me. I never got tired of it. I never felt that I was drilling so many dry holes that I was just going to stop being a wildcatter and go do something else. You know, it's not for everybody, because it's very, very solitary, both the research and the writing, but if you're comfortable being alone for a good part of the time, I find that it suits me. I've been doing it now full time for more than 20 years.

Albert Mohler:

I supervise PhD students and was one. I tell people, here's the way it works. A non-doctoral student in the humanities, in history and theology, my areas, a non-doctoral student hates the archives and would dread the thought of being stuck in there. The almost doctoral graduate gets into the archives, loves it, and never gets out. The one who holds the PhD degree got into the archives and loved it, but found a way out to write a dissertation. There's still a lot of people who are stuck in archives. And by the way, I was rarely more envious in reading something than having just been back to Windsor before COVID, you wrote about looking leisurely and actively through George III's archives there at Windsor. I was envious, I must tell you. But you do work your way out. You have your first trilogy completed and the second trilogy underway.

My hardback copies of your books are in a portion of my library to which I do not have access at the moment, and so I had to bring in the paperback copies. The first volume of The Revolution Trilogy is about 700 pages long, so you do work your way out of the archives. Talk about that. How do you decide, this is going to be valuable and this is not?

Rick Atkinson:

Yeah. Well, sometimes you make the wrong decisions. There's always a danger of wandering into the woods and never wandering out, as you say, and there are many people who, I see them in the archives, and they've got cobwebs growing off of them. I don't want to be one of those people. I think part of the narrative art is knowing first of all how to spin a story and knowing what's essential and what's not. The pain of throwing out 90+% of what it is that you have come up with, either from secondary or primary sources, is pain indeed, because you got to throw this stuff over the side. You're never going to use it. You've gone to a lot of trouble to learn about this or that, and it's just not going to fit into the story.

The task of deciding when you've got enough and when to move on and when to move into the writing: I do all the research before I do any writing. I basically put a mark on the wall and I say, "By this date, I will either know it or I will not know it." And there are many things I will not know. There will be others coming behind me again in these big bottomless stories. The publisher helps you to establish that date, because they want to put out a book and they want to try and make some money. At this point, I have a feel for it. I'm working on book number eight, so I have a general sense with the rhythms of research.

Right now, archives, libraries, battlefields are closed. That makes it difficult in a time of COVID pandemic. But I have enough material for volume two of The Revolution Trilogy, either in my house, physical books, or accessible online. Virtually anything that was published before 1927 is out of copyright, and thanks to Google Books and Gutenberg Project and so on, it is accessible and often beautifully accessible. The papers of the founders are online, The Founders Online, in fact it's called. Washington and Adams and Jefferson and Franklin, all of that stuff is available online.

I recognize, finally, that I've got a books-to-get list, and right now I have about 2,400 titles on that list. I own about half of them. I happened to look at it seriously the other day, and I've got about 370 to 390 titles that I've got to get through, this is just secondary material, between now and the time I start writing the second volume. Well, that's a lot of books to get through, but it's a chapter here and a section there and so on. It's a forced march. I'm working my way through. Some are more delightful than others to plow through. In fact, I'm back at a book right now, it's called God of Liberty by Thomas Kidd. The subtitle is A Religious History of the American Revolution. It's terrific. It's very good. You're probably familiar with it. This is a pleasure to read, because he's a good writer and he's a terrific researcher. Others, not so much.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I share your admiration. I just arranged for him to be a plenary speaker at an academic meeting. He does good work, including work, oddly enough, on American Christians and Islam, a university press work from years ago. In completing The Liberation Trilogy... in the first volume of The Revolution Trilogy: The British Are Coming, you write that you kind of thought you would go to the Pacific theater, but you didn't. Instead, you turned to the American Revolution. There had to be a matter of just where you were deciding to invest your life. You're talking about, I'll just say, 15 to 20 years for this trilogy. What made you switch from the idea of perhaps going to the Pacific theater and then instead going back two centuries to the American Revolution?

Rick Atkinson:

Yeah, you're right. You don't want to make the wrong step, because it is... I'm not getting any younger. The Liberation Trilogy did take me almost 15 years to complete. I have no illusions that the current one will be any quicker, because I'm older and slower now. You know, as I was finishing volume three of the World War II narrative and began thinking about what to do next, and the obvious thing would have been to pivot to the Pacific and do for that theater what I had done for the Mediterranean and Western Europe, I just didn't have the heart for it. Partly, I would have had to start the war over again at Pearl Harbor or even earlier. I end the war, volume three of May 8, 1945, when the war in Europe ends. I'm an Europeanist. I was born in Munich. I lived in Europe for a number of years. My head swivels to Europe, and it has a hold on my imagination in a way that the Pacific does not, even though I did spend part of my childhood in Hawaii, so I know Asia is out there.

And then finally, at the point where I'm making a decision about what I'm going to do really for the rest of my working life, I've always had an interest in the American Revolution. It's our creation story. It tells us who we are and where we came from, what our forebears were willing to die for, which I think is the most profound question any people can ask. And for me, having written about the American Army in particularly the 20th and 21st centuries, I was deeply curious about whence that army comes. How does it start? Is there a bright line that you can trace over 240 years from Washington's Continental Army to the force we've got today, through World War II and all the other conflicts?

All of those things led me to take a flyer and say, "I'm not going to do the obvious thing. I'm going to intrude on other people's turf." Again, very fine historians have been writing about the American Revolution for more than 200 years, so trying to bring a voice and a narrative style and a researching ethic to it in a way that actually moves the ball down the field, there's chutzpah involved, but having done it once, I had the illusion at least that I could do it again.

Albert Mohler:

Well, it's a magnificent first volume, The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777. The facts of the beginning of the war, the facts on the ground, the facts of the battles are pretty well attested. I don't think you really overturned any previous facts claims in writing your book. But what you did was provide a narrative that I do think has been absent for so much of it. And one of the things I appreciated is that you give, in kind of a sly way, a lot of the background to the war that Americans don't ever think about. You get into the minds of people on both sides of the Atlantic and what they thought they were doing, which is so incommensurate.

Part of the tension that you achieve in The British Are Coming is that the British and the Americans fundamentally see the war in completely different terms. George III thinks that as soon as it comes to blows, the recalcitrant rebellious Americans, like wayward adolescents, will get back in line. But the colonists by this time, the revolutionaries, have decided this is a new era of humanity. They were not interested at that point in a battle to define political terms. They wanted to start a new order.

Rick Atkinson:

It's true. When we talk about 21st century warfare and we talk about counterinsurgency, the theorists talk about the human terrain, so the human terrain in Iraq or in Afghanistan. It's the social, political, and economic aspects of that culture, of that battlefield. The human terrain in American 1770s is incredibly complex, and part of my ambition was to tell the story from the side not just of the Americans but also of the British. I spent a lot of time- you mentioned I was in Windsor- I spent a month there going through the papers of George III, which the Queen owns, and she has just opened them up to outside scholars. I was one of the first allowed in to Windsor Castle to look at George's papers. To try to walk a mile in his shoes and understand what it is he thinks he's doing, waging a war for eight years against his own people across 3,000 miles of open ocean in the age of sail, why is he doing that? And at the same time trying to understand what it is that the Americans, 2.5 million, 500,000 of them are Black slaves, they don't get a vote, probably 20% of the other two million are remaining loyal to the crown, often taking up arms on behalf of the crown. So it is a civil war in addition to a revolutionary insurrection. That's really complex stuff, considering it's a relatively small country with just 13 colonies, soon to be states. Trying to put that all together and to see how it fits together in a time of war is intriguing to me. I'm fascinated by the British. The British in the 18th century remind me to some extent of us in the 21st century, big, sometimes clumsy, self-righteous, complex.

Albert Mohler:

Self-consciously well-intended.

Rick Atkinson:

Exactly right, yeah. I think that's pretty key to understanding, and I admire George III. He is not the mincing nitwit we see going across the stage for Hamilton every night, singing, "You'll be back." He is king for 60 years. He's a man of parts. He's interested in everything from agronomy to horology, the study of time. He's deeply, passionately interested in upholding the British version of democracy. He's committed to Parliament. He's committed to the welfare of 11 million Britons. He's not just a reactionary, although he is a reactionary. He's beyond that. But he is driving the train when it comes to the Revolution. He is the hardest of the hardliners. But understanding where he's coming from and why it is that he is so determined that these colonies are not going to slip away- partly because he thinks it's the end of the empire-  is critical to understanding why the Revolution unfolds as it does.

Albert Mohler:

With George III of the House of Hanover- but you point out, he really is English, perhaps the first of the Hanoverians to be English in that sense- he sees himself as the king of a kingdom, now a United Kingdom as of 1801 with Britain and Ireland together. And then you give some background to the fact that of course you have the Seven Years' War that took place. It is the immediate background to the politics on both sides of the Atlantic, and England now has an empire and sees its future in the world as dependent on maintaining that empire. It is clear that the American colonies and even what Lord North would call the Continental Nation, that that's a loss the empire can't sustain. George believes it with all his heart.

Rick Atkinson:

He does. The British make several strategic miscalculations, and in my mind, that's foremost. The first British empire was created, as you say, in 1763 out of the Seven Years' War- French and Indian War, as we call it- and it has given them great international prosperity. They get Canada from the French. They get a half million fertile acres west of the Appalachian Mountains. They get Florida, and they give it back, but they get sugar islands in the West Indies. They get some Spanish possessions. They get parts of India. "The sun never sets on the British Empire" is a phrase that is coined in 1773. And George believes that colonies exist basically to feather the nest of the mother country, that we Americans are here to provide raw materials and to buy finished British products. That's the way the whole system is set up.

When we express a dissatisfaction, first of all with that arrangement and then an ornery sense of independence, George believes that allowing the colonies to break away will encourage insurrections in Ireland, in Canada, in those sugar islands, in India, and that that will be the end of the empire. That's wrong, as we see. When we do break away, Britain is going to lose a substantial portion (in terms of square mileage) of the empire, but there'll be a second British Empire that reemerges subsequently after yet another war with France, this time against Napoleon. When you predicate your global strategy on a false premise, you're going to get garbage out, and he gets garbage out. He never really acknowledges that. He clings to this notion for eight years of war, and even in 1783 when the peace treaty is finally signed, he's very grouchy about it. Let's put it that way.

Albert Mohler:

I have to tell you kind of a turning point in my historical consciousness. It came in 1986 when I was studying in England as a doctoral student. I came to the recognition- and this is such a good healthy thing, but this is way before the internet, and so this is something that you have to get by being there at the time- is that George III is not remembered as a failure in Britain and that he's more remembered for the United Kingdom in 1801 than he is for losing the American colonies a mere generation earlier. And the same thing is true for Lord Cornwallis. You go in St. Paul's Cathedral, you're reminded that he's remembered in glory as the Viceroy of India, not as the surrendering general to George Washington. So I realized, the American boy growing up thinks of George III and Lord Cornwallis as the obvious losers who are remembered in ignominy, but not so in England.

Rick Atkinson:

That's true. I mean, there are second acts for some of these guys, Cornwallis being foremost among them. George, I think, has had a bit of a revival in British consciousness. He is to be, I think, congratulated back through the decades, because first of all, he really is, as you say, of the four Georges who become king, he's king for longer than any of them; in fact, most of them put together. He is the first of those Hanoverian kings to embrace being British. British born, unlike his grandfather and his great-grandfather, George I and George II, and completely committed to what's known as the Glorious Revolution 1688, in which a modus vivendi was established between the people represented in Parliament and the monarchy, which gave us the government that Britain has today.

His 60,000 books in his own personal library become the basis for the British Library, one of the great libraries in the world. He really is somebody who contributes to Britain in many ways. He's got 15 kids. He's a devoted father, a devoted husband- not a given in the 18th century by any means. He establishes certain cultural norms. In an age of impiety, he's quite pious. So I think Britons have come around to recognizing that he is a part of their heritage, 1,000 years of heritage, that really has contributed to Britain being Britain.

Albert Mohler:

In the first volume of your Revolution Trilogy: The British Are Coming, you set the stage for what the colonists, now Americans by their own self-designation, what they thought they were doing. And it is more astounding the more I think of it. They really did intend to overthrow British authority and British rule and establish a new political order. These days we would consider such people to be quite dangerous. George III and Lord North certainly did, and others. But their ideals really were astoundingly good.

Rick Atkinson:

Yes. Yes, I would say with an asterisk. Their ideals were astoundingly good. They weren't always put into practice. Again, those 500,000 Black slaves are a problem. George Washington dies in December of 1799. He's got more than 300 slaves. I think you cannot square that circle morally, even if he freed some of them in his will. But yeah, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those are words to live by, words to die by, words that have inspired people subsequently all over the world, words that we still struggle to fulfill, to live up to. They are, we are, a very idealistic people in pretty fundamental ways.

Trying to figure out what next is going to be complicated. They have big ideas that they want to have a republic. It'll be a republic that, of course, is limited in its enfranchisement. If you're poor or you're a woman or you're Black, you're not going to be part of that government. You will not have a vote. But nevertheless, it's an expanding enfranchisement. You find that in the individual states, property requirements in order to vote are ever-diminishing. They're almost abolished in certain states. Enfranchisement is much broader than it is in England, for example.

And so if you look back, and people will say, "Well, let's tear down the statues of Ben Franklin, because he owned slaves at one point," or "Tear down the statue of George Washington, because he owned a lot of slaves," my feeling is that we got to where we are today, troubled as we are today at times, because of the idealism of those people, large and small. Those you've heard of, those you haven't heard of, those who were willing to risk it all, those who have a lot to risk, those who have very little to risk, except they risk their lives. It's something to be proud of. It's something to cherish. It's something to study, for good and for ill, to understand where they were flawed, understand how those flaws need to be corrected even to this day, but nevertheless to acknowledge our debt.

Albert Mohler:

Well, absolutely, because the way I would put it, and you mention this toward the end of your book, you're making moral judgments in this work as well as in The Liberation Trilogy about World War II, and my guess is you're going to have to make many more moral judgments in the second two volumes. But you mention at the end of your book basically the logic that the Revolution did not achieve full liberty for all, but it made it there to be claimed. Martin Luther King Jr. would come back and say that it's time to cash the check that was written as the Declaration of Independence. Another historian I know puts it, saying that it did not achieve liberty for all, but it made it visible for all to demand.

Rick Atkinson:

Yes, that's right. The great Yale historian Edmund Morgan talked about exactly as you quoted him almost verbatim. It did not give men and women equality, but it allowed them to claim it, to recognize that you have a legitimate claim to it under the basic precepts under which the country was founded. And that's been our history even since. We've come a long way in 240 years since the Revolution in size and in tolerance, but the things that they were wrestling with back then are things that we are wrestling with today, including the search for a more equitable society. This will go along. Our children's children's children's children will be wrestling with some of these issues. It's partly the nature of the beast we are. It's partly the effort to form a more perfect union.

And sometimes it seems there's a big step back for every two steps forward. Sometimes it seems there's two steps back for every step forward. But we've got a roadmap of sorts that those founders drew for us, and I think that that has provided us as a nation with something that very few others have had. It should be comforting to us that we've got this and we've been through all that we've been through, not only the Revolution, but the Civil War and the two world wars and all the rest.

Albert Mohler:

In The Liberation Trilogy on World War II, you mentioned The British Are Coming and The Revolution Trilogy. Your work of the Revolutionary Era- you call it the national creation narrative, and I think that's a very good way to put it. But your first trilogy was really about a trauma, crisis narrative, a great dramatic crisis point in world history. A creation account is different, of a nation. There's a different historical context, a different ambition, different set of ideas. There's also a different set of personalities. I have to tell you that I found The British Are Coming to be even more interesting than the first trilogy when it comes to characters. I think you do an astoundingly good job of setting out the most amazing cast of characters on both sides of the Atlantic. They had to have captivated you before you could write like this.

Rick Atkinson:

Yes, I'm afraid they do. I lived metaphorically with Dwight Eisenhower for almost 15 years, and now I have the privilege of doing the same with George Washington and some of his compatriots, his peers. Yeah, character is why I write what I write. I'm interested in character as the driver of the narrative. I'm interested in their flaws. They all have feet of clay. And I'm interested in those who are able to overcome those flaws or to accommodate them, to become the accomplished people that they often are. Or they don't. There are some who crash and burn, certainly, many who die young, which is part of the tragedy of war, part of the tragedy of our history.

But yeah, my feeling is that no novelist could invent this cast, that they are so extraordinary. I mean, somebody as brilliantly innovative as Lin Manuel-Miranda, when he writes Hamilton, which is just an extraordinary feat in my judgment, he doesn't have to invent the characters. They are there for him. He's got to infuse them with his own genius, but those characters are beyond, I believe, anybody's ability to pull them out of whole cloth. And it's across the board. It's the guys you know, Washington and Adams, and those you've never heard of before.

Albert Mohler:

I mentioned that your prose is very elegant, and it is. It's unusual for this kind of historic work, and the detail you offer is almost suspicious. It has almost a feel of historical fiction. I had that thought, and I was reminded that this first volume was reviewed by Joseph Ellis, who himself, I believe, won the Pulitzer Prize for History. He said that in reading The British Are Coming, he had the feeling that at times your writing is so vivid that it must be more literally than factual. So he, as I recall, went in a kind of a spot-checking of all your primary sources and came back and said, "Nope, it's there. No one's bothered to look at it before," which is actually an incredible confirmation of your work.

But I have to say, that's a part of the thrill of reading it, is that you feel like you can almost smell the air, or for that matter, you sometimes go into air you don't want to smell, when it comes to problems in the Continental Army's camps. And you pick out these personal aspects. You deal with one commander writing to Washington and going into extraordinary detail about his physical ailments. You just look at this and go, "These are real human beings, writing to other real human beings." I thought the materiality of that was just very helpful.

Rick Atkinson:

Well, thanks for that. And yes, Joseph Ellis has been writing about this period for a long time brilliantly. He's really one of our most gifted historians and an elegant writer. And to have him put his Good Housekeeping Seal on it in the Times Book Review was thrilling. Yeah, I think trying to bring characters to life, first of all, all within the absolute rigor of scholarship and everything has to be... There's a lot of mythology, needless to say, about the American Revolution, and part of what I'm trying to do is to strip away the mythology, to avoid falling into the pitfalls of hagiography and national aggrandizement and all the rest of that. The story is too interesting, the characters are too interesting to fall under that trap. You don't need to burnish them to be demigods in order to really fully appreciate them. They're more interesting as fallible human beings.

To understand their physical ailments is, I think, important. You're talking about General Schuyler in writing to Washington. He's not a well man. He's not that old, and yet he's probably suffering from malaria. It's probably undiagnosed. And he's in his sick bed when he should out commanding troops on the battlefield. This repeatedly fells him. It prevents him from being a better commander than he is. Some of his troops, he's a New Yorker, those from New England are very suspicious of him because he's a New Yorker, and the fact that he is often in his sick bed makes them even more suspicious. Where are you, man? We're out here getting shot at. Where are you? Well, he is prostrate.

Washington is the same. Washington seems to be, physical vigor is part of his magic. Eisenhower is somewhat the same way. They seem to just radiate vigor. Well, and the truth is that both of them have physical ailments through the rigors of campaigning and eating bad food. And so Washington, of course, famously has teeth problems. He's lost his first teeth when he's a young officer in the French and Indian War. They're going to plague him all the rest of his life. It's one of the reasons he doesn't smile much. He's self-conscious about his teeth. If anybody's ever had a toothache, you know that that can impair your ability to think, among other things.

So I think understanding all these aspects, understanding their families, understanding the pressures they feel being away from home. If you're a young soldier and you've left your shop or your farm, you don't know when you're going to be home again, your wife is there with the kids and she's got to take care of business. When you've got no money, you're not getting paid, all of these aspects of soldiering life, among other things, are important to understand how it fits together and how it doesn't fit together, why so many desertions occur. So many desertions occur in part because those soldiers feel the tug of home. They've got to go home, not because they're homesick, because they're worried about their families. It's a critical part of Washington trying to hold his army together, when hundreds and then thousands of soldiers leave.

Albert Mohler:

In the first trilogy, it seems fairly easy to break it down, North Africa in the first volume, Italy and Sicily in the second volume, Normandy and beyond in the third volume. As we bring this to a close, how exactly are you dividing the three books in The Revolutionary Trilogy?

Rick Atkinson:

Yeah, it doesn't cleave as neatly. I feel like a gem cutter sometimes, looking for the facets of the stone, as if I have any idea what gem cutters do. But I know that there are natural narrative cleavages, and for World War II in the Mediterranean-European theater, it is exactly as you describe. It was fairly easy to see. Less so here, partly because this becomes a global war. Ending the first book with the two Battles of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton in early January, 1777 is a pretty obvious stopping point, because they stop for winter. They go into winter quarters, and when that happens after the Battle of Princeton, really not much happens until late spring of 1777. My decision has been the second volume will start where we left off. They will be coming out. There'll be a lot that happens right away, Brandywine, British invasion from Canada, which takes Ticonderoga. It's going to lead to Saratoga, Germantown, the Brits capture Philadelphia, Monmouth, and so on.

Then the French come into it, and it really does begin to become a global war. The Spanish are going to follow them. I'm going to end volume two with one of the great catastrophes in American military history. It's the fall of Charleston in May of 1780, where the entire American army that's there is captured or killed. It really looks like for the British, after mucking around for years at this point, that maybe they've turned the corner. They've adopted a southern strategy. They're going to roll the colonies up from the South. They've basically taken back Georgia. They've taken back a good part, the rich part, of South Carolina. They're heading toward North Carolina, then Virginia. So that's where I will end it. I think that's a pretty good stopping point for volume two.

And then volume three, almost the entire war, with the exception of Arnold's treason, which is in September of 1780 at West Point, almost of all of volume three is in the South. The war moves south. General Greene is the commanding general of that army. Fabulous character. And so I think that even though it's not as geographically neat as the World War II structure, that it will work out, knock wood.

Albert Mohler:

People who read like I read and are interested in the kind of things that interest me live in the concern that Robert Caro is never going to finish that last volume on LBJ, and I just have to tell you, we're very much looking forward, I am looking forward to the next two volumes in The Revolution Trilogy. And I just want to say thank you.

Rick Atkinson:

Yeah, Bob Caro is an inspiration to us all in his diligence, his longevity, his brilliance. And so yes, when I get discouraged and I do feel like I'm getting older, I just look at Caro and say, "Come on, man, put one foot in front of the other. You can do it."

Albert Mohler:

We need that book, and we need the next two volumes in your trilogy. Rick Atkinson, thank you so much for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Rick Atkinson:

Thanks for the great conversation, Doctor.

Albert Mohler:

Well, that was a conversation worth having. Many thanks to my guest, Rick Atkinson, for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode of Thinking in Public, you'll find more than 100 of these conversations at albertmohler.com under the tab Thinking in Public. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public, and until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

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