Spies Against Armageddon: a White House must-read?

Veteran journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman have authored a compelling new book, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, that should become required reading for President Barack Obama and his National Security Council.

The White House has abandoned “nation-building” and opted for a “small footprint” strategy of special operations missions and drone attacks in the Middle East. If this is the direction for American foreign policy in the region (at least for the short-term), there’s a lot to be learned from the Israeli experience and Spies Against Armageddon offers a deeply researched account of how Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies operate when confronting threats to the Jewish state.

Take, for example, the sensitive topic of state-sponsored assassination (covered in detail in Chapter 22 of Spies Against Armageddon). It is a practice frowned upon by the international law community (which considers assassinations of suspected terrorists to be “extrajudicial killings”), but one that has been employed by the Mossad in its fight against terrorism.

Historically American political leaders have been queasy about endorsing assassinations and confronting the difficult legal and moral questions they raise, especially when the targets are far from armed conflict zones. After the revelation of CIA involvement in assassination plots in Cuba, Vietnam, the Congo and elsewhere, President Gerald Ford signed an executive order banning assassinations in 1976. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration relaxed prohibitions against “targeted killings” arguing that they were a form of self-defense*. Predator drones began firing Hellfire missiles at Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Obama has dramatically expanded these drone strikes, making them the central tactic in American counterterrorism efforts.

In fact, Obama’s enthusiasm for, and acceleration of, “drone wars” has disturbed many of his liberal supporters. The revelation that Obama himself reviews the “kill list” of targeted terrorists, and decides their fate, has been an unsettling image for many. In his Esquire piece “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama,” Tom Junod directly challenges the President’s current direction: “You are the first president to make the killing of targeted individuals the focus of our military operations, of our intelligence, of our national-security strategy, and, some argue, of our foreign policy.” Junod adds: “Since taking office, you have killed thousands of people identified as terrorists or militants outside the theater of Afghanistan. You have captured and detained one.”

In contrast, Spies of Armageddon argues that the Israelis take a more restrained approach to targeted killing. They prefer the scalpel to the hammer. Raviv and Melman note that:

  • The Israelis are very selective in their use of assassination as a foreign policy tool, despite the public perception (aided by movies like Munich) that they rely on hit squads. Raviv and Melman claim that since the creation of Mossad in the early 1950s “it has been involved in only a few dozen killing operations—certainly fewer than 50.”
  • Their targets tend to be key operational players in terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, or technical support people (bomb-makers, nuclear scientists). Spies Against Armageddon made headlines around the world in reporting that it was Mossad agents, not Iranian rebel groups, responsible for the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists.
  • They don’t go after top political figures.
  • They won’t, and don’t, kill Israeli citizens.

In contrast to this selectivity, the drone programs operated by the U.S. military and the CIA have been aimed at thousands of militants in an increasing number of countries. Drones have been employed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. And most disturbingly, President Obama and his surrogates have claimed the authority to kill American citizens deemed to be terrorists without judicial review or due process. Attorney General Eric Holder has argued that administrative due process is enough—a bizarre position for the nation’s top legal official to take.

It’s not hard to see why the Obama Administration has turned to drones to counter Islamic jihadism. It avoids the costly, and unpopular, use of American combat troops in the Middle East. It does keep Al Qaeda and the Taliban off balance. And it does protect Obama politically from right-wing attacks that he is soft on terrorism.

Yet it doesn’t appear that policy makers have thought through the practical, legal, and moral issues surrounding their reliance on targeted killing. The Obama Administration’s position on targeting American nationals without judicial oversight is a terrible one, arrogating to the President the “power of kings” to unilaterally kill his subjects. There’s also the question of how long this approach can be sustained. Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich, for one, has questioned this continuing “whack-a-mole” approach: “How many Hellfire missiles do we launch from drones before the last violent Islamic radical is either dead or decides that the cause is futile and puts down his arms and goes home?”

These aren’t easy issues to address. Spies Against Armageddon makes it clear that within the Israeli government there is a continuing debate over the limits of action and the ethical boundaries for intelligence agencies in a democratic state. It’s heartening to know that such debates are taking place in Jerusalem. We can only hope that they are happening in Washington as well.

*Lethal force may be employed in self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Luce Falls Short: Bacevich on the End of the American Century

Reprinted from Washington Decoded.

Andrew J. Bacevich, currently a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, and a former Army colonel, has become an outspoken critic of  US foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Bush-era doctrine of preventive war. 

Bacevich’s latest contribution to the debate is his editing of The Short American Century: A Postmortem (Harvard University Press), a collection of critical essays about America’s historic and future role in the world.

Jefferson Flanders sat down with Bacevich in his BU office to talk about the book and Bacevich’s views on recent developments in the Mideast.

Q: Why this book now? It sees the American Century as a metaphor for American triumphalism—in your words, the illusion that the United States can preside over and direct the course of history. Isn’t the pendulum swinging away from large footprint military action? Arent we at a point wheres there a recognition that we cant have both guns and butter?

Bacevich: I think we should realize that, but I don’t think we have realized that yet. The inspiration of the book is as follows: my own study of US foreign policy has increasingly been informed by an appreciation that we justify doing what we do in the world based on massive claims of our ability to shape or determine the shape of history. This notion really can be traced back all the way to the founding of Anglo-America but has been particularly evident in the post-Cold War era. When the Cold War ended there were any number of commentators and powerful politicians who proclaimed that the United States had triumphed, had become the indispensable nation, that the world was entering a unipolar moment, that somehow we were called upon now to play the role of benign global hegemon—these are phrases I’m using in a kind of a sarcastic way, but back in the 1990s before 9/11 they defined the conversation.

If you fast forward to the post-9/11 period, in particular take things up to about 2008, none of those claims seem to stand up very well. And in particular, they don’t stand up when we consider the failure of the American project in Iraq—which was not just a failure in Iraq but signified the failure of the George W. Bush plan to transform the greater Middle East using American military power. Combine that also occurring in 2008 with the onset of the Great Recession and suddenly we don’t look like the world’s only superpower; suddenly it doesn’t look like a unipolar world. I concluded that if there had been an American Century, if there had been a period of American dominion, by 2008 it was pretty clearly over. And what I wanted to do was to invite a number of historians to reflect on what the American Century had been about—if indeed there was one.

In order to try to provide sort of a hook for that project I went back and took a look at Henry Luce’s great Life magazine essay from February 1941, an essay which he called “The American Century,” which consisted of an impassioned summons for the American people now to accept the burdens of global leadership, the challenges of global leadership, which Luce himself was absolutely persuaded was our destiny. And so the result is this book, The Short American Century, an American Century which arguably began with the end of World War II and by 2008 had concluded. The various scholars who contributed to this offer a wide variety of perspectives about what the American Century was all about and they don’t agree with one another, nor was the intent for them to agree with one another. I wanted to get this wide variety of opinion.

Read more at Washington Decoded.

Max Holland’s Leak: reconsidering Watergate’s Deep Throat

Deep Throat never really said “follow the money.” †

Nor did he consciously intend to bring down the Presidency of Richard Nixon.

And Nixon and his closest aides knew in mid-October 1972 the name of the FBI insider—W. Mark Felt—who was leaking details of the agency’s ongoing Watergate investigation, but hesitated to move against him for fear that he would expose White House-ordered wiretapping of journalists. (Felt didn’t publicly acknowledge his role as Deep Throat until 2005.)

Those are just a few of the many intriguing historical insights found in journalist and author Max Holland’s superb new book Leak: Why Mark Felt became Deep Throat, a meticulously researched look at Felt’s instrumental, and misunderstood, role in the Watergate scandal.

Holland has crafted a page-turner—which in itself is quite a feat after the saturation media coverage of the Watergate story and the popularity of the book and film versions of All the President’s Men. At the center of Leak are two men: Bob Woodward, the Washington Post cub reporter whose career skyrocketed because of Watergate, and his secret source, Felt, a high-ranking FBI executive who was nicknamed Deep Throat (a moniker borrowed from the title of a notorious 1972 pornographic movie).

In 200 tightly-written pages Holland retraces Felt’s steps during the crucial initial Bureau investigation of the bungled black-bag job in the Democratic National Committee Watergate complex offices. Relying on interviews, transcripts of Nixon White House conversations, and memoirs from many of the participants, Holland carefully reconstructs Felt’s actions and possible motives—borrowing from, Holland says, a technique used in the world of counterintelligence to determine “in whose interests the suspected double agent was genuinely working all along.”

Motive and means

Holland shows convincingly that Felt acted solely in his own self-interest; he was not motivated by any principled need to defend the Republic against Oval Office lawbreaking or to preserve the FBI’s independence. Instead, the reader is introduced to an ambitious bureaucrat, a careerist consumed by office politics following the May 1972 death of J. Edgar Hoover. The infighting over who was to succeed Hoover became what Holland dubs the “War of the FBI Succession.”

When Nixon passed over veteran Bureau executives and named L. Patrick Gray, a Justice Department official without law enforcement experience, as interim FBI director, an embittered Felt resolved to derail the appointment. He had a powerful motive to leak. Thus Felt became Gray’s Iago, appearing to support the new FBI head while secretly undermining him.

The ongoing Watergate investigation gave Felt the opportunity—the means—to damage Gray’s credibility by leaking to Time magazine’s Sandy Smith and to Woodward the false notion that Gray was impeding the FBI’s inquiry into the break-in. Felt hoped to so tarnish Gray’s reputation that the Administration, anxious to avoid a Senate confirmation battle, would instead turn to an agency insider—Felt, the No. 2 man at the agency—as an alternative.

Felt proved quite good at the double game. He lied convincingly to Gray, who never doubted his loyalty, even when warned repeatedly about Felt by the White House. Felt personally launched several half-hearted internal investigations to try to uncover who was leaking to the press, careful to keep his own role hidden. He successfully manipulated both Smith and Woodward, feeding them the information that advanced his ends while disguising his contempt for the media.

Deep Throat as double agent

Holland’s portrait of Felt is telling: an icy personality, ambitious, vain, calculating, capable of flattery and of deception. (Some in the Bureau had nicknamed Felt the “white rat” for his shock of white hair and “tendency to squeal whenever he thought it might help his own agenda.”) After decades at headquarters in Washington, Felt had an insider’s knowledge of all things FBI and, Holland suggests, recruited confederates in the Bureau to assist him in leaking to the press.

For those familiar with the history of Cold War espionage, Felt’s sense of entitlement, his lack of empathy or remorse, and his smooth duplicity match the characteristic traits of a double agent. Jerrold M. Post, a psychiatrist and psychological profiler for the CIA, noted in his (now-declassified) paper “Anatomy of Treason,” that narcissism, or extreme self-absorption, is found in many moles; further, Post noted, these figures “… feel they are destined to play a special role, have an insatiable appetite for recognition and success.” And it is not that hard to imagine Felt meeting his underlying psychic needs for control and a sense of superiority by passing secret information to the Soviets, instead of the Washington Post.

In the end, Felt failed in his scheme to succeed Gray. When it became clear that Gray didn’t have the votes in the Senate, Nixon instead chose William D. Ruckelshaus in May 1973 as the interim director, again bypassing Felt. (In his memoir Felt noted that he technically became head of the FBI, “if only for two hours and fifty minutes” —the period of time between Gray’s resignation and Ruckelshaus’ appointment.) Ruckelshaus wasted no time in forcing Felt into retirement after a confronting him over leaks and what Ruckelshaus saw as Felt’s attempts to undermine his authority.

After Felt’s role as Deep Throat was exposed, an FBI contemporary of his, John McDermott, called him “the Bureau’s Benedict Arnold…Arnold betrayed his oath, his country, and his fellow-citizen soldiers to pursue his own ambitions. Felt did no less to the Bureau and his fellow agents.” McDermott noted that Felt had no evidence that the FBI investigation of Watergate was “impeded or thwarted” by Nixon, the Justice Department, or Gray. “Some have called Felt a hero,” McDermott wrote in 2005, “but heroes don’t lurk in the shadows for 33 years.”

Questions of journalistic ethics

Bob Woodward is also not cast in the most flattering of lights in Leak. Felt found it relatively easy to steer Woodward and his reporting partner Carl Bernstein toward stories that would damage Gray. He fed Woodward “plain untruths—things Felt didn’t know because the FBI didn’t know them; exaggerations or misrepresentations of facts the Bureau had developed; and falsifications of what Felt knew to be the truth.” The Post published two such false stories: that Gray had essentially blackmailed Nixon into appointing him FBI acting director and that the White House was behind the “Canuck letter” that damaged Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign.

Perhaps Felt’s wildest claim (made right after his confrontation with Ruckelshaus) was informing Woodward that “everyone’s life was in danger” and the CIA had instituted wide-spread wiretaps. This fabrication prompted the dramatic scene in All the President’s Men where Woodward summoned Bernstein to his apartment and—now worried about electronic surveillance— typed out the disturbing claims from Deep Throat. It did make for great drama, even if (as Holland reminds us) one Washington Post editor wondered at the time whether it was “a kind of paranoid delusion of persecution.”

Holland also raises questions about the ethics of the relationship between Woodward and Felt. Woodward’s decision to include Deep Throat in All the President’s Men represented a violation of the deep background agreement the two men had made in 1972. As Holland notes: “The fascination, if not fixation, over Deep Throat obscured the unilateral abrogation of the agreement…”

This expedience paid off: All the President’s Men made Woodward a celebrity (being played by Robert Redford in the film version certainly didn’t hurt) and he and Bernstein benefited handsomely from book sales and film rights. The decades-long guessing game about Deep Throat’s identity also translated into financial rewards: Woodward pocketed a healthy advance for his 2005 book The Secret Man about his relationship with Felt, and the Felt family sold his story to Hollywood for an estimated $1 million.

Deep Throat’s legacy

Holland’s painstaking scholarship in Leak makes it impossible to see Mark Felt/Deep Throat as a principled whistleblower determined to expose the “dirty tricks” of Richard Nixon. Yet Holland’s correction of this Watergate myth comes decades after the mysterious figure of Deep Throat captured the American imagination.

For many, Deep Throat made leaking honorable, even glamorous. Deep Throat appeared to have been motivated by a higher morality, one that justified his violating whatever secrecy oaths he had sworn. The public perception was that without his furtive meetings with Woodward in that darkened underground parking garage Nixon’s cover-up of Watergate would have succeeded (a conclusion sharply challenged by Holland and other historians of the period).

This meme of Leaker as Hero had an impact in Washington in the post-Watergate years. Government officials, whether career bureaucrats or political appointees, got the message: if you don’t like a Presidential or departmental policy, or consider it legally suspect, you have the right to anonymously leak sensitive or secret information. Anonymous leaking is a less risky course of action, as well. Resigning in protest means losing your job. Pursuing a formal complaint through official legal channels can jeopardize a promising career. Leaking is the safer route.

Yet while it is true that too much government information is routinely classified as secret, there are secrets—especially those involving national security—that should be kept. The problem, of course, is who decides what exactly should remain secret. The Leaker as Hero suggests that individuals can unilaterally make those decisions based on their own ethical principles (while avoiding any unpleasant legal consequences).

This approach to secrecy has some obvious flaws. If Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame and Deep Throat are both heroic figures, what about Bradley Manning (accused of leaking confidential U.S. diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks)? What about the outing of Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson, as a CIA agent by Richard Armitage/Scooter Libby? In all cases, the leaker can plead conscience as a defense.

Power has a way of changing attitudes. The liberal-left apparently no longer automatically accepts the Leaker as Hero construct. How else to explain the Obama Administration’s aggressive legal pursuit of leakers? As Adam Liptak of The New York Times has noted the Eric Holder Justice Department has “brought more prosecutions against current or former government officials for providing classified information to the media than every previous administration combined.” (Critics have noted that many of these leak prosecutions have not been confined to national security matters). No doubt Richard Nixon would have appreciated the irony, if not the double standard.

† According to Holland, Felt never gave that famous advice “at least according to Woodward’s contemporaneous notes, and now it appears likely that this useful thought was actually dispensed by Henry E. Peterson, or possibly Edward Bennett Williams.”

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Cold War questions: Soviet espionage and American Jews

September 25, 2011

The organizers of a conference held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research this past Tuesday in New York City chose a provocative title: “Soviet Espionage and American Jews.”

While perhaps not a hot button topic today with the Cold War now over, nevertheless any public consideration of links between Jews and subversion should make us uneasy–for the alleged treachery of the Chosen People has been a favorite trope of anti-Semites throughout the ages. That concern shouldn’t freeze historical inquiry or debate, of course; it should, however, encourage very careful scholarship and discourage broad generalizations about “the Jews” and their role in Soviet espionage.

As Jonathan Brent, the executive director of the YIVO Institute, pointed out in his opening remarks, the historical reality is that Jews were prominent members of the Soviet elite, and were disproportionately represented in both the American Communist Party and in the ranks of those spying on the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. Some scholars have argued that Judaism’s concern with social justice, its prophetic identification with the oppressed, and its Messianic strain made those raised in its traditions naturally more sympathetic to socialist or Marxist thought. (It should be noted that unlike secular or Reform Jews, Orthodox Jews have been more or less resistant to Leftist ideology.) The leadership of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s was also heavily Jewish, proving that left-of-center Utopian politics continued to retain their allure for many of Jewish descent.

Yet what became clear during the conference, which featured a panel discussion of the Rosenberg spy ring (that group of primarily Jewish engineers who passed military and atomic secrets to the Soviets in the 1940s), was that ideology, not religious identity, served to motivate their underground activities. For example, Joel Barr, a member of the Rosenberg ring who fled to the Soviet Union to avoid prosecution, later told conference panelist Steve Usdin, author of Engineering Communism, that he spied “…because I was a Communist.”

Barr believed in the promise of Marxism to reshape the world, and his willingness to pass information about American weapon systems stemmed from that conviction. The same can be said for the others of Jewish descent providing Moscow with scientific information (the XY Line in KGB terms), like Ted Hall and his Harvard roommate, Saville Sax, who offered up Manhattan Project secrets. It had nothing to do with their Jewishness: they believed that the new Jerusalem would be found in Moscow, not in Israel. They shared this vision of a Socialist Paradise with the non-Jews who spied for the GRU and KGB like Alger Hiss, William Remington, Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, William Henry Taylor, Lauchlin Currie, Donald Wheeler, and Duncan Chaplin Lee.

As a totalitarian system, Communism demanded total allegiance. Some young college-educated Americans of Jewish descent, like the core members of the Rosenberg ring, were consciously repudiating their Jewish identity in embracing the internationalism, and materialism, of their adopted ideology.* They can be more accurately characterized, then, as young American Communists whose education and employment made them useful to the Soviet intelligence apparatus and who (in most cases) happened to be of Jewish descent. While they may have been ethnically Jewish, they had rejected their community and abandoned the faith of their fathers in favor of a different God, the God That Failed.

Other insights

For anyone interested in the spy games of the early Cold War, the conference offered some interesting historical insights:

  • Despite the large number of Jews caught up in espionage, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other anti-Communists of the Right did not politicize the situation by blaming Jews for subversion. Panelist Harvey Klehr, Emory University professor and co-author of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, noted that McCarthy “did not bring that toxic brew into the mainstream” but instead focused his attacks on WASP Establishment figures like Dean Acheson and George Marshall. Had he chosen to scapegoat Jews, Klehr argued, “the results would have been very ugly.”
  • With historical scholarship establishing that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet agent and that his wife Ethel was also deeply implicated in espionage, their Old Left supporters have shifted their defense of the couple. They are now arguing that the Rosenberg’s refusal to come clean represented a noble commitment to “a higher duty than the truth,” according to Ron Radosh, the preeminent historian of the Rosenberg case.
  • Morton Sobell, a member of the Rosenberg ring who belatedly acknowledged his role as a Soviet spy in 2008, recently admitted to novelist David Evanier that, in retrospect, “I backed the wrong horse.” Evanier told the conference, however, that Sobell remained reluctant to reexamine the crimes of Stalinism.
  • The contrast between the harsh sentences for the Rosenberg spy ring members (including death sentences for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and 30 years for courier Harry Gold) and the relatively light sentence in Great Britain for Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs reflected cultural differences about what constituted appropriate punishment and not anti-Semitism by the U.S. courts, maintained Allen Hornblum, author of The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atomic Bomb.
  • The amateurism of some members of the Rosenberg ring was comical at times. Steve Usdin recounted how Joel Barr violated basic spycraft by recording directions from his KGB handlers and details of his assumed identity in a pocket notebook. Evanier related how when Sobell fled to Mexico City in 1950 (as the FBI closed in on the spy ring), he forgot to bring his passport.

* It was no different for the New Left. In a disjointed yet revealing talk former SDS leader Mark Rudd gave in 2005 entitled “Why were there so many Jews in SDS? (or, The Ordeal of Civility),” he noted that “…by being radicals we thought we could escape our Jewishness. Left-wing radicalism was internationalist, not narrow nationalist; it favored the oppressed and the workers, not the privileged and elites, which our families were striving toward.”

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

A close-run thing: winning the American revolution

The success of American revolutionaries in wresting independence from Great Britain today carries an aura of inevitability. Nothing could be further from the historical truth. In fact, on several occasions early in the conflict the Continental Army came within hours of total defeat on the battlefield. The eventual outcome of the revolution was, to borrow a Britishism, a close-run thing.

It requires a leap of imagination for 21st century Americans to understand how desperate the situation on the ground was for the revolutionaries in the first years of the insurrection. The Continental Army survived three very close calls—at Bunker Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and Trenton—where the outcome hung in the balance. Only a combination of tactical mistakes by the King’s generals, General George Washington’s skill at extricating the Americans from tight spots, and a fair measure of luck kept the revolutionaries from suffering a military debacle that would have ended effective organized resistance to the Crown.

British mistakes at Bunker Hill

The British squandered an opportunity to inflict a devastating defeat on the American army at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. General Thomas Gage chose a frontal assault on the rebel forces occupying the Charlestown peninsula’s high ground. Gage ignored the advice of perhaps his most astute general, Henry Clinton, who argued for landing troops north of Bunker Hill, behind the main position of the rebels, and occupying Charleston Neck, the narrow isthmus between the Charles River and the Mystic River connecting Charlestown to the mainland. That move would have would cut off supplies to the entrenched colonials and closed off any avenue of escape. Gage was apparently more interested in avenging his losses at Lexington and Concord and in teaching the rebels a corrective lesson about British military might than in producing a swift, and relatively bloodless, surrender.

Clinton later wrote: “Mr. Gage thought himself so well informed that he would not take any opinions of others, particularly a man bred up in the German school, which that of America affects to despise…These people seem to have no idea of any other than a direct [attack].” (Clinton thought of himself as belonging to the “German school” because he had served under Prince Ferdinand of Prussia and the Duke of Brunswick.)


Instead of the bloody frontal assault chosen by British commander Thomas Gage, General Clinton argued for cutting off American forces by capturing Charlestown Neck, the isthmus north of Bunker Hill. (Source: earlyamerica.com.)

Rejecting Clinton’s counsel, Gage elected for an amphibious assault and ordered Major General William Howe to lead light infantry and marines against the entrenched Americans on Breed’s Hill. With thousands watching from the surrounding hills and roof-tops of Boston, the British marched uphill into withering fire from the Continental forces. Instead of quickly breaking the American line, it took three attempts and staggering losses before Howe’s troops could dislodge the Continentals.

Although they forced the rebels from the high ground, the British lost their chance to deal the rebellion a possibly fatal blow in its infancy. Further, American irregulars showed they were capable of standing up against Europe’s finest infantry. Clinton’s telling verdict on British success: “A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us.”

Washington’s Brooklyn escape

The second near-disastrous moment for the Americans came in August 1776. The Continental Army, now led by George Washington, had been routed in the Battle of Long Island. More than half of Washington’s army, and most of his general staff, retreated to fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, which left them trapped between British and Hessian troops and the East River. General Howe, now commanding the British forces, ignored the entreaties of Clinton and General John Vaughn for an all-out assault on the American line and instead settled on more methodical siege tactics.

Washington recognized the precariousness of the American position. A steady north wind kept Royal Navy warships from moving up the East River and sealing off his evacuation route to Manhattan, but there was no guarantee it would persist. Observing from aboard the frigate HMS Rainbow in New York Harbor, Captain George Collier wrote in his diary: “If we become masters of this body of rebels (which I think is inevitable), the war is at an end.”

In what proved to be a master stroke, Washington ordered the secret night-time evacuation of the American forces across the East River. A flotilla of boats ferried the soldiers to Manhattan, and a late summer fog helped mask the movement of the army. Even then, it was touch-and-go. British pickets arrived at the landing just as the last boats, with the American rearguard, including Washington, embarked for New York. “In the history of warfare, I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat,” Benjamin Tallmadge, then a major on Washington’s staff, later observed.

A frustrated Captain Collier blamed Howe for the escape of the rebels, sarcastically noting: “The having to deal with a generous, merciful forbearing enemy who would take no unfair advantages must have been highly satisfactory to General Washington…” The Americans also recognized that their last-minute salvation was due, in part, to Howe’s passivity. General Israel Putnam commented: “General Howe is either our friend or no general. He had our whole Army in his power…and yet suffered us to escape without the least interruption…Had he instantly followed up his victory, the consequence to the cause of liberty would have been dreadful.” Washington, also puzzled by Howe’s tactics, wrote: “There is something exceedingly mysterious in the conduct of the enemy.”

Some historians have conjectured that Howe, who had seen the carnage inflicted by Continental muskets and rifles at Bunker Hill first hand, was wary of mounting another frontal attack. Howe later defended his tactics, explaining that the American “lines must become ours at a very cheap rate by regular approaches” and “I would not risk the loss that might have been sustained in the assault.”

Others have speculated that as a Whig sympathetic to the colonial cause, Howe hoped to see the dispute between the colonists and Great Britain settled peacefully rather than on the battlefield. Charles Stedman, a British officer, attributed Howe’s cautious New York campaign to “the reluctance of the commander in chief to shed the blood of a people so nearly allied.” Howe had been given the authority, along with his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, to extend pardons to the colonial leaders if they abandoned their rebellion, an offer swiftly refused. (Connecticut’s Jonathan Trumbull, the only incumbent colonial governor to support independence, tartly observed that “[n]o doubt we all need a pardon from Heaven for our manifold sins and transgressions; but the American who needs the pardon of his Britannic Majesty is yet to be found.”)

george washington, 1776

Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington, composed during the summer of 1776. (Source: georgewashingtonwired.org.)

Whatever Howe’s reasons, after the near-disaster at Brooklyn Washington realized that he could not risk set-piece battles between his raw troops and seasoned British and Hessian veterans. His message to Congress days after the evacuation outlined the Fabian tactics he would successfully employ for the remainder of the conflict. “On our side the war should be defensive,” he wrote. “We should on all occasions avoid a general action, and never be drawn into a necessity to put anything to risk.”

Trenton: Washington eludes a trap

The third decisive moment came shortly after Washington’s stirring victory over the Hessians at Trenton on December 26, 1776 had revived the flagging revolutionary cause. The Continental Army had quickly returned to Pennsylvania, but days later Washington re-crossed the Delaware to begin a campaign against the British outposts in New Jersey.

British forces led by Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis marched from Princeton to confront him in Trenton on January 2, 1777. After a series of skirmishes (the Second Battle of Trenton), by late in the afternoon the Americans had moved to positions along the Assunpink Creek, with the British to their north and the Delaware River to their west. Ice on the river blocked any escape by boat, so a Brooklyn-like evacuation would not be possible.

“The damned rebels are cornered at last,” Cornwallis told an officer on his staff. His quartermaster, William Erskine, urged a twilight attack: “If Washington is the general I take him to be, he will not be found there in the morning.” But Cornwallis decided to wait; it was growing dark, his men were tired from a long march on muddy roads, and initial assaults had met stiff resistance. He could see that the Continental lines extended three miles along the Assunpink and that if he turned the left flank of the Americans to the east, he could close the trap, pinning the insurgents with the Delaware at their backs. Legend has it that Cornwallis boasted: “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.”


Washington escaped the trap at Trenton by secretly sending American forces around the left flank of the British in the middle of the night and then moving north up the back roads across Quaker Bridge to Princeton. (Source: britishbattles.com.)

Washington saw the danger. While he had roughly the same number of troops as Cornwallis (roughly 5,000 men), he had little, if any, room to retreat. After a council of war, Washington decided on a bold move: surreptitiously maneuvering around the British left flank, in the middle of the night, and then falling upon the rearguard Cornwallis had left behind in Princeton. A small decoy force of Americans kept the campfires burning, while Washington’s troops began their march north. The daring plan worked. Colder weather froze the roads and the rebels were able to steal away without alerting the British. Cornwallis did not realize the “old fox” had side-stepped the trap until he heard the sound of cannons from the battle in Princeton in the morning.

Washington’s unexpected successes at Trenton and Princeton came at a crucial juncture in the war. They kept American hopes alive until a pivotal victory at Saratoga over Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne in the fall of 1777 encouraged the French to enter the conflict on the side of the colonists. Washington’s reputation as a general soared both at home and abroad; English politician and man-of-letters Horace Walpole wrote that “[h]is march through our lines is acknowledged to have been a prodigy of generalship” and compared the American commander to the Roman generals Fabius and Camillus.

Victory against the odds

Like many who have been through a near-death experience, America’s revolutionaries tried to make sense out of what had happened to them. It’s no surprise that many of the Founders saw a providential hand at work in their miraculous deliverance from the jaws of defeat.

How else to explain the success of their “rabble in arms” against the mightiest army and navy of the 18th century? Or the strange weather—wind, rainstorms, and fog—that allowed Washington and his men to escape across the East River? Or the sudden freeze that made the back roads from Trenton to Princeton passable for the Continental army? Or the numerous times that Washington avoided capture or death on the battlefield?

Washington wrote years after the war: “The man must be bad indeed who can look upon the events of the American Revolution without feeling the warmest gratitude toward the great Author of the Universe whose divine interposition was so frequently manifested in our behalf.” Benjamin Franklin abandoned his Enlightenment skepticism when reflecting on the triumph of the revolutionary cause. “All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor,” he told fellow delegates at the Federal Convention of 1787. “I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men.”

Yet it’s not necessary to believe in predestination, or in divine intervention, to marvel at the perseverance of the American revolutionaries and their sacrifices to achieve victory against very long odds. What makes their triumph even more remarkable is what so nearly came to pass—and didn’t—in those decisive early “what if” moments.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
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