Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Gladstone, Gordon, Truman, MacArthur, and the Queen

One interesting aspect of Gladstone's career, of which I was unaware until reading Gladstone by Roy Jenkins, is the voluminous correspondence carried out between Gladstone (as Prime Minister) and Queen Victoria.  The letters are remarkably frank, though of course couched in polite, formal (you could even, with some justice, call it "Victorian") language.  The letters are striking in part because, as Jenkins notes, "Cowardice was not one of Gladstone's faults in dealing with the Queen."

I will reproduce an exchange that I find quite remarkable, but first a little background.  Britain had effectively gained control of Egypt following a successful military campaign that put the Gladstone government in good light.  But an uprising broke out in the southern part of what was then Egyptian territory (and is now Sudan), and an Egyptian army under English command was annihilated by the rebels.  Gladstone's government determined to withdraw from the contested territory, and to that end General Charles Gordon was sent to organize the withdrawal (a policy he opposed - his appointment was a bizarre result of feverish public opinion which should, as we shall see, have been resisted).

Instead of discharging his duties in accordance with his orders, General Gordon essentially attempted to put down the rebellion (I am fuzzy on the details).  His forces were soon surrounded and besieged, and the question of how to proceed was hotly debated within Gladstone's cabinet.  Gladstone was of the view that Gordon's predicament was the result of his own insubordination and that he should be left to his fate.  The public, however, took up Gordon's cause and strongly supported intervention on his behalf.  (Some in Gladstone's cabinet shared this view.)  Ultimately a relief expedition was organized, but it arrived too late - Gordon had been killed.

I will pause here to observe that there are striking similarities between the Gladstone/Gordon debacle and the Truman/MacArthur confrontation.   The relative firmness and adroitness with which Truman and his Congressional supporters resisted public opinion and put MacArthur in his place are to be admired.  In fairness to Gladstone, he was much distracted by his Irish legislation (not yet Home Rule, but rather a series of less drastic but still hotly debated measures) and had delegated the Gordon matter to a committee of his cabinet, which in turn handled it rather poorly.  On top of which, by the time Gordon's insubordination came to light, events had already spiraled largely beyond Gladstone's control, whereas Truman still had an opportunity for decisive action after MacArthur's disobedience.

But at any rate, Gordon was considered a hero and his death was blamed on Gladstone's government.  (That he had flagrantly disobeyed his orders and generally conducted himself like a madman was of no consequence.)  The queen (expressing the conservative/imperialist view to which she increasingly adhered in the later years of her reign) wrote to Gladstone (as quoted by Jenkins):

These news from Khartoum are frightful and to think that all this might have been prevented and many precious lives saved by earlier action is too fearful.
This rebuke was sent by unencrypted telegram, the equivalent of a postcard and therefore amounting to an open letter to Gladstone.

Gladstone replied, in private (again, as reported by Jenkins - note that the use of the third person is typical of Gladstone's correspondence):

Mr Gladstone has had the honour this day to receive Your Majesty's Telegram en clair [that is, unencrypted], relating to the deplorable intelligence received this day from Lord Wolseley, and stating that it is too fearful to consider that the fall of Khartoum might have been prevented and many precious lives saved by earlier action.

Mr Gladstone does not presume to estimate the means of judgement possessed by Your Majesty, but so far as his information and recollection at the moment go, he is not altogether able to follow the conclusion which Your Majesty has been pleased thus to announce.

Mr Gladstone is under the impression that Lord Wolseley's force might have been sufficiently advanced to save Khartoum had not a large portion of it been delayed by a circuitous route along the river, upon the express application of General Gordon. . . .
Now, let's leave aside these details about the route of the relief party and so forth.  What's striking to me is the fine balance that Gladstone strikes between decorum and deniable sarcasm.  It is impossible for me to imagine a comparable letter being written to the queen today.  Other, of course, than the one I just fired off . . .

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