Midnight on December 31 will mark the end of much more than the
1900's. When the United States relinquishes control of the Panama
Canal, freedom of navigation, too, will cease to exist - at least
as we have come to know it. Let us contemplate the scenario while
we still have a few moments left.
I learned about the defining role of free movement on the high
seas long before my eyes first experienced blue infinity. In far-away
Hungary, in what seems like another life, we were celebrating Christmas.
With little food and practically no presents to give, we kept it
very quiet. So did most others: Anything remotely connected with
religion was most definitely incorrect (politically, that is), and
had been known to invite consequences that caused lasting damage
to one's health.
My mother and I were celebrating with an uncle, the only male member
of the extended family who, after years of German National Socialist
and Russian Soviet Socialist occupations, was still alive and not
in prison. After dinner, he took me aside and signaled that he had
something momentous to impart. "My boy," he said in a
hushed voice, "never forget that our civilization rests on
five pillars: the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, Greek
Philosophy, Roman Law - and The British Navy ensuring survival of
the previous four." He kept away from the wall as he spoke
to avoid being overheard by neighbors; people had gone to jail for
mentioning some of his "pillars."
Were he in America today, my uncle would not go to jail - he would
simply be laughed out of court. At the very least, he would be informed
that English common law has triumphed over Roman Law in its flexibility
and humanity and that, as he was speaking, the United States Navy
had already assumed the role he had "assigned" to the
British. Yet, my uncle might say that it changes nothing, that the
first four pillars on his list still exemplify decency and morality
in human conduct, the rule of law, and the obligation to use one's
mind as it ought to be used. As for the last, he would point out
that naval commanders who spoke English and inherited the best of
British traditions continued to secure freedom of navigation on
the high seas.
And he would be right. History has recorded that Spain, France,
Germany, Japan in turn applied their naval forces - whenever they
could - to restrict the movement of others. By contrast, Britons
and, later, Americans used theirs to keep sea lanes open for everyone.
(Occasional and specific use of the blockade does not contradict
their general practice.) Even today, in the age of airplanes and
satellites, freedom of movement across the seas for goods and ideas
still is a powerful symbol and substance of freedom in general,
a key to the betterment of the human condition in many parts of
Consequently, for those with a broader sense of history, the gradual
destruction of the United States Navy undertaken by the current
administration has been a truly ominous development. Simultaneously
with the systematic elimination of naval bases and vessels, an unceasing
attack has been in progress on morale, using every available pretext
(Tailhook) and every fringe group with a contentious agenda (NOW).
Currently, a major operation is underway to indoctrinate midshipmen
with an "ethics" code that would make fighting and winning
difficult if not impossible.
Yet the double jeopardy of reduced forces and diluted naval personnel,
though a formidable challenge, is reversible through appropriate
changes in domestic policy. Such is not the case with the remaining
component of America's triple jeopardy.
During the twentieth century, our naval forces have been able to
move around the globe largely because of the availability of the
Suez Canal, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Panama Canal - three
indispensable paths of passage. The difference between control by
British or American forces and others is well demonstrated by the
history of the Suez Canal. It remained open during both world wars.
Then, seized by Egypt in 1956, twice it was made unnavigable for
lengthy periods by the sinking of ships - purely emotional responses
to crises that served no one, least of all Egypt.
Both times, however, the alternative of circumnavigating Africa
remained available. The Cape of Good Hope, southern tip of the African
continent, is controlled by the naval facilities at Simonstown.
Whatever else one thought of South Africa pre-Mandela, our ships
could count on a friendly port at Simonstown.
As of midnight on December 31, all three vital paths of passage
will be subject to the emotional state of their new masters. And
that is the optimistic scenario.
Before we celebrate the triumph of anticolonialism, we must also
consider the pessimistic scenario.
True to its surprising, historically unprecedented appetite for
a global role, the People's Republic of China has secured a position
from which to arrest the movement of American vessels, civilian
or military, closest to home - our home. On January 1, 2000, the
PRC will control both ends of the Panama Canal, as well as the shortest
overland route between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. And
the reality will be that a determined adversary could make the Suez
Canal, the Cape of Good Hope and the Panama Canal simultaneously
unavailable to American ships overnight.
Imagine this to occur at a time when U.S. naval forces are at their
lowest ebb in terms of numbers, morale, fighting ability. As you
pop the champaign, let your mind's eye roam over the new graves
in Arlington, and those Americans whose bodies won't make it home
as they shed their blood to reestablish freedom of navigation around
Happy New Year!