Authors: Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger
Review by: William De Baets, consul general of Belgium in the Southeast U.S.
I discovered a rather unknown part of U.S. history when I picked up this book. As a European I was indeed taught about the rough rides of events on our continent at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, ranging from the French revolution to the Napoleonic Wars and ultimately the redesign of Europe’s political map after Napoleon’s defeat in Waterloo in today’s Belgium.
But I didn’t know that much about the challenges the young republic of the USA faced in the Mediterranean, an ocean away from its shores. The new country depended heavily on trade overseas, and the book describes well how pirates and rulers in the Barbary States in North Africa posed a serious threat to America’s merchant fleet in the Mediterranean. They deliberately attacked American ships, captured the merchandise and enslaved their sailors.
The U.S. hoped to get American sailors free and buy safe passage through by excessive ransoms and tribute payments. But the greedy and fanatical Barbary rulers would not be satisfied. Ultimately only war would bring a definitive solution: It was Thomas Jefferson, generally more inclined towards diplomacy, who would decide to use warships to blockade ports and ultimately fight a naval war.
It won’t be a surprise that as a diplomat and former Navy officer I was deeply fascinated by this book. Kilmeade and Yaeger succeed in setting the historical stage. They describe in detail the deterioration of the security situation for the U.S.’s international trade, various attempts to reach peaceful solutions, the hesitance of political leaders in Washington, the important role of American diplomats in the Barbary states, the obstacles for creating a Navy that would provide the much needed capability of projecting power. The history goes so far as outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the first commanders, the initial hope that a blockade of North African ports would bring a resolution, the first use of Marines in war, and so on.
What I also found fascinating is how diplomats and naval commanders had to act with great independence, given the slow pace of communications during that era. Real time consultations, discussions, deliberations and so on were impossible. Everything had to be done by mail. Information could reach its destination very late — often too late. Situations sometimes had changed dramatically, and everyone had to make decisions based on his own knowledge at the time.
This book reminds us how important it is to know history to better understand present day’s situations and challenges. Free international trade remains of vital importance for all. Greed and religious fanaticism are still today a source of tensions, confrontations and violence. Diplomacy remains the first way to settle disputes. It requires good insights and knowledge about the situation locally and in a broader context as well of the people you are dealing with.
But another core lesson of the book also rings true today: Diplomacy can also fall short and requires backing by economic and military power. Unfortunately, armies and navies today still must seek a balance between being a tool of diplomacy and being deployed when it fails.