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 the globe.
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 the world.
Happy New Year!