Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, by Fred Anderson (2000)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Professor Anderson’s study of the Seven Years’ War (known to Americans as the French and Indian Wars) examines the great war that determined the fate of North America and eventually led to the creation of the United States. In the larger, global sense it determined that English rather than French would prove to be the common language of the twenty-first century. Crucible of War is one of the most important historical studies to appear in the past two decades and as such it has a great deal to say about the current world as well as the distant past.

Professor Anderson’s account begins in what is now western Pennsylvania, when a small group of Virginians and Indians under the leadership of the young George Washington were defeated in humiliating fashion by the French forces holding the fort at what is today Pittsburgh. From that initial engagement, a great war for empire in North America began, a war one might add that soon spiraled out of control into a global conflict. The brilliance of Anderson’s account lies in his ability to tie the smaller incidents in history to the greater tableau of global strategy that was being waged in London and Paris. Thus, while Crucible of War focuses on the complex politics of relations between the British and their North American cousins, Anderson never loses track of the difficulties British statesmen in London confronted in running and eventually winning a global war, one that involved major commitments on the continent, the Mediterranean, and as far away as India.

Professor Anderson has written a work of great eloquence and deep insight. Moreover, he depicts what few historians catch: the fundamental contingency of human affairs and the flawed decision making processes of human institutions, including armies and navies, under the terrible pressures of war. In the end, Anderson explains how and why the British were able to win and to suggest how the very decisiveness of their victory set the stage for the eventual American Revolution. Crucible of War is a great piece of historical writing by a masterful historian.