Transcript: Bestselling Author David McCullough

The following is a transcribed excerpt of "FOX News Sunday," June 12, 2005.

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS: The best-selling book in the nation this week is the remarkable story of America's birth, and how close this young country came to not surviving. The book is called "1776 (search)," and it's written by famed historian David McCullough (search), who's already won two Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of Harry Truman (search) and John Adams (search).

Earlier, I had the privilege of sitting down with Mr. McCullough in a Sunday exclusive for a conversation about "1776."


WALLACE: Mr. McCullough, welcome to "Fox News Sunday" and congratulations on having the nation's number-one best-seller again.


WALLACE: I want to begin with a very critical letter that George Washington's closest aide, Joseph Reed, wrote about him in November of 1776. And here's what he said about his commander: "An indecisive mind is one of the greatest misfortunes that can befall an army."

At that point in the revolution, that was not too harsh a judgment to make about George Washington, was it?

MCCOLLOUGH: No, it wasn't, except that he was Washington's closest confidant, Joseph Reed, and the young officer that I think Washington relied on mostly as he said, "not only to carry out my orders but to think for me." And he was writing that letter, Reed was writing that letter to General Charles Lee, who wanted very much to have Washington's command and who was, I think fair to say a dangerously ambitious man.

So it was either a form of rank indiscretion on the part of Joseph Reed or betrayal. It's almost Shakespearian.

But Reed did have a point. Washington had been notably indecisive, particularly on the question of whether to try to hold on to Fort Washington, to stem off an attack by the British.

They really didn't need Fort Washington any more. It was there, had been built initially up on the heights above where the present-day George Washington bridge crosses from New Jersey into New York, been built to keep the British from bringing their fleet up the Hudson River.

The British had shown they can bring their fleet up the Hudson River any time they wanted, whether Fort Washington was there or not. So there was no need to keep t.

But Nathaniel Greene, who was Washington's junior commander, said that it was OK, they could hold the fort. And Washington at first said, "Well, you're on the spot. You decide." Then when Washington arrived on the scene, he didn't make a decision.

They should have taken the men off. As it was, the enemy attacked, and they took the fort, and they captured 3,000 troops.

WALLACE: And this was one in a succession of defeats for George W.

MCCOLLOUGH: Yes, because his first battle -- Washington had never commanded a battle in his life when he was given command in the summer of '75. And to manage a big army on a big scale was no small task, irrespective of how intelligent he may have been. He just hadn't had that experience.

And when the British launched what was the first great battle of the war at Brooklyn, which involved some 40,000 people altogether and stretched out over six miles of what is present-day downtown Brooklyn, Washington was outfoxed, outflanked, outfought, outsmarted, outnumbered, and made to look a fool.

WALLACE: You say, and really to a large degree, the story of 1776 is the story of the education of George Washington. And you say what turned it around for him was experience...


WALLACE: ... and that he was capable of learning from his mistakes.

MCCOLLOUGH: Experience had been his great teacher all of his life. His father had died when he was quite young. He had about the equivalent of a 5th grade education. He was on his own from the age, age 16 on, and that's the way he learned.

And one of his most important and obvious strengths was that he did live, he did learn from the experience of his mistakes. His mistakes didn't crush his spirit or make him inclined to give up. George Washington would not give up under any circumstances at all.

WALLACE: How close, looking back, how close did the American side come to losing it all in 1776?

MCCOLLOUGH: Very close. More than once. If the wind had been in another direction on the night of August 29, 1776, I think we'd be sipping tea and...


MCCOLLOUGH: ... getting up to honor the queen. If the British had been able to bring their gunboats, their warships up into the East River, Washington and the army had been defeated in the Battle of Brooklyn. They were trapped. There was no way they could have gotten back to New York.

But fortunately, the prevailing wind remained out of the northeast and they were able to get the army off in one of the most daring and successful retreats. It was the Dunkirk of the revolution, one of the most successful retreats in all history.

And his generalship, his management of that retreat and a retreat even for a skilled and experienced army, is one of the most difficult of all maneuvers. And the fact that he did that so effectively right after having lost, almost redeemed him in the eyes of the country because he'd saved half his army.

WALLACE: You know, I want to ask you about that, because several times in the book several key players talk about providence. There's a storm that prevents the British from going up the East River and trapping Washington on the Heights of Brooklyn.


WALLACE: There's a fog bank that covers him during his retreat.

As you look back over the sweep of history -- I guess this is a personal question -- do you feel divine intervention was on the side of the revolution?

MCCULLOUGH: Well, you can call it divine intervention, you can call it Providence, you can call it chance, you can call it circumstance. You call it the roll of the dice? In any event, whatever it's called, it was out of anyone's control, and absolutely it was the decisive element again and again.

Now, it wasn't always the decisive element all alone. They couldn't have made that escape across the East River, when a providential fog bank came in, or the river suddenly got calm -- the wind dropped, it was like the, you know, parting of the waters of the Red Sea. They got calm, and that enabled them to escape.

But they couldn't have escaped without the skill of John Glover and his Marblehead Mariners, who negotiated that exodus of 9,000 men, all their equipment, cannons, horses, everything, across the East River, in the dark, at night, no running lights, and didn't lose a single man. It was brilliant.

WALLACE: What lessons do you hope Americans take away from the events of 1776?

MCCULLOUGH: That character counts; that courage is contagious, infectious; that we do truly have rights, freedoms, noble ideals and ideas, worth fighting for; that democracy doesn't come easy, never has; that the war with the longest struggle in our whole history, except for Vietnam; that it was bloody, and people suffered, hardships were terrible, but they didn't give up.

And I think also that some wars are necessary. I think one of the most interesting things about this year and the whole struggle altogether is the most -- the man who turned out to be our most effective, I'm inclined to say brilliant general was a Quaker, Nathaniel Greene. The man who expressed for the man in the ranks, for the common American, expressed what the war was about best, and who really was as important a force almost as Washington was Thomas Paine, who was a Quaker, who put aside his pacifist feelings, because, as he said, "The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth."

I also think we ought to know about these people, because we're taking stock, who we are, what do we believe in, what have we been through, at our own time of risk, danger, dark shadows hanging over the future, and come to the realization, others have been through worse, and this isn't new.

Churchill came over after Pearl Harbor, when Hitler was running wild, almost to Moscow, when we had lost half of our Navy at Pearl Harbor, when we had no air force, when recruits were drilling with wooden rifles, and Britain was virtually on her last legs, and he came over, and he gave a magnificent speech, in which he said, "We haven't journeyed this far because we're made of sugar candy."

And Churchill was an historian. He understood what our predecessors had been through in our behalf.

Abigail Adams wrote the same thing in a letter to her husband. She said, "Future generations who will reap the blessings will scarcely conceive the hardships and suffering we've been through."

It's alas too true. We don't. We need to do a far better job of reading and understanding our own history, and teaching our own history.

WALLACE: Mr. McCullough, it is an honor to talk with you. It was a joy to read your book.

MCCULLOUGH: Thank you, Chris.

WALLACE: Thank you so much for coming in and talking with us, sir.

Historian David McCullough on his new book, "1776".