A Love Lost Over the Atlantic

A Love Lost Over the Atlantic

Mini Teaser: The "special relationship" has long been a foreign policy myth. The day has finally come for a peaceful separation between two English-speaking powers.

by Author(s): Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Despite that, it became a principle of British policy to remain on good terms with Washington, even when that meant restraint and concession, as it did in late 1895. President Grover Cleveland rattled his saber over an incomprehensible border dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana, and only forbearance on the part of Lord Salisbury’s government defused the conflict before a shot was fired. It was recorded at the time that, while the English were dismayed by the thought of a war with the United States, in America, a war with England would be more popular than any other.

On the other hand, the Americans were chastened during that crisis by a precipitous fall of American stock on the London Exchange, though this was caused as much by skepticism about American financial reliability as by political considerations. Either way, this was a reminder that, though the two countries were increasingly economic rivals, the United States remained into the twentieth century in some ways a financial as well as a cultural dependency of England. The explosive industrial development of the Gilded Age was fueled by cheap immigrant labor—and by capital from the City of London. This only increased an American resentment of which many Englishmen were unaware.

The minister technically responsible for British Guiana during the border crisis was the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain. A few years earlier he had been sent to Washington to settle a fisheries dispute, and while there Chamberlain had formed his own special relationship by marrying Mary Endicott, whose father, William Crowninshield Endicott, became secretary of war during Cleveland’s first term. This was his third marriage: two wives had died young after giving birth to sons, so that the Chamberlain half brothers, Austen and Neville, the one foreign secretary in the 1920s and the other prime minister in the 1930s, had an American stepmother.

No doubt influenced by his own circumstances, Joseph Chamberlain said, “I refuse to think or speak of the United States as a foreign nation.” His words might have been echoed by many later British leaders down to Blair, but this quaint sentiment was rarely reciprocated. When Senator Barack Obama, as he was then, visited London in the summer of 2008, he very briefly met Cameron. The leader of the opposition gave him some CDs of English rock bands (I weep for my country) and a copy of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill’s worst book, and one whose underlying argument that Britons and Americans were destined to rule the world would give Obama little pleasure. He might wonder whether these “English-speaking peoples” included Kenyans (or Indians or West Indians) who speak English, or whether the concept isn’t a genteel version of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.”

ONE ENTHUSIAST for the special relationship is the self-proclaimed “very right-wing” historian Andrew Roberts. He alternates between serious works of scholarship and potboilers, notable in the latter category A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, whose title deliberately echoed Churchill. It briefly made him historiographer to the Bush administration, as he described in a memorable account of his American book tour in 2007:

Harry Evans and Tina Brown gave a dinner for 50 at their apartment on the Upper East Side. . . . The following night Henry and Nancy Kissinger gave a dinner party at their apartment. . . . [the guests included] Rupert Murdoch
. . . charming, witty, good-natured. . . . Flew to Washington. . . . Irwin Stelzer gave a big party at the Metropolitan Club for me, and his friends Irving and Bea Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle. . . . The next morning, after my lecture to White House staffers. . . . we were ushered in [to the Oval Office where]. . . . I had 40 minutes alone with the Leader of the Free World, talking about the war on terror. . . . Lunch in the rarely-used Old Family Dining Room included Karl Rove, National Security Advisor Steve Hadley, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten. . . . I sat next to Dick Cheney (who had been photographed holding my book the previous day).

This relationship was special indeed, and Roberts’s book may have been the last that will ever purvey such a travesty of history: the notion that the British and Americans fought together throughout the twentieth century. As late as 1914, when the first great war of the century began, not only did President Woodrow Wilson wonder whether he might not have to go to war against Great Britain (and for the same reason that had impelled his fellow Princetonian James Madison in 1812, the British naval blockade), but at the outset of the war it was again reckoned that more Americans would have wanted to fight against the British than with them.

In the end, the United States did enter the Great War in April 1917, and the U.S. Army did take part in serious fighting on the Western Front from the following March (though not before). By the end of the war many Americans had had quite enough. The United States retreated inward, with the Senate vetoing membership in the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson’s brainchild, and also slammed America’s doors shut on immigrants for decades to come.

After twenty isolated years the United States entered the next great conflict as well, but only in December 1941, when Great Britain had been at war for two-and-a-quarter years, and then because Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States (and not the other way round, be it remembered). In his most exalted “special relationship” mode after 9/11, Blair told the people of New York that:

My father’s generation went through the Blitz. They know what it is like to suffer this deep tragedy and attack. There was one country and one people which stood by us at that time. That country was America and those people were the American people.

This was wondrously rewritten history even by his standards. During the bombing of London and other British cities from the autumn of 1940 until the spring of 1941 which we called the Blitz, very many people stood side by side with the British: the Commonwealth countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; the great Indian Army entirely composed of volunteers; the conquered and occupied countries whose governments were exiled in London and whose fighting forces were shedding blood alongside their British comrades; and far from least, Greece, which was heroically defending its soil against the Axis that winter.

All in all, and with the notable exception of Soviet Russia, that other sleeping giant that wanted only to be left alone, it’s hard to recall any important country that didn’t stand “by us” that winter apart from the United States, conspicuously and profitably neutral. Blair’s preposterous words would not matter so much if they had not underlain the gravest decision and worst mistake by any prime minister in generations.

In 2003, Hague likewise spoke of the United States as the savior of mankind for its role in World War II: “Without America, France would have lived under dictatorship for decades. Without America, the Germans would not have rescued themselves from a racist ideology.” This is more nonsense. The simple truth that the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army is now acknowledged by all serious military historians. That includes Roberts, whose next (and grown-up) book, Masters and Commanders, shows how great were the tension and rivalry between American and British leaders during that war.

Not that one would have learned this from Churchill’s highly misleading book The Second World War, more polemical self-justification than serious history, which is not only grossly Anglocentric but also almost ignores the two great conflicts that actually took place from 1941 to 1945, between Germany and Russia, and between Japan and the United States. Considering that Churchill had an American mother, that he almost invented the concept of the English-speaking peoples and that much of his income came from American sources, his book might have paid more attention to the immense war in the Pacific.

IN THE case of one prime minister the relationship seemed special partly for personal reasons. Like Churchill, Harold Macmillan had an American mother, and like him, he made much of this addressing Congress as head of government. Though neither a notably successful premier in 1957–63 nor a particularly lovable man, Macmillan is a central figure in this story, and 1956 is a crucial date. That was the year that he sat in Sir Anthony Eden’s government as chancellor of the exchequer while London cooked up the Suez adventure intended to recover the canal in conspiracy with the French and Israelis, only to find themselves caught out in their preposterous stunt. The Eisenhower administration pulled the financial rug from under the conspirators, who had most unwisely told Washington nothing of the plot to use an Israeli invasion of the Sinai as a pretext to send Anglo-French forces to Egypt. Macmillan’s conduct during Suez had been unappealing, “first in, first out” in the lethal words of the later Labour leader Harold Wilson, meaning that Macmillan had been gung ho for action but then lost his nerve and demanded a halt by way of misinforming his cabinet colleagues. Just as important was the upshot: he and Charles de Gaulle shortly came to power on either side of the Channel, but they drew opposite conclusions from Suez.

Image: Pullquote: Although British and American politicians, including Obama, still intone the words “special relationship” nearly fifty years after Acheson queried the phrase, it looks more foolish all the time.Essay Types: Essay