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

Years before, when he was serving in North Africa as Churchill’s wartime proconsul, Macmillan had said to a colleague that the English were “Greeks to their Romans,” meaning in a patronizing way that the “great, big, vulgar, bustling” Americans needed to be guided by the English as the rulers of imperial Rome had been by worldly-wise Greek mentors (who were in fact slaves, making the comparison a little less happy). Now after Suez, Macmillan decided that these new Romans could not be gainsaid, and that the only British future was to act as a junior partner, in the hope of mentoring the Americans and perhaps sharing some of their glory.

But de Gaulle’s view was quite different. During the war Churchill had told him that he—and England—would always choose the Americans against France, and de Gaulle had taken that to heart. Years later, in the wake of Suez, he decided that the United States could not be trusted, and that France must find another path in Europe. From this came the doctrine that would be known as Gaullism and all that followed, from the French nuclear weapon to the general’s veto of British membership in what was then the Common Market. Looking back, it’s hard to deny that de Gaulle was right, or at least that Macmillan was wrong.

Or so his own career demonstrated existentially. For nearly three years, from an inauguration in January 1961 until an assassination in November 1963, the relationship was peculiarly personal: not only was Macmillan half American, President John F. Kennedy’s sister Kathleen had been married to Lord Hartington, who was the son of the Duke of Devonshire and the nephew of Lady Dorothy Macmillan, the prime minister’s wife (Hartington was killed in action in 1944; his widow died in an air crash four years later). This only encouraged Macmillan’s belief that he enjoyed an intimate friendship with the White House and that when he dealt with the young president he was playing the worldly-wise Greek mentor more than ever.

That was not how they saw it in the new Rome. During the Cuban missile crisis it became excruciatingly clear how little the White House cared about London. Over those dramatic days, when at one point U.S. Air Force Boeings loaded with nuclear bombs skirted the Arctic Circle on the second level of alert beneath war itself, and then when Robert Kennedy cut a secret deal with the Soviets by agreeing to withdraw American missiles from Turkey, the Greeks in Downing Street were not so much as informed, let alone consulted.

In his recent biography of Macmillan, Charles Williams puts his finger on the illusion. Like other prime ministers before and since, Macmillan persuaded himself that there was some mystical bond between the two countries, quite failing to see that “the United States, like all great powers, would in the end follow—without necessarily much regard for others—what it perceived from time to time to be its own interests.”

AT MUCH this time, the very idea of the special relationship first began to be questioned. Kennedy was to decide in a rather patronizing way whether the British would obtain new advanced nuclear weaponry from the United States to replace their aging forces. Weeks after the Cuban crisis, in December 1962, just as Macmillan was going to Nassau to meet Kennedy and discuss this, Dean Acheson gave a famous speech at West Point, with one memorable and haunting phrase: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” The imperious and clever Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state and still one of the oracles of American foreign policy, rubbed it in. The British were still trying “to play a separate power role . . . apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being the head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, unity, or strength.” This role, said Acheson bluntly, “is about played out.”

What’s more, some Englishmen were coming to agree with him. Macmillan resigned as prime minister in October 1963 and was succeeded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, in what proved the last gasp for the patrician old guard. A year later Home lost the election to Labour under Harold Wilson, who continued using the language of Anglo-American amity in theory, sycophantically telling President Lyndon Johnson that he came from Yorkshire, the “Texas of England,” and inviting Johnson’s successor, President Richard Nixon, to look in on a cabinet meeting at Number 10 Downing Street (the notoriously clumsy Nixon marked the occasion by knocking over an old-fashioned inkwell on the hallowed cabinet table).

But in one crucial respect theory did not translate into practice. When Johnson began to escalate the Vietnam War he asked friendly countries to contribute troops, so as to show that the war was being waged by what might have been called a coalition of the willing. Australian and Thai soldiers did fight in Vietnam. British soldiers did not. Wilson angered his own left wing by expressing sympathy for the Americans in their struggle against Ho Chi Minh, but he adroitly avoided any military commitment, to American rage. And an English visitor to Washington a few years later was berated by Secretary of State Dean Rusk with the words “All we wanted was one goddamn battalion of the Black Watch.”

During his speech supporting the Iraq War, Hague was asked by another MP if his belief in the need always to act in concert with the United States meant that he would have supported participation in the Vietnam War. He eloquently made no reply. Another Tory was less reticent. At the 1966 party conference, the Tories, in opposition at the time, were told emphatically to have nothing to do with the Vietnam War by their defense spokesman, Enoch Powell.

By then there was a new Tory leader: Edward Heath had succeeded Home in 1965. Although Heath’s ten-year party leadership (and less than four years as prime minister) cannot possibly be counted a success, for the Tories or the country, it did mark, at least for a time, a sharp turn in British policy. In the spring of 1967, as leader of the opposition, Heath was asked to lecture at Harvard, and he continued where Acheson had left off by dismissing “the so-called special relationship between Britain and the United States.” He discussed the reorientation of American strategic priorities away from Europe to East Asia, British withdrawal from east of Suez and the decline of her role as leader of the commonwealth.

All these marked a “shift in power in the modern world” to which a future British government would have to adjust. After Heath won the 1970 election, he followed his logic by standing back from the American embrace and making another attempt to join the European Community, this time successfully. Then, after the unhappy return to power of Labour in 1974, the Tories won a watershed election in 1979 under Margaret Thatcher, and less than two years later Ronald Reagan was in the White House.

Plenty of cheerleading books have been written about Reagan and Thatcher, whose partnership was certainly often close, and the 1980s did in fact end with the fall of the Berlin wall and then the implosion of Soviet Russia. And yet the seeming affection between president and prime minister concealed many differences, as in 1982, when Washington by no means offered immediate and unwavering support for London after Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands.

One forceful figure in the Reagan administration was Jeane Kirkpatrick. She distinguished between totalitarian regimes, which were unreservedly bad, and authoritarian regimes, with which Washington could do business—one such being the military junta in Buenos Aires at the time, which merely tortured and killed large numbers of people in an authoritarian way. She also argued that it was important for Washington to keep in with its Latin American neighbors, and although Reagan did not follow her advice, American support for Thatcher over the Falklands was a little ambiguous. Her own response to the American invasion of Grenada the following year was not ambiguous at all: she was enraged, and made that clear in private.

ALL THIS is the bitter experience from which Cameron and Hague have learned. They are not about to emerge as some Oxonian versions of Castro and Chávez, but they are politicians who have fought elections, and who must be aware of public opinion. They may also have a slightly better grasp of history than Blair, though that isn’t saying much.

The Iraq War is now regarded by most Americans as a mistake they would rather forget, and the fraudulent way by which their country was taken to war is bitterly resented. Whatever the administration’s present woes, and whatever the outcome of the midterm elections in November, Obama is most unlikely to be defeated in 2012 by a Republican who advocates invading another Middle Eastern country.

And yet, for all the obloquy directed against Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, there was always an American case of sorts for the invasion. The United States is the surviving superpower, by definition the hegemonic force in the Middle East; it has a vital economic interest in the control of oil, as well as another interest in the defense of Israel; the American people were traumatized after September 11 and needed national morale restored; Washington had unfinished business with Saddam Hussein.

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