Derek Leebaert, Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945-1957 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 624 pp., $34.99.
HOMAGE TO older generations has long provided an effective rhetorical trope for criticizing current leaders. Evoking past excellence highlights present ineptitude or profligacy. Just as journalists praised the “greatest generation” formed by World War II and the Depression during the 1980s as an implicit dig at self-indulgent baby boomers, so did the statesmen who led the United States through those struggles and then built a stable international order provide a counterpoint to President Donald Trump’s insistence on putting America first. A late-July advertisement in the New York Times, written and paid by foreign policy scholars, defended that legacy against Trump’s policies. Back in 2016, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former NATO Secretary General, invoked Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy in a book that urged Americans not to abandon the rule-based international order they had created.
Derek Leebaert will have none of this. In Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945-1957, he challenges the conventional narrative of international politics after 1945. Rather than deploying its preponderance of power to guide the formation of a liberal order, he argues that the United States viewed its global role more ambivalently and with a greater sense of the constraints limiting actions. Harry Truman and his administration reacted to challenges on a case-by-case basis without a strategy for global leadership. Leebaert casts Great Britain as both a rival with a stronger position than standard accounts recognize and a partner whose global reach enabled the United States to lead from behind until the two powers broke in 1956. A decidedly revisionist narrative brings neglected figures to the forefront while critically reassessing others.
Leebaert has long been a scathing critic of American foreign policy. His other works argue that the Cold War promoted the dangerous conceit that the United States could manage problems in distant regions through a combination of technical expertise and overwhelming resources. “Emergency men,” Leebaert describes as clever, self-assured figures with a patina of expertise and determination to do something, grasped opportunities to put their theories into practice that ended in costly failures. A kind of magical thinking presumed that enough will and effort backed by the right tools could solve any problem. But that approach works against both clear thinking and the national interest. It nonetheless has shaped a dynamic into the post–Cold War era that Leebaert heartily deplores.
While “by far the world’s strongest nation, with an atomic monopoly and unprecedented industrial weight,” Leebaert describes the United States in 1954 as “a relatively distant superstate” that operated as a self-contained island power sheltered by two oceans and other favorable geography. The term superpower only entered into general use much later. Coined by a Columbia University academic to describe countries possessing “great power plus great mobility of power,” it described Britain as an empire with bases around the globe better than the United States in 1945. While painfully aware of weaknesses and vulnerabilities, British leaders had no intention of giving way beyond prudent retrenchment to put itself on a stronger footing. American leaders with ambitions of their own, including an open door for their businesses and an end to Britain’s system of imperial preference that secured a protected market, did not envision a military commitment in Europe or the global presence that came later with the Cold War.
Some influential Americans like John McCloy and Lewis Douglas sought to supplant Britain as a global power, but President Harry Truman’s administration had no plan to take that step and still less any public consensus for pursuing it. Ending the war and the immediate problems of its aftermath kept the new president busy enough. Roosevelt had excluded his vice president from policy decisions, leaving Truman with a steep learning curve along with the challenge of staffing a new administration with competent people he could trust. Perspectives matter. Memories of later prosperity eclipsed the immediate postwar reality of shortages and rationing in the United States, along with strikes prompted by a scissors effect of rising costs and falling wages. The economic concerns made leaders in Washington cautions as they grappled with growing challenges after World War II.
BRITAIN CERTAINLY faced dire straits with the end of Lend Lease aid from the United States after spending down much of their wealth during the war. The upper hand within the Western alliance had shifted from London to Washington even before D-Day. Manpower constraints had forced the British to break up formations during the last year of war to keep fighting divisions at strength. America expected them to split the cost of Western Germany’s occupation, and Japan’s surrender created a vacuum in Southeast Asia that Britain also had to fill. Moreover, the need to earn foreign currency by exports while minimizing imports lowered domestic consumption with an era of austerity that lasted through the decade. Ernest Bevin, the trade unionist who became foreign secretary in the Labour government elected in 1945, warned parliament in September that the war had left Britain far poorer than they knew.
An Anglo-American financial agreement signed the next year included a bridge loan to Britain that proved controversial in the United States. Its backers in Washington viewed the loan as measure to revive global trade and avoid a postwar slump while keeping British markets open to American trade and ending further requests for aid. John Maynard Keynes described refusing the money as opting for “starvation corner” with limits on purchasing vital raw materials along with food. The loan bought room to maneuver, Bevin thought, both economically and geopolitically. Interestingly, Keynes also noted that his American interlocutors often felt themselves outsmarted in these exchanges.
Skill and expertise—or at least the perception of it—bolstered Britain’s soft power, but the country also had economic strengths a dominant narrative of decline overlooks. Leebaert describes even informed Americans as uncertain of exactly where their wartime partners stood economically. Business interests saw a competitor more than a client. Empire, along with longstanding global financial ties that reached beyond it, provided market access and raw materials. British technology had been innovative enough for Washington to demand patent rights in return for wartime aid. Even under especially difficult conditions, industry had performed well during the war and promised to be competitive after adjusting to peace. Besides their plans for building a New Jerusalem in the form of a cradle to grave welfare state and preserving Britain’s geopolitical reach, Clement Attlee’s Labour government envisioned turning developments in aviation and other technologies to civilian use while promoting other industrial sectors.
Leebaert’s discussion on this point intersects with a longstanding debate over decline as a theme in British history with political implications since the 1970s. Germany and the United States outstripped Britain’s share of global manufacturing before World War I, leaving an economy increasingly reliant on finance and services with industry concentrated in less competitive sectors of shipbuilding, textiles and coal mining. Correlli Barnett framed an influential critique that stressed failure to emphasize science and technology, sustain quality production and promote effective business management. Hidebound tradition precluded the drive for national efficiency that military power and a competitive civilian economy required. Britain, Barnett argued, had failed the test of war and then spent peacetime decades falling behind in productivity and living standards.
Preoccupation with decline and the very real crises Britain faced through the 1970s obscured a more complicated story. Rather than seeing Britain’s decline, the postwar decades showed other countries catching up to its living standards and productivity. Leebaert stresses how British leaders, especially Winston Churchill, appreciated technological innovation and saw the advantages their country’s lead in key sectors could provide once the immediate financial crisis passed.
Moreover, Britain’s Victorian hegemony had been run on the cheap with sea power by leveraging control over strategic chokepoints and the financial infrastructure of global trade. Imperial strength, as Leebaert points out, had long been spread thinly and was largely a matter of bluff. Deft management could preserve a position whose advantages might underwrite economic recovery. Hence American concerns about being played by the British along with suspicions of their real strength. Far from supplanting their wartime ally, many in the United States feared being used to prop up its strength. Competition in some areas and cooperation in others defined Anglo-American relations with neither partner comfortable with too much reliance on the other.
Retrenchment and an economic crisis in 1947 sparked by coal shortages during the coldest winter in living memory prompted reports in the American press of the British Empire’s impending liquidation, but Leebaert describes threats of withdrawal from Greece as a bluff designed to secure American support against Soviet expansion. Leebaert highlights the part Treasury Secretary John Snyder played in the Truman’s administration’s foreign policy. Although George Marshall proposed the stabilization plan for Europe that bore his name, Snyder had a key role implementing it and making the commitment palatable for the American public. A close friend of Truman, he worked with Bevin and other foreign leaders to frame European needs in a coherent way for a package that could pass Congress. While Americans sought a unified Western Europe able to manage its own security that included Britain, Bevin and Atlee viewed their country’s position very differently. The former endorsed European unity as “a sprat to catch a mackerel,” as he phrased U.S. support. Averell Harriman later noted with exasperation how the British had thwarted Washington’s goal. His frustration underscores American caution about security commitments and Whitehall’s assertiveness in pursuing Britain’s priorities.