Heir to the Empire

Flickr / Liz Lawley
October 21, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: BritainHistoryGlobalizationPostwar

Heir to the Empire

Leebaert casts Great Britain as a 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.

THE BERLIN Blockade catalyzed the direct commitment to European security the United States long resisted. Bevin had taken a harder line against the Soviets and many Americans responded suspiciously to Churchill’s warning of an iron curtain dividing Europe. Closing access to Berlin forced a decision as Britain started delivering supplies by air for it’s garrison, with General Lucius Clay soon following suit. Experience flying materiel over the Himalayas to China in World War II gave planners a model for resisting the blockade without breaking it by land. Supplying the city demonstrated impressive technological mastery while showing relative capacity within the alliance as Britain struggled to meet a much smaller quota than the United States. The North Atlantic Treaty that created NATO had replicated the wartime alliance with a peacetime deterrent as Washington recognized the need for allies to hold a line in Europe.

No such guarantee covered the Middle East. Americans remained cautious about picking up another burden its ally could handle with local knowledge and its own resources. Where Britain saw the region as key to European security as part of a larger imperial system extending to South Asia and Africa, Leebaert describes U.S. officials as separating their country’s interests there from Cold War planning. Concerns remained that London would leverage American support for its own purposes. A balance of payments crisis in 1949 put British capabilities in question while sparking a trade dispute and the pound sterling’s devaluation. While the danger—and commercial tensions—passed with an economic recovery in the 1950s, the situation raised questions about what British retreat from empire would mean for American policy abroad.

Washington took a very different approach from the start in East Asia, where the United States had long direct experience and played the dominant role in defeating Japan. British Commonwealth forces in Japan’s occupation mainly flew the flag to protect other regional interests, particularly in Malaya where rubber and tin earned valuable dollars. Managing Southeast Asia fell to Britain, which filled the vacuum left by Japan’s collapse in 1945 until other colonial powers could reoccupy their territories. France and the Netherlands found restoring their position difficult, with the latter soon driven out of Indonesia. Communist victory in China’s civil war fueled contentious debates in the United States over who bore responsibility and concerns in Washington about holding a defensive line against further challenges.

If what Leebaert calls the mental map of American policymakers saw the world region by region, British counterparts like Malcolm MacDonald drew those parts together. MacDonald, son of a former Labour prime minister, arrived in Singapore as governor general of that colony and Malaya in 1946 and became high commissioner for Southeast Asia two years later. Likening his position there with Douglas MacArthur’s in Japan, Leebaert also describes him as influencing American officials with major policy consequences. MacDonald, a modernizer who operated very differently from earlier colonial officials, faced an insurgency by ethnic Chinese in Malaya that grew into a conflict lasting nearly twelve years. He framed a struggle Britain ultimately won as one front in a larger coordinated effort that required a joint response. Those terms matched American concerns as Cold War spread to Asia.

The Korean War shocked American opinion and sharply reversed demobilization from World War II. It revealed American military weakness even as it forced a choice between firm response and a humiliating withdrawal. “Defense spending” Leebaert writes, “almost tripled as a percentage of America’s GDP between 1950 and 1953,” while the military draft “became a national fixture.” The escalation had lasting consequences. In the short term, British officials feared the United States would either overreact or withdraw entirely. Attlee’s government sent a smaller force to Korea than Truman sought, but he pointed out that sending more would leave other regions unguarded. Leebaert stresses the political backing London provided, notably Gladwyn Jebb’s response in the United Nations that television effectively publicized. Differences over policy in Asia did not prevent a partnership U.S. military officials valued.

Having taken a forward role in Europe and East Asia, Washington also faced calls for material support for British and French efforts in Southeast Asia. MacDonald misread circumstances there, but he shaped what became a common view that these conflicts were part of a larger Soviet plan. If the Vietminh won, Malaya would be the next to fall. These arguments drew the United States into support commitments, but pressure in Korea raised expectations in Washington that Britain would rearm. Another balance of payments crisis in 1951 showed limits that brought tension. What could be expected from Britain and how would it affect U.S. commitments?

The British struggled financially to maintain commitments they could not abandon without losing vital economic assets. Grappling with that dilemma in Egypt and Iran brought tensions that led to a break in 1954. American criticism frustrated British officials who thought their counterparts needed to take responsibility, but doing so meant a passive, supporting role that followed their own lead on policy. Highhanded treatment of sovereign governments and mishaps handling the response made Americans on the spot question the actions that followed. Fears of Communist inroads aroused concern about alienating public opinion by aiding Britain and the local elites that exploited their people on its behalf. Dwight Eisenhower’s public statement that the United States should back “legitimate aspirations” of Muslims reflected private concerns over being seen to back the wrong side in these disputes.

Washington followed Britain’s lead in Iran, albeit hesitantly, by aiding a coup against Mohammed Mosaddeq who had sought to renegotiate the terms on which the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company managed the petroleum industry. An American consortium broke the British monopoly and shared profits with Iran’s new government. Egypt offered a different story, where the allies differed on handling nationalists. As Truman’s successor at the White House, Eisenhower prioritized avoiding perceptions of collusion with the British Empire, even as Churchill, on his return as prime minister, sought closer relations in hopes of shifting burdens so Britain could sustain its global position at manageable cost. Leebaert stresses Eisenhower’s concern with U.S. public finances and the fragility of the country’s prosperity, which meant limiting military commitments. Allies would have to take up more of their own defense, while a “new look” strategy relied on nuclear technology as a substitute for costly conventional forces.

Eisenhower’s focus on balancing assets with liabilities in a way that limited exposure to risk as the Cold War shaped relations with Britain. Getting the United States on the wrong side of popular movements gave the Soviets opportunities beyond Europe that Eisenhower sought to minimize. Sticking up for Britain—indeed any pose beyond neutrality—in colonial disputes risked that outcome. Cooperation also generated friction that grew over the decade after 1945. Leebaert describes Britain as providing “the underlying service industries of American outreach: secret intelligence, often-useful diplomatic expertise, and, significantly, the ‘outposts’ of empire.” The sense that propping up that empire and backing, or at least acquiescing, in British priorities, however, aroused resentment heightened by public feeling that Americans generally carried an undue portion of its allies’ defense.

THE 1956 Suez Crisis marked a break in Anglo-American relations that showed these dynamics at work. Anthony Eden, who had succeeded Churchill as prime minister in 1955, framed the Suez Canal’s seizure by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalist government in Egypt as a reprise of the 1938 Munich Crisis. Mixing the analogy, the ailing Eden cast Nasser himself as a latter-day Mussolini. Overlooking longstanding tensions in Anglo-Egyptian relations, antagonism fueled by British high-handedness and details of the agreement governing the canal’s management, he chose to handle by force what could have been secured more easily by guile. A complex Anglo-French scheme involving collusion with Israel and complicated operations delayed quick action which might have produced a fait accompli on the ground. Mounting the attack in a U.S. election year without consultation and in the midst of a separate crisis in Hungary amounted to a direct provocation.

Eisenhower denounced the attack on Egypt and took the argument for a ceasefire to the United Nations General Assembly, where no veto could halt proceedings. Far from acquiescing, however angrily, the United States actively opposed Britain, with private economic pressure reinforcing public statements. Britain yielded to American demands for unconditional ceasefire and then withdrawal, forcing France and Israel to follow. Eden left office, with Harold Macmillan, a key figure in the maneuvering behind his ouster, taking a more emollient line with America as his replacement.

Leebaert claims Eisenhower saved Britain from disaster, and it merits noting that its earlier nineteenth-century protectorate followed a military intervention that had left Egypt without any force able to keep order. Having broken the Egyptian army and state, Britain had been left with the responsibility for the ruins. The prospect of a reprise in 1956 raised political-military questions of what could come next that Britain could not have resolved. A more dexterous approach from the start, however, would have secured interests without a confrontation and thereby avoided damaging not only British, but Western prestige in the Middle East. Setting Nasser up to score a propaganda win had larger consequences that roiled the region for decades to come.