With friends like these . . .

July 7, 1995

John Charmley argues that Britain failed to perceive the dangers in its 'special relationship' with the US.

Between 1940 and 1957 successive British governments imagined that they could use American power "for purposes which we consider good", and they adjusted their policy towards America accordingly; in both assumption and execution this policy was mistaken. It rested on two false premises and one fundamental misreading. The first premise posited an exact identity of interests between the "Anglo-Saxon" powers; the second supposed that an unsophisticated American policy-making elite would naturally look to the British for leadership. The fundamental misreading consisted in supposing that the dynamics of American policy had a special place for British interests.

This state of affairs has been obscured by two historical phenomena: the first is the result of close wartime contact between British and American bureaucrats and politicians; the second is the consequence of the influence of Winston Churchill's writings on our view of recent British history. In his best-selling and enormously influential History of the Second World War, Churchill offers a picture of a beneficent America coming into the war under British tutelage and then proceeding to help us win it. This picture was reinforced by the writings of many British academics who came into close contact with the Americans during the war, men like John Wheeler-Bennett and Harry Allen, and their younger successors, like D. C. Watt and more recently David Reynolds, whose work naturally partakes of the spirit of the "special relationship", even when, as in the last two instances, they have critical things to say about the myth itself.

The basic assumption is that America came into the second world war and saved Britain and that she did so again during the cold war, so whatever detailed criticisms can be made, the overall picture is a positive one. Recently the doyen of British imperial historians, Ronald Robinson, has combined with the master of American imperial historians to argue that American influence actually helped sustain the British Empire. This article dissents from these views - mainly because it does not accept any of their basic premises.

It is by no means clear that America came into the second world war because of anything that Churchill or the British government did. Roosevelt came into the war when he had no other choice. From this point of view Lord Beaverbrook was correct in arguing that making concessions to the Democrats was tactically inept. Still less is it clear that British and American war aims were compatible beyond the level of seeking to secure the defeat of the Axis Powers; indeed, some of the well-known disputes within the Anglo-American alliance derived from the different objects of the two powers. British war aims, so far as they extended beyond "victory at all costs" (and this was not very far), were essentially defensive. They wished to hang on to their empire in the Far East and in the Middle East and they wished to remove the threat posed to British power in these areas; defeating Germany, Italy and Japan would not, and did not, achieve this objective fully.

American war aims were essentially expansionist. What the Americans wished to expand was not their territorial power (they had spent the 19th century doing that), but rather their economic and ideological influence. As the terms of the Atlantic Charter showed, America wished to extend her version of "democracy" and "free trade" to the world at large. As with the territorial expansion across the North American continent during the 19th century, the Americans assumed that what was good for them was good for everyone else. As Cordell Hull, Roosevelt's secretary of state, put it, America would use the leverage given by lend-lease to open up the British Empire "like an oyster".

The Americans pressed for a removal of the 1932 Ottawa Tariffs and an end to the Sterling area. Thanks to imperialist members of the Churchill Cabinet, the British put up a hard fight, but after 1945 American terms were accepted, and the British agreed to come within the orbit of the Bretton Woods system.

Although he could and did strike British ministers as distressingly vague, Roosevelt had his objectives, and they envisaged the spreading of democracy; from this point of view an alliance with America was as damaging to the British Empire as one with Serbia would have been to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Americans appreciated neither the delicate web which held the empire together, nor, at least until it was too late, the geo-political role it played in ensuring a modicum of global stability in some vitally important parts of the world. The result here, most clearly visible in the Middle East, was to weaken the British position without, as Dulles and Eisenhower imagined was possible, increasing "western" influence.

Nor does the argument that this price was worth paying because of the cold war stand up to scrutiny. Between 1945 and 1947 Anglo-American relations were not particularly good, and one reason for that, at least throughout most of 1945 and early 1946, was the suspicion that the British were trying to inveigle America into supporting their position in the Middle and Near East against the one remaining threat to it - Soviet Russia. If diplomatic wisdom lay in making concessions to the power which did most to win the war in Europe, then the Soviets should have been the recipient of sustained appeasement. But partly for domestic political reasons while Churchill was prime minister, and partly because of the centuries old "great game", British policy towards the Soviet Union after 1945 became one of containment. America refused to accept the "Anglo-Saxon thesis" which maintained that the British were really protecting democracy, even though it looked like they were just looking after their own interests. America entered the cold war for her own, mainly ideological reasons. The result of British diplomacy was to leave Britain as Sancho Panza to America's Quixote, as the Americans sought to pursue a crusade. This would vitiate any attempts in the 1950s to secure detente.

Britain's over-identification with America, and her misunderstanding of the dynamics of American power, deprived her of any opportunity of playing the role of mediator in which Churchill sought to cast her in the early 1950s. All it succeeded in doing was smoothing America's way to global power.

John Charmley is senior lecturer in history at the University of East Anglia. His book Churchill: the End of Glory started an argument about the end of the British Empire continued in Churchill's Grand Alliance: The Anglo-American Special Relationship 1940-1957, published next week by Hodder and Stoughton.

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