The Special Relationship

Aboard Queen Mary 2

Relations with Great Britain dominated American foreign affairs for a century and a half, ever since they ceased to be domestic affairs. And for nearly all that time, relations were bad.

They were the cause of the first great partisan split in America, between the Federalist Party of Washington and John Adams, who during the Napoleonic Wars favored Great Britain, and the Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who favored France.

Andrew Jackson, our sixth president, was throughout his life seethingly anti-British, having been slashed by a British officer with his sword during the Revolutionary War when Jackson, then a teenager, refused to polish the gentleman’s boots. It is not an overstatement to say that the “populist” antipathy to all things foreign that continues to this day was a result of that blow to Jackson’s forehead. 

In the first half of the 19th century, Britain and the young United States clashed diplomatically over America’s annexation of Florida and Texas and over the borders of Maine. Before the Oregon boundary was settled peacefully, many Americans demanded all of British Columbia up to the parallel of 54 degrees and 40 minutes north latitude, giving rise to the cry “54-40 or fight!”

During the American Civil War, Britain unofficially favored the South for entirely commercial reasons. As Lord Palmerston said with typical blunt practicality, “We don’t like slavery, but we want cotton” – by which he meant southern cotton for the mills of Lancashire.

The two nations did come close to war in 1861 over an incident fraught with 19th century hypersensitivity to national honor. A ship of the US Navy stopped a British merchant vessel, the Trent, and removed two Confederate officials on board. Feelings grew hot in both London and Washington, but war was averted due to the intervention of Prince Albert (on the eve of his premature death) and by Abraham Lincoln, who sighed, “One war at a time.”

After the North’s victory in the Civil War, tensions between the US and Britain continued over such things as the boundaries of Canada and Alaska and those of Venezuela and Guyana. At the time of the Boer War, when Britain found no sympathy anywhere, Lord Salisbury (prime minister and foreign secretary at the end of the 19th century) decided to acquire a couple of well-placed friends, namely Japan and the United States. 

Salisbury saw in Japan a sort of Asian England, an island nation complete with a monarchy, colonial interests, and an aristocracy with titles like viscount. It also had a strong and growing fleet modeled after the Royal Navy.

Developing a friendship with America was trickier. In 1902, the same year as the treaty with Japan, he sighed, “It is very sad, but I am afraid America is bound to forge ahead, and nothing can restore the equality between us. If we had interfered in the Confederate War, it was then possible for us to reduce the power of the United States to manageable proportions. But two such chances are not given to a nation in the course of its career.”

Salisbury’s attempt to reach out to the United States was greatly aided by the first of what would be a string of key Anglo-American personal friendships. This was between the new globally-minded American president, Theodore Roosevelt, and a British diplomat, Cecil Spring-Rice. The two had met in 1886 on a ship carrying Roosevelt, his sister, and his fiancée to Britain. They became such fast friends that Roosevelt made Spring-Rice the best man in his wedding a short while later at the US embassy in London.

(Spring-Rice became British ambassador to the United States during World War I, and he wrote the lyrics of the patriotic hymn, “I Vow to Thee, My Country”.)

When the Great War broke out, Britain and France dearly hoped for American entry on the Allied side. Britain did have friends in the US during those years like Theodore Roosevelt and President Woodrow Wilson’s closest advisor, Colonel Edward Mandell House, a Texan and strong anglophile. 

But Wilson reflected his country’s sentiment that the war was none of America’s business, even after its citizens and eventually its ships were victims of German U-boats. His reluctance was steeped in the political realities of the United States at the time. Though the primary ethnic stock in America was British, it was largely of the Andrew Jackson, or so-called Scotch-Irish, variety. Irish Catholics, who came to America by the millions in the 19th century, were of course totally hostile to Britain. And outnumbering the Irish were those of German origin, proud of the old country’s technological, cultural, and industrial challenge to the UK. 

In 1916, Wilson was able to win re-election to the White House by a very narrow margin on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” And when the US finally entered the war, it pointedly did so only as an “associated power”, not an “ally”, of the British.

American suspicion of Britain and other European lands as tricky and conniving was a main reason Wilson failed to get the US Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. One of his opponents in that fight, Senator William Borah of Idaho, declared in an angry address, “It took George Washington seven years to win our independence from George the Third, and now they’re trying to give it back to George the Fifth.”

American isolationism during the wars, its insistence that nations like Britain pay back their war debts, a demand for a reduction in the capital ships of the Royal Navy, and the general inward-attention of the US during the Great Depression all combined to separate the two nations by more than an ocean during the 1920s and ‘30s. The old US domestic political prejudices continued as well. When it was reported that King George might come to the US, “Big Bill Thompson, the mayor of heavily-Irish Chicago warned that he would personally “punch him in the snoot.”

Indeed, it could be said that during this period, the only significant instance of Anglo-American friendship was that between King Edward VIII and Mrs Wallis Warfield Simpson of Baltimore.

Then came World War II and the birth of what Winston Churchill dubbed “the special relationship”. But as the American historian Lynne Olson has chronicled very well, even starkly, in her superb book, Citizens Of London, this relationship was not quite what nostalgia leads us to remember. 

  • Such actions during 1940-41 as trading the 50 World War I-era destroyers for British bases in the Western Hemisphere and Lend-Lease – praised in most histories as examples of Franklin Roosevelt’s firm desire to aid Britain before his countrymen were ready to fight Hitler – was at the time considered by the British leadership as too little, too late, and (speaking of the destroyers) too old.
  • After the US did enter the war, senior military leaders on both sides held strongly negative views of the other – in particular Generals Brooke and Montgomery against Americans and Generals Patton, Bradley, and Mark Clark against the British. The one general who strove most valiantly to overcome these divisions was Dwight Eisenhower.
  • This tension grew as American forces and equipment surged ahead of British men and matériel in the period prior to D-Day, and as many ancient English villages and farms were destroyed to build US bases.
  • Though many ordinary American soldiers received warm, even fond, hospitality from the British people while stationed in the UK prior to D-Day, there was often heard the complaint that American GI’s were “overpaid, over-sexed, and over here”.
  • Many GI’s in Britain, forgetting the immense losses and sacrifices of the people, had their own complaints about the food and weak beer. Olson tells of a young English woman in uniform who approached two American sentries on duty in London and asked how they liked being in Britain. One answered politely that he did, but the other growled that “They should cut all these barrage balloons loose and let this damn place sink.” The young woman said nothing and walked away. She was Princess Elizabeth. 
  • Though Roosevelt and Churchill had a famously warm and close relationship at the beginning of American involvement in the war, this began to cool starting at the Teheran Conference in 1943 as FDR played up to Joseph Stalin, sometimes using Churchill as the butt of jabs to win a smile from the Soviet dictator.
  • Roosevelt was antipathetical to Britain’s maintaining an empire, especially in India, which was one of Churchill’s cardinal beliefs. The PM’s anger was increased by the fact Roosevelt seemed to have no problem at all with the Soviet Union’s acquiring a postwar empire in Eastern Europe.
  • Churchill, himself a prima donna, also grew weary of constantly playing the suitor to a man (FDR) who loved being wooed. The prime minister disliked the fact that whereas he, a man eight years older than the president, had made several wartime crossings of the Atlantic, FDR never once came to Britain as president, despite repeated invitations. This fueled Churchill’s decision not to make one more trip to Washington at the time of Roosevelt’s funeral in April 1945.
  • Then, immediately after Japan surrendered and World War II was over, the new President, Harry Truman, abruptly canceled Lend Lease food aid to Britain, prolonging for years the rationing of meat, sugar, and other foodstuffs.

What was going on, of course, was a major historic shift in western power away from Great Britain and toward the United States. A virtually destitute Britain had to turn its attentions to domestic needs, then being dramatically reshaped by a new Labour government, and to the disintegration of its colonial empire. At the same time, America had to pay attention to an entire globe. 

In this period, if Britain could not provide imperial heft to the transatlantic relationship, it hoped to provide wisdom and guidance. A jingle that went ‘round the British delegation to the 1944 Bretton Woods conference on the economic future of the postwar world chirped:

In Washington, Lord Halifax

Once whispered to Lord Keynes:

“It’s true they have the money bags,

But we have all the brains.”

A much-quoted version of this same attitude was the remark made by Harold Macmillan (whose mother, like Churchill’s, was an American) to Richard Crossman while both were serving in North Africa during World War II. Though of different political parties, Macmillan and Crossman shared a classical public-school and Oxford education, and it was with that common base that Macmillan said:

 “We, my dear Crossman, are Greeks in this American empire. You will find the Americans much as the Greeks found the Romans – great, big, vulgar, bustling people, more vigorous than we are, and also more idle, with more unspoiled virtues but also more corrupt. We must run [Allied Forces Headquarters] as the Greek slaves ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.”

Sir Harold Nicolson was more blunt: When World War II ended, he wrote, Europeans were “frightened that the destinies of the world should be in the hands of a giant with the limbs of an undergraduate, the emotions of a spinster, and the brain of a peahen.”

Though death and political defeat ended the wartime relationship forged by Roosevelt and Churchill, the Anglo-American relationship got a major recharge when its leading proponent in uniform, Dwight Eisenhower, became president of the United States in 1953. Churchill was then back briefly as prime minister, and his two successors, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, were also men whom Ike had gotten to know well during the war. 

This greatly helped keep things going during the greatest challenge to the relationship, the Suez crisis of 1956. In brief, the US opposed the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt that fall, and it took the extraordinary step of threatening to withdraw US support of the pound sterling if Britain did not agree to a cease-fire. This was seen as a shocking betrayal of an old friendship by many Britons. 

Margaret Thatcher wrote in her memoirs that “Some Conservatives never forgave the Americans, and the fact that anti-Americanism lingered on in generally right-wing circles when I was prime minister [thirty years later] must be attributed to this.”

Fortunately, the Eisenhower-Macmillan tie helped patch together the alliance after Suez. And, again fortunately for Britain, Macmillan also enjoyed a tie with Ike’s young successor in the White House, John F. Kennedy. It was familial and a bit of a stretch, but it helped: Macmillan was married to Lady Dorothy Cavendish, whose nephew, the Marquess of Hartington, had married Kennedy’s sister.

Of this period, Henry Kissinger wrote:

“Having shrewdly calculated that they could no longer hope to shape American policy by the traditional methods of balancing benefits and risks, British leaders chose – especially after Suez – to tread the road to greater influence. British leaders of both parties managed to make themselves so indispensable to the American decision-making process that presidents and their entourages came to regard consultations with London not as a special favor toward a weaker ally but as a vital component of their own governance…” 

Clearly one of the peaks of the Anglo-American relationship were the years when the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan overlapped the government of Prime Minister Thatcher. The two first met in 1976 while both were out-of-power and insurgent leaders of traditional conservative thought in their respective political parties. They bonded instantly and permanently. 

When Reagan was president, Mrs Thatcher would frequently call him on one thing or another. At such times, the President would cover the phone and say to advisors nearby, “Isn’t she wonderful?”

One such time was in 1986, the United States wanted to bomb Libya in retaliation for a terrorist attack in Berlin, and Reagan sought Thatcher’s permission to use air bases on British soil. The Cabinet was opposed, but after a night of weighing the decision, the Prime Minister announced simply, “We’ve got to support them. They’re our allies.”

During those dramatic years, the United Kingdom had another staunch friend in Reagan’s secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. When Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982, the US State Department, mindful of abiding Latin American suspicions of the Yankee colossus, urged neutrality. Weinberger waged and won the bureaucratic battle inside Washington to give Britain what he later described as “everything short of actual participation in the military action itself.” When he died in 2006, Lady Thatcher came to Washington for his funeral, just as she had for President Reagan two years earlier.

Thatcher never established the same sort of relationship with the first President Bush that had with Reagan, an ideological soulmate. They respected each other professionally and worked closely after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. But Bush never enjoyed the prime minister’s lectures lectures on economics and her advice on what he should do. For her part, Thatcher saw Bush’s desire to reunify Germany as a horror – not just because it would reinstall Germany as the main power on the continent of Europe but also because she feared America would establish a new “special relationship”.

Such fears were unwarranted, especially when John Major succeeded Thatcher in 1990. He and the elder Bush grew close during the first Gulf War and remained firm friends until Bush’s death in 2018. 

If the Thatcher-Reagan and Major-Bush relationships were transatlantic “ups”, they were followed by a “down” when Bill Clinton became president in 1993. There was early tension between the Clinton and Major staffs, if not the two men themselves, when it was revealed that Conservative Party operatives had briefed counterparts in the Republican Party after the 1992 Tory victory about how a party long in power could win yet another election. Later, Clinton invited Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein to the White House, which horrified many in the UK. Lady Thatcher said, “It was like our inviting the Oklahoma City bomber to Number Ten.” And on the 50th anniversary of VE Day in 1995, Clinton pointedly went to Russia and even Germany but not to Britain for its commemoration.

The irony of this low point in recent Anglo-American relations was that Bill Clinton was the first (and so far only) Rhodes Scholar to become president of the United States. Cecil Rhodes endowed his famous scholarships at Oxford in the hope that “a good understanding between England … and the United States of America will secure the peace of the world.” At least during the opening years of the Clinton presidency, Mr Rhodes did not get his money’s worth!

The relationship, both personal and bilateral, bounced back when Tony Blair succeeded John Major as prime minister. This was not surprising, given that Blair is, after all, a better-behaved British edition of Bill Clinton, political to the last corpuscle. What is surprising is that Blair also developed a close tie with a wholly different sort of president, George W. Bush. Both men are political practitioners of the highest order in their respective countries, but it was unpredictable that they would become close friends and forge a strong bond.

The reason, of course, was the Iraq War and Blair’s unhesitating support of it, so much so that his critics in the UK assailed him as Bush’s “poodle”. This was grossly unfair to Blair, to Bush, and to poodles.

Chris Patten, former MP, European commissioner for external relations, and the last British governor of Hong Kong, said in his excellent book Cousins and Strangers that in Iraq in 2003, “Britain went to war because America chose to go to war. Where substance is important to America, the most that Britain can usually do is to affect process. In return for the prospect of influence, Britain provides a sign to the world that America is not unilateralist. Britain is a multilateral pin to put in America’s lapel.”

This was best seen in an episode that occurred in May 2013. President Obama had declared some months earlier that if the Assad regime in Syria used chemical weapons against its own people, that would constitute crossing a “red line” that would provoke a stern response of some kind by the United States. When Assad crossed this line, Obama was caught. He tried tossing the matter to Congress, but few in either party had any appetite for another extended military engagement in the Middle East. There was a veritable rush for the exits.

The problem was solved for nervous congressmen (and one president) when Prime Minister David Cameron took the matter of a British response to Assad’s provocation to the House of Commons. The MPs voted no by a margin of 100 votes, including 30 members of Cameron’s own Conservative Party. That killed not only British military action in Syria but American as well, since America would not fight alone. There would be no British pin in America’s lapel, because without the pin there would be no American lapel.

The year 2016 saw the selection of a brand-new American president and a brand-new British prime minister for the first time since 1923, when Stanley Baldwin and Calvin Coolidge both took power.

Prime Minister Theresa May met with Donald Trump in the White House shortly after his inauguration in January 2017. Given the highly-personal nature of Anglo-American relations over the past century, everyone was curious to know how Trump would get along with his British counterpart. On that occasion, Trump was moved to say he expected Prime Minister May to become “my Maggie”, a reference to the Reagan-Thatcher relationship. 

However, Mrs May learned, as have so many others, that being Donald Trump’s friend is a very ephemeral thing. It could vanish with the swiftness of a predawn tweet from the presidential bedroom if he saw something on television that displeased him. Before too long, Trump was tarring Mrs May with his favorite epithet, calling her “weak”. 

He made no secret that he wanted Boris Johnson to succeed her, and he got his wish. Aside from both favoring exuberant styles of more-or-less blond hair, the two men shared impulsive personalities and a bent to upset political norms.

But Johnson and Trump’s governments overlapped each other only by 18 months; they did not get to construct a relationship like that of two prior political showmen, Churchill and Roosevelt.

The tick of time works against the current pairing of Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak. There is not just the vast difference in their ages but also the approach of national elections that could see the departure of Sunak and the return of… guess who?  When this balloon sailed over London at the time of Donald Trump’s state visit to Britain in 2018, many observers saw it as symbolic of a severely-deteriorated Anglo-American relationship. After all, no one could recall effigies of Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, or even George W. Bush in “nappies”. 

But such worries, like the balloon, were inflated. Seen over the past two centuries and more, the strength of the US-UK relationship has been proven again and again, and it will survive many a president, many a prime minister, and many a tweet.

As a kind of postscript to this talk, let us consider a different sort of image, that of a bust of Winston Churchill by Sir Jacob Epstein that was given to George W. Bush by the British embassy. A Churchill fan, Bush displayed the bust in the Oval Office.

Presidents get to decide how to decorate their office, and Bush’s successor, Obama, replaced the bust of Churchill with one of Abraham Lincoln. This caused a transatlantic furor, with Britons and Americans decrying this symbolic blow to the special relationship. Some commentators even blamed Obama’s deceased father, who was born in British Kenya and had opposed colonial rule there. 

The presidential press office felt all this deserved a response and issued a statement that the bust had not been sent back to the British embassy but had merely been relocated to the family quarters on the second floor of the White House. By way of proof, it released this photo of Barack Obama and David Cameron examining the bust in its new location – surely the least attractive picture ever taken of a president and prime minister. 

In any event, Donald Trump brought the bust back to the Oval Office, where it remained the rest of his term.  When Joe Biden chose other busts to display, there was only a muted outcry. That may signal an end to the battle of the bust.

When it comes to Churchill memorials in Washington, I prefer this one, a full-length statue that stands in front of the British Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. It shows Churchill giving a V-for-victory sign with one hand while holding a cigar in the other. But the real symbolism of this statue is not found in the hands but in the feet. 

Churchill, we recall, had an American mother, and in 1963 he was granted honorary US citizenship by act of Congress. The sculptor of this statue, William McVey, cleverly placed it so that Churchill straddles the property line between the embassy and the District of Columbia. Under international law, a country’s embassy is considered its sovereign territory, not that of the host country. So, Churchill is shown with one foot on British soil and another on American – a splendid reflection not only of his heritage but of what he himself called “the special relationship”.

Raymond Seitz, who was US ambassador to Britain in the 1990’s, wrote a splendid book called Over Here, comparing the two countries. Said Seitz: “To declare a relationship ‘special’ does not make it so. But on the whole, when everything is added up, the Anglo-American contraption has worked pretty well…. One thing for sure: Neither nation could possibly replicate this relationship with any country…. The Americans and British find each other just strange enough to be exotic and just familiar enough to be comprehensible.”

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