Anglo-American Relations in the Twentieth Century — was the Special Relationship Just a Myth?

About the author
Natalie Kulenicz read History at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Winston Churchill and Harry Truman
British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and U.S. President Harry Truman, 1952

Increasingly, the state and future of Anglo-American relations looks uncertain.

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On 30th August this year, following the defeat in the House of Commons of David Cameron’s plan to lend military support to a U.S.-initiated intervention in Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left the U.K. off a list of diplomatic ‘friends’ who were willing to support the U.S. against Assad’s regime. Instead, he referred in glowing terms to the French– “our oldest ally” -tellingly, in reference to France’s support of America against Britain in the American War of Independence that began in 1776. French President Francois Hollande had reaffirmed his country’s support for “firm” punitive action against the Assad regime following the Commons vote. Admittedly, Kerry qualified his remarks the following week at a press conference in London, saying “Our bond is bigger than one vote, it’s bigger than one moment in history, it is about values. We have no better partner in that effort than Great Britain and we are grateful for that. Our special relationship with the U.K. is not just about Syria.” And his words were intelligent on both occasions. This has not, however, comforted worried MPs who are fretting about the future of such an integral alliance.

Image shows Bush and Blair shaking hands.
Following the invasion of Iraq, then-Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy described Blair as ‘no more than George Bush’s poodle’.

The recent vacillations and panics over the state of the Special Relationship seem to have flagged up one common perception about Anglo-American relations: that the Special Relationship is assumed to be an ingrained and intrinsic feature of our country’s diplomatic structure. Whether viewed positively or negatively- and it is an alliance which splits opinion very neatly -the Special Relationship has always been viewed in black-and-white terms, either as an instrument of almost primal, matter-of-course symbiosis, or as a puppeteering servant-and-master arrangement, designed purely to aid the U.S. at the U.K.’s expense- most famously with regard to the war in Iraq. This conflict, which unfolded during the premiership of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, led the influential U.S. State Department adviser Kendall Myers– subsequently charged with spying for Cuba – in a lecture entitled “How Special is the United States-United Kingdom Relationship After Iraq?” delivered at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, to label the Special Relationship a “myth”, and to claim that Tony Blair received nothing in return for his support of George Bush’s military invasion of Iraq: “There never really has been a special relationship, or at least not one we’ve noticed.”
To dismiss completely the idea of the Special Relationship – to deny its very existence, present or historical – is an interesting line to take. Surely even viewing the alliance as one-sided is to accept that it exists as a relationship peculiar to the two nations? With this in mind, it simply does not seem logical to deny the existence of the Special Relationship. It is a much more useful exercise to decide how, and why, it unfolded- only then can we see the true form and limitations of the Special Relationship. To do this, it is necessary to go back to its beginnings, forged in the throes of global war.

The Origins of the Special Relationship in the Twentieth Century

Image shows Churchill and Truman on the back of a special train to Fulton.
Churchill and Truman en route to Fulton, where Churchill would give the famous ‘Sinews of Peace’ speech.

The term ‘Special Relationship’ was first used publicly in reference to the alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States by who else but Winston Churchill, ousted from Downing Street and carrying out a lecture tour of America, on 5th March 1946. Harry S. Truman was then in the White House, and accompanied Churchill on this fateful occasion. Churchill was speaking at Westminster College in the small town of Fulton, Missouri, and the address he delivered is infinitely better known for its first reference to the Iron Curtain, a coining which has led to the commonly-held belief that the ‘Sinews of Peace’ speech, as the address is known, heralded the beginning of the Cold War. But aside from Churchill’s historic statement that “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent”, the Sinews of Peace also has a definitive point to make specifically about Anglo-American relations. “Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organisation will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples….a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.” The link was not accidental. Following the end of the Second World War, the threat of Cold War loomed, along with the worrying potential for not just a continental, but a global, schism between a free, liberal West and an oppressed, totalitarian, and decidedly Communist East. Churchill, though at this point not in any particular position of specific political power to speak of, was making the point that the purpose of strengthening the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom was concertedly to bat away the threat of Communism.
Obviously, what happened in Fulton that day was not Winston Churchill conjuring a bright, new idea for a mutually beneficial diplomatic alliance out of thin air. He had spent the war years coaxing Franklin D. Roosevelt into co-operation, a shrewd and as it turned out necessary campaign. In a twentieth century context- which is where I have located the beginnings of the Special Relationship due to this specific phrase gaining parlance in the middle of the century, although of course relations between America and the U.K. have always been complex and often collaborative -the concrete events of world wars and the possibilities of their aftermaths were what directed and shaped the nature of the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. And though the events of the first and especially the second World Wars were what tied the fortunes and collaborations of the two countries together more inextricably than ever before, it was the terrifying abyss of the Cold War, with a looming perceived threat of nuclear war and the meteoric rise of Communism which precipitated a more definitive and concerted effort to link the U.K. and the U.S. more formally together in terms of international diplomatic policy.

Purely a Chain of Unconnected Events?

Image shows former British prime minister Anthony Eden.
Eden’s reputation recovered somewhat in 1967 following the Six-day War, which many saw as vindicating Eden’s approach to the Suez Crisis.

The centrality of the Cold War to the development of the Special Relationship is partly responsible for the view that the Special Relationship was a myth, as it gave rise to several specific examples which retrospectively challenge our opinion of what constitutes a special alliance. A good example is the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Prime Minister Anthony Eden joined forces with the French and the Israelis after Egyptian President Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez Canal. Nasser had taken this step in retaliation to Britain and the U.S.’ withdrawal of an offer to fund the construction of the Aswan Dam, and in doing so greatly restricted Western access to Middle Eastern oil: a crippling situation, as more than two-thirds of Western Europe’s oil supplies passed through it. From the perspective of the United Kingdom, when the nationalisation occurred total oil reserves were to last just six weeks. Eden believed that this action contravened the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement that has been drawn up and agreed upon in October 1954. Eden had made the decision to ally actively with the French and the Israelis in invading Egypt without the knowledge of U.S. President Eisenhower, and the American retaliation at this exclusion of authority and perceived expansion of British imperialism included a run on the pound. Eden resigned in disgrace, and the structure of the Special Relationship was strengthened, if not positively. The concept of the actions and consequences of the two countries were more inextricably tied together, creating an impression of mutual dependence and intrinsic functionality. But at the same time, the U.S. was cemented as the senior partner in the relationship, resulting in a bitter aftermath in the United Kingdom. So, even though the Suez Crisis made the Special Relationship appear to be the antithesis of symbiosis, it actually strengthened its structure.The same is true of the Special Relationship in the context of the Vietnam War. Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson was strained by his refusal to send British troops to help the U.S. war effort, a cautious move balanced with some degree of rhetorical support for the American invasion, even against the inclinations of his own backbenchers. By refusing to lend military support, Wilson layered and deepened the Special Relationship by challenging the growing assumption of automatic U.S. seniority.
However, the fact that he actively expressed rhetorical support for the American invasion in Vietnam brought a new, superficial element to proceedings. The importance of actions seemed to be giving way to the influence of words, especially given Wilson’s success in the matter. A double standard was acceptable, and even encouraged, and propagated the assumption that even though Britain could hold her own against the expectations of the United States, a degree of lip service was completely fundamental to the preservation of a mutually beneficial relationship.
Even if we dismiss the notion that the examples given to illustrate the Special Relationship can be incorporated into a continuous development, the difficulty of the ‘Big Men of History’ issue remains. It is dangerously tempting to connect points on the timeline of the Special Relationship first and foremost with particular politicians. For example, when we consider the fact that Churchill and Roosevelt were the founders of the Special Relationship, their wartime correspondence of over 1,700 letters takes on more significance than it necessarily should. As politicians do not last in their positions for a long time, they become shaky cornerstones of diplomatic alliances. However, just because personal relationships cannot be taken specifically as the foundation of an alliance, they are be immensely important as symbols, and plotting points along the timeline of a diplomatic friendship. Clearly, the transient nature of political power, especially right at the apex of government, means that that timeline is broken up and to an extent reset at the beginning of each new premiership or presidency, but such occasions do not automatically eradicate the underlying developments which occur and accumulate over time.

The Importance of Ideology

Image shows Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference.
The USA and the UK would come to find common ground in their mutual fear of the Soviet Union.

The Special Relationship becomes much more layered when we consider that it was not just designed in response to contemporary emergency, but also sculpted along ideological lines developed by the United States and the United Kingdom. The emphasis on conservatism, and particularly on  the exercise of limited government, was something with drew the two nations strongly together in socio-political theory as well as in practice, and stood in stark contrast to the interventionist – and from a western point of view, interfering – model of government inherent in the structure of Communist countries. This state of affairs went some way to justifying the Special Relationship – if indeed it needed to be justified – by providing a political alliance with the necessary moral high ground which could be exerted over a common threat- the Soviet Union. As well as providing a reason for, and demonstrating the necessity of, the Special Relationship, this ingrained shared worldview also made the alliance seem less artificial.

A Myth After All?

It is not difficult to see why some commentators would argue that the Special Relationship is a mere myth. In recent years, the gradual scaling back of the authority of the United Kingdom in the partnership- a situation crystallised by the issue of Iraq -has created the impression that rather than a symbiotic alliance, the connection between the two nations is merely an excuse for the United States to exert disproportionate power over its partner nation. They might also argue that the examples given by historians and specialists of the subject to illustrate the existence of the Special Relationship, are unconnected instances specific to their own contexts, and cannot be linked into a trend. However, taking into account the importance of the wider issue of shared political values- of two worldviews developing alongside and parallel to each other -in conjunction with analysing particular events, creates the continuity which some find lacking when searching for a concrete, concerted alliance. Of course, it is too easy to over-simplify the history of the Special Relationship: it did not appear out of thin air with the Sinews of Peace speech in 1946. But using specific case studies from the period following both world wars, and into the Cold War, alongside the development of a more theoretical socio-political outlook inherent in the characters of both the United States and the United Kingdom, is a useful and revealing way of understanding the Special Relationship. Rather than debating whether or not the Special Relationship ever existed, we should be asking ‘why’ and ‘how’.
This is an important point, because it defends the concept of the Special Relationship against the view that that it is purely a construct created by historians and political commentators. It is worth bearing in mind that there is an element of artifice to this particular alliance, because it implicitly devalues the significance of Anglo-American relations before the start of the twentieth century. But considering the ideological themes which accompanied the expression of the Special Relationship throughout the twentieth century, and specifically during the Cold War, proves the deep connection between wide-spanning socio-political ideals and the events of the postwar era. It goes back to the comments Kerry made recently: “our bond…is about values.” Similarities in political structure and ideology are often more important than isolated occurrences, in the context of a political relationship.

Image shows Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, seated and in conversation.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the White House in 1988.

Critics of the concept of the Special Relationship might point out that the term was not used purely in relation to the alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom. Indeed, by the 1960s, both nations themselves were referring to ‘special’ relationships with other countries, such as the alliance between the United States and Israel, or the close relationship between the United Kingdom and Germany. This accelerated as postwar bitterness and Cold War hostility and mistrust faded, and was linked even more strongly than ever to characteristics inherent in political institutions rather than particular events- such as Thatcher’s keenness to develop closer ties with Germany within the context of the European Community, because of her belief that Germany had a more economically conservative worldview than other member nations- something which tied in closely with the structure of her own political outlook.[1] However, this did not undermine her relationship with Reagan- the springing-up of new ‘special’ relationships did not usurp the original. And though the fact that other alliances with the same hallmarks as the Special Relationship existed, it is convincingly arguable that this made the original, Anglo-American interpretation of the term more of a blueprint than one of many arising at the same time.[2]


[1] R. Brown, ‘A History of the Anglo-American Special Relationship’ (2012) p.54
[2] Ibid.

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Image credits: banner; Blair and Bush; Truman and Churchill; Eden; Yalta; Reagan and Thatcher