The Special Relationship from 1900 - 2000

History's Greatest Alliance

Only once in history has there been a peaceful transfer of power from a waning hegemon to a rising one. This extraordinary event defined the course of the twentieth century, when Great Britain gradually ceded ground to a rising United States.  The 20th century would have been radically different were it not for this special relationship that overcame the  naturally arising tensions between competing great powers. Powers such as Japan, Germany or France would have doubtlessly established themselves as hegemonic competitors, if not hegemons themselves. Starting with the Great Rapprochement and culminating in the evident unipolarity of the 1990’s, the definitive 20th century stage of the Special Relationship ensured an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power between the United States and the United Kingdom, tipped the balance in both World Wars and underscored eventual democratic victory in the Cold War. 

While the special relationship was in its most influential stage (thus far) during the twentieth century, it did not begin on precisely January 1st 1901 nor did it end on December 31st 2000. Its deepest roots reach back to Jamestown’s shore in 1603 and the relationship is still today one of the world’s most important alliances. There have been many breakdowns in the relationship, most notably following the American declaration of independence with both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 which shook the American east. But once relations were repaired in the 20th century, the Special Relationship first exerted its pull on grand strategy in the First World War. After a lull in the Great Depression, when world peace was at stake again it changed the course of the Second World War. It remained an important consideration in the minds of Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower until the tensions of the Suez Crisis of 1956, which cooled relations. From 1956 to 1982 some thought that the special relationship held no priority over other alliances. Prime Minister Heath even began calling it the “natural relationship'' as part of Great Britain’s pivot to Europe, verbiage that was poorly received in the United States. Those doubts were silenced with the onset of the Falklands War and the relationship has remained strong since. This special relationship, publicly embodied by the many great friendships between Prime Ministers and Presidents, grew deep roots in the US-UK policymaking communities that outlasted individual sentiment and temporary convenience. In their times of greatest need, both countries have stepped up for each other.

The dawn of the 20th century shone on a very different world. The British navy was the pride of history’s largest empire, but British hegemony itself was still not beyond all doubt unlike American hegemony in the 1990’s. Competing empires in Europe rivaled or surpassed the British army and oftentimes commanded extensive colonial empires. The French 3rd Republic, the Wilhelmine Germans and Czarist Russia were all potential rivals. Compared to these, the United States of 1900 posed no military threat to the waxing British Empire and certainly not to the British homeland. With the British turning their attention to an ever-tenser European continent in order to play the part of the balancing power, they had many reasons not to get on the Americans’ bad side. The Americans also had reasons to confide in the United Kingdom. Just as the United Kingdom had few designs on the Western hemisphere, the United States had no designs in Europe and little incentive to ally with Britain’s continental rivals. They had common interests in preserving peace in their respective zones of influence and common enemies in expansionist powers. Having crossed rough waters with the Venezuela Crisis, it was smooth sailing towards an eventual alliance of convenience.

Although the words “special relationship” are thought to have been coined by Churchill in 1946, the beginnings of 20th century alliance trace back to the 1890’s when US-UK relations overcame a great flashpoint in the Venezuelan Crisis. Before the crisis, relations had already moved beyond the revolutionary enmity and towards mutual understanding partly because both countries had evolved to be significantly more similar. Britain had become more democratic like the United States and the United States had industrialized like Britain. Their paths ran more and more parallel, a growing American power gradually rising to meet a waxing imperial hegemon.

 Although they shared common interests and cultural legacies, the two countries were still neither allies nor enemies. In fact, public sentiment leaned more towards antagonism than mutualism. This Venezuelan Crisis put the Monroe doctrine to a test when an old border argument between Venezuela and British Guyana came to a point. Not wanting to see undue British colonial expansion in the Western hemisphere, the then sitting Cleveland administration strongly urged both parties to accept American arbitration. When the United States resorted to veiled threats of war, the United Kingdom reluctantly accepted American meditation, judging war with the United States to be a risk not worth taking. This practical decision would prove fortuitous for a future relationship because it cemented the status of the rising republic as an equal to the UK (at least within the zone set aside by the Monroe doctrine).

The peaceful resolution to the Venezuelan crisis was merely the first of several sagacious diplomatic overtures leading to an eventual Anglo-American alliance. Now that there was mutual respect between the two nations, administrations on both sides of the Atlantic were ready to tacitly, privately enable each other's actions. While the British and American publics were not ready to cheer for each other’s armies, the administrations unpopularly backed each other during two debatable wars. 

The British stood aside during the Spanish-American War (1898), even though the European continent generally backed Spain. Early to recognize the value in a potential alliance with the United States, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury elected to support the American side indirectly by remaining neutral. While not yet a military powerhouse, the United States was already the world’s largest economy by PPP and with room to grow. The British probably agreed with the German economist Friedrich List when he remarked “The same causes that have raised Great Britain to her present exalted state will raise the United States to a degree of industry wealth and power which surpass … England … as England excels little Holland”. Without outside interference, the United States’s small navy and army dominated the outmoded Spanish forces. 

Recognizing this good turn, the anglophilic McKinley and Roosevelt administrations opted for a policy of equal access for the Seafaring British and the landlocked Boers during the 2nd Boer War(1899-1902). Many in the congressional pro-Boer faction rightly pointed out that this policy greatly favored the British. American public opinion also largely backed the Boer republic against their ancient enemy. But popular concerns fell on deaf ears, as the Mckinley and Roosevelt administrations opted for a pro-British neutrality. Roosevelt in particular was a massive anglophile and recognized that a disaster for the UK would put the US in “grave danger from the great European military and naval powers”.  Speaking to Arthur (later Lord) Lee in 1900, Roosevelt confided that he expected the United States would soon have to go to war with a European power(British not being included in this category) to defend the Monroe doctrine in South America. The Atlantic was no longer the imposing barrier to invasion that it was when Washington warned against “foreign entanglements”. Therefore, the United States needed to stay on friendly terms with the British fleet if its own navy would possibly not suffice.

Years of friendly neutrality would pay off during the first great showing of the special relationship, World War I. The United Kingdom had plunged itself deeper into continental politics, tying itself to the more vulnerable French with the Entente Cordiale. Drawn into the first World War I by a complex net of alliances and guarantees, the UK was in for a long slog against the military might of the Kaiserreich. Even without a formal alliance, the US would eventually find themselves in the same trenches as the British. While the British military was  still, overall, vastly superior the American forces proved themselves to be competent and decently effective against the other Great Powers in the western theater of the war.

While it is true that the special relationship was not the call to arms which drew America into the fight, that being the German decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, it still had an important role to play. The United Kingdom had learned from the mistakes of the Napoleonic wars and made sure to keep trade relations with the United States open. In stark contrast to British amicability, German High Command increasingly saw the US as a threat and liability. Even before the war, plans had been drawn up for the invasion of the East Coast and bombardment of Washington DC. Unrestricted submarine warfare turned a neutral Wilsonian government against Germany and the Zimmerman telegram outraged the American public. If there was any lingering anglophobia, it was swept aside in a tide of national anger and the United States promptly entered what Wilson optimistically called “the War to end all Wars”.

Although Wilson did not share the pro-British sentiments of Taft, Roosevelt or Mckinley, he did not need to. Friendly neutrality between the two nations had set the US informally on the side of the UK in the event of continental conflict, fulfilling the fears of Roosevelt in a strange and unanticipated way. While the US entry into the conflict was decisive in ending the war, the UK had suffered nearly three long years of merciless trench warfare with tremendous losses at the Somme, the Marne, Gallipoli and more. With American assistance, the Allies overcame the Central Powers and ensured the end of the old German, Austrio-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. 

US-UK differences came to the fore during the peace treaty negotiations at Versailles. Although the British proposals were not nearly as draconian as the revengeful French suggestions, they were much harsher than the idealism of Wilson’s 14 points. This disagreement reflected the differences between the American and British wartime experiences as much as it did the difference in personal philosophies between then Prime Minister Lloyd George and President Woodrow Wilson. The British had been hardened by their long struggles with Wilhelmine Germany during and before the war, whereas the American struggle was far shorter, far less costly and far less personal. Germany proved itself a security threat with the Zimmerman telegram but had never been the neighboring existential threat that Britain saw in the German Kaiserreich. When Wilson’s idealistic plans and poor presentation failed to persuade even the American Congress, it was inevitable that the harsh penalties of the British and French would take a larger hand in shaping the interwar world. After Versailles, the waning Austrian and Ottoman powers were permanently broken up and the Germans were humiliated, weakened and yet still far from humbled. These geopolitical changes were so striking it is hard to imagine the world without an Allied victory, without an American intervention and without Versailles.

With the bitter conclusion to World War I, US-UK relations entered a lull as the United States withdrew to her borders. The Great War was a far cry from the adventure of the Spanish-American expedition and shook an entire generation to its core. American opinion was warier than ever of foreign entanglements and left the UK high and dry in Europe. With uneasy company in the French, the UK watched the struggling Weimar Republic collapse under internal political pressure and give way to a new, National Socialist Germany. On the other side of Eurasia, Imperial Japan carved out a widening zone of influence with an aggression that promised to shake the US out of its isolationist stupor. War-weary and weakened by the depression, neither democracy was ready to take on the land-hungry fascist states until that threat really came home. 

In 1939, history repeated itself and the world was at war again. But this time,  the special relationship would be a leading motivation and consideration. The importance of US-UK relations shone in stark-relief against the backdrop of an Axis-occupied Europe and a struggling USSR come 1941. The American public was at first hesitant to join the war as the conflict ramped up, but when Britain stood alone in 1940 they were much more ready to answer. According to a September 1940 poll, 52% of Americans would rather “help England win” as opposed to the 44% who asked to “keep out of war ourselves”, which was a massive improvement in support from previous polling. It would be hard to imagine a majority of Americans being ready to risk war for England a few decades earlier. While officially neutral, FDR’s administration recognized the importance in keeping the British on their feet with the Lend-Lease Act. The fates of the United States and the United Kingdom were still bound at the hip.

While support for the British might have eventually drawn the US into the war, the attack on Pearl Harbour precluded that possibility. The new Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed Congress 19 days after the Japanese raid in a move highly symbolic of renewed US-UK relations. Churchill, the son of an American mother and a British father, was the perfect man to summarize British hopes for the future of the special relationship. He said, “Still, I avow my hope and faith, sure and inviolate, that in the days to come the British and American peoples will, for their own safety and for the good of all, walk together in majesty, in justice and in peace.” Like Lord Salisbury and Friedrich List before him, he knew that the torch of leadership would soon pass from Great Britain to the United States. The United States had already been an economic giant for decades and a regional power for at least as long, but Churchill remarked that the mobilization of the United States gave him the most hope out of all the positive developments for the Allies in 1941. The Japanese admiral Isokoru Yamamoto described the situation best in saying, “I fear that all we have done is wake a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve.” In the famous 8-point Atlantic charter, the US and the UK expressed their mutual determination to keep the world ‘safe for democracy’ as Wilson might have put it. Having cut through the fog of isolationism, the United States and the United Kingdom finally recognized A) their shared democratic legacy, B) their shared interest in global peace and C) their shared enemies in the fascist Axis powers. They had every reason to fight alongside each other in this history-shaking war and so they did.

The tenacity and global reach of the British mixed with the industrial might and overwhelming potential of the United States would ultimately tip World War II in favor of the Allies. The special relationship had thwarted rival rising powers once again and ensured the rise of the United States as it surpassed the-now-declining British Empire. While the transfer took place under the auspices of global war, the British were fighting alongside a would-be rival in the Americans and not against them. Once the United States was mobilized, both the Western and Pacific theaters began to favor the Allies, with victories in Operation Torch, El Alamein and the battle of Midway. History cannot of course discount the invaluable contributions of both the USSR and China to Allied victory, who through tremendous losses slowed the Axis advance to a halt. But were it not for American industry, China might have been overwhelmed and without American-lent SPAM the Soviets would have starved. 

Although FDR eventually came to regard the Soviets as a more important ally than the British, the special relationship won out after his death. Although Truman was open to the USSR at the start of his term, the Soviets were not as amiable a great power as the US and the UK had been to each other. After the Berlin Blockade and the testing of Soviet bombs, American policy considered the UK its greatest ally and the USSR its greatest rival. The US and the British empire (plus her dominions) led the way in the formation of NATO and the cold war democratic order. Part of this was destiny, both countries shared an ancient democratic history and yet part of it was circumstance as the other democracies and friendly powers had been either occupied by the Axis or fallen under Soviet control. The special relationship reached the height of its global significance with the birth of the Bretton Woods order and earned its name in a 1946 speech by Churchill. 

Although the special relationship turned the tide of both world wars and set the stage for postwar democracy with its charters and Marshall plan, it was sadly to take a back seat to other considerations for most of the Cold War. Despite Churchill’s final remonstrations to keep the “Americans on your side”, relations would cool off somewhat with the Suez Crisis of 1954. The British Empire clashed with American pro-independence colonies over an ownership crisis for the Suez canal. Now that America had taken on the burden of global leadership and Britain was struggling to preserve her empire, there was more and more friction on this issue. It is another testimony to the strength of their relationship that the two countries remained allies through Britain’s imperial decline and the US’s numerous overseas ventures (eg Vietnam). 

After a quiet few decades (including the dismal 1970s) the special relationship took a prominent role once more starting with the Falkland war. In order to secure the good will of both sides, the United States presented itself once more as a neutral mediator between the aggressive Argentine and the offended British governments. But yet again, American neutrality was a cover for British support. In the words of President Reagan, “We are not impartial… give Maggie enough to carry on”. With British victory, the UK convinced the US it remained more than a historic friend. Relations have been warm ever since, symbolized by the many dynamic prime-minister/president duos; Reagan and Thatcher, Clinton and Blair, Bush and Blair, Obama and Cameron and even Trump and Johnson.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the last barrier to Transatlantic triumph, the United States became a virtually-uncontested superpower. From a purely 20th-century perspective, history had ended on a perfectly peaceful note. The special relationship had carried democracies through great global conflicts and strengthened it against Communist onslaught. War, ideological conflict, poverty and even authoritarianism looked as if they might be things of the past. Even though history did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the special relationship had a dramatic impact on its course as the most significant alliance of the 20th century.

While it did not end war, it did foster the first ever peaceful transfer of power. While it did not end authoritarianism, it oversaw a gradual renaissance of democracy in Europe and much of the world. English is now the lingua Franca, future powers will court and threaten each other in it whether they want to or not. The world is not perfectly stable, but it is much more peaceful than it was for most of the 20th century. The fact that the UK peacefully passed the mantle of leadership onto the US may influence future transfers of power. One hundred and twenty five years after the Venezuela crisis, in the year of Our Lord 2020, the United Kingdom and the United States are still friends despite all the disagreements and crises that might have separated them. As President Barack Obama remarked in his joint statement with PM David Cameron, “And at the heart of [the] issue are the values that our countries cherish:  Freedom of expression, the rule of law, and our democratic institutions”. The spirit of the Atlantic Charter is alive and well in such sentiment. So too is the special relationship, even if it no longer guides the course of the democratic world. 

In summary, the special relationship defined the 20th century through UK-US leadership of the and the peaceful transfer of power between them. The Wilhelmine Germans, Imperial Japan, the National Socialists and the Soviets would blush to know that their century would end firmly in American hands. It is impossible to overstate the impact that continued Anglo-American dominance has had in shaping history, the world might well be a world of empires or socialist/communist states otherwise. One does not need to exaggerate to call the special relationship ‘history’s greatest alliance.’

 

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©2019 by William Southworth.

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