In the latest Times Literary Supplement, Sir Michael Howard, in the course of a largely admiring review of two recent works on Winston Churchill, makes a claim that made me pause. According to Sir Michael,
The myth of the “special relationship” that Churchill invented and that so many of his admirers on both sides of the Atlantic continue to propagate is briskly demolished. . . . Throughout the war the United States consulted her own interests, as any state is bound to do: and these did not extend to helping Britain either to remain solvent or to retain any part of her empire once the war was over.
I am, I suppose, one of those propagating admires. Personally, I had the great privilege of studying under Sir Michael when he was the first Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale. If nothing else, that taught me that one does not disagree lightly with Sir Michael Howard: very few have put more sense about war into shorter compasses than he, and perhaps none have more experience with fighting, advising about fighting, writing about fighting, and establishing the institutions to promote the study of fighting.
But Sir Michael’s comments are worth pausing over. From one point of view, he is quite right. The U.S. was much more Anglophobic during, and even after, World War II than we now recall, and we do have Churchill, among others, to thank for that. It was not until shortly before the end of the war that Britain surpassed the USSR – Stalin’s USSR – as the ally that Americans liked more. And the interchanges between the British and the Americans during the creation of the GATT, for example, are remarkable for the cold willingness of the U.S. to use the hammer of its economic might against Britain, and the equally stubborn unwillingness of Britain to give in to U.S. pressure.
There is, though, another side to the story. Churchill may have invented the term “special relationship,” but he did not invent the concept. As the son of an American mother and a British father, he was a product of it, of the late 19th century reconciliation between the U.S. and Britain. This was ultimately not, quite, as enduring a relationship as the one forged during the Second World War, as various Anglo-American spats – and sometimes more than that – in the interwar years reveal. But it was vital nonetheless: without the earlier reconciliation, the later alliance would not have been possible.
And while the U.S. remained Anglophobic, in places, into the mid-1950s, the strength of that sentiment must be judged against the burning nationalist resentment against Britain that flourished in the U.S. through much of the 19th century, for obvious historical reasons. So while it is easy to forget the enduring strength of U.S. Anglophobia, it is even easier to forget how much it had ebbed even by the time the war came. As with U.S. hostility to Britain during and after the war, or the frictions in the highest councils of the Western Allies, it is a matter of degree.
For myself, I am impressed not by the frictions, which were inevitable, but by the fact that the U.S., born of a rebellion against British rule, nonetheless decided it was necessary to come to Britain’s aid – and by the fact that, ultimately, its hostility faded away completely. Of course that took leadership on Churchill’s part. What great political achievement does not?
As Sir Michael acknowledges, it is a truism to claim that the U.S. consulted its interests in its relations with Britain. And, slightly contrary to Sir Michael’s point, the U.S. did not simply let Britain sink after the war was over. There was the post-war loan, for one, and the Marshall Plan, for another. It’s quite plausible to argue that the U.S. did not handle the former with great grace, and that the latter was in the service of anti-Communism, but I am not sure why that counts against them. After all, the fact that both Britain and the U.S. were anti-Communist liberal democracies, and recognized each other as such, was a sensible basis for a close alliance. Nor did the U.S. just kick the British Empire to the curb. The causes of decolonization will be debated endlessly, but few historians of it would assign more than secondary importance to U.S. pressure.
Sir Michael’s point about interests raises a somewhat more fundamental issue. Interests, like relationships, and indeed like nations themselves, are not a God-created given. They are shaped, yes, by current needs, but more by politics, by ideas, by history, by culture, and by society. They are all, in a sense, invented. The U.S. and Britain came together in part, because of Churchill’s leadership, in part because of World War II, but more fundamentally because they decided that they had more in common (with the possible exception of Britain’s relationship with the Old Commonwealth) than any other two nations out there. After all, the U.S. and Britain both needed Russia’s help in the war very badly indeed, but that did not create a special relationship. The deeper basis for such a relationship simply did not exist.
So if the special relationship was invented, what of it? It was, and is, no more a myth because it was a political creation, with deep historical and cultural roots, than anything else in our world. Neither Britain nor, especially, the U.S., was the same country in 1945 that it was in 1845. Their interests had changed because their identities had changed, and both identities and interests pulled them together. Churchill both partook of that change and drove it onwards. If one believes that the causes he sought to serve in doing so were noble ones, as I do, then that achievement redounds to his great benefit.
The point of view that Sir Michael espouses has latterly become very popular with those – and I do not attribute this argument to Sir Michael – who are fundamentally hostile to the U.S., and wholeheartedly in favor of deeper and faster British integration into the EU, which is too often presented as the “natural” alternative to the artificial Americans. But if anything is an invention, it is the EU. Before about 1945, the U.S. was the awkward partner in the Anglo-American relationship. But today, it is Britain that is the awkward one, because its sense of its own identity is shifting.
From that point of view, claims like Sir Michael’s are the mirror image of the forces that created the special relationship. In presenting it as a myth, the claim, for political purposes, seeks to change Britain’s identity, and thus its interests. If that change is for the better, then it deserves support. But if, as I believe, it is a change for the worse, in the direction of submergence in the EU and weakening support for the values of historically liberal Britain around the world, then it deserves to be considered with the greatest of caution.