John Charmley’s 1995 book Churchill’s Grand Alliance: The Anglo-American Special Relationship 1940-57 is part of a kind of trilogy dealing with the period from the late 30s to the late 50s. In this case the cut-off date is very significant – 1957 marking the end of British foreign policy as a truly independent nation.
As Charmley sees it the problem with the wartime alliance between the “Big Three” – Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States – was that the British government (and Churchill in particular) failed to understand that these three great powers not only had few interests in common, their interests were in fact fundamentally in conflict. Churchill clung to the belief that this would somehow all resolve itself once Hitler was beaten. Churchill also clung to the belief that by establishing a personal relationship between himself and Stalin and between himself and Roosevelt British interests could be protected. By early 1945 he knew he had miscalculated in regard to Stalin but he was never able to comprehend that US interests were in many respects diametrically opposed to Britain’s. He also failed to understand the depth of American hostility towards the British Empire.
In the postwar period the Cold War initially seemed like a godsend – surely this would bring the US and Britain closer together. The problem here was that the Cold War became an obsession for the US while Britain had other vital interests totally unconnected with that conflict. For Britain the Empire was an economic necessity. For the US the British Empire was a relic of the bad old days and an obstacle the new world order they hoped to create, a new world order that would coincidentally be entirely in the interests of the United States.
The British Empire was also an obstacle to one of the centrepieces of American postwar grand strategy – the unification of Europe. The US believed that European unification would not be viable without Britain but the problem was that as long as Britain had her Empire she not only had no need to join a European federation – it would be against Britain’s interests to do so. Coincidentally European unification would be very much in the interests of the US in the context of the Cold War – whether it would actually be in the interests of Europe was not a consideration.
The Middle East was where the Anglo-American Special Relationship really caused trouble. Britain had very vital economic interests indeed in this region. The US felt that the best solution was for American influence to displace British influence in the region. As Charmley points out there was nothing morally reprehensible about the US ruthlessly pursuing its own interests. The problem was that the British were living in a fantasy world in which they thought that if they supported the US where US interests were at stake (such as the Korean War and Central America) then the US would support Britain where British interests were at stake.
The crisis came in 1956 over Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal. This being of absolutely crucial importance to Britain the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, assumed that the US would support the British and French use of force to reverse Nasser’s action. After all Britain and France were independent nations with a right to protect their interests. He was wrong. The US responded by trying to wreck the British economy. Eden’s successor, Harold Macmillan, would not make the mistake of thinking Britain had the right to an independent foreign policy.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is Charmley’s reassessment of Sir Anthony Eden. Eden emerges as the last British Foreign Secretary, and the last British Prime Minister, to believe that Britain both should and could pursue an independent foreign policy. Eden was always remarkably consistent in this respect. He had ruffled feathers during the war for his conciliatory approach to the Soviet Union. Eden was in fact merely being brutally realistic. The war was clearly going to end with the Soviet Union in possession of large chunks of eastern Europe. Making an issue of this was simply futile. The Soviet Union, of which he heartily disapproved, was a reality. The best course of action was to accept reality and try to establish sensible relations with Stalin.
Eden’s attempt to pursue an independent foreign policy failed but this does not necessarily mean it was a bad idea.
Charmley also has interesting things to say about colonialism. He does not accept that the dissolution of the Empire was inevitable. The Empire was not going to go on indefinitely in its existing form but then the British government had recognised that in the 30s.The hope was that it could be transformed into something based on co-operation and common interests rather than direct rule, something that would satisfy nationalist aspirations and be of benefit to all parties. The war, and fierce US opposition, put paid to such ideas. This may in retrospect have been a tragedy.
As always Charmley is provocative and fascinating. Highly recommended.