SINCE THE END OF WORLD WAR II, A ROMANTICISED ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’ between the United States and Britain has been referenced on countless occasions in speeches, books, and essays by academics and statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic. The relationship has multiple definitions, with no precise doctrine or formal agreement that outlines its tenets, and has been apparent in a myriad of interactions between the two countries.
It is visibly apparent culturally as the United States
evolved from a nucleus of British settlers to become an English-speaking country, sharing with Great Britain
‘joint aims’ and a ‘common heritage’, as is often referenced in political rhetoric, and by David Watt in his introduction to the book The Special Relationship (D. Watt 1). Yet this perceived relationship between these two countries has gone beyond a joint appreciation for the literature of William Shakespeare and the flavour of a Burger King Whopper to become manifest in political and military relations between the United States and Britain.
Winston Churchill was first to prominently recognise an Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, stating in the years immediately following World War II that he saw the relationship between the US and the UK as an ‘alliance of equals’, according to Sir Michael Howard in the Afterward of The Special Relationship (Howard 387). Howard writes that Britain in general saw the ‘special relationship’ as a vehicle for the United States ‘to accept and underwrite Britain’s status as a coequal world power’ (387).
As time passed, however, Britain’s standing a Great Power quickly diminished. Despite this, British possession of nuclear weapons, United Nations Security Council membership, access to political and military intelligence, political stability, and high rate of GNP devoted to military were important reasons for maintenance of a ‘special relation,’ according to Watt (D. Watt 4). The late 1950s and early 1960s ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Britain, as Alistair Horne points out in his essay ‘The Macmillan Years and Afterwards’, was an unorthodox departure from conventional international relations, as the United States shared nuclear technology with Britain and placed US military bases on British soil without formal agreements (Horne 88). Horne subsequently points out a ‘special relationship within the special relation’, in effect, the personal interaction between the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister (88). In the essay ‘Defence Relations: American Perspectives’, Ernest R. May and Gregory F. Treverton state that that the ‘special relation’ has been one of greater value to US Presidents than to the United States as a whole (May 162). The best definition, though, of that which the ‘special relationship’ has been, from Bradford Perkins’ essay ‘Unequal Partners: The Truman Administration and Great Britain’, modestly states that the ‘special relationship is a formalised British privileged position with the United States’ (Perkins 43).
Historically, the ‘special relationship’ has varied contrastingly depending on leadership in the White House and on Downing Street. In particular, the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Britain during the Premiership of Anthony Eden
, from 1955 to 1957, differed greatly from that of the administration of Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963. Though both men were Oxbridge-educated members of the Conservative party, Eden operated as though Britain were as mighty as the Great Power she was upon entering World War II, while Macmillan operated within Britain’s constraints as a European power subordinate to Cold War Superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union. As history shows, Macmillan’s approach, in contrast with Eden’s, resulted in the healthier ‘formalised British privileged position with the United States’.
ANTHONY EDEN INHERITED THE REIGNS OF THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY from an aged Winston Churchill in April 1955. In the midst of a London newspaper strike that resulted in little British national coverage of the hand-over, ‘The foreign press, especially in the United States . . . gave him an exceptionally enthusiastic welcome’, states Robert Rhodes James in his ‘official’ biography of Eden (James 404). ‘Few Prime Ministers of modern times have reached Downing Street with more goodwill and respect’, writes James (404).
Eden’s early performance as a foreign policy maker was to be one of a wheeler-dealer, joining the United States, the Soviet Union, and France at a summit of the ‘Big Four’ in Geneva in July 1955. According to Victor Rothwell’s biography of Eden, he advanced a number of proposals regarding collective security in Europe (Rothwell 176), even approaching the Soviet Union about uniting to create peace in the Middle East. During the same period, Eden saw ‘folly’ over US insistence on separate Middle East security policies for America and Britain, but the ‘US [under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles] reserved the right to allow “local area considerations” to prevail over Anglo-American solidarity in the Middle East if it seemed to be justified’, according to Rothwell (181). Eden eventually saw Middle East foreign policy as ‘a game two could play’ (183). It was just over fifteen months into Eden’s term, however, that the game of Middle East security that ‘two could play’ would leave its black mark upon the ‘special relationship’ as Britain sought to achieve its own ends in Suez.
Following Egyptian President Nasser’s August 1956 nationalisation of the Suez Canal zone jointly operated by Britain and France, David Carleton writes in Britain and the Suez Crisis, Eden held his tongue to avoid a British public dispatch unacceptable to the United States. Privately, however, the Prime Minister despised Nasser’s actions and advocated a British military operation, but reasoned that one would not be feasible without the support of France and the United States (Carleton 36).
Eisenhower, however, sought a peaceful solution to the Suez crisis. After all, the United States needed to maintain a delicate balance between assisting its allies and promoting national self-determination by keeping the ‘Third World’--countries allied with neither the United States nor the Soviet Union--from tipping towards Soviet alliance. At the same time, Eden and his cabinet miscalculated American anti-colonial sentiment, according to the William Rogers Louis essay ‘American Anti-Colonialism’, and assumed the United States would help its old friend (Louis 278). As Howard states, ‘Eden took the “special relation” for granted’, which had catastrophic results for the British operation (Howard 388-389).
The United States had a vehement reaction against Britain and France and their contrived late-October intervention into conflict between Egypt and Israel. According to Louis, Eisenhower saw British colonial activities in the canal zone as more ruthless than the bloody Soviet reaction to the Hungarian uprising that same autumn (279). In a campaign speech the week before his re-election, Eisenhower alluded to both situations, stating ‘We cannot subscribe to one law for the weak, another for the strong; one law for those opposing us, another for those allied with us. There can only be one law, or there shall be no peace’, according to Martin Walker, author of The Cold War (Walker 100).
The United States first opposed military activity against Egypt in the United Nations Security Council, a motion that was vetoed by Britain and France but successfully appealed to the UN General Assembly. When operations did not cease, the United States played its trump card: The Sterling was haemorrhaging, and Britain faced the dilemma of devaluating its currency or stopping operations in Suez in order to prevent an American veto of a routine International Monetary Fund loan. The economic consequences of devaluation more threatening than the benefits of Suez acquisition, Britain called a cease-fire after occupying nearly one-third of the canal zone.
Only hours after Britain’s cease-fire in Suez, Eden phoned Eisenhower to offer congratulations on his Presidential re-election. According to Carleton, the phone call was cordial, with Eisenhower even accepting an invitation from Eden to discuss Anglo-American defence strategy. The invitation was quickly declined, however, after Eisenhower consulted advisors on the propriety of such a meeting: The United States needed to maintain its anti-colonial front, and talks with Eden would not support this cause. For the time, the ‘special relationship’ appeared dead.
WITHIN TWO MONTHS OF THE END OF THE SUEZ CRISIS, even before the inauguration of Eisenhower’s second term as President, Eden stepped down as Prime Minister for ‘health reasons’. His replacement was Harold Macmillan, a fellow conservative who had served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Eden and Foreign Secretary under Churchill. Paradoxically, Macmillan had been Machiavellian during the early part of the Suez crisis (pushing not only to acquire the Suez Canal, but also topple the Nasser regime) (Carleton 43), but was also the first to urge British withdrawal from the conflict when the run on Sterling began. As a consequence of his initial promotion of the military operation in Suez, Macmillan faced the difficult task of rebuilding strained relations with the United States--nevermind the ‘special relationship’ as well. Fortunately for Macmillan, he had enjoyed a personal relationship with Eisenhower dating back to World War II.
A long-standing point of contention between the United States and Britain had been the issue of shared nuclear technology. To a great extent, according to D. Cameron Watt in the essay ‘Demythologising the Eisenhower Era’, Britain felt entitled to American nuclear technology following World War II (Watt 67). There had been a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between Churchill and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II to share nuclear technology after the war, but with Roosevelt’s death and the loss of Churchill’s Conservatives to Labour in 1945, the agreement was quickly forgotten (Watt 67). A ‘nuclear silence’ between Britain and the United States was institutionalised with Congressional passage of the McMahon Act prohibiting the sharing and sale of nuclear weapons and technology to other countries.
In the improbable post-Suez period, however, that ‘nuclear silence’ was to cease. One of the crowing accomplishments of the Macmillan Administration was the amendment of McMahon, with the Agreement for Co-operation on Users of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes, which led to the sharing of American Skybolt missiles and nuclear technology with Britain. Horne, in his essay ‘The Macmillan Years and Afterwards’, calls the pact ‘One of the most mutually beneficial accords ever achieved in peacetime’, with the eventual development of greater trust between Britain and the United States (Horne 87). Andrew Pierce states that ‘the very act of nuclear-sharing created an environment in which American trust in the British government deepened so that American officials discussed a wider-range of military and political topics more frankly with their British counterparts than with officials of other friendly nations’ (Horne 89). The ‘special relationship’ had been resurrected from the brink of destruction thanks to Macmillan’s diplomacy.
When Eisenhower was succeeded by John F. Kennedy as President, some questioned whether the cordial relations--if not the ‘special relation’ between the United States and Britain--would continue under the new President. Macmillan and Kennedy were of different generations, and were members of parties of opposite ideologies, Macmillan a Conservative, Kennedy a liberal Democrat. But both men were of wealthy, influential families: The Kennedy family known for its political involvement; the Macmillan family, its world-wide publishing house. Moreover, both shared a Keynesian view of macroeconomics. Horne reports that ‘Macmillan and Kennedy soon found each other to be close company, and a personal affection fostering a close relationship developed’ (90-91). Author David Bruce writes that ‘the frequence and frankness of their interchanges have few parallels in modern diplomatic intercourse’ (Horne 92). According to writer Averell Harriman, the special relationship between Kennedy and Macmillan exceeded the personal friendship between Roosevelt and Churchill (Horne 100).
It was a relationship that would be tested, however, when the United States decided--without consultation of its British clients--to suspend the Skybolt missile program. US military tests had shown that the missiles did not have the pinpoint accuracy sought by the United States. The Macmillan administration, which desired the missiles for mere deterrence and not pin-point accuracy, was quite upset over the American decision, but had little leverage with which to sway the United States.
With Skybolt on the table, Britain and the United States sat down at Nassau in the Bahamas to hammer out the nuclear missile issue. It was during a private conversation--away from advisors, according to Horne--that Macmillan persuaded Kennedy to provide the British a dependable nuclear deterrent (98). Macmillan explained that the United States had the means and the will at that time to defend Europe, but questioned whether the US, under other leadership, would always have the will. Kennedy agreed, and granted Polaris submarine missiles to Britain at a bargain-basement price (97-98).
Nicholas Ashford would write twenty years later in The London Times that Nassau represented ‘the highest point that relations between the two countries had reached since the War’ (Horne 99). Kennedy’s decision, however, was not widely heralded by Americans--even members of his own administration--at the time. States Richard Neustadt, Kennedy’s aids saw it as ‘a case of “king to king”, and it infuriated the court’ (Horne 97, Walker 30). Nonetheless, American support of the British Polaris missile program continued through the early 1980s, when the US began supplying Trident missiles to Britain.
Many point to personal negotiations between Kennedy and Macmillan at Nassau as hallmarks of the ‘special relationship’. Horne states that it played a key role in allowing politics to happen, as the two allies come to terms quickly without allowing disagreement to linger or fester (Horne 99).
It is apparent, however, that the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States during the Eden and Kennedy administrations is one of subordinate to superior. Richard Aldous in his essay ‘“A Family Affair”: Macmillan and the Art of Personal Diplomacy’ points out that ‘Kennedy’s classical charms could not hide the fact that he did not regard Macmillan as his equal and was not interested in starting a “special relationship”’ (Aldous 10). Aldous also states that ‘The [US] landings in Cuba [during the Cuban Missile Crisis] showed Macmillan, if he had doubted it, that the President of the world’s most powerful country was going to act he damn well pleased, and did not need the sanction of a British Prime Minister to do so’ (27). Still, the ‘special relation’ remains evident as Horne recounts that Kennedy’s contact with Macmillan was closer than with any other head-of-state during the Missile Crisis (Horne 92-93). Aldous reasons that the ‘special relation’ resulted in a ‘special influence’ for Britain, and states that ‘Britain at least has a direct line to the man with his finger on the button [during the Cuban Missile Crisis]’ (Aldous 28).
In October 1963, Macmillan resigned as Prime Minister for health reasons; one month later, Kennedy was assassinated. The ‘special relationship’ would fade in the mid-1960s under Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson and Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, with disagreement between Britain and the US over British withdrawal from East Suez, and a lack of British involvement in Vietnam. The technical sharing of nuclear information continued, but according to Horne, Johnson and Wilson were never personally close (Horne 101).
In the end, a number of factors contributed to Macmillan’s success and Eden’s failure to maintain a healthy ‘special relationship’. Britain certainly was not strained by a crisis like Suez during the Macmillan administration. There was also a unique personal bond between Macmillan and Eisenhower and Macmillan and Kennedy that was not apparent between Eden and Eisenhower. If there was any one reason, however, why the ‘special relationship’ enjoyed an ‘Indian Summer’ during the Macmillan administration, it was because Macmillan had humility in his dealings with the United States. Britain learned a lot from Suez--primarily that it could not be insubordinate to the United States while the Cold War raged. According to Aldous, Macmillan realised in 1961 that Britain ‘counted for nothing’ as a world power (Aldous 31); it was an important lesson for the former imperial powerhouse to learn as domestic troubles mounted.
SOME QUESTION WHETHER A ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’ EXISTS TODAY between the United States and the United Kingdom. Indeed, a ‘formalised British privileged position with the United States’, to again borrow Perkins’ definition, was evident in the relationship between Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Republican President Ronald Reagan, and their successors, John Major and George Bush. Some envision great potential for a ‘special relationship’ between the US and Britain under Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and Democratic President Bill Clinton.
The situation is of course different today than it was in 1960, as Britain slowly angles away from the United States and toward her European Union brethren. But the very fact that discussion of a ‘special relationship’ between the US and Britain exists is significant. Would it still be the case if not for the lessons learned and linkages built during the late 1950s and early 1960s? Clearly, Macmillan’s respectful diplomacy following Eden’s cavalier imperial gun-slinging preserved the British ‘special relationship’ with the United States.
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Carleton, David. Britain and the Suez Crisis. London: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
Horne, Alistair. ‘The Macmillan Years and Afterwards’. The Special Relationship. Ed. William Rogers Louis and Hedley Bull. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. 87-102.
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Walker, Martin. The Cold War. London: Fourth Estate Ltd., 1993.
Watt, D. Cameron. ‘Demythologising the Eisenhower Era’. The Special Relationship. Ed. William Rogers Louis and Hedley Bull. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. 65-86.
Watt, David. ‘Introduction: The Anglo-American Relationship’. The Special Relationship. Ed. William Rogers Louis and Hedley Bull. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. 1-16.