Beyond Friendship - The Future of Anglo-American Relations, Chapter Two: Perspectives on the Past

Report Europe

Beyond Friendship - The Future of Anglo-American Relations, Chapter Two: Perspectives on the Past

May 24, 2006 17 min read
Robin Harris
Dr. Robin Harris is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. His...

There is always a risk, when reviewing the Special Relationship, that one may consider its origins and then its present operation (under President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair) without also forming conclusions on the basis of what lies between. But the various crises and successes of those five decades do, in fact, have many lessons to teach. In particular, it is possible to assess how important at different times were three cardinal elements of the Relationship: personal relations between leaders, enduring national interest, and external threats. Any such assessment certainly reveals that no single one of these elements can provide a complete explanation of events.

For example, one might have expected that leaders who shared a similar political outlook would cooperate more effectively than those who did not.[1] This was by no means always so. The Conservative Leader Anthony Eden and the Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower managed between them to plunge Anglo–American relations into unparalleled crisis at Suez. It was then a Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and a Democrat President, John F. Kennedy, who re-launched cooperation between the two countries. By contrast, the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, had a tense and unfriendly relationship with Kennedy’s Democrat successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

When Edward Heath’s Conservative Party won the British general election in 1970, the Republican President Richard Nixon automatically assumed that Heath was a man with whom he could do business, but he was sharply, rudely, and repeatedly disillusioned. Heath snubbed all attempts to make the U.S.–U.K. Relationship “special” because he was determined to prove Britain’s European credentials to France—and also, no doubt, because ungraciousness came naturally to him. When the Americans—who, of course, had been pressing Britain closer to Europe for years—helpfully declared 1973 to be the “Year of Europe,” this flattering gesture was merely deemed by Heath and his fellow European leaders to be unseemly meddling. And if the Heath and Nixon governments made many of the same mistakes in domestic policy—monetary indiscipline, overspending, price controls—it certainly never induced a common view on world affairs, let alone a sympathetic regard between the two leaders.[2]

It is less easy to point to occasions when the Special Relationship functioned well despite the pressures of national interests and external circumstances and merely because of personal or political closeness between leaders. Perhaps the nearest example is the warm relations enjoyed by President George H. W. Bush and British Prime Minister John Major—relations which apparently still continue. But it is difficult to attribute the success (though it is possible to attribute the shortcomings) of the first Gulf War to that close relationship,[3] and it is impossible to point to any other example of useful collaboration which subsequently flowed from it.

This, in itself, is significant. The actions of powers are always better predicted by the traditional assumptions of Realpolitik than they are by any others. If that was true in an age before democratic elections and an alert media presence, it is even truer now that decisions are so systematically scrutinized. Personal diplomacy taken to the extreme is the prerogative of princes, not politicians. Unfortunately, it tickles political vanity sometimes to forget that.

A variation on this theme is that what a country sacrifices for another is more significant than what a leader says to another. One can point, for example, to the contrast between the levels of influence wielded in Washington by two post–World War II British Labour Prime Ministers, Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson. Attlee was able to obtain a hearing from President Harry Truman, including a crucial assurance on the mooted use of the atomic weapon, because British troops were fighting alongside those of the United States in Korea at the time.[4] Wilson, though, had no significant influence over American policy under Johnson because—for good reasons—he refused to send British troops to Vietnam. Commitments of blood and treasure always, in the end, speak louder than words.

This is something which those who criticize Tony Blair’s willingness to commit British troops in Iraq should remember. A general expression of support, even formal support in the U.N. Security Council, would have provided nothing like the leverage that military engagement made available to London. Whether Blair used that leverage wisely (or even at all) is, of course, a different matter, which will be addressed separately.

Personal and political closeness between leaders is therefore most important when it supplements the perceived interests of the two countries. Good personal relations have indeed often oiled the wheels of official diplomacy. They have allowed secondary or short-term obstacles to be overcome. They have also accelerated decisions, which the coldly calculated pursuit of national advantage would probably in the end have produced anyway—and so rendered those decisions more timely, unambiguous, and effective. On this, witness the Kennedy–Macmillan and Reagan–Thatcher relationships examined in more detail below.

A rarely discussed instance of the opposite is also worth mentioning: This is the relationship between Thatcher and President Jimmy Carter. It was not that the two got on badly, although Carter preferred dealing with Thatcher’s Labour predecessor James Callaghan. And it should not be forgotten that it was the Carter Administration that originally made the strategically crucial decision to supply Britain with the Trident I (C4) missile to update the British nuclear deterrent.

The fact remains, however, that if the two leaders had got on better personally, if they had established a surer bond of trust and sympathy, the immediate response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which opened a new phase of the Cold War, would have been more formidable. Carter and Thatcher both agreed, of course, that the Soviet Union now had to be faced down, but Carter had so many of his own words to eat that it was difficult to articulate anything else. Had not Ronald Reagan been elected at this juncture, the confrontation with the Soviets would never have been so dramatic, intense, and successful as he and Margaret Thatcher made it.

A closer look at two specific phases of the Special Relationship will permit more detailed examination of the interplay of these different factors. Each, in its way, can be seen as a case study. The first, which concerns the first phase of post-war U.S.–U.K. nuclear cooperation, is essentially a study in crisis resolution. The second, which concerns the unique Reagan–Thatcher partnership, is—despite the occasional misunderstandings and conflicts—a study in triumph.

Case Study #1: Nuclear and Political Fission (1945–1962)

Churchill’s already quoted Fulton speech came at a particularly awkward time for Anglo–U.S. relations in one respect: cooperation (or, more precisely, non-cooperation) on the atomic weapon. British scientists had contributed significantly to the Manhattan Project and to the development of the weapons used against Japan; but with victory secured, Washington had no intention of sharing its expertise with Britain. The formal manifestation of this new attitude was the passing by Congress of the McMahon Act, which prohibited the exchange of atomic information between the U.S. and any other nation.

By slamming the door on Anglo–U.S. cooperation, the McMahon Act inadvertently encouraged Britain to go ahead with plans for its own independent deterrent. In retrospect, this was no bad thing. It proved—and was intended to prove—to the Americans that Britain was serious about remaining a major military power. But it was only the first of several shocks which such unilateral American decisions administered.

The two countries continued to go their separate ways on atomic energy matters, though this did not prevent military cooperation of other kinds in response to the more obvious and pressing Soviet threat. The British and American chiefs of staff, always keener on close relations than the politicians, kept in contact. Then Britain’s role in the 1948 Berlin airlift demonstrated the country’s worth as an effective ally to an otherwise skeptical U.S. State Department. In 1949, the Soviets tested their nuclear weapon. As tension grew in Europe, Britain’s importance as an advance platform for the U.S. military grew. The stationing of American B-29 bombers in Britain meant that the country was now a potential target for Soviet attack in the case of hostilities. Inexorably, events were thus forcing the old wartime allies back together.

The establishment of NATO in 1949 is rightly regarded as a vital step toward securing eventual victory in the Cold War; but at a certain level, it also provided a complication for the Special Relationship. On the one hand, the U.S. regarded the relationship with Britain as, in Truman’s words, “the mainspring of Atlantic Defense” (and not just Atlantic, given British commitments side by side with America in Korea). At the same time, however, the United States was also keen to emphasize the Western European dimension to the Cold War struggle. Too exclusive a commitment to Britain might render less credible America’s wider plans for European self-defense. So the U.S. strongly backed the abortive European Defense Community, which Britain refused to join. This refusal provoked thinly veiled American threats to discontinue the Special Relationship.

The Suez crisis of 1956—for which both sides, in retrospect and in the light of information now available, should share equal blame—temporarily halted moves toward closer Anglo–U.S. defense relations. Indeed, at the height of the affair, the American Sixth Fleet sought physically to obstruct Anglo–French operations in the Mediterranean. But afterwards, each side looked back on what had happened with disquiet.

The British political élite concluded from the disaster that the pursuit of any foreign policy which was not underpinned by American support was unviable. (Part of it also concluded that only through integration with Europe could this dependence be curtailed—something the U.S. was remarkably slow to grasp). The Americans, for their part, soon recognized the dangers of encouraging a complete withdrawal of Britain from international engagements, even in the Middle East where competition between the two was sharpest. Anti-colonialism would henceforth gradually take second place to anti-communism in U.S. motivations. And so Britain was transformed within the American political psyche from selfish rival to selfless ally—though not without occasional role reversals.

In these circumstances, and under a new British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, Anglo–American relations rapidly improved. Even the McMahon Act was finally repealed in 1958 as part of a renewal of nuclear cooperation. It soon bore fruit. Eisenhower and Macmillan agreed on the deployment of 60 Thor missiles equipped with nuclear warheads, provided by the U.S. but under joint U.S.–U.K. control. With the resumption of links, the Americans were also surprised to learn how advanced Britain’s own nuclear program was. On this basis of shared interests and contributions, a new framework for nuclear collaboration was built.

But technical and funding difficulties for the nuclear deterrent on both sides of the Atlantic soon prompted a crisis that threatened Britain’s fundamental interests. The British Blue Streak missile, intended to carry the country’s nuclear weapon, was cancelled on grounds of mounting cost. Eisenhower had previously agreed that it should be replaced by the U.S.-produced, air-launched Skybolt missile. A somewhat vague “gentleman’s agreement” was also reached that, in the event of Skybolt’s not being suitable, Britain would have the option of purchasing the U.S. Polaris submarine-launched missile.

Skybolt was always the preferred British choice, mainly because it would allow Britain to preserve the life of its V-bomber force, but with the change of Administration, doubts were increasingly voiced about Skybolt’s viability. In December 1962, the news broke in Britain that it was to be scrapped. In truth, British Ministers must have known what was in the wind, and they seem to have adopted an attitude of shock partly to put moral pressure on the Americans. Real enough, however, was the wave of anti-American feeling, comparable to that following Suez, which greeted news of this unilateral decision.

At a tense summit in Nassau, Macmillan made it clear to Kennedy that nothing less than the strategic basis of the Special Relationship was at stake if the U.S. did not provide Polaris as a substitute for Skybolt. He warned of the fall of the British government over the issue—Macmillan’s political position was indeed shaky at the time—and raised the spectre of an anti-American line being taken by any successor, whether Labour or Conservative.

Kennedy’s initial strong reluctance to meet the British request stemmed from advice offered by both the Pentagon and the State Department. There was, in fact, an unspoken desire in Washington to see Britain’s nuclear deterrent wither on the vine. This was partly to discourage nuclear proliferation—or, put differently, to ensure an American nuclear monopoly in the West (at least, except for France). There was also a somewhat contradictory desire to entrust any new weapon to a European (or NATO) “Multilateral Force” (MLF), a nebulous conception that survived in the ambiguous wording of the final agreement that was reached.

In the end, through a triumph of personal diplomacy by Macmillan, and through Kennedy’s good sense, which exceeded that of his advisers, Britain got Polaris. The done deal was an extremely good one for both sides. Britain obtained a nuclear deterrent with the best available technology and on favorable terms. At the same time, the U.S. cemented its strategic relationship with the U.K., both through the technology itself and through the implied dependence which this necessarily created.[5]

The period between 1946 and 1962–1963 thus provides some instructive lessons in the operation of the Special Relationship—lessons that are still extremely relevant. The first concerns divergences of strategic goals. These divergences were real, not imaginary or merely the result of misunderstandings.

A certain element in the American élite still regarded Britain (and its Empire) as a rival, not primarily as an ally. Even when the Soviet threat to Europe demanded a change of view, a degree of hostility, now tinged with contempt at Britain’s miserable economic performance, was evident. The view was not merely that (as Dean Acheson undiplomatically observed) Britain had not yet “found a role” and should not depend on any special treatment from the U.S. to find one, but rather that Britain was simply unworthy of any consideration as a power at all.[6] It followed (according to this view) that Britain should not have its own nuclear deterrent, let alone any technology for it supplied by the U.S. American policymakers were accordingly tempted by the prospect of sidelining or ending the Anglo–American Special Relationship in favor of a new relationship with Western Europe as a whole.

Against these tendencies, however, there worked a powerful combination of circumstances. As has been observed, the Soviet challenge was the most important and most obvious. Only Britain was seen by the American military planners as a serious ally in the event of war. Another factor was France, particularly once De Gaulle arrived on the scene in 1958. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, the general stood firm against the Soviet Union, but he was the loosest of loose cannons at other times. Moreover, France had no intention of abandoning its genuinely independent nuclear weapon or of subordinating its independent foreign policy to an American-led alliance.[7] French obstructionism, then as since, forced America back to reliance on Britain. Finally, despite the slow rearmament of West Germany from 1950 on, the Germans never looked, at least until reunification at the end of the Cold War, as if they could rival Britain as a useful ally.

Of course, the ups and downs of the Relationship did not depend entirely upon factors as large and immovable as these. Bad diplomacy, in the sense of poor analysis and use of information, was also important at various points. In 1956, Eden should have known that the last thing Eisenhower wanted on the eve of an election was to be forced to come to the aid of a colonial power. Kennedy’s advisers, above all Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, should have grasped what cancellation of Skybolt would mean politically for Macmillan.[8]

Case Study #2: Reagan and Thatcher (1981–1988)

The eight years during which Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led their respective nations is rightly regarded as the period during which the Special Relationship was closest and most effective. Not everyone, then or since, has approved of the results. It is interesting to recall, for example, that Thatcher was portrayed as Reagan’s “poodle” in the wake of her defense of the Libyan raid of 1986, much as the same canine comparison was used later to disparage Tony Blair’s conduct during the Iraq War.

In the intervening years, there has also been a certain amount of revisionism. Thus, Conservative Party critics of Tony Blair like to emphasize the occasions on which Mrs. Thatcher forcefully disagreed with the President. Such, indeed, there were, but she never forgot which power was the senior partner and moderated her behavior accordingly.

The indisputable point is that the Reagan–Thatcher axis was the most powerful international alliance of its time, and it has much to teach those wishing to place Anglo–American relations on a stable and sustainable footing today.[9] There are two reasons why the relationship was so close.

First, the two leaders always liked and increasingly respected each other; and their personal friendship—an overused word in current politics, but not misapplied in this case—meant that frictions could be born and crises faced much more easily than would otherwise have been the case.

Second, their political characters were, at root, very similar. This was despite the differences of style, working methods, aptitudes, age, and (of course) sex. Both were motivated by the desire to put into action a series of beliefs: They were, in a favorite Thatcher phrase, “conviction politicians,” and they largely agreed. They shared a common philosophy of freedom, one which held that government exists for individuals, not vice versa; that it is more often a problem than a solution; that low taxes and light regulation are the secret of growth and jobs; that the Western model of liberty is applicable beyond the West; and that the use of force in liberty’s defense is always justified and often necessary.

One should add that they also had two fundamental disagreements, which the differing circumstances of their respective nations served to sharpen and which their friendship was useful in softening.

  • The first disagreement related to economics, where Thatcher was a devotee of balanced budgets (“good housekeeping”) while Reagan believed that tax cuts, even with ballooning deficits, were vital to increase incentives and promote prosperity. In this, despite the success of the Thatcher economic revolution, it is Reagan’s priorities which now look correct.
  • The second related to deterrence, where Thatcher was determined to keep the nuclear weapon while Reagan was prepared (at least in his more visionary moments) to embrace the goal of a nuclear weapons–free world protected by the global shield offered by the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). In this, despite the importance of SDI in persuading the Soviets to abandon the arms race, it is Thatcher’s priorities which seem more sensible.

In fact, the sharpest disagreements did not focus on either of these key points, but rather on secondary issues such as U.S. measures against firms participating in the Soviet gas pipeline project, U.S. claims of extraterritoriality in taxation, and most notably the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983. Only the last of these is much remembered today.

The resultant bad feeling between London and Washington was the result of sloppy diplomacy by America and a lack of imagination on the part of Britain. If the U.S. had warned the Thatcher government in a timely manner of what was afoot, Mrs. Thatcher’s anger would have been silenced, and perhaps her support might even have been forthcoming. If Britain, for its part, had understood that, whatever the Commonwealth implications, America regarded the Caribbean as in its own backyard and would act unilaterally to prevent another mini-Cuba arising there, matters would have been kept in proportion. One should add that, judging events by their consequences (which is not, of course, the only way to judge them), the American action itself proved to be correct.

The two most difficult issues that arose during this period—ones which could have fractured the Special Relationship even under Reagan and Thatcher if mishandled—were (for Britain) the Falklands War of 1982 and (for America) the Libyan raid of 1986. For Britain, the recovery of the Falklands was a matter of fundamental national interest. This is now easy to forget; too close a concentration on geography renders it easier too. At the time, however, it was true. Had Argentina prevailed, Britain would have been humiliated, and its inclination or ability to play a significant international role would simply have collapsed. America would have lost out severely from that. The Thatcher government would probably have fallen, the program of economic reforms would have failed, and British opinion would have turned sharply against the United States. The world today would look different in two very obvious ways.

  • Although the Soviet Empire would probably have imploded anyway, the international economic revolution which has swept the world since and which was inspired by “Thatcherism” would have been stillborn.
  • As for Britain, the country would now almost certainly be locked into a European megastate hostile to the U.S.

This reflection shows how wrong were the critics of Mrs. Thatcher in Washington who argued for U.S. neutrality on the (real enough) grounds that American interests in South America would otherwise be damaged. The question, as Macmillan stressed to Kennedy though Thatcher never needed to spell out to Reagan, was simply whether the Special Relationship was going to continue or not. It was, therefore, not only the benevolence of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, but also shared national interests which lay behind the U.S. decision to provide vital intelligence and material assistance in the conflict.

The reasoning behind Britain’s support for the Libyan raid was similar. Just as the Reagan Administration had doubts about the Falklands campaign, so the Thatcher government was initially unconvinced of the merits of the Libyan plan. Mrs. Thatcher also knew that it would exact a high political cost at a time when her domestic standing was already weakened. Just as no other British Prime Minister would probably have set out to retake the Falklands, so great were the risks, so none other than Margaret Thatcher would probably have given permission for the use of British bases for the attack on Libya. Yet because the gamble paid off—she restored her political fortunes despite the adverse public reaction—Britain would henceforth wield unequalled influence in Washington and, more important still in the world’s greatest democracy, enjoy the grateful affection of the American people.

If one stands back further from the crises of the period, it is easier to see that underlying the successes achieved was the same combination of personal good will between like-minded leaders, the practical realities of national interest, and the ever-present danger posed by the armed might and ideology of the Soviet Union. In the single greatest service that the Reagan Administration did for Britain, all three elements were very obviously in play. That service was not, in the end, the support which the U.S. gave for the Falklands campaign: It was the decision to supply on such favorable terms the Trident II (D4) missile. This made perfect strategic sense, given the shared views of the U.S. and the U.K. and the threat posed to both by the Soviets, but it was Reagan personally who ensured that agreement was reached so painlessly and so swiftly.

Similarly, the greatest service that the Thatcher government did for America was not in supporting the Libyan raid: It was by locking Britain unconditionally into a joint strategy with the U.S. of, first, confrontation and then graduated engagement with the USSR. That decision, it is no exaggeration to say, ensured that the long-standing Soviet hopes of splitting the West came to nothing.

Of course, other leaders, such as French President François Mitterrand and German Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, played a role as well, but Britain’s international contribution was unique. Margaret Thatcher revived Britain’s economy, strengthened Britain’s defense, restored Britain’s prestige, and placed these achievements wholeheartedly at the disposal of the leader of the free world, Ronald Reagan, in a strategy which in a few short years won the Cold War. That is, ultimately, the measure of the Special Relationship’s success during the 1980s.


[1] By contrast, similarities of values, in particular conservative values, rather than party political allegiance may well—as I shall argue—be an important underpinning of the Special Relationship.

[2] See the account by Henry Kissinger, Years of Renewal (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999), pp. 599–603.

[3] Bush’s and Major’s lack of resolve allowed Saddam to survive and cause another war, just as their much-lauded pragmatism induced both to pledge low taxes and then raise them. They also pursued a disastrous policy in the Balkans which worked to the advantage of the aggressor, Serbia. And, of course, they both then lost elections. Personal sympathy between leaders is thus no substitute for getting agreed policies right.

[4] Attlee received an oral assurance that there would be no use of the atomic weapon in Korea without prior consultation with Britain, but Truman would not give a written one. David McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), pp. 825–826.

[5] John Baylis, Anglo–American Defence Relations 1939–1984: The Special Relationship (London: Macmillan, 1984), pp. 29–136; Alistair Horne, “The Macmillan Years and Afterwards,” in The “Special Relationship”: Anglo–American Relations Since 1945, ed. W. Roger Louis and Hedley Bull (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), pp. 87–102; C. J. Bartlett, “The Special Relationship”: A Political History of Anglo–American Relations Since 1945 (London: Longman, 1992), pp. 20–100.

[6] Acheson’s remarks of December 5, 1962, as the Skybolt crisis was breaking could hardly have come at a worse time for Macmillan. The Prime Minister was extremely annoyed. He confided to this diary: “[Acheson] was always a conceited ass, but I don’t really think he meant to be offensive,” Alistair Horne, Macmillan 1957–1986 [Volume II of the Official Biography] (London: Macmillan, 1989), p. 429.

[7]For De Gaulle’s view, see Jean Lacouture, De Gaulle, Vol. III: Le Souverain (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1986). The general had, in fact, decided on his veto of Britain’s application to join the European Common Market before the U.S.–U.K. deal reached on the Polaris at Nassau.

[8] See Richard E. Neustadt, Report for JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992).

[9] For a useful general account of the Reagan–Thatcher relationship, see Geoffrey Smith, Reagan and Thatcher (London: The Bodley Head, 1990).


Robin Harris