From Churchill and Roosevelt to May and Trump: 75 years of the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK

The long-standing ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK may seem at risk – but it has endured many shaky periods over the past 75 years says Kathleen Burk, in this article first published in the summer of 2018

Illustration by Kate Hazell for BBC History Magazine.

This is undeniably an awkward period for Anglo-American relations. Whether one looks at discussions between the leaders, probable future trade negotiations, Nato, White House tweets or British public opinion, the relationship has not been this cool for some years. President Donald Trump appears to prefer authoritarian leaders – men who appear strong, who can walk confidently and authoritatively across their own countries and into others – to ‘weak’ liberal democracies. In his mind the Germans and most other European states don’t fulfil financial obligations to Nato, Canada’s leader Justin Trudeau is “dishonest and weak”, the Mexicans are sending rapists across the border, the British are at the mercy of terrorists – the list could go on. But this matters most to the UK, which for a century has seen itself as America’s closest – almost indispensable – ally: it has the furthest to fall. The question is: has this happened before? And, given the precedents, is there any chance of a recovery to the former position?

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The relationship between the prime minister and president is what the public notices the most. It might be a surprise to learn that the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship began to break down in 1943. Roosevelt perceived the USSR as, like the US, a socially reforming nation; conversely, he saw the UK as the controller of a huge empire, antipathetic to American values. He also looked at the USSR as a rising power and at the UK as a declining one. He therefore decided that the US and the USSR should work together after the war, and that the UK should be left out of the equation.

But how to convince Stalin of this profound change of mind and policy?

At the Teheran Conference between the three in 1943, Roosevelt set out to humiliate Churchill repeatedly in front of Stalin, causing Churchill to stalk out of the room during one dinner. This change in the US-Soviet relationship did not ultimately happen, but that was not because Roosevelt had changed his mind – it was because he died. President Harry Truman had a much less rosy view of the USSR than had his predecessor, as did his most important advisors. With the rise of the USSR as a hostile power, the change in perception and policy seemed permanent.

As a consequence, the UK assumed its place as the US’s closest ally. It was even referred to as such in a US State Department policy paper in 1950, just before the outbreak of the Korean War: “No other country has the same qualifications for being our principal ally and partner as the UK… Most important, the British share our fundamental objectives and standards of conduct… To achieve our foreign policy objectives we must have the cooperation of our allies and friends. The British and with them the rest of the Commonwealth… are our most reliable and useful allies, with whom a special relationship should exist.” This is followed by a warning sentence: “The relationship is not an end in itself but must be used as an instrument of achieving common objectives.” But the succeeding sentence might have provided some reassurance to the British, saying that “We cannot permit a deterioration in our relationship with the British.”

Nevertheless, when the nations’ objectives were diametrically opposed during the Suez Crisis in 1956, many in the US government lost faith in the UK and the link was temporarily broken.

Yet though the relations between the leaders were crucial, the power of senior members of the administration and the associated bureaucracy were also of great importance. This was evident again in the early 1970s, when Edward Heath was UK prime minister and Richard Nixon US president. Nixon had distrusted Heath’s predecessor, Harold Wilson, and was prepared to welcome Heath with open arms as a fellow conservative when he won the general election in 1970. It was not to work out. Nixon wanted to repair the special relationship, which Heath persisted in calling the natural relationship. Heath also wanted to make it clear to the Americans that the UK’s future lay with Europe, not with the US.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the British refused to let American planes stationed in the UK be used to re-supply the Israelis, and refused to allow US planes stationed elsewhere to refuel at Cyprus. The Americans were outraged: did not the allies understand that at stake was preventing the Soviets from establishing a central position in the Middle East? After President Sadat of Egypt called for Soviet and American troops to separate the two sides, the USSR invited joint US-USSR military intervention to shore up the ceasefire and appeared to threaten the unilateral despatch of Soviet troops if the US declined. The US viewed this as an ultimatum and, in the early hours of 25 October, moved military forces worldwide to DefCon 3, the alert preliminary to war. The UK received one hour’s advance notice of this, at 1.15am; the other Nato allies received none. There were other conflicts, and by the end of their respective terms Nixon and Heath detested each other, barely able to be in the same room. On the other hand, Henry Kissinger and the US State
Department certainly continued to work with the British Foreign Office.

This disenchantment continued during the 1970s, not because of personal animus but because the UK was increasingly of less use to the US, largely because it appeared to the Americans to be falling apart both politically and economically. Yet the Americans were worried because the two had important military links, through the nuclear and intelligence relationship and through Nato.

The election of Thatcher in 1979 and Reagan the following year was very important to the resumption of the relationship, partly for the same reason that Nixon initially welcomed Heath – they were two conservatives – but in this instance they liked each other and largely shared political philosophies. Under Thatcher and Reagan, a close relationship flourished, which was crucial for the UK during the Falklands War in 1982 when military supplies from the US were vital. The UK’s performance during the war convinced the Americans that the British could once again be vital military allies – a situation that has continued, though with lessening importance given the sharp decline in British military strength.

Nevertheless, the UK’s close relationship with the US was replicated during the leaderships of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, George W Bush and Blair, and Barack Obama and David Cameron. When Clinton was leaving office, he warned Blair that he should not distance himself from the new president and his administration in spite of their differences in politics and policies, but that Blair should “hug them close”. This Blair clearly did. There was a hiatus during the leadership overlap of Brown and Obama, whose policies and personalities apparently did not mesh, but the expectations of both the British and Americans were high when it was thought that Hilary Clinton would be elected president.

When the British government learned they would need to deal with Trump, they did what British politicians and officials tend to do: picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, and set out to preserve the relationship they considered vital to their security.

President Trump appears not to view the United Kingdom as anything special, in spite of the intelligence and nuclear links. From his public activities and comments, and his ignoring of British interests and sensibilities, it could be assumed that he has lumped the British into the European pot. He respects strength, power and authority in a leader of a strong country. Neither Theresa May nor the UK fit his template.

Can the relationship be saved? It is important to remember that leaders come and go but bureaucracies remain, and are settled into habits of working with each other. Foreign and some economic interests are shared. The US and UK are each other’s most important investors and trading partners. Also, public opinion can change. British public opinion swung from approval of Obama to acute dislike of Trump; it could change again. American public opinion is less volatile, primarily because most Americans are uninterested in the UK (except for the royals), or indeed in many other countries save, perhaps, their two neighbours. Fundamental interests are slow to change, and the pendulum will swing back.

Nevertheless, the world will have changed. In his first 500 days as president, Trump has – in my view – managed to destroy any trust other countries had in the veracity of the president’s word and the stability of American solidarity with her allies. The United Kingdom is apprehensive because it has few alternatives but to try to maintain the ‘special relationship’.

Yet the United States will also suffer, because the president will ineluctably find that, when faced by his favourite type of authoritarian leaders, being Kipling’s “cat that walked by himself” can be a dangerous position.

Kathleen Burk is a historian and writer. Her new book is The Lion and the Eagle: The Interaction of the British and American Empires, 1783–1972 (Bloomsbury, 2018).

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This article was first published in the August/September 2018 issue of BBC World Histories Magazine