You would think from all the talk coming out of the Romney camp about Britain and America’s “special relationship” based on a common Anglo-Saxon heritage that the U.S. and Britain had never been at odds. The BBC reported in 2011 that “the truth about UK-US relations is that while there remains a unique and special character to the bond, it is not the ‘special relationship’ it used to be.”
Steve Clemons of the BBC wrote last year:
Many areas remain in which the US and UK will be shoulder-to-shoulder hammering out problems – climate change, global financial stabilisation, and many national security and human rights arenas, Libya, for example.
But the British and the Americans are an increasingly anachronistic pairing: The recent article on Nato’s intervention in Libya by Mr Obama, Mr Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy read like the last hurrah of the West engaged together for one last time on one last mission.
In the future, those national statements of purpose will need to include leaders of India, China, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, among others.
The world is changing. Perhaps Romney and his advisors didn’t get the memo when they blurted out “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special. The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.” Obama is, after all, that Kenyan anti-colonialist.” The subtext is clear: Obama is not one of us.
But then, the outdated and parochial attitudes of Republican politicians don’t allow for much beyond our borders, save for Israel. Their great fear from abroad is a contaminant known as globalization. Republicans don’t want to really bring other nations closer; they want to keep them at arm’s length. Britain, for a Republican, is the best of a necessarily bad lot.
In actuality, we could say that U.S.-British relations have never quite been what people thought: the two countries have a long history of mutual distrust and animosity, as recent as the decades leading up to the Second World War. The truth is, until Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan began pounding their war drums, many American planners weren’t certain Britain wouldn’t be their most likely enemy in case of war. Some British planners were just as distrustful of the Yanks.
All that distrust, of course, was quickly lost when we joined forces to defeat the Axis powers, but we shouldn’t pretend it never happened. In fact, it is important that we do remember it. As so often happens, Republicans are appealing to a past that is as much fantasy as reality. Certainly idealists like Thomas Jefferson saw a great deal of good coming out of that common Anglo-Saxon heritage (Christianity not being one of them – Jefferson was thinking about English Common Law), but we did fight a vicious revolution, followed by a Round 2 a few decades later (the War of 1812) and we did not always pay much attention thereafter to that common heritage, as when we squabbled over the Canadian border or over Southern commerce raiders outfitted in English ports during the Civil War.
GlobalSecurity.org tells us that “The last significant foreign-policy dispute between the United States and Britain occurred in 1895 over an American demand that Britain submit to international arbitration its dispute with Venezuela about the western boundary of British Guiana, near which gold had been discovered. Because neither the United States nor Britain wanted trouble, the dispute was resolved amicably.” We were pugnacious and arrogant junior imperialists and the British were imperialists of long-standing, and none too thrilled with the idea of competition.
In the wake of the First World War, Britain found itself greatly weakened. Though it still possessed many ships, it recognized that the heart of its Navy, the battleship, had been rendered obsolete by aircraft and submarines. Sir John “Jackie” Fisher, who had been first sea lord before the war, believed (correctly as it turned out) that the “the present naval side of the air force” was the “future navy” as he wrote in a letter to the Times. The admiralty, meanwhile, recognizing that the United States Navy, backed by a government determined to “build a navy second to none” in the words of historian Lisle Rose (Power at Sea, Vol. 2, 2007), was uneasy. They worried that navy might be used against Great Britain.
Interestingly, Washington was as worried about Britain as Britain about Washington. There was concern in planning circles that, absurd as it seems in retrospect, ”an alliance between Great Britain and Japan controlling a total of sixty-seven capital ships” would create an “intolerable situation” in which the U.S. found itself outnumbered three-to-one.
What is forgotten today is that at the time, Britain and Japan were allied; they had fought on the same side against Germany and by 1918 Japan was seen as a bulwark against Bolshevism; it was an alliance which lasted from 1902’s Anglo-Japanese Alliance (renewed in 1905 and renegotiated in 1911) until the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 between those with interests in the Pacific region (to which Japan, but not Soviet Russia, was invited). That was America’s reality in the early interwar years.
The interesting thing about history is that it creates in the generation that lives through or follows great events a sense of inevitability about what happened. We can no longer conceive of the possibility of fighting Britain – Germany and Japan were the enemy, after all. But that was not true in the 20s and 30s before Hitler took power and Japan invaded China. In those days, some in both Britain and America worried that the other, through its naval building programs, intended to elbow the other out of the way. The American chief of naval operations, William Benson, warned President Wilson “that in practically all questions that have come up Great Britain has been able to maintain her position and carry through her claims largely through the dominant influence exercised in consequence of her tremendous naval superiority” which he believed had to be ”whittled down.”
Lisle Rose points to another area of contention between the two Anglo-Saxon powers – oil. Ships no longer ran on coal as they had at the turn of the century, but on oil and in 1919 “aggressive American business interests appeared in the Middle East, actively seeking oil concessions in an area long considered a British preserve” – an event that naturally enough alarmed the British. Britain tried to block these activities which in turn “created widespread alarm in Washington.” The Navy’s General Board said that “Britain had gone to war on every occasion in which it perceived its interests to be threatened by its former colonies.” One historian, Charles M. Melhorn believes that there was “a genuine possibility of a naval war in the Atlantic that year.” Rose believes this is “highly speculative.”
But even Rose admits that tensions were such that “there was some desultory talk within British naval circles during the early twenties of war with the United States, until the cabinet put an end to it.” On the other side of the Atlantic, American naval planners responded with plans for war against Great Britain, plans which only came to light in 1974, causing some dismay.
War Plan Red, according to Wikipedia, was “developed by the United States Army following the 1927 Geneva Naval Conference and approved in May 1930 by the Secretary of War and the Secretary of Navy and updated in 1934-35. In 1939 a decision was taken that no further planning was required but that the plan be retained.” Lisle says the plan called for an invasion of Canada and a blockade of the British Isles but says it was not serious but that “it did reflect lingering tensions between London and Washington, if not the peoples they led”; he calls this “desultory” planning as well. Plan Red-Orange saw us going to war against the combined might of Britain and Japan (remember that alliance?).
Even so, Britain was alarmed by the US naval construction program of the ’30s. Lisle tells us that “British foreign secretary John Simon was reported to be ‘much displeased’ with the American decision to achieve practical equality with Royal Navy.” War plans might be desultory or not, but the tension was very real, and Britain was clearly not happy about ceding superiority at sea to the upstart United States.
There will always be those currents which bring nations together or push them apart. Yes, America and Britain share a common Anglo-Saxon heritage, a heritage alluded to from both sides of the Atlantic, two nations, as George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have said, “divided by a common language.”
Nowadays, as before, we have as many things that divide as bring us together. British attitudes are not in line with the Republican-Fundamentalist worldview. Romney may well be thinking, “hey, we’re all White Christians here” but even European nationalists who bring up Christianity don’t seem to be quite the same type of Christian as our fundamentalists and they don’t run the British government anyway. They’re as extremist fringe in Britain as they ought to be here. It’s time Romney wake up, and realize, as the BBC said, that the world has grown up to extend beyond the U.S. and Great Britain.