This article was adapted from a presentation given at a conference called “Grand Strategy and the Anglo-American World View: A Century of the Special Relationship.” The conference was jointly sponsored by King’s College London and the University of Texas at Austin and held at King’s College London on November 13–15, 2014.In the history of the Anglo-American relationship after 1945, perhaps no phrase has commanded greater attention or had more longevity than the one Dean Acheson coined in his speech at West Point on December 5, 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.”1 Such was the anguish felt in the UK that three days later, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, requested an official response from the United States government. President John F. Kennedy telephoned Macmillan to smooth matters over, but, given the indignation expressed in the British press and in Parliament, British resentment persisted. The State Department issued a placatory statement while Kennedy himself made no formal apology. He did, nevertheless, offer a powerful symbol of specialness to Macmillan 14 days later. At the Nassau conference, counter to his own grand design for non-proliferation of nuclear weapons among European allies, the President decided to provide Britain with the Polaris missile system and thus established the nuclear cooperation would be central to Anglo-American relations ever after. That historic agreement rather outweighed the British indignation caused by Acheson’s statement, although it did not, of course, prove that statement wrong.Though Acheson’s was the most famous public criticism of Britain and its attachment to a special relationship with the United States, it is not a singular example in the history of U.S.-UK ties. Nor was the judgement that he made only his. Ever since it was forged in war, the special relationship has had its critics on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention beyond. Yet in the telling of its history by academic or non-academic commentators, the prevailing interest has been to define what has or has not been special about Anglo-American relations. It has also been to determine whether individuals, interests, and events have indeed created a Churchillian “hands-across-the-sea” natural bond or a more functionalist expression of shared interests and objectives best understood as a fundamentally strategic alliance, if an unusually close one, and nothing more. Despite the fact that the prevailing judgement has been dismissive—either that the special relationship was a Churchillian construction and a myth, or that it only existed in discrete, specialist areas (intelligence and nuclear)—the moments of overt criticism by those who held the levers of the special relationship have received little specific attention. However, analysing trends of criticism is essential to our understanding of the history of the Anglo-American relationship.There are many ways that we could define criticism in the history of Anglo-American relations. We could take prominent, symbolic moments, beginning with the creation of the relationship and those who held reservations about it. In the United States, we would analyse the dominant theme of anti-imperialism, as signified, for example, by the reluctance of U.S. soldiers to fight for Britain’s Empire in Southeast Asia; they of course renamed Lord Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command “Save England’s Asian Colonies.” We could move forward to British criticism of American imperialism and to the Labour Party MPs who in December 1964 criticized Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s support for the American war in Vietnam on the basis that the Anglo-American relationship should not “imply the complete and abject sacrifice of our right to independent action and opinion.” We might also examine why Jeane Kirkpatrick departed from the Reagan Administration’s tactics on the Falklands War in 1982 and clashed with Alexander Haig’s pro-British line, and what her interest in U.S.-South American relations meant for the overall development of America’s priorities. Or we could consider how John Major’s government and the British parliament responded to Bill Clinton’s decision to grant the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, a visa to enter the U.S. in 1994.Even a quick survey such as this indicates that moments of public criticism of Anglo-American relations emerged from a more general atmosphere of skepticism on both sides of the Atlantic both during World War II and after. If we were to measure it as scientifically as historians can—with examples drawn from the two nations’ individual leaders, agencies, governments, legislatures, news sources and interest groups over time—we might elucidate why the prevailing historiographical theme has been to describe a declining relationship between asymmetrical nations whose shared foundational memories died as the generation in power during War World II made way for its successors. In particular, two senior and significant critics of the relationship during the 1960s, Dean Acheson and George Ball, are useful case studies.Historical research over the past decade or more has suggested that while the importance of the special relationship was reduced during the trials of the 1960s, closeness and cooperation between the UK and U.S. persisted. Nonetheless, there was a definite transition. Britain’s declining economic power and decision not to send troops to Vietnam as America lost the free world’s regard for it moral leadership were fundamental shifts. The concurrent debate in the UK, Europe and the U.S. about Britain’s future global role now that Macmillan’s wind of change was blowing hard through the British Empire also reshaped the relationship.It was this debate that Dean Acheson was addressing at West Point in December 1962. Less than two months after the world’s greatest Cold War crisis, during which the Kennedy Administration called on Britain for its support in gathering international opinion behind the U.S., one of the most seasoned and respected American statesmen, and an Anglophile at that, broke a key rule of alliance politics by publicly criticizing America’s partner. As Kennedy’s advisor on NATO affairs, Acheson decided to speak to the U.S. Army cadets about the Administration’s strategic priority—the Atlantic community. He did not expect his statement about Britain’s part in this community to be controversial. What he said, infamously, was this:
Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role—that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength and enjoys a fragile and precarious economic relationship by means of the sterling area and preferences in the British market—this role is about played out.2
The truth is that Acheson did not say anything that the British had not said themselves. In a still valuable account of the fall-out from Acheson’s speech, Douglas Brinkley argues that the former secretary of state “caused such consternation in Britain simply because he had said aloud the unsayable: that Britain’s illusions of grandeur were just that—illusions. The United States would no longer tolerate Britain’s imperial pretensions, and London would have to realize that in American eyes Britain was simply another European nation.”3Brinkley’s judgement remains valid. Acheson gave voice to doubts that had been growing within the U.S. government throughout the 1950s about the inability of the British to adjust to the postwar reality and move from a global, imperial role to a more minor role as a member of the nascent European Community and leading NATO power. His criticism is more substantial, however, and more important to historians of Anglo-American relations if seen in the wider context. A seminal book by George Ball, published six years after Acheson’s speech, offers a window onto it.As Under Secretary of State in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Ball was Mr. Europe, having had an influential career both in foreign service and as a lawyer. It was his collaboration and friendship with the French bureaucrat Jean Monnet toward the end of the war and throughout the 1940s and 1950s that convinced him that European unity was the only viable solution to the continent’s recent past in the new context of the Cold War. Sharing Acheson’s view of Britain’s future as part of that union, he lobbied Kennedy and Johnson to urge British governments to apply for membership in the European Economic Community (formed in 1957), and thus to refashion the Anglo-American relationship and enhance U.S.-European ties.In 1968, after trying to convince the President that the United States could not win the Vietnam War, Ball resigned from office. In that same year, he published The Discipline of Power: Essentials of a Modern World Structure. This book’s aim was to distill Ball’s 35 years of thinking, both in and out of government, about “how free men can organize their power in a rational way” into one cogent argument.4 Ball’s book did not have the same volcanic effect as Acheson’s speech, but it presented to the public an influential if largely tacit viewpoint in Washington about the future of the Anglo-American relationship.The “special problem” that Ball diagnosed was that “Englishmen reared on the heady heritage of exotic empire” found it difficult to conceive of Britain’s future as a European and not a world power, even though, he claimed, most of them realized their fate. One of the factors that held Britain back, in Ball’s strident view, was the special relationship and its disadvantages. This was a message to Britain but also to the United States. A confirmed believer in Atlantic community and European unity, Ball acknowledged that there was “some foundation in fact behind General de Gaulle’s use of the generic term ‘les Anglo-Saxons’”, but argued that the special relationship was in truth “little more than a generation old” and ought already to be laid to rest.5Ball’s analysis admitted a key fact about Britain’s recent past and America’s exploitation of it. The special relationship was actually a barrier to the interests of both nations: “By indulging British weakness we have all too often encouraged the United Kingdom to act in a manner that was not in its own larger interest nor in the West’s. At the same time we have sometimes demanded that, in support of our policies, Britain take actions she could clearly not afford.”6 America’s greatest mistake—or more specifically Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s—was to underpin the special relationship with nuclear ballast. Like Acheson before him, Ball believed that the United States had only enhanced Britain’s illusions of grandeur by reinforcing the wrong relationship; it should rather have eased Britain from its past into its future by denying the country American nuclear largesse and instead forcing it, indirectly, to concentrate on its rebirth in the EEC. Once a member state, Britain could, as a leading liberal economic nation, counteract the illiberalism of French protectionist economic policy while also adding an Atlanticist bearing to the Community as a whole.Ball’s case was mainly about Europe, and how the EEC might stand as one pillar of the Atlantic community and the U.S. as the other. It was a pointed critique and dismissal of the special relationship, tinged with an altruistic, almost paternal, prescription for Britain to get past its past. Moreover, it was a characteristically American argument for federalism and cooperation between the world’s most successful federal nation and its newest federal alliance. Britain, in Ball’s plan, would be best placed to serve its own, and American, interests as a member of that European order. This was a blueprint that many supported, but it was essentially about maneuvering Britain from one out-dated special relationship into a new U.S.-European special relationship, depriving it of its status as America’s premier ally in the process.What can two criticisms of the special relationship made about half a century ago tell us? It is certainly true that Acheson and Ball’s views were representative of a moment. These two American statesmen were prominent proponents of the argument of a distinct group within the Department of State in the later 1950s and 1960s known as the Europeanists.7 Their critical view of the special relationship was based on a paradoxically both starry-eyed and hard-headed belief that the better horse for American money to back was not the special relationship but the European Community, given its politics (federalism) and economic promise (a 300-million strong market)—as long as French protectionism could be tempered. Neither Acheson nor Ball spoke out of turn with the predominant policy of the U.S. governments of that time or since—the Obama Administration has restated the importance that the United States places on Britain’s EU membership.Yet British governments did not of course entirely share the plan that Acheson and Ball laid out for them. They recognized the need to secure European Community membership for both economic and political reasons but no government in London wished to see the devaluation of the special relationship or to choose between America and Europe. As such, we could say that the criticisms of the special relationship described above amount to nothing more than a specific episode in the history of Anglo-American relations. Studying the critics of the special relationship does not give us a definitive answer about the state of its health or future.What it does tell us is something about the variety of interests in successive American administrations over time, even as British governments remained consistently reluctant to lose their country’s historic links with the U.S. Acheson and Ball’s arguments did not go away—they were held by Henry Kissinger in the late 1960s and 1970s and later by Philip H. Gordon during the past decade—but they have not had complete purchase. We can conclude that the relationship has long survived significant criticism, which might make us think again about the predominant historiographical judgement about a relationship in terminal decline.
1Quoted in John Baylis, Anglo-American Relations since 1939: the enduring alliance (Manchester University Press, 1997), p.129.2Baylis, Anglo-American Relations, p.129.3Douglas Brinkley, “Dean Acheson and the ‘Special Relationship’: the West Point Speech of December 1962”, Historical Journal (September 1990), pp. 599-608.4George W. Ball, The Discipline of Power: Essentials of a Modern World Structure (The Bodley Head, 1968), p. 3.5Ball, Discipline, p. 91.6Ball, Discipline, p. 93.7See, in general, Kenneth Weisbrode, The Atlantic Century (Da Capo Press, 2009).