“The one duty we owe to history,” Oscar Wilde said, “is to rewrite it.” Historians are a dutiful lot. Their writings invariably revise what previous historians have written. The historical craft involves, in the words of Pieter Geyl, a 20th century Dutch practitioner of it, an “argument without end.” Successive generations of historians have sometimes uncovered new facts about the past, but even in the absence of new information have always offered interpretations of it different from those their predecessors had proposed.
The history of the Anglo-American relationship in the middle of the last century, a critical period for both countries, fits this pattern. It has given rise to a widely known retrospective narrative. During World War II, the narrative goes, the two came together in a strong partnership based on common interests and common values to thwart the fascist bids to subdue Europe and Asia. After the war the British, exhausted and nearly bankrupted by their heroic wartime exertions, ceded the global leadership they had maintained since the beginning of the 19th century to their now far more powerful American cousins.
This standard account is true, but it is not the whole truth. Historians have long since revised the first part, noting that the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom disagreed sharply during wartime about a number of major issues: the British empire, which Prime Minister Winston Churchill fervently championed and President Franklin Roosevelt believed should be disbanded; the question of where and when an Anglo-American army should return to the European continent; and the shape of the postwar international monetary order, about which the two differed at the 1944 conference at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire that designed it.
The engaging and provocative book Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945-1957, by Derek Leebaert, the author of several well-received studies of American foreign policy, modifies the picture of the postwar relationship. The United States and Great Britain did, ultimately, in effect trade places, with America becoming the political, economic, and military leader of the Western world and Great Britain assuming a distinctly secondary role. As Leebaert tells the story, however, this did not take place in the immediate wake of the war. Nor, when the war ended, did the leaders of either country envision it taking place or wish it to occur.
In 1945 Britain remained a formidable military power and the world leader in a number of important industries. True, it soon gave up its major imperial possession, British India, but London created an association of former colonies called the British Commonwealth, which, it believed, could serve as an instrument of British power in the postcolonial era. The British government also believed, and not without reason, that its long experience at the summit of international politics and its expertise in the politics and economics of many far-flung countries counted as major assets on the postwar international stage.
As for the Americans, while their international responsibilities increased after the war, especially in Europe, they were not eager for new burdens. They worried particularly about the costs of an expansive foreign policy and the impact on the nation’s economy of raising taxes to pay them: This was an era, unlike our own, in which governments and citizens alike considered deficits economically dangerous. The United States counted on the deployment of British military power and diplomatic skill around the world, especially in the Middle East, South Asia, parts of Southeast Asia, and Africa. As late as 1954 Vice President Richard Nixon referred to his country as “a global leader”—but not as the global leader.
Leebaert designates the Suez affair of 1956, more than a decade after the end of World War II, as the moment when the American rise and British decline became both unmistakable and irreversible. Furious at the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, the British, along with the French, dispatched an expeditionary force to retake it. The Eisenhower administration objected, withheld its support, and the British had to back down. The long era in which Britain was as great as any other power, and sometimes greater than all of them, had ended.
One of the many strengths of Grand Improvisation is the author’s vivid depiction of the major policymakers of the time, and here, too, the book has a revisionist slant. Leebaert portrays Winston Churchill, for example, not as a romantic relic of the Edwardian era in which he was born but rather as a creative figure with a lively curiosity, an entrepreneurial bent, and a fascination with new technology who would be at home in Silicon Valley today.
He revives the reputations of once-important but now forgotten officials. He describes John Wesley Snyder, an Arkansas banker and friend of Harry Truman’s from their service together in World War I whom the president appointed secretary of the Treasury, as “the department’s first modern secretary—revamping an institution that had far more in common with the Treasury of Albert Gallatin in 1801 than the one we know today.” He considers Snyder to be every bit as consequential in the first postwar American administration as his far better known counterpart at the State Department, Dean Acheson.
The author also gives major credit for the management of Anglo-American relations, and for the successful Western initiatives at the outset of the Cold War, to Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary in the Labor government that took power in Britain in 1945. A former truck driver and trade union official who had served in Churchill’s wartime cabinet, depicted in the book as “visibly a bruiser with a bull neck and a loud voice,” Bevin does remain an important historical figure in Britain. On the other side of the Atlantic, he was once “so familiar that reports of his death (in 1951) appeared throughout the United States,” but today few Americans under the age of 60 have even heard of him.
Leebaert offers revisionist interpretations of events as well as personalities. By 1954, for example, the United States was paying a large share of the costs of France’s war to hold its colony Vietnam against communist forces under the direction of Ho Chi Minh. With French military defeat imminent, pressure mounted on the Eisenhower administration to send American troops to prevent this. By the standard account the president cleverly avoided doing so by making British participation in the rescue effort, which he knew would not be forthcoming, a condition for dispatching American troops.
Instead, as Leebaert tells the story, the administration was willing to fight in Indochina and disappointed that the British declined to do so and that American Congressional leaders were skeptical. “If [British prime minister] Churchill and [foreign secretary] Eden had offered even one battalion—and if [senate majority leader] Lyndon Johnson hadn’t stood in the way,” he writes, “U.S. marines would by then [the summer of 1954] be arriving in Vietnam.”
In the years that the book covers the Western democracies, led by the United States and Great Britain, constructed a remarkably successful international order. They established a monetary and trade regime, forged a military alliance–the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)–and began the process of European economic integration that produced today’s 28-country European Union. These initiatives brought the West a generation of peace and prosperity and made possible its ultimate triumph in the Cold War. Leebaert’s detailed account of these years shows that for much of the time the American and British governments were not implementing a well-thought out design. They were rather responding, as best they could, often in an ad hoc way, to specific challenges that cropped up. They were improvising; but the results were, and are, sufficiently impressive to make what they did appear, in retrospect, a grand improvisation.