The United States and Britain Didn’t Always Enjoy Today’s ‘Special Relationship’

Published on February 7, 2018

by Jack Billington
Clash Daily Guest Contributor

Life after Brexit.

In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson had urged Americans to be neutral in thought as well as deed. It was a directive that few Americans heeded, including Wilson himself, as tales of German atrocities, some of them true, outraged public opinion, especially on the East and West Coasts. Only a month after the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, Wilson was in London being greeted enthusiastically by the British people and feted by King George V and Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who would shortly win reelection as the Liberal Party candidate by promising to hang the Kaiser and make the Huns pay the full cost of the war.

It was not quite the kind of peace that Wilson intended, but the idealistic, often self-righteous, and stubborn former college president was willing to compromise some of his principles to get a League of Nations accepted by the other victorious great powers. To allay British and French security concerns, as the price for a softer peace settlement, Wilson even agreed to a U.S. mutual assistance defense treaty with Britain and France. Such a treaty, if the U.S. Senate had confirmed it, might have prevented World War II.

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When the Senate Republican majority, led by Massachusetts Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge, rejected the Treaty of Versailles and U.S. membership in the League of Nations in March 1920, the Anglo-Franco-American mutual assistance treaty lost along with it as America tried to return to its prewar isolationism. There was no special relationship with Great Britain, and bilateral relations returned for a time to what they had been in the 19th century, when they were more adversarial than cordial.

From the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, to the end of the century, the United States and Britain came perilously close to war on six occasions, the last in 1895 over the boundary between Venezuela and British Guyana. Britain’s alliance with Japan, forged in 1902, was of particular concern to U.S. strategists during the early postwar years. U.S. War Department planners prepared for a worst-case scenario, a two-ocean war against the British Empire that they designated “War Plan Red.” The final update of War Plan Red was written in 1930, which called for a multipronged invasion of Canada and a Jutland-style battleship engagement between the Atlantic Fleet and the Royal Navy. Britain and Canada made their own plans for such a potential Anglo-American war.

All that faded away as the 1920s came to an end and the rivalry of the Atlantic great powers was defused by the 1922 Washington Naval Disarmament Conference, which established parity in battleship tonnage between the British and American navies, and subsequent naval treaties in London dealing with cruisers and submarines. American attitudes toward Britain were changing as well, heavily influenced by Hollywood’s depiction of stalwart, usually noble British characters and a virtuous and civilizing British Empire. Such films as Clive of India (1935), Gunga Din (1939), The Four Feathers (1939), Another Dawn (1937), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Stanley and Livingstone (1939), and The Dawn Patrol (1939) portrayed Englishmen as noble soldiers, explorers, and imperialists doing their patriotic duty in making certain the sun never set on the Union Jack.

A large expatriate community of English and Commonwealth actors in Hollywood included Errol Flynn, David Niven, Cary Grant, Leslie Howard, C. Aubrey Smith, Ralph Richardson, Ronald Colman, Victor McLaglen, and Charles Coburn, among many others who reinforced this image of the courageous, self-sacrificing, loyal servant of the king on whom you could always count when the bullets were flying. It was the most effective propaganda in the world and better than any amount of money could buy . . . all for the price of a 10-cent movie ticket in Depression-era America.

What later came to be called “the special relationship” had its origin during the late 1930s in the private correspondence between U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, then living as a writer during his decade-long “years in the wilderness”, in which the two warned the world of the gathering storm clouds in Europe. This private correspondence between Roosevelt and backbencher member of the British Parliament, whom no one took seriously, established the special relationship on a personal level before the two men met for the first time, each man addressing the other in their letters as “former naval person.” Roosevelt had served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Josephus Daniels during World War I and Churchill had served as First Lord of the Admiralty in the cabinet of Herbert Asquith. Both men assumed a proprietary interest in their respective naval services and traveled by warship whenever possible. Churchill, who never served in the Royal Navy, often shamelessly wore a naval uniform.

Jack Billington is a former officer. As an officer, he studied military history, and after service, history is still interesting for him. He devotes his free time to conducting shooting courses with firearms. Also, he writes a BLOG about home & self-defense training tips. Check it out at:

Image: Excerpted from: CC0 by Creative Commons;


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