"We cling to a phrase with undertones of Churchillian nostalgia" ©Wikimedia Commons

The way we were: The special relationship

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
February 16, 2017
The war of 1812 between the United States and Britain in fact lasted until 1815. In 1814, after watching the British bombard Baltimore (following the burning of the White House), Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Its third verse is often now omitted:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,/That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion/A home and a country should leave us no more?/Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution. /No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.

“Hireling” refers to German mercenaries and “slave” to 6,000 freed slaves formed into the Corps of Colonial Marines to fight their former masters. With peace, the US demanded the return of its “property.” Britain refused and most slaves settled in Canada. After arbitration by the Tsar of Russia $1.2m was paid in compensation to the slaveowners.

In November 1861, during the Civil War, the Trent Affair threatened war between Great Britain and President Lincoln’s government. A Union warship had seized two Confederate envoys en route to London from a Royal Mail ship, RMS Trent. Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx:

“Have these Yankees gone completely crazy to carry out this mad coup? To take political prisoners by force, from a foreign ship, is the clearest casus belli there can be. The fellows must be sheer fools to land themselves at war with England.”

Public opinion in the North was cock-a-hoop at British humiliation. The Philadelphia Sunday Transcript crowed: “If [Britain] has a particle of pluck, if she is not as cowardly as she is treacherous, she will meet the American people on land and on sea, as they long to meet her, once again, not only to lower the banner of St George, but to consolidate Canada with the union.”

The Times correspondent in Washington overheard the Secretary of State, William Seward, stating that: “We will wrap the whole world in flames.”

British public opinion was outraged and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, wrote to Queen Victoria:  “Great Britain is in a better state than at any former time to inflict a severe blow upon and to read a lesson to the United States which will not soon be forgotten.”

Plans were made to invade Maine from Canada and blockade Northern ports. But after a stock market crash and a run on the banks, Washington caved in to British demands and the two envoys were released.

On 10th May 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, the day Germany invaded France. His son Randolph came to Downing St and found him nearly naked shaving in a silk undershirt:

“‘Sit down, dear boy, and read the papers while I finish.’ After two minutes, he turned and said: ‘I think I see my way through.’ He resumed shaving. I was astounded and said: ‘Do you mean we can avoid defeat?’ (which seemed credible) or ‘beat the bastards?’ (which seemed incredible). He flung his razor in the basin, swung around, and said: ‘Of course I mean we can beat them.’

‘I’m all for it, but I don’t see how you can.’

He dried and sponged his face and turning round to me, said with great intensity: ‘I shall drag the United States in.’”

On 7th December 1941, Churchill learnt of  Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. He later wrote:

“Now at this very moment I knew that the US was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all! How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care. We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end.”

In August 1945, the US suddenly ended its wartime Lend-Lease arrangement. To avoid a “financial Dunkirk,” John Maynard Keynes went to Washington. He expected a grant in view of the UK’s contribution to the war, especially lives lost, before US entry in 1941. A loan was the best that he could obtain. Frederic Harmer, Keynes’s assistant, observed:

“The pro-British line always needs defending in this country, the anti-British never… It isn’t that there is underlying hostility to Britain; on the contrary there is very great friendliness.  But their history starts with the War of Independence and it colours all their thinking. They must be able to show that they haven’t been outsmarted.”

Another of Keynes’s staff noted: “A visitor from Mars might well be pardoned for thinking that we were the representatives of a vanquished people discussing the economic penalties of defeat.”

In December 1962, the Skybolt crisis erupted at a US/UK conference in Nassau. The US tried to remove the British independent nuclear deterrent by cancelling the Skybolt missile, promised to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan by President Eisenhower in 1960. The same month, Dean Acheson, former Secretary of State, made a speech at West Point:

“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, based on a ‘special relationship’ with the US, on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ with no political structure or unity or strength—this role is about played out...

“Of course a unique relation existed between Britain and America—our common language and history ensured that. But unique did not mean affectionate. We had fought England as an enemy as often as we had fought by her side as an ally.”

In 2015 Christopher Meyer, UK ambassador in Washington 1997-2003, observed:

“We cling to a phrase, which, with its undertones of Churchillian nostalgia, sentimentalises a relationship towards which the Americans have always been notably unsentimental. As a very senior State Department official said to me just before Jack Straw’s maiden visit to Washington as foreign secretary in 2001, ‘if we don’t mention the special relationship in our speech of welcome, we know you Brits will go ape shit.’”