Finest Hour 189, Third Quarter 2020
Review by Leon J. Waszak
Leon J. Waszak is author of Agreement in Principle: The Wartime Partnership of Wladyslaw Sikorski and Winston Churchill (1996).
Derek Leebaert, Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945– 1957, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, 612 pages, $35.00. ISBN 978–0374250720
American leaders at the end of the Second World War, not yet confident of their nation’s new role as the principal defender of Western democracy, initially looked to the British for guidance. That Britain thus assumed a role in animating US policy for the remainder of the 1940s and well into the late 1950s is the focus of a new study that author and historian Derek Leebaert calls the “grand improvisation.”
Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946 is viewed by Leebaert as a symbolic “passing of the torch,” when the gravity of responsibility started to shift from Britain to the US. This was not, however, a cut-and-dried departure. The speech was not widely appreciated at the time on either side of the so-called “special relationship.” Many Americans thought that Britain sought to drag the US into yet another foreign entanglement, while British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin attacked Churchill, who had been voted out of office less than a year before, as a dangerous egotist and manipulator: “’E thinks ’e’s Prime Minister of the world.” Nevertheless, within a few years, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which Churchill had more or less called for, had been created.
NATO notwithstanding, the relationship between Britain and the United States was becoming more complicated and led to serious disagreements over a wide range of interests from the Middle East to China, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. The British, for example, were reluctant to commit large numbers of troops to the Korean War in 1950 because they felt exposed in Hong Kong and Singapore and, by extension, in the Middle East. As the war in Korea expanded to include China, the British urged caution and direct negotiations with Mao Zedong, whose ascension to power in 1949 the US refused to recognize but which Britain accepted from the onset. The British also shared a concern that a major setback on the Korean peninsula—or worse, a general war resulting from it—might embolden Joseph Stalin to attack British interests in the Middle East.
Churchill’s return to power in October 1951 by no means meant that Anglo-American relations were soon to improve. Many observers at the time believed that the election of Eisenhower in 1952 would usher in better coordination between the two “English-speaking” nations on a wide variety of international issues, given the long-established wartime relationship between Churchill and Ike. In fact, the divisions grew deeper, and the resentments became more evident, although these were not always seen in public.
From the US point of view, the British were a bundle of contradictions—an imperial power in decline subject to US financial underwriting yet having the audacity to assume an aura of moral superiority over the Americans who were paying their bills. This moral position was compromised not long after Churchill retired when Britain colluded with France and Israel to strike at Egypt in the Suez Crisis. Eisenhower’s opposition to “Operation Musketeer” resulted in the diminution of both Britain and France as world powers. Leebaert observes that Ike’s Vice President, Richard Nixon, saw fit to issue a “declaration of independence” from British authority.
This is history in the grand manner and with dramatic flair. Leebaert’s book is a must read for all Churchillians and for those who want to know more, in detail, about Anglo-American relations during the early Cold War period.