There has been a great deal of news coverage recently discussing the relationship between Great Britain and the United States. Indeed, we regard our alliance as one of the most important and powerful alliances in the history of the world. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Remember when the Redcoats burned down the White House?
National Humanities Medal holder Lewis E. Lehrman is out with a new book, Churchill, Roosevelt & Company: Studies in Character and Statecraft, and it is an absolute must-read. The book answers a basic question: How did these two global superpowers go from staunch geopolitical rivals to the closest of allies?
Lehrman describes, in great detail, the tense diplomatic relationship between the United States and Great Britain in the lead-up to World War II. Amidst this tension, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, perhaps the two greatest leaders of the 20th century, formed a close friendship built largely on the mutual understanding that the Nazis posed an existential threat to the free world. While the public dynamic of the Anglo-American relationship was still marked by distrust, Roosevelt and Churchill paved the way for the modern understanding of the Anglo-American “special relationship.”
Perhaps the most flattering portrait in Churchill, Roosevelt & Company is that of Winston Churchill. While Roosevelt was the consummate politician, always playing to his constituency, Churchill was motivated by one thing and one thing only: victory over the Nazis, at all costs. Churchill spent the entirety of 1940 and 1941 attempting to build trust with Roosevelt and lobby for American involvement in the war effort. He even shared sensitive intelligence, which was not a popular decision back home.
While Roosevelt repeatedly promised Churchill that American help was on the way throughout 1940, he publicly campaigned against the idea of the U.S. fighting another war side-by-side with Great Britain. Roosevelt notably promised American mothers and fathers on the campaign trail that our “boys [would not be] sent into any foreign wars.” And many of Roosevelt’s associates, who regarded Great Britain as a rival, not an ally, pushed hard to keep America out of the war.
Churchill understood the difficulty in persuading the United States to join the war effort, but he also understood that U.S. involvement was the only path to victory. He was willing to win at all costs, even if it ultimately meant subordinating the British Empire to the United States.
Interestingly enough, this is the big reveal in Lehrman’s work: when the United States finally entered World War II, we waged war militarily against the Axis powers while simultaneously waging economic war against our rival Great Britain. Winning the war meant solidifying America’s status as a global superpower and supplanting Great Britain in the world order.
Learning all of this gives us an even greater appreciation for Winston Churchill. Here was a noble Brit who was willing to set aside his intense national pride, recognize what had to be done, and work with the United States to defeat one of the greatest evils the world has ever known, even at the expense of his own country’s long-term diplomatic interests. Wow.
Thus, the phrase “special relationship” takes on a level of irony. Yes, we share a language and a culture and have a deep history, and that is obviously part of it. But ultimately, the “special relationship” is a sort of sibling rivalry in which the older sibling (Great Britain) subordinates themselves to their younger sibling (the United States) as they take charge and lead.
Churchill, Roosevelt & Company is a great read, and it helps explain why the Anglo-American “special relationship” is so special. Readers interested in World War II — or wondering why a tweet from President Trump toward the Mayor of London might be more significant than a tweet at Alec Baldwin — should absolutely check it out.