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The UK-US Special Relationship Explored Through 5 Eras

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill first used the term in 1946 with an aim to describe the exceptionally close political, diplomatic, cultural, economic, historical, and military relations between the two countries. In this article we explore the relationship through five eras of leadership.

#5. Roosevelt & Churchill

US President Franklin Roosevelt once told Churchill via telegraph, “It is great fun to be in the same decade with you.” The pair reportedly exchanged over 1,700 letters and cables between 1939 and 1945, no doubt discussing their mutual love of tobacco and strong drinks (Roosevelt made a very strong Martini).

Credit: | Roosevelt (L) and Churchill (R)

It had long been Churchill’s aim “to get the Americans into the war,” or at the very least to obtain arms and supplies through the Lend-Lease Act which would increase military aid to Great Britain. The two laid the foundations for the U.N. Charter in Newfoundland, Canada in 1941 with the Atlantic Charter. Despite this, the US public, which at that point in history was notoriously isolationist, refused to support what seemed a foreign war.

With Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour, America entered into the fight and Churchill seized upon this incident by visiting Washington D.C. two weeks later — an impressive feat considering travel options at that time.

Upon his arrival, he helped to co-ordinate a joint response and stayed for three weeks. Patrick Kinna, a former stenographer for Churchill, has said that the former Prime Minister was giving a dictation, while naked, after having emerged from the bath.

There was a rat-a-tat-tat on the door, and Churchill swung the door open to President Roosevelt,” Churchill told Roosevelt: “You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide from you.

#4. Eisenhower & Eden

The special relationships fell to an especially low ebb during Anthony Eden’s short-lived career as Prime Minister when Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser seized a canal and nationalised it. That doesn’t sound like much, but the canal is question is the Suez Canal that links the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

Credit: Bodleian | Eisenhower (L) and Eden (R)

This Suez Canal was incredibly important to Great Britain as it was a shortcut to the Gulf and, thus, oil. Great Britain, together with France and Israel, made a secret deal to jointly invade Egypt to liberate the Canal.

Upon hearing the news, Eisenhower was reportedly livid, “I’ve just never seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of things,” he said at the time.

By blocking Great Britain from receiving a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an organization where various countries deposit money which can be called upon in precarious economic situations, Eisenhower ensured Great Britain could not get the emergency loans it required for the conflict. Eden finally fell to Eisenhower’s demands and armed forces were pulled out of the region just 21 days later. This entire incident is now know as the Suez Crisis.

Eden resigned soon after due to ill health and Great Britain’s position as a superpower was lost, with the UK learning that American co-operation on the international stage was of paramount importance going forward.

#3. Kennedy & Macmillan

After the Suez crisis in which Great Britain’s position was lowered, President Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan formed a new bond and largely repaired the Anglo-American relationship (side note: the two were also distantly related).

Credit: TWP | Kennedy (R) and Macmillan (L)

Great Britain appointed a childhood friend of Kennedy’s as ambassador with the hope of forging a stronger and greater relationship. However, America still refused to budge and continued to act in its own interests.

In the late 1950s, the UK started to look at a nuclear weapons programme for use on its ‘V’ series of warplanes. The United States had been developing the Skybolt Missile system (GAM-87) and allowed the UK to join the programme in 1960. Development continued until 1962, where after a series of test failures and minor disagreements, the US cancelled the programme.

This led to the Skybolt Crisis which caused a severe strain on the relationship between the two nations. After a series of meetings, the Royal Navy gained Polaris missile technology for use on nuclear submarines. This, combined with Macmillan’s advice to Kennedy on a variety of topics, helped repair the relationship, which went back to a healthy footing.

#2. Reagan & Thatcher

US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were famously close, building a relationship second only perhaps to Churchill and Roosevelt’s. Thatcher was the first leader to visit the White House after Reagan’s election win in 1981.

Reagan (L) and Thatcher (R)

Together, they presided over attempts to end the Cold War and launched historic, yet controversial, free-market reforms in the 1980s. Yet, as with prior examples, they had disagreements.

Both disagreed over respective military actions. For the US, this was Argentina’s decision to invade a British territory in 1982 which resulted in the Falklands War – the British response enraged Reagan. For the UK, this was America’s invasion of Grenada – a former British Colony and member of the Commonwealth.

However, There was great admiration between the two, where Reagan reportedly would remark “isn’t she wonderful” to advisers during phone calls. After Reagan’s death in 2004, Thatcher’s biographer states that she “draped herself across the casket at the ceremony in Washington Cathedral.”

This was not play acting. She was devastated by his death, almost as much as she was by the death of her own husband.

The two did continue to build on the relationship and strengthen it – similar ideology helped to cement an era of rapid change on the world stage.

#1. Bush & Blair

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was often termed George W. Bush’s “puppet” or “poodle” for his support during military action in Iraq and Afghanistan following the terror attack of 9/11.

Blair (L) and Bush (R)

Both held a fear of the threat of Islamic extremism, which meant that a close relationship was required. Despite different ideologies (Bush on the political Right and Blair on the political Left), the two built on the work of their predecessors, strengthening the special relationship. Blair wrote to Bush in 2002 saying “I will be with you, whatever.”

Following the terror attack on New York on the 11th November, 2001, Tony Blair flew to Washington D.C. Within a couple of days in order to show solidarity with the American President and people. Sketchy British intelligence and the US-led invasion of Iraq soon followed and didn’t finish until 2011, although the current crisis in the Middle East is still ongoing.

This new era of terror from an enemy of no home country saw the continuation of intertwining US and UK intelligence agencies and new levels of intelligence sharing (see: Edward Snowden and subsequent leaks).

Tony Blair returned to the US in January of 2009 to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom issued by Bush, with Blair saying “I’ve never been a fair-weather friend. I like him. We had a strong relationship, and I don’t regret that relationship.”

Interested in more fascinating history?

You can listen to the Podcast series by Jack P. Taylor here or on iTunes (free) by clicking here.

Additional content by Joseph Metcalfe

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