Anglo-American Relations Essay


“THESE two great organizations of the English-speaking democracies, the British Empire and the United States, will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage. For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings. I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it. Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along. Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.” [1]Winston Churchill’s words of August, 1940, embody the confidence with which Americans and Englishmen regarded the future of Anglo-American relations after they fought together as allies in World War II. Indeed, Anglo-American friendship until it was subjected, for the first time since 1940, to notable strain by the China crisis which began in 1949, came almost to be taken for granted on both sides of the Atlantic. This was, perhaps, natural. The two peoples had always been conscious, even when serious disagreements existed between them, of their peculiar relationship. In 1843, for example, Dickens heard England referred to as that “unnat’ral old parent”, and by 1900 in England, and soon thereafter in America, the idea of war between the two countries had come to be almost unthinkable.

But though it may have become natural by 1945 to take Anglo-American friendship as read, things have not always been thus. Two wars have been fought between the two nations, and, as late as the Venezuela dispute of 1895, Anglo-American disagreements were numerous and sometimes sharp. But by degrees, as the years passed, friendship triumphed over these obstacles, though the triumph was not one of sentiment alone, for only a wide complex of causes, political, economic, social–the totality in fact of Anglo-American intercourse-made it possible. Happily, the intimacy of Anglo-American relations is by no means solely dependent upon the powerful but sometimes fickle bond of emotion; it has manifold links embedded deep in the lives of both peoples.

The term ‘Anglo-American’ also may need precise definition. American refers to the United States alone. Anglo refers to Great Britain, and, more precisely, after 1921 to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It is hardly necessary to stress the importance of this subject. How vital Anglo-American friendship is has been understood by the majority of Englishmen since the turn of the century and has become dear to most Americans at least since the entry of the United States into World War II. For a decade now it has been a commonplace of politicians-which has for all that some truth in it–that the future of democracy In view of the tension between the two countries which began in 1949 over the policy to be pursued towards the People’s Republic of China, the supreme importance of their friendship has suddenly become to Englishmen even more apparent than before, just because it has come to seem less certain, less safe. From his public utterances it is clear that at that time it remained uppermost, paramount, in the mind of Churchill, the greatest of England’s living statesmen. It is significant of the danger of taking Anglo-American friendship for granted that the initial whisper of discord strikes the thinking Englishman like the first faint, but terrible, tremor of an earthquake. Of all historical subjects, it is possibly true that the history of Anglo-American relations is the most important, as well as the most relevant, to the future of Western civilization.

But no study of them will in the long run better Anglo-American relations unless it is an impartial one. Soft words which do not speak the whole truth in judgment will not turn away wrath; partisanship might merely increase danger. In the words of an Anglo-American master, Henry James, “I can’t look at the English-American world, or feel about them, any more, save as a big Anglo-Saxon total, destined to such an amount of melting together that an insistence on their differences becomes more and more idle and pedantic. . . . I have not the least hesitation in saying that I aspire to write in such a way that it would be impossible to an outsider to say whether I am. . . an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America”. [2]

It is worth while to spend a little time on this difficulty, for it still lies at the bottom of much international misunderstanding; certainly it must be a root cause of dissension between two nations who already have so much in common, both in history and principle, as Great Britain and the United States. Even the works of the best of academic historians can seldom wholly escape the taint of national bias, and examples of disagreement on national lines are plentiful among historians writing on Anglo-American relations. One striking example appears in the verdict of two first-class historians, one Americans one English, on the Venezuela incident. S. F. Berets writes in his Diplomatic History of the United States:

A case had now arisen in which a first-class power still possessing colonies on one of the American continents, might, by advancing boundary claims and refusing to arbitrate them, arbitrarily expand its territory in violation . . . of the Monroe Doctrine. . . . Cleveland resolved not to take the rebuff. . . . The country as a whole–despite the chagrin of intellectuals–rallied behind the President. [3]

A glaring contrast is provided by R. C. K. Ensor in his England, 1870-1914, who writes of Cleveland’s message to Congress on this question:

This was certainly one of the most unexpected, least warranted, and least excusable steps ever taken in modern times by a Great Power. . . . The message evoked a frenzy of Jingoism throughout the United States; but a chastening influence was exerted by a catastrophic fall in American stocks. British opinion displayed restraint from the start. It became obvious that, while an Anglo-American war would still be the most popular of all wars in America, in England it was viewed as fratricidal.[4]

The effect of national preconceptions is sufficiently obvious.

Yet these books were written between the two world wars, at a time when most intelligent men, and these among them, tended to spurn chauvinist sentiments. Such divergences of judgment occur, of course, between the writers of all nations, but they are peculiarly apt to occur between Americans and Englishmen. Their very closeness, to say nothing of their common tongue, seems to make disagreements more frequent, or, at least, cause them to be noticed more often. Cecil Chesterton wrote in 1915, “what really produces trouble between peoples is when one is quite certain that it understands the other–and in fact doesn’t. And I am perfectly certain that that has been from the first one of the primary causes of trouble between England and America.” [5]The same analysis has been made and remade by acute observers of AngloAmerican relations in this century. What is more, in any case where passions run high on either side, because of identity of language and similarity of ideas, no lack of knowledge of what is being said on the other shore of the Atlantic can long exist, for all is understood, and all is news; there is no, veil of language or ignorance to obscure the beginnings of disputes. Thus they have all the bitterness–and happily some of the shortness–of family quarrels.

But not all the misrepresentations of one country by citizens of the other can be pardoned as the results of honest misjudgment or excessive frankness. On the wilder fringe of the literature of Anglo-American history are some authors who cannot be altogether acquitted of malice and all uncharitableness. The relations of no two other nations with so much in common have been so bedevilled by the writings of honest but mischievous publicists, and some brief consideration of a selection of them is, unfortunately, necessary. The harm they have done in the past has been very marked, and beside their misrepresentations the honest differences of academic historians shrink into insignificance.

Two main themes dominate the history of Anglo-American relations. The first arises directly, and the second indirectly, from the peculiar relationship which has always existed between the two countries, both physically and psychologically. Connected as they are by the great North Atlantic waterway and by the agency of the ever-present British North America, and bound together by a common origin and by much common life and history, they have affinities altogether unusual among nations.

In a sense we can very well look upon them as father and son; at any rate the analogy has its uses. In infancy and adolescence, in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, America is born and grows up under the protection of Great Britain. The political family is, if one may use the phrase, rather Victorian in its strictness, but the youth prospers none the less. By 1763, however, he has grown almost to manhood and finds life with father unduly restrictive, so that irritations and ill-will pile up on both sides. In 1776, America comes of age, and in one last glorious ‘row’ leaves home for ever. In the great world he finds friends to help him resist father’s punitive efforts, and after an uncertain start he begins to form his own habits and live his own life. For a period in the first half of the nineteenth century relations remain bad between parent and offspring, with resentment on the one side and hatred on the other, and they even come to indecisive blows in 1812. But as the younger man fills out and makes his way in the world with astonishing rapidity and the older himself prospers as never before, so the mutual sense of filial soreness and aggrieved parental authority dies away. By the end of the century the mistrust has to a large extent subsided, and as the father becomes increasingly conscious of his past faults and his future dangers, and the son gains some of the restraint and confidence of maturity, so friendliness begins to take its place. The international developments of the twentieth century destroyed the isolation of the United States and strongly encouraged the process by which the two countries came to realize how much they had in common. Co-operation was born in World War I and alliance in World War II, and, despite the relapse of the inter-war years, cordiality increased steadily throughout the whole half-century. Between 1941 and 1945 there was a friendship and a unity between them certainly never surpassed since 1783, and hardly even before that date. The Communist China crisis of 1949 served to show that the danger of differences was not over, but, looking back over the whole course of Anglo-American relations from 1783 to the present day, we can see persistent, even steady, progress from mistrust to cordiality.

It can be seen very clearly in the diplomatic sphere, but can be observed also in others. It appears in the growing similarity of political ideals and practices which accompanied the development of democracy in both countries, but particularly in Great Britain. It is obvious in social life generally, and the analogy, and indeed connexion, between the great reforming movements of the two nations throughout their history is unmistakable. In the economic sphere, though there is no relative increase in the extent of intercourse, there are manifold, sustained, and intimate contacts. In the subtle and complex emotional relationship of the two peoples there is perhaps most strongly perceptible an advance from the bitter literary battles, the hatred, of the early nineteenth century, to the often deep affection of the present.

The second main theme is concerned, not with the increasing amiability of the relationship, but with its nature, and with the shifting balance of power within it. Pre-eminently is one impressed by the fact that there is a remarkable reversal in the relative position of the two states between 1783 and 1952. In the beginning Great Britain was in every way the superior power: in the end America’s strength exceeded hers by quite as large a margin. That this striking inversion might take place had long been apparent to percipient observers, even in the colonial period, because of the vast potentialities of the American continent. By the end of the Civil War it was clear that it was taking place, and by the end of World War I it was obvious that it had done so. In every branch of national life, political, social and economic, we are able to watch this transformation come over the relationship of the two powers.

Yet the change in the material balance of power was only relative: it did not mean any actual decline in the power of Great Britain. Indeed, in the nineteenth century she grew to a height of power far exceeding any in her history, and came to dominate the greatest empire the world has yet known. It was merely that the growth of the United States was even more astonishing; she had the vast vacuum of a virtually empty continent to fill, and she surged through it as if she abhorred the emptiness with an intensity that Nature herself might envy. This combination of unmatched natural resources with unparalleled vigour produced an economic and political development which overshadowed the really quite creditable performance of Great Britain. It is true that the advance of the latter has been checked in the twentieth century; the skeptic might even reflect that the colonial status of 1783 was not very far removed from that of the recipient of Marshall Aid in 1949. But it is to be hoped that the exhaustion of Britain after 1945 was only a temporary condition. She may be an ancient among the nations, but it does not necessarily follow that she is doomed inevitably to the weakness, and ultimately the decrepitude, of senility. There are, most decidedly, limits to the validity of the analogy between the old age of nations and that of individual human beings, and history furnishes many surprising examples of the longevity and resilience of states. So the decline of Great Britain, even in the twentieth century, may still be considered only as relative to the growth of the United States. Although she grew rapidly in the nineteenth century. Britain was already a Great Power in 1783, and the pattern of her development in nearly all aspects of national life was foreshadowed, if not actually predetermined, before that date. In her growth and actions after 1783, therefore, there can be detected a certain consistency: the main principles and interests upon which her policy was based were hardly to change in their broad outlines through the whole period.

The United States, on the other hand, was not a Great Power by 1783; she was in fact a respectable power, but there were those who were pessimistic of her future. Certainly all lay before her, but this future was as yet in the realm of possibility and not in the domain of fact. It follows from this that the whole nature of her progress was dynamic and ever-changing compared with that of Great Britain. Radical as were the alterations in the life of the latter, they pale almost into insignificance beside those which transformed that of the United States. This fact, though it is true of almost every aspect of existence, is perhaps most obvious in the international relations of the two states, for the foreign policy of Britain, as we shall see, followed general principles in 1783 very much the same as those it still pursued in 1951, whereas that of America was markedly different in 1812, in the mid-nineteenth century, and again (even more strikingly so) in 1952. To some extent, therefore, one may visualize the history of AngloAmerican relations with Great Britain as a comparatively stable backcloth, against which the United States moves off and on to the international stage, and it is convenient for the purposes of analysis to concentrate upon the changing policy of the United States and to tell the story from that point of view. We shall in this way watch the emancipation of America from the tutelage of Europe, her withdrawal into isolation during the opening up of the West, and her eventual return to active participation in world affairs as the greatest of the powers. The junior, if not the sleeping, partner in the First British Empire has become the senior partner in an alliance whose second, though not whose only other, member is Great Britain.

The increasing cordiality of the relationship and the increasing preponderance of the United States within it are, then, the two threads of which we shall be repeatedly aware as we follow the complicated pattern of the century and a half of what Franklin D. Roosevelt–even on so American an occasion as the commemoration in 1937 of the signing of the Declaration of Independence–could call “AngloAmerican history.”

In social and political life there are differences nearly as great. The relative homogeneity of the population of Great Britain, which, despite internal racial differences, has remained comparatively unaltered in the composition of its basic constituents for nearly nine hundred years, contrasts strikingly with the racial diversity of the United States, which received within a hundred and twenty-five years, beginning in 1820, no less than 38,461,395 immigrants from many and various lands. Another difference is the lack in the past in America of a central capital like London. Equally vivid, perhaps, is the contrast between the long slow years of English development, stretching back, if not in unbroken continuity, at least with some genuine, though often unconscious, descent of political and social tradition, for more than a millennium, and the swift, and indeed fabulous, growth of the United States. America, founded three hundred years ago by a mere handful of men who clung for their livelihood to the edges of a vast and uncharted wilderness, emerged as a political community somewhat over a century later in a series of acts which were more nearly deliberate acts of political will than those which accompanied the birth of almost any other nation in the world. To these differences must be added the acquisition in the past by Great Britain, and to some extent her retention to this day, of a great colonial and maritime empire, which gave her a tradition markedly different from that of the United States, which has rarely, except at the end of the last century, sought overseas dominions. With this goes–to some extent it arises from it–the fact that Great Britain has been for many centuries heavily involved as a major power in the main current of international affairs, whereas the United States has until recently spent much of her independent existence in a vigorous and vocal isolationism. There must be noted, too, the difference between the republican written constitution of the one and the unwritten monarchical system of the other, and between the unitary compact government of Great Britain and the wide federal organization of the United States. Finally, one must mention, though not in this brief space attempt to define, the often-misleading but none the less significant contrast between the traditional social inequalities of English life and the proud egalitarianism of the American people[6].

There are also positive similarities between the two countries when they are gauged, which is the only possible way, by comparison with other nations or people. Both enjoy, relatively, a very high standard of living; though the average annual British income per capita in the years before World War II was estimated at $100 less than the American, which was $525, those of South America, India and China were all between $50 and $90 per head. Both are great industrial powers. Great Britain, of course, led the way in this, but the United States followed, and now stands head and shoulders above all the other nations of the world, producing in 1952 55 per cent of the world’s manufactured goods and 52 per cent of its mechanical energy. Great Britain, however, still remains a very highly industrialized country. When the degree of her industrialization is compared even with that of Russia, whose strides in this respect are giant, she still makes quite a good showing. Her per capita consumption of steel and electricity, her per capita production of coat and pig-iron, and her per capita railroad-track mileage are all much less than those of the United States, but they were still in 1952, greater than those of Russia, despite the rapidity of Soviet development. They are far greater than those of most of the other nations in the world. The nature of a country’s armed forces is an interesting reflection of its state of industrialization, and those of Britain, almost alone, approach those of America in the degree of their mechanization[7].

There are positive, if not always very tangible, likenesses, too, between the two countries in other spheres than the economic. In their political life both are now democracies, a word which, despite slight differences of interpretation and emphasis, both use in sufficiently the same sense to understand one another with some clarity. To get the measure of this likeness it is sufficient to observe that the Russians use the word in an utterly different sense. In fact, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed a great growing together of the United States and Great Britain in this respect, and in their internal politics their differences became steadily less apparent than their similarities; the British monarchy, for example, seemed of less significance as a point of difference in a country ruled by a Labour government, and in the age of the New and Fair Deals the fact that the United States had a federal and rigid constitution seemed a less important divergence than it once had. In foreign affairs, too, the differences narrowed as America became irrevocably committed to active leadership of the democracies, and as she became aware, though she continued to shun colonial imperialism, of the need for strategic bases of the kind that Gibraltar had long been to Britain. In fact, the United States came more and more to play the part in the world that Great Britain had so long performed, but which she could no longer adequately execute alone. In 1945 the two peoples were much closer than they had been since 1776, and in some ways than they had been even before that date. But this political structure of alliance and friendship rested upon a broad social base, for, though the racial composition of the United States became increasingly divergent from that of Britain in the century 1820-1920, it remained true that the British was not only the largest single group, but also that those of British origin in the United States exceeded the total of alii the rest. What is more, the history of Britain and the British people, at any rate before 1776, remained almost unconsciously a part of the American experience and background. What they did not acquire consciously by the reading of history they absorbed insensibly by their literature, because of the existence of their common tongue, a bond of great significance at any stage of human development but of literally inestimable importance in this age of swift communication, mass printing, telephone, radio, cinema, and almost universal literacy. It, more than any other single factor, has made possible the symbiosis.

One must add to their increasing cordiality, and to the reversal of the balance of power between them, which we have already noted, the fact that from their common heredity, environment, and will, there has developed an increasing similarity, and even sometimes identity, of opinion and action. It is not merely that they have grown together with the passage of time, but that they could not have done so without deep and prior similarities which in part determined the nature of their development.


As E. L. Woodward writes, “The United States already held vast territories, and although the addition of certain areas might be desirable for strategic, economic, or sentimental reasons, there was nothing of the acute land-hunger or the desire to approach ice-free waters which affected the policies of European Powers.”[8] There was thus no irreconcilable antagonism between Britain and the United States arising from North American geography, and by World War I all their disputes had been settled, in every case except the first by peaceable means. Indeed, the unfortified frontier between the two countries had become the ideal type of frontier in international relations. That this was so was not only the result of a growing cordiality between the peoples, but of the triumph of long-term similarities, arising partly from physiographic facts, over short-term differences arising from the same source.

Finally, geographical factors go far to explain, not simply the increasing warmth of Anglo-American relations in this particular aspect, but also the peculiar history of those relations in the broad theatre of world affairs. America’s break from the mother country in the Revolution, her emancipation from Europe in the years up to 1814, her isolation in the nineteenth century, these were plainly influenced by her geographical position. The growth of America’s Imperialism, and her slow, reluctant assumption of the leading role in world affairs in the twentieth century, were also forced upon her by the breakdown of her isolation in a world of rapidly developing technology. Geography explains equally clearly the persistent participation of Great Britain in the affairs of Europe and the world; there were periods when isolationism was powerful in Britain, and there were periods also when she was tempted to withdraw within the naval defences of her widespread Empire, but, despite these, she has played much the same part in the crises of world affairs since the sixteenth century. She has never been quite so isolated from the main currents of world affairs as has the United States, even in the age of sailing ships, for it is a mere twenty-two miles across the English Channel, and she has as a consequence been always of Europe, if not in it.

There have invariably been three main forces influential in the making of British policy: her tendency to isolation, her tendency to imperial development in colonies overseas, and her tendency to participate in European affairs. It was the dynamic resolution of these forces which conditioned British political actions, and to them in the last fifty years has perhaps been added a fourth, the tendency to closer and closer co-operation with the United States. This last fact has become of increasing importance both to Great Britain and the United States, as well as to the rest of the world, since the surest hope, if not for peace, at least for the safety of the Western world lies still in AngloAmerican friendship. This, too, derived much of its impetus from the facts of geography, and there is perhaps no more remarkable instance of it than the way in which the United States has come in the last decade increasingly to assume the role in international affairs which had in the past been played by Britain, but which she could no longer adequately perform. From her secure island base, strong on the sea and in the air over it, the United States has assumed the mantle of Britain and the indispensable task of holding together, as their principal protagonist, the nations of the free world, in their effort to ward off the aggressive domination of a single power entrenched firmly in the heart of the Eurasian continent.


Bartlett, C.J., The Special Relationship: A Political History of Anglo American Relations Since 1945 (Longman, London, 1992).

E. L. Woodward, The Age of Reform, 1815-70 ( Oxford, 1938), pp. 293-4.

Edmonds, Robin, The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Peace and War (Norton, New York, 1991).

 Literary Digest 19 June, 1915, p. 1,468: q. H. L. Mencken, The American Language, An Inquiry into the development of English in the United States (Fourth Edition, 1946), p. 44.

R. C. K. Ensor, England, 1870-1914 (Oxford, 1936), p. 230.

S. F. Bemis, A Diplomatic History of the United States (London, 1936), pp. 416-9.

The Letters of Henry James, Selected and Edited by Percy Lubbock (London, 1920), I, p. 143.

Winston S. Churchill, War Speeches 1940-1945 (London, 1946), p. 35.

[1] Winston S. Churchill, War Speeches 1940-1945 (London, 1946), p. 35.
[2] The Letters of Henry James, Selected and Edited by Percy Lubbock (London, 1920), I, p. 143.
[3] S. F. Bemis, A Diplomatic History of the United States (London, 1936), pp. 416-9.
[4] R. C. K. Ensor, England, 1870-1914 (Oxford, 1936), p. 230.
[5] Literary Digest 19 June, 1915, p. 1,468: q. H. L. Mencken, The American Language, An Inquiry into the development of English in the United States (Fourth Edition, 1946), p. 44.
[6] Edmonds, Robin, The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Peace and War (Norton, New York, 1991).
[7] Bartlett, C.J., The Special Relationship: A Political History of Anglo American Relations Since 1945 (Longman, London, 1992).
[8] E. L. Woodward, The Age of Reform, 1815-70 ( Oxford, 1938), pp. 293-4.