The Special Relationship between Great Britain and the USA - Myth or Reality?

Intermediate Examination Paper, 2003

27 Pages, Grade: 2,3 (B)



I. Introduction: “The lion and the eagle“

II. Aspects of the “Special Relationship“:
1. Common historical, cultural and linguistic background
2. Foreign and security policy
3. Intelligence agencies and the military
4. Economy and business
5. Personal and private relations

III. Conclusion

Outlook: Great Britain torn between America and Europe?

IV. Bibliography

I. Introduction: “The lion and the eagle”

Winston Churchill coined the term Special Relationship in his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946. This term characterises the unparalleled close Anglo-American relations during the Second World War and in the time thereafter. The shared perception that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union constituted major external threats to their well-being bound the societies and leaderships of Great Britain and the United States together. The looming menace ceased to exist after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the demise of Communism, and for several authors so did the raison d´être of the Special Relationship as well.[1]

It was more however that brought these two countries together than the shared perception of a communist threat. Why is it that “(…) neither country has fully adjusted its mind to thinking of the members of the other society as foreigners”[2], and that Americans still refer to Britain as the “mother country” every now and then? Why do certain authors call Britain the “fortified outpost of the Anglo-Saxon race” or the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” ?[3] And is it just by chance that fictional author George Orwell calls Britain “Airstrip One” and associates it with North America in his novel “1984”? Is it a coincidence or are these
– admittedly vague – expressions signs of subtle yet overarching bonds between the two countries?

In the following chapters of this work different aspects of Anglo-American relations will be discussed and analysed. The apparent cooperation in the fields of foreign and security policy will be assessed, as well as the more disguised realm of military and intelligence collaboration. Following is a chapter about two aspects that dominate our time, economy and business in the Anglo-American relationship. The last chapter attempts to illuminate the obscure field of “private” relations between the Anglo-American nations, as well as the importance of the personal relationships between the individual Presidents and Prime Ministers. For a better understanding of Anglo-American Affairs the common backgrounds of the two countries are assessed historically, culturally and in terms of language. The question or the leitmotif on which this work is be based asks whether the concept of a Special Relationship in current Anglo-American relations is still a de facto reality or just a myth, that lingers on from the shared experience of the two World wars:

Does the weary British Lion still enjoy a remarkably “special” relationship with the almighty American Eagle?

II.1. Common linguistic, cultural and historical background:

In 1585 the first English settlers arrived on the North American continent under the lead of Sir Walter Raleigh. They settled in the region that is today known as North Carolina. Although one year later no trace of the colony could be found, that was the first attempt by the English to settle the New World. In 1607 Jamestown was founded in honour of James I., King of England and the surrounding area was named Virginia in honour of the Queen of England. These first efforts to establish permanent English colonies in America were characterised by famine, disease and continuous conflicts with the Native Americans.

About a decade later the legendary arrival of the Pilgrims in their vessel, the Mayflower, marked the beginning of a type of colonization that to a greater extent lasted and flourished. In the period before 1700, tens of thousands of settlers from the British Isles arrived in North America. Even though the Spanish had a permanent settlement in St. Augustine, Florida since 1565, and the campaigns launched by the French to explore the vast new continent had advanced far more westward to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, it was the English settlers who dominated that continent and its future. Perhaps the most important fact stimulating this development was that the English colonized the new land in great numbers, whereas the French and the Spanish mainly built forts along their trade routes and only had some minor settlements.

The English Crown colonies also expanded their scale by force. In 1664 the Dutch colo-ny Nieuw Nederland, which lay between the English colonies of Virginia in the south and the so called New England states in the north, was conquered and its capital Nieuw Amsterdam was renamed New York. By the year of 1763 the whole east coast of America from Canada to Florida was under the flag of the “Union Jack”. This is because France was beaten in the “French and Indian War” and Spain surrendered its claims to these parts of North America.

The relationship between the settlers and England was not without strains. The levy of new taxes by England caused a wave of vehement protests in the colonies. They finally led to the renowned incident called the Boston Tea Party, where about three hundred crates filled with tea belonging to the British East India Company were opened and the tea was thrown into Boston harbour. This and other events lead to the “War of Independence“ in 1775 and to the “Declaration of Independence” on July 4th the following year. In 1774 Joseph Galloway, speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, tried in vain to maintain unity by proposing a scheme for self-government to the colonies while maintaining allegiance to the mother country.[4]

One of the philosophers, that inspired the American revolutionists was the Englishman John Locke. In his Two Treatises on Government, published in 1690, he postulates that all men are born free and equal in rights. This lead him to debate the idea of the independence of the individual person versus superior authorities like the church or a monarch.

In 1783 Britain lost the war against the assumed inferior Continental Army led by George Washington and the American militia and recognized the United States of America as an independent nation in the “Treaty of Paris”. This ended British rule over the North American colonies. England’s reign had been persevered for 176 years and shaped American political and cultural life – the American identity – to a paramount extent. As James Bennett put it: “The colonization of North America happened in such a way that the most useful characteristics of civil society were brought to its soil from England, while many of the less useful remnants of feudalism were left behind.”[5]

Approximately during that time important English philosophers published their major works, that influenced the Anglo-American political, cultural and economic life to a great extent. In his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations of 1776 Adam Smith coined the famous expression “the invisible hand”, which demonstrates how self-interest guides the most efficient use of resources in a nation’s economy. Jeremy Bentham and his disciple John Stuart Mill published major works about the philosophy of economic and personal liberalism around 1780 and 1850, respectively. Their so-called utilitarism states that people´s actions should be evaluated according to their ability to promote and maximise the happiness of most people, which was predominantly believed to be economic prosperity.

In the year 1803 a very important but often neglected agreement between the United States and France, the “Louisiana Purchase” was signed. France ceded a vast territory, ranging from the Mississippi delta, to the Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes. This effectively doubled the size of the USA and enabled its expansion to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1812 the USA again waged war with England. There were mixed motives, it was partly political and partly commercial. One of the reasons was the frequent impressment of American sailors onto English ships. Initially the British forces were able to invade the USA and even managed to burn the capital Washington, but eventually American troops defeated the British forces in Baltimore and later in New Orleans. It was the last time in American history that foreign troops set foot on the United States mainland. In December of 1814 a peace treaty was signed in the Belgian city of Ghent, in which the British agreed to recognize the boundaries of the United States.

Regardless the frequency of violent conflict between the American colonies and England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their relationship remained a very close one. As Thomas Jefferson (President of the USA from 1801 to 1809) stated: “Our laws, language, religion, politics and manners are so deeply laid in English foundations that we shall never cease to consider their history as part of ours (…)”[6].

In 1861 the American Civil War started between the northern states – the Union – and the southern States – the Confederacy. England was entangled in this American war as well. It tried to stay neutral, although it had great economic stakes in North America. Most notably, Britain imported great amounts of cotton from the south. British shipyards also constructed great numbers of battleships for the confederate fleet.[7] One incident almost made England join the war on the side of the Confederacy. The Union vessel USS San Jacinto intercepted the British ship the Trent and captured two confederate diplomats on their way to Europe. This immediately made the British public opinion change in favour of the Confederacy and almost brought England on the verge of war. President Abraham Lincoln eased tensions by deciding to release the prisoners and by making a statement that the Captain of the San Jacinto had acted without proper orders.

In the decades towards the twentieth century Anglo-American ties did not lose their strength. In 1894 Andrew Carnegie, an American steel tycoon and supposedly the richest man of his times “(…) began to propagandize for his idea that Britain and America should fuse or federate.”[8] Such ideas of Anglo-American or Anglo-Saxon unity were always prominent in the shared history of these two countries and were fostered by such organizations as the Round Table, or later the Council on Foreign Relations.

The shared English language, although with slight variations, is of eminent importance in making communication and travel uncomplicated between the two countries. The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck even thought that the single most important fact of the twentieth century would be that the British and the Americans spoke the same language.[9]
The common language and shared cultural and philosophical heritage facilitated bonds between the two societies, especially between the elites.

E. Digby Baltzell was of the opinion that in 1901 “(…) a British-American, White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant (WASP)[10] establishment (…) authoritatively ran the world, as their ancestors had done since Queen Elizabeth’s time.”[11]

Also in that time emerged the first signs that the USA could rival and eventually supersede the United Kingdom as the world’s dominant power. In 1901 the British ceded to American demands of building and controlling a strategic canal in the Central American isthmus connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, a demand they had rebuffed for fifty years. Britain seemed to acquiesce to the fact that the USA exercised exclusive control over the Western Hemisphere and in 1904 it was decided that preparations for a possible war with the USA would no longer be part of Britain’s defence plans.[12]

The next two decades were marked by the economic ascendancy of the USA, which manifested itself in the invention of the moving assembly line by Henry Ford in 1913. It was made possible by the ideas Frederick Taylor proclaimed in his book The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. “Taylorism” (or “Fordism”) tried to maximise the efficiency of every single worker by assigning short production steps that have to be accomplished in a given timeframe. Optimal duration was determined with scientific methods in order to maximise the profit of the company. Such innovations provoked that by then the USA clearly had outclassed the economic potency of Britain.

When the First World War started in 1914 and Britain declared war on Wilhelmine Germany for invading the neutral Belgium, President Woodrow Wilson declared a US policy of neutrality. However, behind the scenes in both Britain and the United States many people thought that the USA should join the war on the Anglo-Saxon side.[13] The USA finally did join the war in 1917 because then it considered Germany as too dangerous a threat.

After the First World War the power roles had reversed. The war with the Central Powers proved to be very costly for England, which was indebted to the USA, mainly to the house of J.P. Morgan by 3.7 billion dollars. The United States of America arose as the world’s leading power and Britain began its descent to being a mere middle-range power – the pax Britannica of the previous centuries had become the pax Americana. Such a peaceful transition of the power roles between the current superpower [England] and the challenging state [America] is a unique event in history and only intelligible when the close kinship and the numerous connections between the two societies are taken into account.[14]

When the Second World War started in 1939 the USA again declared neutrality as happened in the First World War. There was a great struggle between the “isolationists”, who favoured not getting involved in conflicts of foreign nations and the “interventionists”, who advocated strong support with Britain. Only the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 changed the public opinion decisively. The US declaration of war on Japan was followed by declarations of war on the USA by Germany and Italy.

Symbolically very significant was the proclamation of the Atlantic Charter in 1941 by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, it committed their countries (in theory) to promote self-determination and free government, liberal and open-door economic policies, freedom of the seas, social justice and the abandonment of the use of force, the disarmament of those that threaten force, and the creation of a permanent security system.[15] This was the first joint indication of what the post-war world should be like and it showed Anglo-American mutual trust and cooperation during that time.

The entry of the United States in the war with its enormous economic potency and manpower was the turn of the tide. America provided supplies to its allies, Britain and (to a lesser degree) Russia, and deployed the vast troop contingents that rendered the victory over Nazi Germany possible. The Second World War was the apogee of Anglo-American relations. The cooperation between the two countries was very intense and ranged across the board. It covered such topics like collaboration to produce the first atomic bomb, exchange of all the material by the secrets services and the combined boards to help direct war production. Innumerable good personal relationships on all levels helped to accomplish the flawless cooperation. The most famous of these was of course the very close relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1943 Churchill even proposed a form of common citizenship, including the rights to settle, work and vote in the territories of the other.[16] As the war finally finished with the dropping of two nuclear bombs on the Japanese civilian targets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cooperation between Great Britain and the United States remained strong. One reason for this was surely the shared perception that the Soviet Union could eventually constitute the biggest threat. In his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946 Winston Churchill coined two outstanding terms that characterise the era, and which are still in use today. The first is the term Iron Curtain, the second and less associated with that speech, is the term Special Relationship, as noted above.

The decades after the World Wars were marked by the Cold War with the Russians, that welded together the Western World in general and the Anglo-Saxon countries in particular. Despite this common foe, the relationship between Britain and the US in the 1950s and 1960s was quite frequently marked by disagreements and real clashes of national interest, as during the “Suez-Crisis”. But to a remarkable extent these were regarded as something like a “family quarrel” and despite the tensions which marked successive Prime Ministerships – particularly those of Eden, Wilson and Heath – the underlying strength of the relationship always seemed to reassert itself.[17] The first attempt to join the European Economic Community in 1967 under Prime Minister Wilson marked a period in which Britain was slightly more oriented towards Europe, although that view was not shared by the French president Charles de Gaulle, who vetoed the British application to join the community because he thought that Britain was not truly European and would always privilege the Special Relationship it enjoyed with the USA, thus being some kind of American “Trojan Horse” in Europe.[18] In 1970 Edward Heath became Prime Minister, one of the few British leaders, who did not see the Anglo-American relations as sine qua non. His main objective was to integrate Britain in Europe, which was reflected in the successful admission to join the EEC in 1973.


[1] cp. Dickie, John: “Special” No More – Anglo-American Relations: Rhetoric and Reality, London 1994, p.276 and Danchev, Alex: On Specialness: Essays in Anglo-American relations, Basingstoke 1998, p.163

[2] Temperley, Howard: Britain and America since Independence, Basingstoke 2002, p.4

[3] Campbell, Duncan: The unsinkable aircraft carrier: American military power in Britain, London 1984

[4] cp. Boyd, Julian Parks: Anglo-American Union: Joseph Galloway’s plan to preserve the British Empire
, Philadelphia 1941, p.2

[5] Bennett, James: The Emerging Anglosphere, in Orbis A Journal of World Affairs, Volume 46, Number 1, Winter 2002, p.118 [Bennett: Anglosphere ]

[6] Cited by Seib, Philip: Taken for granted – The Future of U.S.-British Relations, Westport 1998, p.89 [Seib: Taken for Granted ]

[7] cp. Hitchens, Christopher: Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies, London 1990, p.158 [Hitchens: Blood, Class and Nostalgia ]

[8] Hitchens: Blood, Class and Nostalgia, p.110

[9] cp. Dobson, Alan P.: Anglo-American relations in the twentieth century – Of friendship, conflict and the
rise and decline of superpowers
, London 1995, p.3 [Dobson: Anglo-American relations ]

[10] With this paragraph E. Digby Baltzell introduced the term WASP in the English language in 1964.

[11] Hitchens: Blood, Class and Nostalgia, p.120

[12] cp. Dobson: Anglo-American relations, p.17

[13] ibidem, p.35

[14] ibidem, p.5

[15] ibidem p.79

[16] Exactly those ideas have been realised about half a century later not between the USA and the United King-dom, but in the European Union. The question now is, whether Britain is willing to fully participate in the implementation of such ideas only with other English-speaking countries or with Europe too.

[17] cp. Renwick, Robin: Fighting with allies – America and Britain in Peace and War, London 1996 [Renwick: Fighting with allies ]

[18] cp. Dobson: Anglo-American relations, p. 127

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The Special Relationship between Great Britain and the USA - Myth or Reality?
University of Göttingen
2,3 (B)
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MA Internationale Beziehungen Jan Fichtner (Author), 2003, The Special Relationship between Great Britain and the USA - Myth or Reality?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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