British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent visit to Washington has revived interest in what is frequently called the “Special Relationship” between Great Britain and the United States. Many Americans may be familiar with the phrase, as it is often used to characterize the strength of the ties between London and Washington made manifest by the strong British commitment to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; by our joint struggle against international terrorism; and by the bonds of language and history, stretching all the way back to the birth of the Thirteen Colonies.
There is also a general awareness that the phrase is often used to describe the military alliance established by our two countries during the Second World War, symbolized by successful invasion of Normandy by British, American and Canadian troops on June 6, 1944. Less well known is the fact that the “Special Relationship” can be directly tied to the wartime leadership of US President Franklin Roosevelt, who purposely sought closer ties with the British as a means to enhance and extend American military and economic power during the dark days of 1939-40 when the world teetered on the brink of the catastrophe that would become World War II.
Like any President, FDR’s foremost responsibility was to maintain the security of the United States against possible attack. Given the threats posed by fascist Germany and Japan, the relative size of our armed forces in comparison with other states and the reluctance of an “isolationist” Congress to authorize military expenditures in peacetime, this proved to be no easy task. Indeed, in June of 1939 the roughly 180,000-man US Army ranked 19th in the world-smaller than Portugal’s! To bolster America’s security, FDR not only called for an increase in the size of the nation’s military budget, and the repeal of the arms embargo provisions within the 1930s neutrality legislation, he also quietly sought to strengthen America’s ties with Great Britain-the one nation whose combined military, political and economic strength might serve as a bulwark against a possible Axis aggression in the Western Hemisphere.
Given the United States’ status today as the world’s lone superpower, it is hard for most Americans to imagine a time when we might look to Great Britain and the Royal Navy as America’s first line of defense; yet on the eve of the Second World War until well into the early 1940s, Great Britain’s combined military strength exceeded that of the United States. FDR was well aware of this. He also understood that it would take time for the United States to catch up with her potential allies and adversaries. Hence one of the fastest and most efficient means for him to bolster America’s security was to strengthen the ties between Great Britain and the United States.
FDR began this effort in June of 1939, with a much celebrated invitation to the King and Queen of England to visit Washington and Hyde Park-the first time a reigning British Monarch had set foot on American soil. This was followed some months later by his reaching out to Winston Churchill who was then First Lord of the Admiralty but was already being spoken of as a potential Prime Minister. With the outbreak of war, and the disastrous events of May-June 1940, when France fell in a matter of six weeks, FDR was strongly advised by his Chief of Staff, General Marshall, and others not to place America’s stock in Great Britain and to concentrate all of his efforts and resources in strengthening America’s armed forces. But FDR refused to adhere to this strategy. If anything, the fall of France and subsequent victory of the Royal Air Force in the “Battle of Britain” served to strengthen his determination to continue to support and establish closer ties not only with the United Kingdom, but also with the British Commonwealth. In August 1940, he concluded the Ogdensburg Agreement with Canada, linking the security of both nations and establishing what would become the Permanent Joint Board of Defense. One month later, at the urging of now Prime Minister Churchill, who reciprocated FDR’s desire to establish closer ties, he signed the famous destroyers-for-bases deal, where the United States agreed to supply the Royal Navy with 50 out-of-service US destroyers in exchange for the US right to establish American Naval bases on British territory in Newfoundland and the Caribbean.
As the war progressed the links between Britain and the United States became even stronger, through the lend-lease program; the creation of such institutions as the Combined Chief of Staff; and the joint efforts of both powers to create a new post-war strategic and economic order through the drafting of the Atlantic Charter; the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; and the creation of the United Nations. This is not to say that serious disagreements over policy and military strategy did not come up during the war-they did. Moreover, by the end of the war, it was clear to all concerned that the seemingly unlimited economic power of the United States-which by 1945 had placed over 16 million American men and women under arms, developed the first atomic bomb, and built the largest Navy and Air Force the world had ever seen- had rendered it the unequivocally dominant partner in the alliance. But the wartime amity and respect established between the British and American peoples and governments, symbolized by the close personal friendship that developed between FDR and Churchill, would endure. Shortly after the war Winston Churchill reflected on this, noting that a “Special Relationship” had developed between the two peoples.
Today, as we look back at the events of the past 70 years, and the strong support the United States has received from Great Britain during the Cold War and in our struggle against international terrorism, it seems clear that Churchill’s observation was correct. We have had and will continue to have our differences over specific policies, but on balance the British and the American people share a remarkably similar world view. It is for this reason that issues such as what role BP may or may not have played in the release of convicted terrorist Abdel Baset Al Megrahi in 2009 will not break the Special Relationship, for the outrage many Americans feel over this potential travesty is widely shared among the British press (that broke the story) and public.
The American people would do well to remember this. They would also do well to remember that it was an American President-at perhaps the most vulnerable moment in American history-who initiated the Special Relationship in an effort to save not only the United States but modern civilization as we know it. Thanks to the stalwart courage and determination of the British people, who refused to give in to Hitler, FDR’s decision to extend a hand across the Atlantic proved to be the right one.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.