Born in the USA: Labour and the Special Relationship

The Special Relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States may have been shaped by war, but the histories between the two countries and governments go deeper. @scottcresswell1 looks at how Labour have naviagted it over the years

It’s the second day of August 1945. President of the United States of America Harry S. Truman arrives in Britain, greeted by King George VI. “I hear you’ve had a revolution!” were the words uttered by the President about Labour’s landslide victory the previous week. “Oh no”, the modest and shy King replied. “We don’t have those here”.

King George VI and Clement Attlee, Buckingham Palace, 1945 (Photos Prints,  Framed, Posters,...) #1957783

The Special Relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States may have been shaped by war, but the histories between the two countries and governments go back to the American Revolution and long even before that. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, those two distinguished war leaders, along with the Soviet man of steel Joseph Stalin, had put an end to Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror across Europe.    

By the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, President Roosevelt had died. With the White House occupied by Harry S. Truman, he met with Churchill and Stalin to arrange a formal peace treaty. The Americans recognised Churchill as a towering figure whose charisma and fame instantly made him a hero of imperialism and internationalism. But suddenly, on 26th July, that titan had been defeated by his own people at the polls. A shy man now stood in Number 10, a new Prime Minister representing a Labour Party.

As is very well documented, Americans have always possessed a fear of not just communism but also socialism. Upon the election of Attlee, the Truman administration was deeply worried that Labour would steer far too much towards the Soviets and damage the Special Relationship. However, history has proved that it’s often Conservative governments, closer to all Republicans and many Democrats, that have damaged the so-called Special Relationship most.

The Suez Crisis in 1956, the most important political event in post-war British history, dominated Anthony Eden’s Tory government after General Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. British troops, along with the French and Israelis, fought to regain it, but it was US President Dwight D. Eisenhower who openly criticised the military action and refused to aid Britain. In the short term, it meant the end of the crisis and Eden’s resignation, but in the long term, it damaged UK-US relations critically. Until Reagan’s election in 1980, the Conservatives remained scornful of the US and Britain, from the Suez Crisis to joining the EEC in 1973, were effectively alone and irrelevant on the global stage.

While the relationship recovered during the 1980s era of the New Right with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Nixon and Watergate angered the pro-European Edward Heath. Bill Clinton wasn’t at all pleased when the Major government was effectively searching for dirt on him in an attempt to aid George H. W. Bush in his 1992 re-election campaign. Years later, President Obama openly criticised David Cameron over Libya (before snubbing the Tory PM in his autobiography). Even now, as we near 2022, the Special Relationship is damaged after the tumultuous Trump years and his entirely rude attitude towards Theresa May and frightening bromance with Boris Johnson. And when it comes to Biden and Johnson, it may be cheeriness on the outside, but the Democrat’s view of populism and Brexit is all too clear.

You’d be forgiven for believing that American governments would be far more disapproving of and opposed to Labour governments. Without a doubt, Democratic and Republican administrations have been cautious. But history has proved that Labour governments have been far more progressive than the Tories when it comes to the Special Relationship, but often at the cost of compromise.

Aside from domestic affairs, the Attlee government from 1945 to 1951 radically changed Britain’s place in the world. The era of empire and the days when dusk never fell over the vast British Empire were gone. However, this was not a retreat into isolationism, far from it. After World War II, Woodrow Wilson’s American government helped found the League of Nations, essentially designed as a peace-keeping organisation. However, its failure was clear from the start. Isolationism was still incredibly ripe in American, and after the 1920 Presidential election and 12-years of Republican dominance, the country’s impact worldwide was weaker. Further and more disastrous failure came with the creation of Nazi Germany in 1933 and its invasion of Poland six years later, beginning the bloodiest of all conflicts.

People voted Labour because the war may have been won, but not the peace. The cooperation of Truman and Attlee, as two of many world leaders, allowed for the creation of the United Nations. Unlike its predecessor, the UN still lives to this day. More important, however, was the result of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Foreign Secretary to the Attlee government, Ernest Bevin, is kindly remembered as one of the critical signatories who founded NATO, along with Dean Acheson, a dominant figure who developed the Truman doctrine of anti-Communism that began the Cold War. Labour removed any doubts among Americans that they were communists and, although it wouldn’t be seen for nearly five decades, their partnership with America helped transform Russia into a democratic country. That, along with the creation of two internationalist peace-keeping organisations, isn’t a bad record.

However, it hasn’t always been so consensual. When he was elected Labour leader in 1963, Harold Wilson was determined to construct himself into a British John F. Kennedy. After “thirteen years of Tory misrule”, Wilson exuded hope, vision, and youth for the United Kingdom dominant in the sixties. But when the American dream itself was fatally killed on 22nd November 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson became President, and the Vietnam War escalated dramatically. The number of US Force advisers had increased from 16,000 at the start to 536,000 by 1969, and a total of 2.7 million Americans served in the war due to conscription.

Wilson’s genius was his skill of unification. Uniting his party together for thirteen years was a real achievement, and he aimed to do the same with Vietnam. However, the prime minister was heavily criticised for sitting on the fence, denying Johnson British troops on Vietnamese soil, and not openly criticising the President’s military exploits. These three lines of an attack made it a near-impossible situation, but the cunning politician found another way. His backing of the Vietnam War while not subscribing British resources angered the US President and damaged the special relationship in the short term, but in the long term, much credit is given to Wilson and Johnson’s successors, Nixon (who Wilson once bizarrely named America’s “most able President”), Ford, and Carter, all of whom believed in ending the conflict in Vietnam. Overall, it proved to be a success on both sides.

File:Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Prime Minister Harold Wilson C2537-5  (cropped).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to Iraq, this too could have been another moment where the Special Relationship could have crumbled. It must be remembered that this was in the aftermath of the 11th of September 2001 attacks, the first time America was attacked on the home front since the war. Tony Blair consciously stood “shoulder to shoulder” with America and President George W. Bush. Beforehand, both sides had been sceptical of one another. During the incredibly close 2000 election between Democrat Al Gore and Bush, Blair and the New Labour machine were secretly very hopeful and wished for the election of Gore. Blair had a strong relationship with Bill Clinton and, as two subscribers to the Third Way philosophy, the election of New Democrat Gore would have been preferable. However, this was not to be.

Many on the left criticise Tony Blair for not taking the same approach used by Harold Wilson on Vietnam when it came to Iraq. However, history should not be rewritten to depict a simple rush to war and one that Blair was immediately willing to partake in. Like Harold Wilson, he did find another way. While it’s true that the Bush administration was eager for war by 2003, Blair was far more cautious and sought a second UN resolution. He was appeasing a weary domestic public and the White House by doing so. This is where the “weapons of mass destruction” come in as Saddam Hussein had breached international several times before. We all know what happened next, but it’s ridiculous to claim that the invasion of Iraq in early 2003 would not have happened if the government had declined to be involved. The Americans would have done it alone, but Blair saw that as a betrayal of the relationship. That would have damned him domestically as well, as the right-wing press (still supportive of him at this stage) would have decried him as a weak leader, and that reaction would have quickly changed the public’s perception of him. Unlike Wilson, his stance profoundly damaged his standing.

However, those who believe that Blair lied over the intelligence are blind to those inquiries that, although critical of Blair and Bush, find no deceit. In any case, Blair saw damage to the Special Relationship as a path well-trodden, and the results weren’t good. A repeat of such tensions after September 2001 would have been entirely catastrophic and worse than what followed.

When Blair met Bush: how the UK went to war in Iraq | Iraq war inquiry |  The Guardian

If there was any damage done to the perception of the Special Relationship during the Blair/Bush years, then much of it was repaired by the partnership of Gordon Brown and Barack Obama. The newbie President took office in 2009, twelve years after Gordon Brown had first become Chancellor. His experience and Obama’s popularity made for the perfect response to the Great Recession in the late 2000s. Episode Five of the Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution focuses on Brown’s brief stint as Prime Minister and how world leaders like Obama and Merkel praised his response to the crisis. He found himself treated like a king in all countries but his own, and Obama often praised Brown for his solutions and leadership, even after the Labour Prime Minister had been defeated by Cameron.

Although the Special Relationship, like any other partnership, has had its ups and downs, it has proved to be a progressive and beneficial alliance. And when Labour Prime Ministers find themselves in dangerous situations involving the American partnership, they recognise its closeness and how when it is damaged, it leads only to isolationism and irrelevance. It explains why very often, Labour Prime Ministers, like Wilson and Blair, work intensely to get on with Republican Presidents like Nixon and Bush.

History has proved that Labour Prime Ministers have been often more cautious of damaging the relationship and widespread compromise. However, with Trump out of the White House, there is hope. For Britain, today is a time of choosing. We’ve left the European Union, and as Boris Johnson’s promises of a free trade paradise fail to emerge, perhaps Britain needs to be closer to America more than ever before.


Scott Cresswell is a commentator and writer of political history and current affairs. Currently a student at Middlesex University. Uses Twitter (@ScottCresswell8) whenever he remembers it exists. His website is https://scottpcresswell.co.uk


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