Not-so-special relationship

Dean Acheson and the myth of Anglo-American unity

5 January 2013

‘Three things of my own are about to burst on the world,’ Dean Acheson wrote to his friend Lady Pamela Berry, the London hostess and wife of Michael Berry, later Lord Hartwell, owner of the Daily Telegraph. They were ‘a leader in the December issue of Foreign Affairs… a speech at West Point… and a piece about my childhood in the Connecticut valley.’ It was characteristic of Acheson’s self-regard that he should have thought the first and last of these would ‘burst’ anywhere, but he was more right about the second than he can have known. Just over fifty years ago, on 5 December 1962, two days after his letter to Lady -Pamela, Acheson gave that speech, and indeed it exploded across the Atlantic like an artillery shell.

Maybe his name no longer rings the loudest of bells, but in his day Acheson was a mighty figure. His father was English by birth, an Episcopalian (Anglican) clergyman who became Bishop of Connecticut. After Groton, Yale and Harvard Law School, Dean joined Covington & Burling, a fashionable Washington law firm, and he then moved into politics, though not the messy electoral kind. He briefly served President Roosevelt as undersecretary of the Treasury, returning to the administration as assistant secretary of state in 1941, before he was promoted to undersecretary by President Truman, who then chose him as his secretary of state from 1949 to 1953.

Not only was Acheson at the heart of an American patrician establishment which no longer exists, his political CV — Lend-Lease, Bretton Woods, the coming of the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of Nato, the Korean war — is a short history of the age. At the State Department, he had to deal, almost absurdly, with the threat abroad from communist Russia under Joseph Stalin, and the threat at home from the anti-communist demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the two Joes together making rational conduct of foreign policy very difficult. After Eisenhower was elected president, Acheson may have felt some relief at returning to private life and his lucrative law practice, although he was still treated as a valued counsellor, at least by Democrats: President Kennedy sought his advice during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.

Some weeks later, he spoke at West Point. He had been invited to give a keynote address there by General William Westmoreland, the superintendent or principal of the military academy, but declined until pressed by his friend General Maxwell Taylor. And so Acheson addressed the cadets on ‘Our Atlantic alliance: the political and economic strands’. Most of the speech was a conventional tour d’horizon about the continuing Soviet threat and the necessary response, by way of strengthening American political and economic ties with Europe. None of that might even have been reported at all in London papers or noticed by politicians at Westminster. What riveted attention was almost an aside:

Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. Great Britain, attempting to be a broker between the United States and Russia, has seemed to conduct policy as weak as its military power.

It’s hard now to recapture the electrifying effect in London of those two sentences, the almost hysterical ire they caused. The Daily Express screamed about a ‘stab in the back’, while the Daily Telegraph sneered that Acheson was ‘more immaculate in dress than in judgment’. The Spectator took a more measured view, but hoped, in pained terms, that ‘in this transitional period we have a right to ask that our friends should not make matters worse. It is the nature of nations diminished in power to feel humiliated when that fact is called to their attention.’


Among those who felt especially humiliated was Harold Macmillan. The prime minister was so stung by Acheson’s denigration of ‘the will and resolution of the British people’, as he put it, that he not only complained bitterly in private but, despite Kennedy’s warning him against any exaggerated reaction, publicly snorted that Acheson had made ‘an error which had been made by quite a lot of people in the last 400 years, including Philip of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler’. But resentment cut across party lines. A few weeks after Acheson’s speech, Hugh Gaitskell died and Harold Wilson was elected Labour leader, to become prime minister in 1964. Several years later, another intervention by Acheson prompted Wilson to say in the Commons that ‘Mr Acheson was a distinguished figure who had lost a State Department and not found a role’. (The story is told by Douglas Brinkley of Hofstra University, to whose article ‘Dean Acheson and the “Special Relationship”’ in the Historical Journal, September 1990, I am indebted.)

It’s easy to see that Acheson had touched a raw nerve. ‘Lost an empire’ was obviously true: the process of decolonisation — what Macmillan himself called the ‘wind of change’ — had continued apace under his government. And Acheson’s other words were also near the knuckle, an attack on our sustaining myths. Although he didn’t mention the name of Sir Winston Churchill, his speech might have been a repudiation of another speech given more than 16 years earlier, also at an American academy. Churchill’s address of 5 March 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, made a phrase famous (though Churchill did not ‘coin’ it, as one still reads in the New York Times): ‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.’

But that Fulton speech also contained other phrases besides. What was needed, Churchill claimed, was a ‘fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.’ And again, ‘Let no man underrate the abiding power of the British Empire and Commonwealth.’ The emptiness of both of Churchill’s sentences was soon demonstrated. In November 1947, President Truman ignored his British friends and voted on the Zionist side for a resolution partitioning Palestine which the British government very much did not want to pass. It split again over the Suez adventure in 1956, when Anthony Eden’s government colluded with France and Israel in the ill-fated Suez adventure without telling Eisenhower, who immediately scuppered the operation. Macmillan irritably responded that ‘Mr Acheson seems wholly to misunderstand the role of the Commonwealth in world affairs’ — but just what was that role?

Like Churchill, Macmillan had an American mother, and his delusion about the Anglo-American relationship had been further encouraged by his connection with the Kennedy family: his wife Lady Dorothy Macmillan was the aunt of Lord Hartington, killed in action in 1944 shortly after he married Kathleen Kennedy, the future president’s sister. And Macmillan it was who had said in 1943 that ‘we are the Greeks to their Romans’. The Americans were ‘great big bustling people’, he patronisingly said, who needed to be mentored and guided by the worldly-wise English as Roman households had been by Greek tutors (who were in fact slaves, unhappily for the metaphor).

This was and remained nonsense. Those ‘bustling’ Romans had no wish at all to be guided by the sophisticated Greeks across the Atlantic, in 1943, or 1962, when Kennedy had politely telephoned Macmillan during the missile crisis, but in no way whatever sought British advice, not when American Boeings armed with hydrogen bombs were flying along the Arctic coast of Russia on the stage of alert immediately below war, and not when the crisis was defused by Robert Kennedy cutting a secret deal with the Russians on his brother’s behalf, by agreeing to withdraw American missiles from Turkey.

By ‘transitional’, The Spectator presumably intended the withdrawal from empire followed by the first British bid to enter what was then the European Economic Community or Common Market. Having earlier made a formal application, Macmillan met President Charles de Gaulle in June 1962, and wrote in his diary, ‘I am not at all sure how far de Gaulle and the French really feel it to be in France’s interest to have us in.’ Then they met again at Rambouillet ten days after Acheson’s speech for talks which made it clear that de Gaulle did intend to veto the British application. Only two days after seeing de Gaulle, Macmillan flew to meet Kennedy in the Bahamas. The Americans wanted the British to give up the Skybolt missile, and Macmillan with difficulty persuaded Kennedy to allow the British to have Polaris missiles instead, which was an unmistakable sop.

A month after that, in the new year of 1963, de Gaulle announced a French veto on the British application. Since Churchill had told de Gaulle in 1944 that he would always follow the Americans rather than the French, it’s scarcely surprising if de Gaulle wasn’t a doting anglophile. But then neither was Acheson, despite his origins, appearance, and many English friends like the Berrys. In 1950, the secretary of state had learnt that American and British officials were working on a document to define the ‘special relationship’, a phrase he abhorred, and Acheson ordered that all copies of the ‘wretched paper’ should be destroyed, not least because it would encourage ‘the McCarthys’ if it could be suggested that ‘the State Department was the tool of a foreign power’.

A more telling criticism of Acheson might have concerned motes and beams. He was better at criticising British self-delusion than the American kind, and 1962 was not a good time for any American to be cocksure about who was and who wasn’t finding roles. If anything, the Americans were not losing an empire but acquiring one, or trying to, with unhappy results. Look at the two military men who had invited Acheson to West Point. Within three years of his speech, General Taylor was American ambassador in Vietnam, and General Westmoreland was commanding the American forces there, which proved a lamentable end to his career. And as a footnote to that sorry war, the relationship wasn’t special enough for Wilson to send British troops to Vietnam, which President Johnson very much wanted.

Still, Acheson was right about Great Britain, and Macmillan’s clutching at American friendship seems in hindsight a poignant or even pitiful fantasy, though not one that ended with him. Charles Williams puts this very well in his recent biography of Macmillan. Like other prime ministers before and since, he persuaded himself that there was some mystical bond between the two countries, quite failing to see that ‘the United States, like all great powers, would in the end follow — without necessarily much regard for others — what it perceived from time to time to be its own interests’. Or as Palmerston said, in words of which Mikhail Gorbachev once reminded Margaret Thatcher, not that she needed reminding any more than de Gaulle did, nations have no eternal friends and no eternal foe, only eternal interests. That truth will never be ‘about played out’.

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  • celtthedog

    Two points about Acheson

    1) He was one of the geniuses who got American involved in Vietnam — probably the biggest American foreign policy debacle of the 20th century. This should hardly persuade anyone of any particular wisdom on his part.

    2) The trite and overquoted “Britain has lost an empire….” was response to Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech — Acheson was so angered by it, he refused to attend a dinner in Churchill’s honour afterwards. Acheson, ignorant of Joseph Stalin’s true character, actually believed Churchill was wrong about the Soviet Union. Again, whatever the flaws in Churchill’s speech, Acheson was a fool.

    But really, who gives a f*** about Acheson? He is as relevant a figure as Queen Victroria. Acheson came from a period when the United States was the undisputed military, economic and cultural power on the planet. Those days are already over — like Macmillan’s Britain, the present-day US is living on a legacy of the past.
    So yes, by all means, bin the special relationship. And get the hell out of the EU while we’re at it. We’re headed for a multi-polar world — so let’s start looking out for ourselves and stop giving a toss what Johnny Foreigner thinks.

    • odysseus

      The United States never had such undisputed power as people seem to imagine. The largest military, the strongest economy, the third largest population, and the world’s culture don’t make you as unilaterally strong as you think. We got embroiled in Vietnam, saw protests against us across Europe, got caught in the Iranian hostage crisis, never solved Taiwan or N. Korea, experienced the oil shocks and stagflation of the 70’s, couldn’t preserve our favored governments in S. America, and the list goes on. People have been preaching the fall of the US since Macmillan’s time.

      But the idea that we’ve recently experienced some sudden decline is deluded. We still pay for the military that preserves the safety of every ocean. We’re still the largest economy in the world, and with our nearest rivals desperately taking unsustainable debt to catch us it seems we’ll stay that way for the future. There is no contradiction in saying the US is large and powerful, yet we don’t always get our way. After all, we don’t run our foreign policy like we’re the British in India, or the Soviets in Eastern Europe.

      The fact is, we do live in a multipolar world. Different powers do go their own ways, for their own reasons. But if you think that means UK isolationism is the answer, remember: the world is now in the most peaceful time it has ever experienced, and for better or worse, that’s due in part to the US willingness to pay for world security.

      • Anonymous Untermensch

        Is it really that much more peaceful than the C19th Pax Britannica which resulted from Britain paying for world security?

  • Watcher

    Acheson was secretary of state when the US allowed the demented Macarthur to destroy several divisions of the US army in a massive Chinese ambush by inventing his own ‘intelligence’ on Chinese intentions. Acheson was unable to expose MacArthur’s folley despite all the resources of the State Department, scarcely a mental giant.

  • Keysie

    The fact that an American made the remark rather than a Frenchman or a Soviet is why it hurt Britain so much at the time, however accurate it was or wasn’t. If De Gaulle made such cutting remarks, they would have been ignored but the Yanks must have been considered pretty close/attached (and continue to be) for it to cause so much of a fallout! Obama’s done an Acheson about ten times but that doesn’t stop Cameron being enthralled by his tuck-ins.

    A fair point is also made by odysseus regarding America’s supposed ‘imperialism’ and their conduct compared to European colonial powers and the Soviets. Whatever the disorted sense of security or geopolitical considerations for all the proxy wars and invasions, the Americans weren’t motivated by the same Victorian, Napoleonic or Leopoldian vanity.

    • cth

      “Whatever the disorted sense of security or geopolitical considerations
      for all the proxy wars and invasions, the Americans weren’t motivated by
      the same Victorian, Napoleonic or Leopoldian vanity.”

      Why don’t you research Manifest Destiny before you spout such drivel.

      • Keysie

        Wrong century clown.

        • cth

          So history started when? 1900? Maybe it ended too with the fall of the Soviets in ’91? You must be American. Victorian era 1837-1901, Napoleonic 1799-1815, Leopold (?2nd of Belgians I suppose) 1835-1909. Seems to dovetail nicely with MD. USA every bit as malicious and ruthless in furthering ends militarily as “old” colonial powers -just most of world already taken. Go ask a Native American, or Mexican for that matter.

          • Keysie

            The point is, the comment was made in the context of decolonisation and the cold war in the middle of the 20th century, when the admittedly aggressive US was pegging itself against the Soviets. That is of a very different nature to European imperialism up to the turn of the 20th century.

            The Manifest Destiny belonged to a 19th century mindset, not the America of the 1950s in a completely different world. That is why I see your point as irrelevant.

    • Anonymous Untermensch

      Rubbish. They were just the inheritors of Britains 1900 informal free-trade empire as opposed to our 1800 mercantilist formal empire.

  • roger

    How did Britain ‘lose’ it’s empire. One of Americas WWII war aims was to destroy the old European empires (French, Dutch and British), all their actions in the Far East in 1945 show it.

    I puke ever time I read people talking about America and our relation with it. Britain was altered for ever, for the worse in so many ways , by the American invasion of Britain in 1943, they are still in occupation.

    Is it still to late to kick them where it hurts? No, not if we helped the Chinese and the Russians, the Americans will soon be on the back foot.

    • AndrewMunn

      Maybe Britain’s leaders should have thought of this Roger, when they made one of the biggest miscalculations in our history and declared war on Nazi Germany, a country that we didn’t stand a snowballs’ chance in hell of beating in open warfare.

      As the Americans would say, Britain put itself between a rock and a hard place!

      In WWII Britain stood alone, America came to the rescue on terms that were probably not too favourable at all to Britain, to say the least.

      Has not Britain done exactly the same thing through our history to other countries!?

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