ARROMANCHES, France—The veterans are in their 90s, and some more than 100 years old, their withered bodies seeming weighed down by the medals on their chests. But there is no way the men—Brits, Canadians, Americans—united by the extraordinary combat they saw 75 years ago would do without those decorations.
Each year they have a chance, once again, to be celebrated as heroes and listen to politicians speak euphorically, as President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May and indeed Queen Elizabeth II have done, about the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain.
For those who braved the German guns to land here in Normandy on June 6, 1944—the Americans at Utah and Omaha beaches, the Canadians at Juno, and the British at Sword and Gold—there is not much doubt about the specialness of what they did together, and could not have done without each other.
But as we look to a future in which Britain withdraws from the European Union (finally) and tries to lean on historical ties to the United States to compensate for a cataclysmic economic and political divorce, it is important to take a closer look at what May gushingly described as a “precious and profound friendship” that is “the bedrock of our shared prosperity and security,” while Trump, talking only about the U.S. and U.K., called it “the greatest alliance the world has ever known.”
What may have been true in the summer of 1944–when Britain was still an empire, albeit a crumbling one–has not been true since. In the years after the war the United States became a superpower while the U.K. shrank back into its island redoubt, becoming the fifth-ranked global economy (one seventh the size of the U.S. economy, one fifth of China’s) with a military regularly described as “punching above its weight.”
In British-American relations, World War II was a huge reversal of fortune about which most Americans are oblivious and which most Britons, if they are aware, would rather forget.
Let's put aside the American Revolution, decided by massive French intervention, and certainly not by any magnanimity on the part of the British.
For the next 70 years or so, the British treated the Americans largely with contempt, and to the extent there was an affinity, it was on the basis of language and, yes, race. Their feuds and indeed their wars against each other were among WASP brethren.
As the historian Ephraim Douglass Adam once noted, “For all Englishmen, of whatever class, in spite of rivalry in power, of opposing theories of trade, of divergent political institutions, there existed a vague, though influential, pride in the advance of a people of similar race, sprung from British loins.”
Be that as it may, the conservative British establishment saw the American cousins as contemptible rubes, unpredictable threats to Pax Britannia. And, also, an annoying distraction from the serious wars among monarchs in Europe.
During the “War of 1812” (a sideshow in Britain's war against Napoleon) the British burned what was worth burning in Washington D.C., including the White House, in 1814. Special relationship indeed.
The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 is talked about in the U.S. as if it is some sacred paper barrier against foreign intervention in the Western Hemisphere. But the British ignored it from the start as they competed with the yanquis for domination of trade routes across Central America. Not only did they occupy British Honduras, where they stayed until 1981 when it became Belize, for decades in the 19th century they declared the ill-defined Mosquito Kingdom, virtually the entire Caribbean Coast of Central America, a British protectorate.
The British ruling class also considered the American rabble as partisans of subversive republicanism, the antithesis of monarchical order.
In the mid-1850s, the British and Americans were constantly rattling sabers at each other. During the Crimean War, the British envoy to Washington was expelled for allegedly recruiting Americans to fight in the British military. In 1859 on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest where the border between British Columbia and what was then the Washington Territory was ill defined, an American farmer shot a British pig. Soon troops and ships were being deployed on both sides.
The historic and racial affinity among what the French still call “les anglo-saxons” created enormous and very dangerous complications just before and during the American Civil War.
By the middle of the 19th century a certain rapport had developed among the restless masses of Britain and their notion of the freedom-loving Americans, but many Americans, for their part, had begun to romanticize the monarchy almost beyond comprehension.
Thus in the autumn of 1860, with American society irreconcilably divided between the slave-owning South and the wage labor North, a visit by “Bertie,” Prince of Wales, thrilled the entire nation.
But six months later the Civil War began, and the British establishment, whatever its qualms about slavery at that point, favored the South. The hope was that this upstart American "republic" would be sundered, and its inspiration to the masses in Europe would be crushed.
Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, repeatedly threatened Britain with war, declaring he would “wrap the world in fire.” Southerners flirted with the idea of returning to the monarchy. The British, while supposedly neutral, helped the Confederates build some of their most effective warships and turned a blind eye to massive shipments of arms and materiel.
After the North’s victory in the Civil War, there followed a long and difficult time of regrouping. The vast British Empire did its thing, the Americans did theirs, and set about building an empire of their own.
The American war against Spain in 1898 took the U.S. global as it claimed Spanish colonies from Cuba to the Philippines, and Rudyard Kipling wrote about the Americans, his racial brethren, as if they had not the slightest clue what they were doing: “Take up the white man’s burden,” he ironized, “the savage wars of peace.”
World War I is remembered by Donald Trump as the war "we" won. But it began in August 1914. The U.S. did not enter officially until 1917, and American troops did not see combat until early 1918. It ended 11 months later. The Americans had tipped the balance, fresh troops on a battlefield where carnage beyond reckoning had decimated and exhausted the populations of Europe.
Woodrow Wilson, who had campaigned for reelection in 1916 with the slogan "he kept us out of war," tried to build an international order with the League of Nations, but Congress had had enough of Europe, of entangling alliances, and the great empires at each others’ throats.
The French and the British, wanted to exact a price the vanquished Germans would be paying for generations, and less than a generation later, war came again.
Where was the "special relationship" then? It was at best a vague abstraction. Great Britain entered the war against Germany after the Nazi invasion of Poland at the beginning of September 1939. Although President Franklin Roosevelt began sending material supplies to Britain and Russia in the Lend Lease program, America did not enter the war until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
The battle of Britain raged, and the Blitz, as the U.K. had fought on alone.
American material aid was important, but American troops did not join the fight until two years and three months after the war had begun. By then, millions had died in Western Europe and on the Eastern Front as Hitler made, for Germany, the fatal mistake of invading the Soviet Union. Indeed, a new book by Daily Beast contributor Andrew Nagorski argues that 1941, for that reason, was the year that Germany lost the war.
By the 1950s, the British were in full retreat from their old empire. When they tried to stop Egyptian Nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser from seizing the Suez Canal in 1956, the U.S. intervened to stop the war, and force the British-French-Israeli coalition to withdraw.
As Britain pulled back from its erstwhile colonies and protectorates east of Suez, the United States moved to fill the void left by its diminishing power in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. The borders it had drawn for the Middle East, some of them supposedly on the back of the napkin, fell to the Americans to justify and defend: a labor that continues to this day.
Later, Britain’s claims to a global role, at least in American eyes, would be due to soft power: the Beatles and the cultural revolution they did so much to launch; James Bond, the iconic but purely fictional spy; and always those royals, whose stories continue to excite the American imagination.
But by the 1990s, some British correspondents in Washington were ordered never to use the term “special relationship.”
“We were told,” said one, “the term was intellectually shallow and vacuous.”
And so it is. Yet as Britain plunges ahead toward Brexit, believing it can leap out the window of the European Union and that Donald J. Trump will be waiting to receive it with open arms, the “special relationship” is, really, all it can cling to.
To which, given Trump’s record of promise making and promise breaking, the best one can say is, “Good luck with that.”