By 1943, British leaders were apprehensive that when World War II ended, Soviet military power and territorial holdings would be greatly enhanced, allowing the communist Soviet Union to dominate much of Eastern Europe. In October 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill negotiated an informal percentages agreement with Soviet Premier Josef Stalin whereby the two leaders delineated their countries' respective spheres of influence. At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt both acquiesced in effective Soviet domination of most of Eastern Europe. The three leaders also agreed to divide Germany into three separate occupation zones, to be administered by their occupying military forces but ultimately to be reunited as one state. In April 1945, Churchill unavailingly urged American military commanders to disregard their existing understandings with Soviet forces and take and—he apparently hoped—retain Berlin, the symbolically important German capital.
Churchill's successor as prime minister, Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, and his foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, a firmly anticommunist trade unionist, were equally strong advocates of a policy of firm resistance to Soviet expansion in Europe. Their position, however, was one of relative weakness, as Britain ended the war near bankruptcy, heavily indebted to the United States for Lend-Lease aid—obligations canceled in return for British pledges to dismantle the sterling area—and faced with heavy and expensive military commitments in Germany, Japan, and Greece and around its far-flung empire. London's foreign debt increased sevenfold during the war, standing at £13.3 billion in June 1945. To finance the war, the British had liquidated most of their overseas investments, and the country was running a substantial adverse balance of trade, while wartime bombing had badly damaged existing factories and plants, squeezing Britain's export capacities. In addition, the new Labour government sought to institute ambitious social welfare policies. Without U.S. assistance, Attlee and Bevin believed, Britain's foreign policy goals would remain unattainable.
In 1945, Britain still ruled the greatest empire in history, significant portions of which in Asia were regained in the last months of the war. Budgetary considerations and the desire to allay American anticolonialist sentiment mandated the speedy jettisoning of much of the empire, as did the Labour Party's stated anti-imperialist outlook and the strength of nationalist sentiment, especially in India. In February 1946, Attlee proudly announced plans to grant that country full independence in the near future. This occurred in August 1947, with the largely Muslim northwestern and northeastern provinces choosing to separate from the predominantly Hindu remainder, leaving what became Pakistan. Within a few years, Burma followed suit, although Britain retook and retained for some years those Asian colonies—Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong—whose continued possession and administration remained economically profitable.
British initiatives and prompts were highly significant to the making of early U.S. Cold War policies. Conscious of British weakness, especially vis-à-vis the newly menacing Soviet Union, with its power now ensconced across Central and Eastern Europe to the Elbe, Attlee sought to encourage the United States to maintain a close Anglo-American alliance. He was privy to and endorsed Churchill's intention to sound these themes in a major address in the United States, which Churchill did in his famous February 1946 "Sinews of Peace" speech (also known as the "Iron Curtain" speech) at Fulton, Missouri.
By late 1946, budgetary problems left British leaders little alternative but to reduce expensive military commitments. They chose to do so in Greece and Turkey. Greece was facing a major internal communist insurgency, while Turkey was experiencing heavy Soviet pressure for rights to the strategic Dardanelles straits. Attlee and Bevin privately informed President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall of their intention to withdraw sometime before the public announcement, which became the occasion for Truman's February 1947 speech (known as the Truman Doctrine), placing U.S. aid to Greece and Turkey in the broader context of a worldwide anticommunist strategy.
The harsh winter of 1946–1947 caused economic difficulties and generated unrest across Western Europe, bringing further British pleas for U.S. aid. This helped to generate the Marshall Plan, a coordinated program for European economic recovery. British acquiescence in the merging of their and the American occupation zone of Germany and the area's inclusion in the Marshall Plan were contributing factors in the 1948–1949 Berlin Blockade. Attlee and Bevin, already instrumental in establishing a Western European Union defense pact under the March 1948 Treaty of Brussels, urged that only if the United States itself joined a defensive pact would Europe feel secure. This in turn led to the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in Washington in April 1949 by the United States, Canada, and ten West European states. The members of the resultant North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) pledged to come to each other's defense should one be attacked.
By 1950, major differences existed between the United States and Britain on Asian policy over Hong Kong, Indochina, anticolonialism, and especially the new communist People's Republic of China (PRC). Britain, unlike the United States, pragmatically accorded the PRC almost immediate recognition and traded extensively with it. The Korean conflict gave British leaders an opportunity to demonstrate their continuing loyalty and regain the international status that Britain's economic problems and the 1949 devaluation of the pound had eroded. Due to Bevin's poor health and eventual death, during the Korean crisis Attlee was central to British policymaking. Urged on by his ambassador in Washington, Sir Oliver Franks, in July 1950 Attlee overrode his reluctant chiefs of staff and committed British troops to the American-led United Nations (UN) forces.
British officials welcomed the massive American enhancement of NATO forces that quickly resulted from the Korean conflict. Fearful, however, of UN commander General Douglas MacArthur's bellicose rhetoric on the potential use of nuclear weapons, they welcomed his removal. Churchill, who regained office in 1951, rejoiced when his old colleague Dwight David Eisenhower, former World War II commander of Allied forces in Europe, became president of the United States in 1953. Fearful of the destructive consequences of nuclear war, especially since both the Americans and the Soviets were developing thermonuclear weapons and since Eisenhower's New Look defense strategy relied primarily upon nuclear rather than conventional forces, Churchill urged Eisenhower to seek rapprochement and arms control agreements with the Soviet Union—advice that reinforced Eisenhower's own proclivities and contributed to his search for coexistence with the new Soviet general secretary, Nikita Khrushchev. Although Eisenhower probably only used this as a convenient excuse to justify his own preexisting inclinations, he cited Churchill's refusal in 1954 to join the United States in mounting air strikes to relieve beleaguered French forces at Dien Bien Phu as the reason that the American government declined to intervene there and help the French continue the conflict.
In 1956, nonetheless, Eisenhower made Britain's reduced status and dependence upon the United States humiliatingly apparent. In 1953 the nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in Egypt. Initially, he sought both military and economic aid from the United States, but the Israeli lobby pressured Congress to deny aid, whereupon Nasser obtained arms from the Soviet bloc. This, in turn, led U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1956 to rescind an earlier American pledge to provide Nasser with funding for his Aswan Dam project, whereupon Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, co-owned by the British and French governments. While joining Dulles in negotiations to resolve the crisis, Britain and France secretly collaborated with Israel on war against Egypt to regain the canal, mounting an invasion in early November 1956, just prior to the U.S. presidential election. Dulles and Eisenhower exerted financial and military pressure on all three powers to withdraw, which they eventually did, but the episode greatly embittered Anglo-American relations.
Anthony Eden's successor as prime minister, the half-American Harold Macmillan, an old wartime colleague of Eisenhower's who was also connected by marriage to John F. Kennedy, valiantly attempted to restore the relationship. From 1957 to 1962, the two countries signed a series of defense agreements on the sharing of nuclear information, according Britain exclusive rights to use American nuclear technology in return for U.S. rights to deploy military weapons on British bases. The United States also promised Skybolt missiles and then sold Polaris missiles to Britain. In addition, in 1959 Eisenhower finally committed the United States to defend the British colony of Hong Kong, once an embarrassing colonial survival, now a free world bastion.
As they became increasingly embroiled in both the Middle East and Asia, American leaders perceived Britain's military forces and imperial holdings as useful adjuncts to their own undertakings. Between 1948 and 1960, British troops successfully suppressed a communist insurgency in Malaya, after which the country received its independence. Plagued by various financially and militarily burdensome nationalist and guerrilla movements in many of Britain's African colonies, in 1960 Macmillan publicly announced that in response to "winds of change," Britain would speedily grant independence to its remaining colonies, a pledge largely fulfilled by 1970. During the 1960s, growing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam helped to divide the United States from its European NATO allies, all of whom ignored forceful American requests to commit military forces to the conflict, in part because of strong domestic political opposition and major antiwar protests.
Britain did, however, provide intelligence information and logistical support to U.S. forces in Vietnam. In addition, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson cited British anticommunist efforts in Malaysia and Indonesia as major contributions supplementing American efforts elsewhere in Southeast Asia. President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration deplored Britain's 1967 decision to withdraw British military forces east of the Suez and the near-contemporaneous devaluation of the pound, which undercut U.S. efforts to maintain the post–World War II Bretton Woods international exchange system of fixed-rate currencies. Johnson was nonetheless grateful these had not come earlier.
Wracked by major economic and social problems for much of the 1970s, Britain was less significant to American foreign policy, and the relationship languished. Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath (1970–1974) looked toward Europe, not the United States. He finally succeeded in negotiating British entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, after two earlier failed attempts during the 1960s. Many believed that this marked a permanent reorientation of British foreign policy in favor of Europe at the expense of both the United States and the British Commonwealth. The Labour government that replaced Heath in 1974 faced serious internal problems, including a strong party faction favoring withdrawal from NATO. So severe were British economic difficulties that in 1976 the country had to seek a substantial and humiliating loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This was granted only in return for major cuts in British public spending.
In 1979, however, the right-wing Conservative Party politician Margaret Thatcher won election as prime minister. She was determined to restore British greatness and the free market and was staunchly anticommunist and pro-American in outlook. The more jovial but equally ideological Ronald Reagan, elected U.S. president in November 1980, admired and respected her as an intellectual soul mate. They soon forged a close political and personal friendship. Initially, the two embarked on firmly anti-Soviet policies, cutting social welfare spending but increasing defense budgets. In the 1982 Falklands War, Thatcher's determination to resist Argentine seizure of British-owned islands won Reagan's admiration and ultimately received significant military and intelligence support from his administration. The two governments cooperated closely on defense and other issues. Thatcher was the only European leader to support Reagan's 1986 bombing of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, an action taken in retaliation for alleged terrorist activities. She also overrode substantial domestic opposition to stationing short- and intermediate-range American nuclear-armed cruise missiles on British soil, symbolized by the camp that antinuclear protestors established in 1980 and maintained for several years outside Greenham Common Air Base in Berkshire.
After the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet general secretary in March 1985, Thatcher met with him and urged Reagan to have faith in his expressed desire to moderate the Cold War. Her prompts apparently weighed heavily with Reagan in his own subsequent meetings with Gorbachev, which began the process of Soviet-American rapprochement that eventually brought an end to the Cold War. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait in 1990, Thatcher reputedly helped to persuade President George H. W. Bush, Reagan's successor, to stand firm. Her successor, John Major, dispatched the second-largest military contingent—after that of the United States—to the consequent 1991 Persian Gulf War.
This pattern continued even after the Cold War ended, with Britain the most reliable military ally of the United States. Having forged a close relationship with President William "Bill" Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair developed an equally strong bond with President George W. Bush, breaking with much of his own Labour Party to join the war against Iraq in 2003. Regardless of political affiliation, and temporary estrangements notwithstanding, from 1945 onward most British prime ministers looked to the United States as their perennial and most reliable ally.
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