A few days ago I wondered, in Dave Gets Baracked, exactly how special our relationship with the United States is. New files released under the 30-year rule are unequivocal: not very, is the answer to that one.
Backtracking 30 years takes us to the Maggie-Ronnie love-in, with the two statesmen routinely bracketed together. Seen as joint leaders of a freedom crusade, they were close not just politically but also personally.
Both held conservative beliefs, as the term is understood these days. And both acted accordingly by introducing wise economic policies. (One may question the wisdom of Reagan’s policies considering that the federal debt almost tripled during his tenure, but that would be nitpicking, wouldn’t it?)
Under their aegis the relationship between the two countries was supposed to be at its most special – and yet Reagan did all he could to torpedo the South Atlantic operation (I’ve used this verb advisedly).
Since 1823, when the Munroe Doctrine was introduced, the United States has regarded the Western hemisphere as its own bailiwick. European intrusions of any kind have been seen as implicit aggression and discouraged in every possible way.
These days the US relies mostly on the carrot of diplomacy and economic leverage to get its way in the hemisphere, with the military stick held behind its back but still visible. Argentina, along with Brazil, is the most important player in the game the USA plays in South America, which explains Reagan’s response to Britain’s attempt to reclaim the Falklands to the crown.
To keep the Argentines sweet, the USA had to be seen as playing no favourites, which de facto meant endorsing Argentina’s aggression. To that end Reagan was going to inform the Argentines about the exact time and location of the first British landing, on South Georgia. Fair’s fair, as far as Maggie’s best friend Ronnie was concerned.
Gen. Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State, explained the situation with soldierly directness: ‘If the Americans acted in this way they would be able to show even-handedness to the Argentines and this would enable them to continue their role as go-between.’
The result of this Munroe-inspired fairness could have been the routing of the British task force: the Argentines would have been forewarned and therefore forearmed. It took a most resolute stand on the part of HMG, and Thatcher personally, to prevent the Americans from acting on this treacherous intent.
Much is made, mostly by Americans, of the help with intelligence and logistics Britain received from the USA during the war. Less publicised is the fact that Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger went against Reagan’s wishes and made a single-handed decision to help, effectively sticking his own neck out.
The president, on the other hand, was doing all he could to keep the Falklands in Argentine hands. Throughout the war he kept pushing for a negotiated settlement, which would have denied Britain the fruits of her hard-won victory. The great wartime leader Margaret Thatcher would have none of that: ‘As Britain had had to go into the islands alone, with no outside help, she could not now let the invader gain from his aggression.’
Another great wartime leader, Winston Churchill, had his own problems with the special relationship, which he correctly saw as a trifle one-sided. These days any American will happily tell you that, when all is said and done, it was the USA that won the Battle of Britain, or at least greatly contributed to victory by providing a steady flow of supplies.
In fact, the tactical value of US shipments was negligible, as opposed to the disastrous effect they had on the British economy. For the help wasn’t offered from one friend to the other, with the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. All shipments were supplied on a cash-and-carry basis, and Britain had to sell, at knockdown prices, all her overseas investments to pay. In fact, the last instalment was paid only eight years ago.
Just as America was claiming Britain’s last £50 million worth of gold, Churchill sent a desperate message to Roosevelt: ‘…after the victory was won with our blood and sweat, and civilisation saved, and the time gained for the United States to be fully armed against all eventualities, we should stand stripped to the bone. Such a course would not be in the moral or economic interests of either of our countries.’
Churchill had to say those things, but he probably knew he was being too kind. The demise of the British Empire was an important secondary objective pursued by America in the Second World War. And it was largely British cash that enabled America to overcome the effects of the Great Depression and emerge from the war hugely in the black. So ‘such a course’ was very much in America’s ‘economic interests’. As to ‘moral interests’, the less said about those, the better.
The special relationship proceeded apace after the war. Just as the 1956 Anglo-French action against Egypt was about to claim victory, President Eisenhower stopped it in its tracks. Worried about the growing Soviet influence in a region awash with oil, the president felt he had to cater to Khrushchev’s affection for Nasser. British interests weren’t even considered, much less accommodated.
Then again, at least the Americans didn’t arm Nasser’s army with missiles, which is a welcome contrast to what our other NATO friends did during the Falklands war.
The French had kindly supplied to the Argentines Exocet missiles and Super Etendard aircraft, and it was an Exocet fired from a Super Etendard that sank HMS Sheffield. It was only after Thatcher threatened Mitterand with ‘a devastating effect on the relationship between our two countries’ that the French refrained from arming the Argentines with more Exocets.
On the plus side, at least the French were honest enough not to claim any special affection for Britain, which is more than can be said for the Americans.
‘There are no friends in politics,’ said Cicero. No friends, only interests. We should remember that.