How World War II Shaped the ‘Special Relationship’ Between the U.S. and U.K.

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Whenever relations between Britain and the United States are discussed, mention of the so-called “special relationship” is never far behind. Like all relationships, Britain and the U.S. have endured peaks and troughs, but few would argue with the view that for many years the nations have enjoyed mutual friendship and broadly shared interests. Yet at the onset of the Second World War the relationship appears to have been regarded by many in Britain as decidedly less than fraternal and anything but “special.” So concerned was the British government that, in 1941, the Ministry of Information (MOI) deemed it necessary to plan a campaign aimed at countering the prevailing negative British view of the U.S. government and its people.

The scheme, “America in Britain,” was to be implemented by the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark who, between 1939 and 1941, was Director of the MOI’s Films Division, Controller of Home Publicity and, for the duration of the war, Chairman of the War Artists’ Committee. British propaganda during the Second World War was initially aimed at Europe, the Empire and the Home Front. The British government sometimes bought as much as 30 per cent of newspaper advertising space. The focus was soon overtaken, however, by the desire to develop closer links with the U.S. On April 28th, 1941 a report was submitted to the MOI entitled “Outline for a Plan for the Presentation of the USA to Britain.” The report claimed that:

At the present stage of the war it is a matter of urgency to bring about the closest possible collaboration between the British Commonwealth and the United States of America. With this end in view, mutual misunderstandings and suspicions, which tend to hamper a co-operative war effort must be done away with.

The campaign had two objectives: to present America as a nation of friends with a similar way of life to the British and to show that, “at this critical time,” the U.S. was eager and able to help. The report confirmed what the British government already knew: the nation’s survival depended upon massive U.S. aid and securing this would also boost public morale:

The people in this country are becoming increasingly aware that the Battle of the Atlantic is the most important battle that we are fighting. If they can feel assured of adequate American aid and can be made to understand the reasons which govern the speed of American assistance, they will endure with good spirit the hardships of the months to come.

The plan was to encourage the British to regard the U.S. with trust. Radio broadcasts were to be given on American life, art and history, with music features on jazz and folk songs. Prominent Americans living in Britain would be “played up” in newspapers, while difficulties in the relationship, such as Lend-Lease delays, U.S. industrial strikes and the Neutrality Act would be “played down.” It was suggested that speakers with special knowledge of the U.S., including the actors Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, should be “pushed” to endorse the plan and the school curriculum should be adjusted so that a short history of the U.S. could be commissioned for use in schools. Other proposals included visits to Britain by groups of “representative” Americans drawn from various walks of life. Clothing, too, could double as shared patriotic symbols: “a turban displaying the stars and stripes,” for example.

Why did the British government consider such a far-reaching propaganda campaign necessary, given that the U.S. was already providing material support and, it was correctly believed, would soon enter the war as an ally? It seems clear that there must have been a significant degree of animosity and mistrust of the U.S. among the British public. An assessment of the problem was set out in an appendix and began in diplomatic terms, before getting to the heart of the real reasons for British resentment.

It was claimed that despite the sympathy which the government and the great majority of the people of the US had for Britain, “certain misunderstandings exist between the two nations which act as a brake on their collaboration.” While the two countries shared a language, a common code of law and, to a large extent, a cultural background, these similarities were the reason that misunderstandings arose. “So many impressions of America were based on inadequate knowledge and false ideas,” claimed the report, continuing:

In the mind of the average Englishman the picture of America is over-simplified … the American whom the Englishman was likely to meet before the outbreak of war was generally a visitor, and a comparatively rich visitor at that … Because of a slight xenophobia tinged with envy, the belief has arisen in the minds of many of those who have had only casual contacts with the Americans that they were rather assertive and arrogant.

The problem was not exclusively xenophobic jealousy. Events since the end of the First World War had not dispelled animosity. “The British public,” claimed the report, “became rather sensitive to American claims to have saved the world for democracy” and Britain’s war debts “confirm the ordinary Englishman in his opinion that Uncle Sam was more properly Uncle Shylock.” American’s postwar isolationist policy was also a problem.

The press, cinema and radio had done nothing to counter the spread of British misunderstanding, instead reinforcing it. For example, American films tended to endorse illusions:

The luxury of Park Avenue, the galloping dramas of the West, the witticisms of the chorus girls, the feuds of grafting politicians, the rattle of the machine-guns in city streets … make up for most of the British people the raw material with which it constructs their picture of American life.

Without personal knowledge of the U.S., impressions were formed which often had only a distant relationship to reality. The immediate task, the report continued, is “to convey the idea of an America which, in spite of minor differences, is an effective ally of Britain.”

Despite such efforts, the British historian Correlli Barnett has claimed that the “special relationship” is, and has always been, a British fantasy. The Empire may have been lost, but thanks to the special relationship Britain continued to believe it retained influence, power and prestige on the world stage by dint of their privileged association with, and subservience to, a superpower. According to Barnett “the ‘special relationship’ was love in the perfect romantic style, unrequited and unencouraged, yet nevertheless pursued with a grovelling ardour.”

Examining Barnett’s assertion in terms of relations between Britain and the U.S. at the time of the MOI campaign in 1941 is revealing. Whatever sympathies the U.S. government had for Britain’s predicament following the Fall of France in June 1940 were tempered by the prospect that Britain could soon suffer the same fate. Senior diplomats at the U.S. Embassy gave Britain an even-money chance of being unconquered by September 30th. Although the threat of invasion receded, Britain’s position remained precarious and it made sense from the American perspective to ensure Britain paid up-front for goods and war materials as these payments would not be forthcoming were it defeated.

A major impediment to President Roosevelt’s support for Britain was the widespread domestic opposition to American involvement in the war in Europe. Isolationism remained a critical force in the 1940 presidential race. On Dec. 17, 1940, Roosevelt proposed the idea of “Lend-Lease,” by which American goods could be provided without cash payment; a proposal that passed into U.S. legislation on Mar. 11, 1941. The scheme was sold to the American public as an act “to promote the defense of the United States” in order to get around the problem of what today would be called “mission creep.” Britain was now on the road to salvation, Churchill would get the tools to finish the job, but at what cost?

There can be little doubt that during the course of the 20th century the U.S. ascent to the penthouse suite of world power and economic might coincided with Britain’s descent to modest accommodation and humble status. There can be little doubt, too, that the U.S. government was untroubled by thoughts that its rise was at Britain’s expense. According to former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, “when Britain was in her darkest hour, FDR shook her down for every dime.” Churchill concurred: “We are not only to be skinned but flayed to the bone.”

In commercial terms the U.S. increasingly saw Britain as an economic rival. It has been suggested that the U.S. viewed Britain’s predicament as an opportunity for economic gain and territorial acquisition; an opportunity that was aided in no small measure by Churchill’s romanticized view of future relations between the two nations. Alan Clark, the British politician and son of Kenneth, opined in 1998 that British relations with the U.S. “were simply that of banker and suppliant.” He illustrated his point with the following example:

On September 2nd [1940] the [British] Government signed an agreement whereby bases in seven West Indian colonies and Bermuda were ceded to the United States. In return the US Navy undertook to hand over some 50 destroyers, none built later than 1919 … Only nine of these ships were fit for immediate service. The deal, one of the most one-sided ever concluded by a British Government took some selling – even by a compliant press … the exchange of real estate and harbour facilities for obsolete rust-buckets in which men would be killed showed up the distinction between those who were fighting the war and those who were profiting from it.

The evidence does suggest that the U.S. drove a hard bargain when it came to helping Britain and that there was considerable justification for British resentment. But this overlooks the difficulties that Roosevelt faced on the home front in his desire to help the British. President Wilson’s support for the creation of the League of Nations in 1920 had not been followed by U.S. ratification and membership of the League. U.S. isolationism was arguably the main reason that the League proved ineffective in its objective to protect and preserve the territorial integrity of its members.

In Britain, efforts to influence U.S. opinion were made. In June 1941, an open letter drafted by a group of Britain’s leading intellectuals, under the chairmanship of the writer J.B. Priestley was prepared. Titled “A Message to the American People,” it sought to emphasize shared values and common cause. In foreseeing the need for change in both nations, it stated that, “Britain must transform her imperialism into internationalism. We believe that America is advancing, and will advance, from isolationism to internationalism.” It would, it argued, no longer be possible to go back to regarding one part of the world as secure from, or as having no responsibility for, the troubles and difficulties of the rest. And, with an eye on a new world order that would eventually include the United Nations Organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, it went on:

Our new world order must be based on a greater measure of social and international justice [and] the recognition that national aggression must be restrained … There will be a union of free peoples, each of whom will sacrifice something of its political and economic independence for the good and for the defence of the community … And the United States will be needed as a full partner in this enterprise from the outset.

In January 2017 the British prime minister Theresa May once again referred to the “special relationship,” stating “we have the opportunity – indeed the responsibility – to renew the special relationship for this new age,” in a speech to President Donald Trump and members of the Republican Party in Philadelphia. Britain, facing an uncertain future outside the European Union once again seeks a privileged association with the world superpower based on an assumed historical kinship. Time will tell whether the U.S. feels the same way.

James Whitfield is a writer and former Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University.

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