Just what is Anglo American culture? Is the much-vaunted “special relationship” still valid and valued, or is it merely wishful thinking on both sides of the Atlantic? A feeble delusional myth or a tangible and vital alliance between two nations with similar aspirations and values? Studying popular contemporary poster propaganda can give us as much of an insight as the most complex history texts.
The ” Special Relationship” 1939 -Cold War
The end of World War I saw the destruction of four European Empires. It also ushered in the political and economic ascendancy of the United States. Nominally the British Empire had survived. But it was also bankrupt. Every subsequent British Government made a cardinal principle of its foreign-policy to “cultivate the closest relations with the United States.” As a result, Britain decided not to renew its military alliance with Japan, which was becoming a significant rival to the United States in the Pacific. Though the US refused to join the League of Nations, its absence made little difference to British policy.
Tensions over Ireland
Though relationships during the interwar years were mostly cordial and constructive, they were near derailed during the “Irish Independence” crisis. There was a definite “anti-British” contingent in America centred around Boston championed by prominent American politicians. However, tensions over the Irish question faded with the independence of the Irish Free State in 1922. The American Irish had achieved their goal, and in 1938 its leader Joseph P. Kennedy actually became ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.
World War II
American attitudes to Britain at the outbreak of the war were ambivalent. Persisting with the “Monore Doctrine” she regarded it as a European, not an American war and though many were sympathetic to the plight of Britain, sought strict neutrality. This attitude was gradually eroded by a sophisticated pro-British propaganda campaign. Popular NBC broadcaster Ed Murrow and organisations such as the “The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies” endeavoured to demonstrate that this was America’s conflict, not just Britians.
Formed in May 1940 by William Allen White of the Kansas City Emporia Gazette, the National Committee headquarters operated out New York City. Its branches however stretched over all America. The Committee kept in touch with its membership through printed newsletters, flyers, pamphlets and newspaper advertisements, as well as through radio spots and rallies. It undoubtedly produced some of the most exceptional propaganda posters of the war years.
“Bundles for Britain”
Gradually public opinion changed. Running alongside the” Committee to Defend America” was a more populist movement the” Bundles for Britain” campaign.
In 1940 Mrs Winston Churchill asked all English women to knit garments for the British sailors fighting in the North Sea. Mrs Wales Latham, a New York Society Matron responded to this request in America and started a circle of women who began to knit items for these sailors. This endeavour was such a success; the realm of knitting grew into a more significant more political movement.
Millions of Americans purchased Pro-British souvenier products, including matchbooks, pins, compacts, cigarette cases, plates, brooches.
Backed by numerous Hollywood celebrities, the campaign took hold of popular sentiment. Together these two organisations completely changed America’s attitude to the conflict well before Pearl Harbour.
The posters these Pro British organisations produced were not afraid to shock or be controversial. The graphic art varied from almost childlike illustrations
Through to stunning and frightening realism. The “Bundles” campaign was so successful branches were set up all over America. It became a sophisticated and varied crusade embracing not just Poster Art but populist sheet music and advertisements too. Together it brought the plight of a blitzed out Britain to everyday Americans. The campaign also mobilised existing women’s organisations like the “Daughters of the American Revolution” to present its pro-British propaganda. By 1940 It even had its own anthem “pick up your Knitting.”
American support during the war
With America’s entry into the war, the pseudo alliance became formal. But even before November 1941 American support was much more than mere propaganda. The “Destroyers for Bases Agreement” was signed in September 1940. This gave the United States a 99-year rent-free lease of numerous land and air bases throughout the British Empire. In exchange, the Royal Navy received 50 old destroyers from the United States Navy. Beginning in March 1941, the United States enacted Lend-Lease in the form of tanks, fighter aeroplanes, munitions, bullets, food, and medical supplies. Britain received $31.4 billion out of a total of $50.1 billion sent to the Allies.
Though this material support was vital to the UK, technical collaboration was even closer. The two nations shared secrets concerning the proximity fuze (fuse) and radar, as well as aeroplane engines, Nazi codes, and the atomic bomb.
Millions of American members of the armed forces were based in Britain during the war. Though this led to a certain amount of friction with British men, intermarriage with British women was commonplace. The two Nations were never this close again.
In the aftermath of the war, Britain faced a financial crisis. In contrast, the United States was in the midst of an economic boom. The process of decolonisation accelerated with the independence Britain granted to India, Pakistan and Ceylon in 1947.
American foreign policy became a Global chess game with the Soviets. The need to form a united front against the Soviet threat compelled the US and Britain to cooperate in helping to shape NATO with their European allies. Only during the Suez crisis when French and British troops invaded Egypt over its nationalisation of the canal did the cold war partnership waver.
The Anglo-French invasion of the canal zone ended in disgrace after just eight days of fighting. Ostensibly the ceasefire was ordered by the United Nations, but was in fact, dictated by the Americans. The action threatened to destabilise the strategically vital region, and strengthen Soviet links with liberation movements around the world. It raised global tensions in an age dominated by the nuclear arms race and recurring superpower crises. More viscerally, it was viewed with by America with distaste as a nakedly imperial exercise in a post-imperial age. Britain backed down. Grudgingly. The golden age of Anglo American accord was over.
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously quipped that it was Britain’s historical duty to guide the power of the United States as the ancient Greeks had the Romans. He endeavoured to broaden the “special relationship” beyond Churchill’s conception of an English-Speaking Union into a more inclusive “Atlantic Community”. His principal theme was the interdependence of the nations of the Free World. It was one that Kennedy subsequently took up and one that, thankfully remains the dominant political spirit in both countries today.
Please see here for my other blogs on “Bundles for Britain” http://www.englishmanlovesamerica.com/anglo-american-heroes-edward-r-murrow/
Or “The special relationship – Poster Art 1865- 1918”. http://www.englishmanlovesamerica.com/poster-art-the-anglo-american-special-relationship/
Or for my blog on GI tensions in Britain during the war http://www.englishmanlovesamerica.com/black-gis-in-britain/