The Churchill Complex

From The Wall Street Journal:

The special relationship—or, as they write it in Britain, the Special Relationship—between the United States and the United Kingdom is one of those partnerships that everyone talks about but few understand. Ian Buruma’s stimulating and highly readable “The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit” is a brisk but thorough history of the relationship under the 13 American presidents and 16 British prime ministers in the postwar era. 

The special relationship as we know it today, Mr. Buruma argues, was an emanation from Winston Churchill’s fertile brain. Faced with the decline of the empire he loved, Churchill adapted the hoary idea of a deep bond between the British and the Americans to new conditions. Thanks to a unique ability to influence the United States, Churchill argued, Britain could continue to shape world events even as its power decayed. 

Churchill did more than establish the modern framework of Anglo-American relations, Mr. Buruma shows. In particular, the example of Churchill’s courageous stand against appeasement in 1938-40 haunts both presidents and prime ministers to this day. Whether Margaret Thatcher was standing firm in the Falklands or stiffening George H.W. Bush’s spine for the First Gulf War, she was channeling the Churchillian spirit.

The partnership has not always worked well. Churchill’s immediate successor, Anthony Eden, saw Egyptian president Gamal Nasser as a new Hitler and denounced any compromise over the Suez Canal as another Munich. In the resulting Suez Crisis of 1956, President Eisenhower forced Eden into a humiliating retreat.

Even after Suez, the idea of the special relationship was not something Britain was willing to discard. Harold Macmillan, Eden’s courtly successor, immediately got to work to rebuild the relationship, shifting his attentions from Eisenhower to Kennedy in 1961. Macmillan obtained access to American nuclear weapons research; from Kennedy, Macmillan’s artful sleeve-tugging obtained an agreement to give Britain access to the then-coveted Polaris missile system.

The discussion in Britain of both Churchill and the special relationship has become a battlefront in the debate over membership in the European Union—a debate that continues to rage even with Britain having formally left. For many in the Remain camp, the idea that Britain can still play a world role independent of Europe, and that the best way to do that is to double down on its relationship with the United States, is a Churchillian fantasy that paved the way to Brexit. Britain, critics of the Churchill mystique and the special relationship insist, must put these childish dreams behind it and come to terms with a sober reality in which the EU is its only real option.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

PG claims no expertise concerning contemporary British politics, but will say that a great many Americans of his acquaintance feel closer to Britain than they do to any other European or Asian nation. Most also feel the same way about Canada.

For evidence of this feeling in contemporary US popular culture, PG will point out that Public Broadcasting in the United States would be a much less watched enterprise if it did not air so many British shows, including programs depicting various parts of British history.

For all of its attractions, culture, beauty, history and other virtues, France does not hold a similar place in American hearts and minds despite the fact that the French supported the American Revolution.