Writing on the Anglo-American relationship in the Mail on Sunday today, columnist Peter Hitchens reports on a little known conversation that sheds some light on the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom.
Britain and the USA have come far closer to open armed combat with each other in modern times than most people realise. In many ways, this was the biggest war in modern history that never happened.
Tired of being told about a ‘special relationship’ that didn’t seem to me to exist – and which nobody in Washington has ever heard of – I decided to look into what really went on between our two countries.
And I found plenty of things which will shock anyone used to the standard ‘shoulder to shoulder’ sentimental view of the links between London and Washington.
Hitchens’s comments come after finding a “rare and long-hidden sound archive” which sheds further light on the Suez Crisis and how close Britain and America were to war over the issue.
Debating how the U.S., USSR, and United Nations could stop the British-French-Israeli alliance, Admiral Arleigh Burke is heard to say to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: “Mr Secretary, there is only one way to stop them. We can stop them. But we will blast the hell out of them.”
He was of course referring primarily to the British, whom the Americans eventually stopped by threatening to devalue the Pound Sterling. The exchange however, is enlightening and somewhat unsettling:
He [Dulles] said, “Can’t you stop them some other way?”
“No, if we’re going to threaten, if we’re going to turn on them, then you’ve got to be ready to shoot. I can’t give these people orders to do something. They can’t do it in the first place – no matter who gives them orders – to demand and then get laughed at. The only way you can stop them is to shoot. And we can do that. We can defeat them – the British and the French and the Egyptians and the Israelis – the whole goddam works of them we can knock off, if you want. But that’s the only way to do it,” replied Burke.
“I gave him orders to go to sea, to be prepared for anything, to have his bombs up, to be checked out, so that we would be ready to fight either another naval force or against land targets, and to make sure of all his targeting data – a little cautionary dispatch – but it ended up to be prepared for any war eventuality.”
“Who’s the enemy?” came the reply.
“Don’t take any guff from anybody.”
The information also sheds light on the relationship between the Americans and the French, and indeed the Israelis – often regarded as America’s greatest ally in the region today.
There is a wry footnote to this. Burke himself was honoured by having an entire class of destroyers named after him. And one of these – the USS Winston S Churchill – flies the British White Ensign alongside the Stars and Stripes, and usually carries a Royal Navy officer on her bridge.
We are so used to seeing those two flags flying side by side, that we forget they have not always done so.
The USA’s national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, actually describes a British bombardment of Baltimore in 1813, and a less-frequently sung verse uses the words ‘their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution’. To refer to us, the British invader.