As the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the great battle that all but secured the liberation of Western Europe, it is vital to look back at the all-important “special relationship” that that developed between the United States and Great Britain.
Close cooperation between these two nations, cousins from across the Atlantic, was vital in stemming the tyranny brought forth by the German war machine, and no figure was more instrumental in building this relationship than British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
While British in nationality and manner, Churchill was half American by blood. His mother was from New York and possibly had some distant American Indian relatives, most likely Iroquois. It was Churchill, in the darkest days of WWII, who fought to bring the “Great Republic” from across the sea into the war.
This relationship between the two countries was a historical aberration at the time as no nation posed a greater threat to American liberty and independence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than Great Britain. But after the war of 1812, and a few dust ups along the US-Canadian border in the mid-nineteenth century, hostility between the nations cooled down. Perhaps most importantly, the British began to respect American power.
The War of 1812 proved that the United States would always be independent from Britain, President Andrew Jackson’s strong-handed negotiations with the French in the 1830s showed that the US could be independent from her allies, and President Ulysses S. Grant’s stunning success in winning indemnities from the British for arming the Confederacy with supplies during the Civil War showed once and for all that Britain would have to respect American ability to project power.
However, Churchill saw the Spanish-American War of 1898 as the critical event that demonstrated American strength abroad and the potential for not only a respectful relationship between the US and the UK, but a warm one. Churchill said:
The United States, though not yet abandoning isolation, henceforth became less preoccupied by home affairs… The Spanish War helped to promote a new and warmer friendship with Britain, for Britain, alone of the European nations, sympathised with the United States in the conflict. This the Americans appreciated, and as the nineteenth century drew to its end the foundations were laid for closer concert between the two peoples in facing the problems of the world.
As a historian of both British and American history, Churchill believed that the two peoples had a special destiny together, and that the New World would be the only hope for the Old World under the jackboot of Hitler’s Third Reich.
While putting constant pressure on his friend President Franklin Roosevelt to contribute more supplies to the beleaguered British people through the Lend-Lease program and enter the war, he also attempted to assure the British public that in the end the United States would answer the call for aid.
Often forgotten in Churchill’s “We Will Fight Them on the Beaches” speech delivered to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940 , was the last, all-important line. Churchill said that the British people would fight with all their strength to defend their island, and that they must hold on until, in “God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Churchill saw this event as the hour in which ultimate victory would be assured. He said, “Hitler’s fate was sealed. England would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live.”
After Germany declared war on the United States, Churchill came to America to personally meet with FDR and address Congress.
He said toward the end of his stirring oration to a joint session of Congress on December 26, 1941:
Lastly, if you will forgive me for saying it, to me the best tidings of all is that the United States, united as never before, have drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard… Hope has returned to the hearts of scores of millions of men and women… In a dozen famous ancient States now prostrate under the Nazi yoke, the masses of the people of all classes and creeds await the hour of liberation, when they too will be able once again to play their part and strike their blows like men.
The D-Day invasion and drive into Germany was a product of years of planning among tightly-knit British and American leaders, a relationship that would persist long after the war was over.
Churchill spoke of the future US/UK relationship in his legendary “Iron Curtain” speech after the war, especially of the strong military cooperation between the two countries. He said, “Fraternal association requires not only the growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred systems of society, but the continuance of the intimate relationship” between the two militaries.
After defeating the Axis powers in WWII, the US and the UK continued to have a strong relationship, especially in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were united in their common vision of economic freedom in domestic policy with their defiant stand against the Communist Soviet Union. Oppressive regimes were put on the defensive in the 20th century when these two great powers had similar goals.
The nations that stormed the beaches Normandy stood together against the Communist menace, and fought side by side against the Islamic terrorist threat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This relationship that ratcheted up at the beginning of the twentieth century appears to be on the wane in twenty-first. The notorious incident in which the Obama administration sent the Winston Churchill Oval Office bust back to Great Britain was emblematic of how relations between the two countries have cooled. This is not entirely the fault of the United States, which increasingly became the dominant partner in the relationship.
British military strength is at its lowest point in centuries with little sign of a turnaround. Ralph Cohen and Gabrielle Scheinmann summed up the state of British armed forces in a recent American Interest article:
Today, British military power is a shell of its former self and only dwindling. The British Army is set to shrink to only 82,000 soldiers by 2020, less than half the size of the United States Marine Corps and the smallest it has been since the early 19th century. The cuts also left the British Army with twice as many horses as tanks, a mere 227… For the first time in more than seventy years, Britain will no longer have a permanent presence in Germany by 2016.
Britain’s military reductions, combined with a lagging American economy and shrinking American military, spells trouble in a world still full of potential tyrants who now see the United States as a paper tiger. It has been nearly taken for granted that barbarous regimes like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were buried in the past, but it must be remembered that just a decade after the world’s great powers passed the Kellog-Briand Treaty banning war forever, the bloodiest war in human history would be waged throughout the globe.
If the US and UK remain weakened, appeasement may no longer be a choice rather than a certain response to future global threats, a deadly situation that may plunge the world into another catastrophe like WWII.
The United States and Great Britain must remain close and strong so that events like D-Day and their human catastrophes do not have to take place. As the world looks back at that world-changing event of 70 years ago and the heroism and sacrifice of its participants, we must never forget the lessons of that conflict.