From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s

By David Reynolds | Go to book overview

Introduction

The 'special relationship' seems inescapable. True believer or iconoclastic sceptic, no one writing about contemporary British foreign policy can avoid referring to this cliche´d concept. In the 1970s, after Britain entered the European Community, many predicted that it would be consigned to the dustbin of history. But then came the Falklands War. Another round of obituaries was written in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet empire. But that was before two Gulf Wars against Iraq. Like it or loathe it, the term 'special relationship' is still central to the lexicon of British diplomacy, trotted out every time a Prime Minister flies to Washington or a President deigns to visit London. To understand why, we need to go back to the 1940s. The phrase and the idea were born in the Second World War and nurtured by the onset of the Cold War. We still live in the shadow of this, the most dramatic and decisive decade of the twentieth century.

Although global in scope, the 'World War' was, in many ways, a series of connected regional conflicts. Germany and Japan, though part of the Axis, fought entirely separate wars; on the Allied side, Britain and the United States left the bulk of the land war in Europe to the Red Army. The Soviets, for their part, did not enter the Asian War until its final days, while the Americans tried to minimize involvement in Britain's Mediterranean operations and to keep the British at arm's length from the Pacific War. The opening chapter shows how the label 'World War' was stamped on these conflicts at the time by Adolf Hitler and particularly Franklin Roosevelt as part of their 'ideologizing' of events. But the regional nature of the conflict must be borne in mind if we wish to understand the strengths and limitations of the wartime Anglo-American alliance.

Although we normally date the Second World War from September 1939, the catalytic moment came in May–June 1940, with the fall of France in only six weeks. The surprise collapse of what still seemed the strongest power in Europe transformed the Continental balance of power. It also had global repercussions, forcing Britain into reliance on the United States, spurring Hitler into a hubristic attack on the Soviet Union, and emboldening Italy and Japan to make their own bids for regional hegemony, which culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The revolution of 1940 is the theme of Chapter 2.

Next I explore the broad character of the wartime Anglo-American alliance. Looking in turn at different areas of the war effort—military, economic, and

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