A 'Special Relationship'?
America, Britain and the International Order since the
Second World War
A fortnight after Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill arrived in the United States. For much of his three-week visit he stayed in the White House itself, engaged in lengthy and informal conversations with the President. On one occasion, so the story goes, Roosevelt was wheeled into his guest's room only to discover Churchill emerging from the bath—wet, glowing, and completely naked. Disconcerted, FDR made as if to withdraw, but Churchill waved him back. 'The Prime Minister of Great Britain', he announced, 'has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States.'1
Sir Winston denied the anecdote, but, true or not, it captures something of what is meant by the concept of an Anglo-American 'special relationship': an intimate, harmonious bond between the two nations celebrated on state occasions with suitably hyperbolic prose. Leaders as diverse as Churchill and Richard Nixon have used the term. Harold Wilson preferred to talk of a 'close relationship' while Margaret Thatcher has reaffirmed the 'extraordinary alliance'. Others, however, have dissented. Historian Max Beloff, for instance, portrayed the notion of a special relationship as an agreeable British 'myth' to help cushion the shock of national decline, while Dean Acheson, the former US Secretary of State, denounced it as a dangerous intellectual obstacle to acceptance of Britain's largely European role.2
The argument of this chapter was first outlined to a conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center in
Washington in 1985 and developed as an article in International Affairs, 62 (1986), 1–20. Three-
quarters of that essay are reprinted here, with a new ending taking the story from 1973 to 2005.
This draws on ideas about cultural relations set out in 'Rethinking Anglo-American Relations',
International Affairs, 65 (1989), 89–111.
1 Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (New York, 1948), 442.
2 For examples of these and other views see the selections in Ian S. McDonald, ed., Anglo-
American Relations since the Second World War (New York, 1974). On the 'myth' see Max Beloff,
'The special relationship: an Anglo-American myth', in Martin Gilbert, ed., A Century of Conflict,
1850–1950: essays for A. J. P. Taylor (London, 1966), 151–71. Other discussions of the 'special
relationship' include Coral Bell, The Debatable Alliance: an Essay in Anglo-American Relations
(London, 1964); Bell, 'The “special relationship” ', in Michael Leifer, ed., Constraints and
Adjustments in British Foreign Policy (London, 1972), 103–19; and A. E. Campbell, 'The United