From Glorious Britain to Ascendant America: How Uncle Sam filled John Bull’s Boots in the Spy Game

Article by Mike Edwardson. Edited and Researched by Mike Edwardson.

Britain and America go back. Way back. You might date the relationship to the that grey morning in early September 1620, when the Mayflower cast off from Plymouth carrying 102 souls who had half an idea about establishing a new society. If you wanted to go even further back you could pick out John Cabot’s Henry VII-funded expedition to the new world in 1497; or if you prefer your history cynical, it’s possible to fast forward and pinpoint the little dust-up that occurred from 1775-83 as the beginning of a truly distinct relationship. Whatever your preference, the relationship between Great Britain and the U.S.A has always been perceived as somehow unique, different. ‘Special’, you might even say. To cover that relationship in its whole you’d need several volumes and, quite frankly, more enthusiasm than I can muster right now; BUT, you can pick and choose particular pieces of that relationship as intriguing case studies. And since any historian worth their slat reserves the right to pick and choose (judiciously, of course), this article will look at the period when a once glorious Britain handed the reins of world influence to its colonial successor.

Mayflower in Plymouth

It should be no news to even the most mildly attentive student of history that following the Second World War, Britain was at the broken at the same time that it was victorious. Owing millions upon millions of pounds, economically drained by the strenuous demands of a six year war, with a populace eager for peace and finding itself in the midst of newly rising world powers, the nation was inevitably about to lose the world leading position which it had enjoyed for almost two centuries.  The United States, by contrast, had by taking the lead in the fight against the axis established itself as THE foremost power. Pre-war isolationist rhetoric lay forgotten, undone by history; the economic might and massive manpower of America had been mobilised on an unprecedented scale, and with the old colonial powers of Europe lying more or less in tatters, its only rival for global supremacy lay in a state that was its ideological anathema. Uncle Sam had run up against Uncle Joe on the world stage, and though they retained the facade of alliance, this would not endure.

Thus the beginning of the Cold War, with the U.S. recognizing the need to retain and develop extensive military, political, economic and intelligence connections around the planet in order to counter the burgeoning threat of communist influence. These networks would not be established a fresh, but in many cases would simply be ‘assumed’ from those cousins back in the old country.

Britain was quickly recognising its own inability to retain the empire in the post-war old; it was always accepting the dramatic reversal of status regarding the U.S. Despite Churchill’s desperate, often debasing wartime attempts to retain both the mantle of empire and a more-or-less equal relationship with America, the mainstream of British politics recognised reality, and began the process of decolonisation. They also began a facilitating, if often wary attitude towards the U.S. As a wartime ambassador to Eisenhower in North Africa, Harold MacMillan had seen the writing on the wall and asserted that the British must become to the Americans what the Greeks had become to the Romans; the sophisticated, cultured and experienced guiders to a powerful and energetic but vulgar and idealistic people. That, in a way, is just what happened. As British troops and imperial services withdrew from an area, American intelligence bases would inevitably appear nearby. A small British intelligence base would remain, and as Miles Copeland described well in a nasty, rather indiscreet memoir of CIA life, this British presence used its superior prestige and cunning (the imperial legacy) to launch joint operations with its U.S counterpart. The British with the brains, the Americans with the funds and greater manpower, working towards their basically identical ideological ends in the Cold War world. It was a symbiotic relationship that allowed the new kid on the block to utilise the mythical prestige of its fore-runner, who in turn could make use of his energy and capability.

Not that this was always a harmonious relationship. Americans were often to be found complaining about the bowing to British experience which did not always bear fruit. There was resentment and half-jealousy of imperial prestige which no self-respecting American would ever have explicitly admitted, the spirit of 1776 not allowing it. By contrast, there was many an upturned etonian nose at the spectacle of Americans playing a game which was not perceived as their birth-right as it was that of Brits; there was an ever present nuclear jealousy and a more deep seated prejudice which also dated back to the Revolution. James Bond and Felix Leiter this was not, at least not all of the time.

Ultimately, things like the Suez Crisis and the betrayals of Kim Philby and co. soured the water; by the 1960’s the intelligence co-operation continued but the hierarchical relationship had faded in time.

Still, this forms a significant part of an ambiguous, sinuous special relationship which has of course continued to develop up unto today.

  • 1947-Britain partitions India & Pakistan and their independence is established, marking the beginning of concerted decolonisation.
  • America & the Soviet Union become pre-eminent superpowers after World War 2
  • Former colonial territories become key ideological and political battlegrounds

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