Prime Ministers and Presidents: special relationships

In December 1941, after the Americans had been plunged into the Second World War by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill crossed the Atlantic to confer with Franklin Roosevelt. As a mark of the closeness of the wartime alliance, he was invited to stay in the White House. One morning the President entered his guest’s suite to see Churchill emerge pink, glowing and completely naked from the bath. Embarrassed, Roosevelt started to leave but Churchill beckoned him into the room. Churchill declared, “The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States.”

That anecdote encapsulates the British conception of the ‘special relationship’, on which our country’s foreign policy has in large measure been based since the Second World War. At times British leaders may have exaggerated transatlantic cosiness for political effect but there is no doubt that in key areas such as military intelligence and nuclear weaponry the relationship has been literally ‘special’ – in other words, there is nothing like it among America’s ties with other states.

Subsequent articles on this website will explore that relationship in more detail. This piece is concerned with the personal dimension: the role of face-to-face meetings between presidents and premiers in forging closer bonds between the two countries. Especially meetings on home soil, here at Number 10.

Transatlantic relations did not begin auspiciously. The United States was founded in a bloody war between 1776 and 1783, when the American colonies broke away from the British Empire. The first US Ambassador to Britain was John Adams, one of the architects of American independence, and it was with real trepidation that he arrived at St James Palace on 1 June 1785. In a voice quavering with emotion Adams told King George III that he wished to restore “the old good nature and the old good humor between people who, though separated by an ocean and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.”

The King seemed equally moved. “I was the last to consent to separation,’ he told his former subject. But, he added, ‘I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”

Throughout the nineteenth century, relations between Britain and America were conducted via ambassadors in London and Washington: the United States was not yet a global power and its presidents were immersed in domestic affairs. The first American head of state to venture outside the Western Hemisphere while in office was Woodrow Wilson in 1918. At the end of the Great War he crossed the Atlantic to lead his crusade for a League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson received a tumultuous welcome in Britain, where his idealism caught the mood of the moment.

But at a state banquet in Buckingham Palace the President struck a discordant note. Arriving in an ordinary black suit – an almost Puritan figure amid the bejewelled finery and dress uniforms – he delivered a sombre message: “You must not speak of us who come over here as cousins, still less as brothers; we are neither. Neither must you think of us as Anglo-Saxons, for that term can no longer be rightly applied to the people of the United States.’  [No, declared Wilson] ‘there are only two things which can establish and maintain closer relations between your country and mine: they are community of ideals and of interests.”

Very different language from John Adams, but America, Britain and the world had moved on.

Wilson’s message rang true for the twentieth century. When ideals and interests diverged, the outcome for British-American relations was disastrous – as in the Suez crisis of 1956. But when both countries felt a community of ideals and interests – as in the two world wars and the Cold War – their relationship was extremely close.

It was another half-century before an American president again paid a state visit to Britain. In August 1959 Harold Macmillan enticed his old wartime friend Dwight D. Eisenhower to London and rather shamelessly milked the publicity in advance of a general election. The visit was not without its hazards. “No. 10 Downing Street is rather ancient,” Eisenhower recalled in his memoirs. “The British were planning to rebuild it on the inside.”

When the two leaders did a joint TV appearance in a first-floor room, some aides feared that the creaky floor would give way under the weight of cameras and equipment. ‘It might have been curious,’ Ike reflected, for viewers to see both leaders disappearing from sight ‘while expressing confidence in the future.’

More substantive was the visit of Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, in June 1961. The young President had just met the veteran Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in a bruising summit in Vienna. He was also in acute pain from a bad back. Quickly summing up the situation, Macmillan abandoned plans for a full-dress meeting flanked by official advisers and invited Kennedy – a quarter-century his junior – upstairs for an avuncular chat in his room. “I gave him some sandwiches and whisky, and that was all,” Macmillan noted in his diary. “He just talked”. For over three hours Kennedy unburdened himself about Vienna. It was special moment and he always remained grateful, remarking privately, “I feel at home with Macmillan because I can share my loneliness with him.”

Macmillan was a Conservative prime minister but the idea of a special relationship has transcended party lines. In 1977 Labour premier Jim Callaghan worked hard to cultivate the newly-elected Jimmy Carter, helping introduce him to European affairs and trying to sweeten his sour relations with German leader Helmut Schmidt. Carter’s visit to Britain in May 1977 included a special trip to Tyneside, where Callaghan coached him to shout “Howay the Lads” – to the delight of Newcastle fans, if not those of Sunderland.

In the last thirty years, three presidents have given special addresses to both Houses of Parliament: Ronald Reagan in June 1982, Bill Clinton in November 1995 and Barack Obama in May 2010. Reagan’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher is particularly famous, but this was no sentimental liaison. “It all worked,” Lady Thatcher remarked years later, “because he was more afraid of me than I was of him.” The two had ferocious rows – for instance over the Falklands, Grenada, and Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ defence strategy – but these were conducted with frankness and mutual respect because each acknowledged the other’s convictions. Above all, both were stalwart defenders of the Atlantic alliance who also had the vision to play leading roles in ending the Cold War.

Conviction risks controversy – as the special relationship between George W. Bush and Tony Blair over Iraq clearly shows – but the story of Reagan and Thatcher highlights the truth of Woodrow Wilson’s sombre warning at the end of the Great War. A community of ideals and interests will be essential for strong working relations between Britain and America in this present century as in the last. And at times the chemistry between premiers and presidents – those lonely leaders at the very top – can still be a vital catalyst.

Edited by History & Policy

Some further reading

Richard Aldous, Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship (London: Hutchinson 2012)

Nigel J. Ashton, Kennedy, Macmillan and the Cold War: The Irony of Interdependence (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)

Kathleen Burk, Old World, New World: The Story of Britain and America (London: Little Brown, 2007)

James Ellison, The United States, Britain and the Transatlantic Crisis: Rising to the Gaullist Challenge, 1963-1968 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Alistair Horne, Macmillan, 1957-1986 (London: Macmillan, 1989)

Warren F. Kimball, Forged in War: Roosevelt, Churchill and the Second World War (New York: William Morrow, 1997)

David Reynolds, Summits: Six Meetings that Shaped the Twentieth Century (London: Penguin, 2007)

David Reynolds, America, Empire of Liberty: A New History (London: Penguin, 2009)

Andrew J. Scott, Allies Apart: Heath, Nixon and the Anglo-American Relationship (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Raymond Seitz, Over Here (London: Phoenix, 1998)


Copyright . This article was produced as part of the No10 Guest Historian series, coordinated by History & Policy.

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