Allies Drift Apart I

An American soldier who found himself in London on 8 May 1945 wrote home that he was ‘glad to be here to help the English people to celebrate the Victory that all of us have fought so hard for. The English people, in themselves, sacrificed as much as any people in the world. The people back home will never realize how much this Victory has meant to the English.’ While American life had also been transformed by the war, for the British people victory in Europe meant a final end to the danger and fear of the front line. Yet as they were soon to discover, victory against Nazi Germany had been bought at a heavy price. One American officer mused that it would see the end of British strength:

One gets the feeling these people [the British] are done when Germany is defeated. The forces they commit to the Pacific will not much exceed what they had in Singapore, etc. in peacetime. Certainly their factories are re-converting already, resorts are crowded and little attention is paid to the Government’s half-hearted reminders of Japan . . . if our peace depends on a strong Britain, and I sincerely believe it does, then we must get her industry going again and give her first shot at the tremendous markets a ravaged continent will offer. There is little doubt that she’s a bankrupt nation too.

In fact, his predictions of a minimal British effort towards the defeat of Japan were inaccurate. The British Fourteenth Army fought a spectacular campaign against the Japanese in Burma, while a powerful Pacific Fleet was dispatched to work with the US Navy in the final assault on Japan. However, although this force was one of the biggest ever assembled by the Royal Navy, it was dwarfed by the might of the US Navy in the Pacific. It was all too obvious that Britain had ceded its position as the world’s greatest naval power to its ally. The dispatch of the Pacific Fleet was a clear sign by the British government that it wanted to make an important contribution in the Pacific, but Admiral King had no desire to share his war with any incomer. Concern grew within the British government that the American people had no knowledge or interest in the final British effort during the war.

While the Allies were preparing for a final assault on the Japanese home islands in the spring of 1946, the war came to an unexpected end. On 6 August 1945, General Wilson in Washington wrote urgently to Brooke in London that ‘we have just got news that the first TA bomb was dropped on Japan this morning’. TA, or Tube Alloys, was the Allied code name for the atomic bomb. Wilson then provided a report of the effect of the bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The explosion of a second atomic device over Nagasaki convinced the Japanese emperor that the war must be ended. Japan surrendered on 14 August 1945.

In common with the experience of every previous coalition and alliance throughout history, once the danger and emergency of war had passed, the ties that bound the Anglo-American alliance began to fray. The end of the war against Japan saw the rapid dismantling of almost all of the organisational structures that had made the alliance function so effectively. Surprising as it may seem, there had never been a formal treaty signed between Britain and the United States to regularise the vast and unprecedented cooperation that had developed during the war. Anglo-American collaboration ultimately depended upon informal agreements made between the Prime Minister and the President. However, Roosevelt had died before the war in Europe ended, and Churchill’s Conservative Party lost the July 1945 general election to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party. Since so much had depended upon the personal relationship between these two men, there was no legal barrier to prevent the new American president, Harry C. Truman, and his administration from taking a very different view of many of the most vital wartime agreements.

These ranged from the secrets of the atomic project to Lend-Lease, which by 1945 was largely keeping Britain’s economy afloat. British industry had been turned over to war production for the past six years and exports had fallen to one third of their pre-war scale: Britain faced an enormous post-war trade deficit. The reconversion of British industry would take great effort and capital investment, but while Roosevelt had given commitments of American help towards this process at the Quebec conference in 1944, these offers of aid had not been forthcoming. With the end of hostilities, the United States ended Lend-Lease abruptly in September 1945, which caught Britain completely unprepared. Millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment and supplies were suddenly halted in transit, but most seriously of all, without shipments of food, the British government could not, in the short term, feed its people.

The British had hoped that the agreements reached at Quebec would be honoured, which would have seen American aid continued while Britain reconverted her industry. Ultimately, the new Labour government had to send a delegation to Washington in the autumn of 1945 to negotiate a loan from the United States in order to stave off the bankruptcy that had been threatening since at least 1941. The terms of the loan, and the pressure exerted upon Britain to accept American proposals for free trade, dismayed the British. The United States was now treating Britain as an economic competitor and forcing her to accept proposals she had resisted during the war.

In this very different atmosphere, the nature of British and American military cooperation was also bound to alter. Even before the end of the war, the British Chiefs of Staff had made a plea to their American counterparts that the machinery of the Combined Chiefs of Staff should be retained. In a memorandum submitted during the Terminal Conference held in Berlin from 17 July to 2 August 1945, the British chiefs argued that it would be a ‘retrograde step to allow this machinery to fall into disuse merely because Germany and Japan have been defeated and there are no supreme allied commanders to receive the instructions of the Combined Chiefs of Staff’, considering that ‘the world, all too unfortunately, is likely to remain in a troubled state for many years to come. Major problems will constantly arise affecting both American and British interests.’ They argued that a method of mutually exchanging information and developing uniformity in weapon design and training would also be beneficial. The reply from the US Chiefs of Staff was short and to the point: ‘The political relationship of the United States with other nations in the period following this war is not yet sufficiently defined to permit the United States Chiefs of Staff to discuss at this date the post-war relationships between the respective military staffs.’

The Combined Chiefs of Staff had always been much more than a useful device to share information or develop common weapons procurement. It had been the key mechanism by which the United States and Britain fused their strategy in order to win the war. The heated arguments over Allied strategy that developed within the Combined Chiefs of Staff had not been a weakness but a strength, since it ensured that, ultimately, both governments abided by the decisions reached in open conference. However, its operation had depended upon an unprecedented level of openness between the two governments and their armed forces, which had been enabled by the clear and overriding common interest of defeating Germany and Japan. The establishment of the Combined Chiefs of Staff had also represented a tacit agreement by both sides of rough equality. Yet while in the crisis of 1941 and 1942 both sides were willing to accept this fiction, it no longer reflected the relative power of the two governments in 1943, let alone 1945. Just as importantly, the operation of the Combined Chiefs of Staff had represented an exclusive relationship between Britain and the United States. Even during the war, important allies such as Canada and China had clamoured for representation on its committees and in its decision-making. American post-war interests were likely to be more expansive than an exclusive relationship with the fading British Empire would allow. It was not surprising, then, that the US Chiefs of Staff refused to be unequally yoked with an impoverished and weakened Britain in peacetime when the United States was now unquestionably the most powerful nation on earth. The American Century had well and truly begun, and measures adopted in the emergency period of the war in a very different political and military context were not going to be allowed to determine American policy in the future.

The demobilisation of the American Army in Europe proceeded apace in 1945 and 1946, and inevitably, much of the lower-level cooperation between the two armies withered away almost as quickly as it had been established. In one striking example, in April 1945, a somewhat bored American liaison officer at the British School of Infantry recommended that his post be discontinued. Similarly, in Washington, the British Army Staff had rapidly shrunk to three peacetime branches with a very limited staff by the end of 1946.

Yet there remained a recognition amongst many of the officers and men that the unique relationship that had developed during the war should be remembered and maintained in some form. General Miles ‘Bimbo’ Dempsey, the commander of the British Second Army, which had fought alongside the US Ninth Army for many months in 1944–5, wrote to General Bill Simpson at the end of the war that he counted himself ‘as very fortunate to have met you in this war. Now that it is over, we must not let our friendship die. It was born on the battlefield. I hope you realise how much we of Second Army admire your splendid Ninth – and your great achievements.’

The impulse to maintain the relationship that had developed between the two armies was widely felt. Yet the majority of the schemes to continue these bonds, which included a scholarship programme and a fellowship organisation, were relatively shortlived. The one permanent and tangible connection was formed by the establishment of the Kermit Roosevelt lectures, which enabled the exchange of military addresses by British and American officers. General Albert C. Wedemeyer, the man who had crafted the 1941 Victory Program and sat in on some of the Combined Chiefs of Staff’s most heated meetings, was selected as the first American Kermit Roosevelt lecturer in 1947. In his lecture, Wedemeyer emphasised the importance of the relationship between the United States and Britain:

We have fought side by side against aggressor nations in two world wars, and have been victorious. But the relationship between our countries is more than a war-time alliance of convenience or necessity. We have mutual interests inherent in our common origins and strongly reinforced by marked similarities in our political and economic structures.

There was more than a little irony in the fact that Wedemeyer, one of the arch-Anglophobes of the War Department in 1941, was now a confirmed advocate of Anglo-American cooperation. While his experience during the war may have modified his views, the real reason for his change of heart was the emergence of a new threat. As he explained:

In the world today there are two divergent groups which appear to be creating situations incapable of peaceful resolution. Soviet Russia and her satellites comprise one group, Anglo-American peoples and their adherents represent the other. A state of moral belligerency exists. In a political, economic and psychological sense, we are virtually at war with the Soviet Russian group.

By 1947, the outlines of the Cold War, which would dominate international relations for a further 40 years, were already apparent. It was this new and unwelcome situation which ensured that Anglo-American military cooperation, which had come to an abrupt end in 1945–6, would continue and deepen in the conditions of new global confrontation between East and West.

Wedemeyer’s final thoughts on the Second World War were sobering. He explained that, ultimately:

Our strategy was defective in that it was incomplete. We failed to relate or to integrate the military factor in strategy with political and economic considerations. Military victory was achieved, but today we find that the national aims for which we fought are jeopardized by the very conditions of victory. We liberated most of Europe from one totalitarian system only to let it fall under the aegis of another.

In fact, this perceived inability to transform military victory into a lasting political settlement was neither new nor unique to the Second World War. To this day it remains one of the great questions surrounding the use of force. Wedemeyer’s views of the threat from the Soviet Union in 1947 also shaped his opinion on many of the strategic decisions taken during the Second World War under very different circumstances. One of the most controversial subjects throughout the Cold War remained Eisenhower’s decision not to drive on Berlin. In 1945, his decision had been arrived at through clear military logic, yet even two years later it appeared shortsighted due to the new conditions of the confrontation with the Soviet Union.

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