The U.S. and Great Britain: The Special Relationship After World War II

Diplomatic Events In The Post-War World

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1981. Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron ceremonially reaffirmed the American-British "special relationship" at meetings in Washington in March 2012. World War II did much to strengthen that relationship, as did the 45-year Cold War against the Soviet Union and other Communist countries.

Post-World War II

American and British policies during the war presupposed Anglo-American dominance of post-war policies.

Great Britain also understood that the war made the United States the preeminent partner in the alliance.

The two nations were charter members of the United Nations, a second attempt at what Woodrow Wilson had envisioned as a globalized organization to prevent further wars. The first effort, the League of Nations, had obviously failed.

The U.S. and Great Britain were central to the overall Cold War policy of containment of communism. President Harry Truman announced his "Truman Doctrine" in response to Britain's call for help in the Greek civil war, and Winston Churchill (in between terms as prime minister) coined the phrase "Iron Curtain" in a speech about Communist domination of eastern Europe that he gave at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.

They were also central to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to combat Communist aggression in Europe. At the close of World War II, Soviet troops had taken most of eastern Europe.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin refused to relinquish those countries, intending to either physically occupy them or make them satellite states. Fearful that they might have to ally for a third war in continental Europe, the U.S. and Great Britain envisioned NATO as the joint military organization with which they would fight a potential World War III.

In 1958, the two countries signed the U.S.-Great Britain Mutual Defense Act, which allowed the United States to transfer nuclear secrets and materiel to Great Britain. It also allowed Britain to conduct underground atomic tests in the United States, which began in 1962. The overall agreement allowed Great Britain to participate in the nuclear arms race; the Soviet Union, thanks to espionage and U.S. information leaks, gained nuclear weapons in 1949.

The U.S. has periodically also agreed to sell missiles to Great Britain.

British soldiers joined Americans in the Korean War, 1950-53, as part of a United Nations mandate to prevent Communist aggression in South Korea, and Great Britain supported the U.S. war in Vietnam in the 1960s. The one event that strained Anglo-American relations was the Suez Crisis in 1956.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher epitomized the "special relationship." Both admired the others' political savvy and public appeal.

Thatcher backed Reagan's re-escalation of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Reagan made the collapse of the Soviet Union one of his main objectives, and he sought to achieve it by reinvigorating American patriotism (at an all-time low after Vietnam), increasing American military spending, attacking peripheral communist countries (such as Grenada in 1983), and engaging Soviet leaders in diplomacy.

The Reagan-Thatcher alliance was so strong that, when Great Britain sent warships to attack Argentinian forces in the Falkland Islands War, 1982, Reagan offered no American opposition. Technically, the U.S. should have opposed the British venture both under the Monroe Doctrine, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and the charter of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Persian Gulf War

After Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait in August 1990, Great Britain quickly joined the United States in building a coalition of western and Arab states to force Iraq to abandon Kuwait. British Prime Minister John Major, who had just succeeded Thatcher, worked closely with U.S. President George H.W. Bush to cement the coalition.

When Hussein ignored a deadline to pull out of Kuwait, the Allies launched a six-week air war to soften up Iraqi positions before hitting them with a 100-hour ground war.

Later in the 1990s, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair led their governments as US and British troops participated with other NATO nations in the 1999 intervention in the Kosovo war.

War on Terror

Great Britain also quickly joined the United States in the War on Terror after the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks on American targets. British troops joined Americans in the invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001 as well as the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

British troops handled the occupation of southern Iraq with a base in the port city of Basra. Blair, who faced increasing charges that he was simply a puppet of U.S. President George W. Bush, announced a draw-down of the British presence around Basra in 2007. In 2009, Blair's successor Gordon Brown announced an end to British involvement in the Iraq War.