JFK’s Special Relationship
Reflecting on the close historical relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, we tend to recall the personal bonds between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill—who was the first to use the phrase “Special Relationship” in a speech in 1946; the comradeship between the conservative giants Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher; and more recently, the military adventure in Mesopotamia that brought together George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
And then there was “the remarkable friendship” between John F. Kennedy and Harold Macmillan, as British-American author Christopher Sandford describes the relationship between one of the most famous American presidents and one of the less well-known British prime ministers in his new book, Harold and Jack.
There is no denying that FDR and Churchill were the West’s co-leaders in the alliance that defeated Nazi Germany in World War II. Or that Reagan and Thatcher both presided over historic free-market reforms in the 1980s and worked together to end the Cold War. And while Blair may have been ridiculed as Bush’s “poodle,” it’s difficult to imagine a history of the Iraq War without the former British PM being portrayed as American president’s leading partner in the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. But Harold—who?—and Jack?
At times there is a hint of historical revisionism in Sandford’s work. He creates the impression that through some sort of osmosis that developed during the brief three years of their relationship, Macmillan ended up acquiring some of the global power, if not grandeur, of JFK; and that, like Churchill, Thatcher, and Blair, Harold Macmillan ensured that the special relationship remained special.
When we recall the two dramatic international crises of the 1960s that could have triggered a third world war between the United States and the Soviet Union—the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban missile episode in 1962—scenes from old newsreels bring to mind the roles performed by President Kennedy, his brother Robert, and other advisors: the game of chicken that Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev played in Berlin, the late-night deliberations of the members of JFK’s Executive Committee (EXCOMM) of the National Security Council during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the secret rendezvous between Bobby and Soviet emissaries. Does anyone see a Harold in those pictures?
In a kind of literary photoshopping, Sandford attempts to place Macmillan at the fore of these historical narratives about the days that shook the world, suggesting that Harold was an integral part of these cinematic black-and-white scenes from the 1960s. Forget Jack and Bobby. It’s the Kennedy-Macmillan team—Jack and Harold—who turn out to be “The Men Who Saved the World,” as the title of one of the book’s chapters puts it.
But while Sandford, after conducting extensive research into the private communications between the two leaders (including birthday greetings), does an excellent job in providing us a lively account of the personal ties between Kennedy and Macmillan, he fails to substantiate his thesis that this friendship had any major impact on the strategic relationship between the United States and the Union Kingdom—or for that matter on the outcome of the crises in Berlin and Cuba.
Indeed, there is something contrived in Sandford’s attempt to elevate Macmillan’s role in these and other events. At times, it seems that he gets lost in his own narrative and crashes into the inevitable cognitive dissonance. Personal ties don’t always make a difference when it comes to national interests.
In fact, Sandford’s account of the Cuban missile crisis suggests that Macmillan’s role in the drama was “passive” and “supine” and that Britain, which had an arsenal of Soviet nuclear missiles pointed at it, had become “a wholly-owned subsidiary [of] American interests,” as then Labour leader Huge Gaitskell described it.
Hence while the White House decided to send the legendary ex-Secretary of State Dean Acheson to brief French President Charles de Gaulle on U.S. strategy in the crisis, it assigned U.S. ambassador to London David Bruce to deal with Macmillan, with Jack exchanging messages with Harold—“schmoozing” would probably be the appropriate term—and the British PM serving only as friendly sounding-board to the American president.
In fact, Kennedy didn’t consult Macmillan for the first five days of the crisis, and while he had promised that he would send him the text of his televised address to the nation, the draft arrived just seven hours before the president delivered it. “I can’t honestly think of anything said from London that changed US action—it was chiefly reassurance to JFK,” admitted British ambassador, and Jack’s pal, David Ormsby-Gore.
There was certainly nothing very Churchillian in the way Macmillan operated during the earlier Berlin crisis, when he tended to press Kennedy to be conciliatory towards Khrushchev while the American president, according to Sandford, reacted “more robustly” to the Soviet moves. Macmillan’s performance during the crisis demonstrated that “Britain may have played the role of a branch of office of the US headquarters when it came to Berlin and to other pressing foreign policy issues,” Sandford concludes, adding that under Macmillan Britain nevertheless proved to be “an unusually, well-informed and outspoken subordinate.”
Indeed, the personal closeness between the two heads of government could not reverse the changing realities of the relationship between their nations since the end of World War II, as Britain entered an age of decline, losing its status as a great power, while the United States emerged as one of the two global superpowers of the new age. What was once imagined to be an equal partnership between two leading world powers was looking more and more like a relationship between a global hegemon and its mostly subservient sidekick across the Atlantic.
Macmillan, who had served as foreign secretary and chancellor of the exchequer under Churchill’s successor as prime minister, Anthony Eden, was able to observe closely the erosion in Britain’s global power and its growing economic and military dependence on the United States. Reflecting the changes in the balance of power, President Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles (known for his animosity towards the Brits), forced Britain and its allies France and Israel to end their military operation against Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956, in part by threatening to sell some of the U.S. government’s sterling bond holdings—imagine the Chinese threatening to sell their U.S. dollar assets today—and by denying the Brits financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
After Eden resigned as prime minister in 1957, Macmillan succeeded him in office and recognized the need to readjust Britain’s goals according to the altered realities of international power, with a policy of diplomatic military retrenchment. As Macmillan summarized it, the main lesson of Suez was that Britain should “not again be allowed to find [itself] on the wrong side of a major policy dispute” with Washington.
The British Empire was no more, and Macmillan wanted to ensure that as its sun set what remained of its international-security role in the Middle East and elsewhere passed to the Americans and that Britain could rely on its former colony across the Atlantic as a protector of last resort. So no more British challenges to American hegemony, like the costly Suez Crisis.
From this perspective, Macmillan’s main contribution was his success in choreographing Britain’s decline as a great power. Britain, as he feared, was coming to be little more, in Sandford’s words, than “an offshore 51st State and subordinate vassal to American interests.” Macmillan was doing his best to make sure that no one would notice: he advanced a narrative under which it appeared as though Great Britain was guiding the United States in the same way that the Greeks had the Romans, his favorite historical analogy.
Macmillan had hoped to reshape the Special Relationship by promoting a plan to form an “Atlantic Community” based on the partnership between the United States and continental Europe, with Britain serving as a bridge of sort between the two entities. The problem was that neither the Americans nor the Europeans were in need of the British “bridge” and regarded it in some respects an irritating obstacle to improving their direct relations.
In fact, Kennedy and his advisors as well as French President de Gaulle, the driving force behind European unity, concluded that there was a contradiction between Macmillan’s goal of achieving “equivalence” of policy between London and Washington and his ambition to have Britain in the European Economic Community (EEC)—the forerunner to the European Union—while at the same time maintaining Britain’s role as an independent global power.
The contradiction was exposed during a major breakdown in U.S.-British relations. The Skybolt Crisis was named after the American Skybolt missile system that President Eisenhower had promised to sell to the Brits to help them build an independent nuclear program but which Kennedy’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, decided to cancel because he didn’t want Britain to have such nuclear-arms independence. As McNamara put it, “limited nuclear capabilities, operating independently, are dangerous, expensive, prone to obsolescence and lacking in credibility as a deterrent.”
In addition to concerns over nuclear proliferation, the Americans were worried about a repeat of Suez. With its own nuclear weapons, London would feel secure to act independently but would not be able to deter Soviet attacks, forcing the United States to intervene to protect Britain.
In responding to the Skybolt controversy, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who served as one of Kennedy’s foreign-policy advisors, caused a stir when he challenged the strategic significance of Great Britain to the United States during a West Point address in 1962, arguing that “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.”
Indeed, he ridiculed Britain’s quest to play a power role based on the Special Relationship with the United States and being the head of the British Commonwealth, which “has no political structure, or unity, or strength and enjoys a fragile and precarious economic relationship” with Britain itself. Acheson urged the UK to adjust to the changing international system under which she was becoming a second-rate power by joining the evolving European economic and political union instead of trying to continue pursuing the Special Relationship with Washington.
The crisis was eventually resolved when Macmillan and Kennedy met in the Bahamas on December 22, 1962, and concluded on an agreement under which the United States would provide the British with a supply of nuclear-capable Polaris missiles which would be part of a “multilateral force” within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and could be used independently only when “supreme national interests” were involved.
The crisis and its outcome demonstrated to de Gaulle—who was trying to chart a strategic course for French-led Europe independent from both the United States and the Soviet Union—that Britain remained an American outpost, which was one of the reasons he decided to veto British membership in the EEC.
At the same time, U.S. officials were dismayed that the Nassau Agreement meant “their having to attune American policy to a Great Britain that was semi-detached from the rest of Europe,” according to Sandford, with Secretary of State Dean Rusk touting the “policy advantages of moving away from a ‘special relationship’ and towards a monolithic ‘system of … strict non-favoritism’ to America’s NATO allies.”
Sandford contends that Kennedy’s decision to sell Polaris as a replacement for the cancelled Skybolt reflected his personal commitment to saving the Special Relationship. “Only Kennedy himself consistently saw the trans-Atlantic partners as bound together by more powerful ties of shared history and friendship,” Sandford concludes—perhaps with too much certainty—based on his examination of the relationship between the two countries and the friendship between their leaders that lasted less than three years.
Macmillan was forced to resign from office in October 1963, in the aftermath of the sex scandal involving his defense minister, John Profumo. A month later, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald.
That the Special Relationship has survived in one form or another after Harold and Jack were not around, and despite all the dramatic changes in the global balance of power since then, points perhaps to the persistence of myths, in this case, Macmillan’s characterization of “the Special Relationship” as being between “our Greece” and “their Rome.” Perhaps, as the late Christopher Hitchens suggested, “it will be a splendid thing if, showing that countries can after all learn from history, the United States decided to become less Roman, and the British decided to become more Greek, and both rediscovered republican virtues in a world without conquerors.”
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.