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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Grand Improvisation

America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945-1957

Derek Leebaert

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



A frequently repeated tale about the twentieth century is this: At the end of World War II, the British Empire was too weak and too dispirited to continue as a global imperial power; thus a confidently prosperous, well-armed America assumed leadership of the West—and did so while creating a U.S.-led international order that we’ve lived with ever since. Today this story is taken for granted. The twentieth century, after all, became the American Century.

But it’s a myth. Britain, heart of a historic and militarily adroit empire covering a quarter of the world’s land surface, was unlikely to “hand on the baton of democracy,” “liquidate” its realms, or “retreat” from a singular global presence—especially not in the alleged “thousand days” after it had played a pivotal role in winning the bloodiest conflict in history.1 Equally unconvincing is the notion that the United States, a self-contained continental island-state, traditionally fenced off by oceans and high tariffs, should suddenly drop its insularity and transform itself into a world political-military force.

In fact, the British Empire hardly “wanted out,” and the United States did not “willy-nilly” become a superpower, let alone possess the unique ability “to affect the course of events in the developing world,” which remained a largely colonial one.2 As for creating a world order, the best minds—even a decade after the Axis had been defeated—believed that anything like such an arrangement was merely “emerging” and “vulnerable.”3

There’s no doubt that at the end of World War II America was by far the world’s strongest nation, with an atomic monopoly and unprecedented industrial weight. But it was still a resolutely distant superstate, hesitant to take up a commanding political and military position. In the dozen years that followed, it faced a shrewd, high-tech, deeply entrenched, Anglo-Saxon colossus whose war-hardened leaders had no intention of stepping aside or of serving as junior partners to anyone. These men continued to assert their power and even their ascendancy until at least the end of 1956, when the just-reelected administration of Dwight Eisenhower finally avowed a “declaration of independence” from British influence. It was then that the United States explicitly took over, in the words of its vice president, Richard Nixon, “the foreign policy leadership of the free world.” Only at that point was Geoffrey Crowther, longtime editor of The Economist, a magazine attentive Americans regarded as the voice of the British establishment, compelled to admit that “Britain is no longer a Super-power.”

There are few twentieth-century dramas so relevant to the world today. At no time between the aftermath of 1945 and the present have so many aspects of international life been in flux: the rise and retreat of superpowers; shifts in global currency regimes; uncertain mutual defense commitments; and severe doubts among Americans about the value of military primacy in the first place. The roots of today’s turmoil spring from this epoch: Europe’s qualms about U.S. reliability; the destabilization, and re-destabilization, of the Middle East; the making of the enduring tragedy of America’s Vietnam War; the country’s justified fears of other long-term entanglements; and fights against “terrorists” throughout the world. Moreover, an aggressively nationalistic Russia has returned to its crude Soviet-like behaviors while employing its familiar techniques of hybrid war and possession of the planet’s second-largest nuclear arsenal. Again North Korea and Iran are world issues, and U.S. policy makers continue to speak of how they’ll supposedly shape the future of China.

Currently, in Beijing, strategists are devoting intense effort to modeling the fall of empires. They study the fate of the Soviet Union and what caused the hammer and sickle to be hauled down from over the Kremlin on Christmas Day 1991. But they’re also analyzing the destiny of the far-flung British Empire, which they presume to have been displaced almost overnight by an American one—the days of which are supposedly numbered as well.

For most of the years between 1945 and 1957, it was difficult to tell how the fate of the British Empire might affect America, except on financial matters. When Eisenhower became president in 1953, he acknowledged not only that Britain was dominant in the Middle East, as it was throughout this era, but also that it wielded a veto over U.S. decisions in Southeast Asia. And this was at a time when top U.S. officials believed that America’s “biggest post-war difficulty”—perhaps more than the Soviet threat—was the inability to say no to the British Empire. In effect, serious people in Washington believed that “no acceptable foreign policy” was available to the United States if it wasn’t aligned with its sprawling, problematic ally. Britain maintained the profile and the substance of a “superpower”; Eisenhower was, for the time being, candid in his awareness that global military ambitions, along with the attendant political involvements, were alien to the United States.

This book offers a new understanding of the world that arose in the years following World War II. History’s largest empire was battling to maintain its standing, while an utterly novel form of global preeminence loomed from across the Atlantic. The outcome shows the changing might of nations, the illusion of trying to mold the destinies of peoples and places unknown, and the risks of attempting to maintain huge political-military edifices on shaky foundations. We see how thoughtful, informed wielders of power reached decisions while feeling besieged, and we find ourselves asking how our country may segue into some new type of its now-familiar stature in the decade ahead.

Leaders in Washington and London rarely grasped how much was out of date in their thinking as they mused upon worldwide commitments and vacuums of power, upon the indispensability of their nations and, oftentimes, of themselves. To this end, we see Winston Churchill in a very different light, after he returned as prime minister from 1951 to 1955, grumbling that the war years might well have been easier than what he then faced in trying to restore the British Empire to its former greatness. So, also, with other players, such as Eisenhower himself, President Truman’s provocative secretary of state Dean Acheson, the literary diplomat George Kennan, and an already redoubtable senator Lyndon Johnson. We encounter once immeasurably influential men who’ve been lost to history but now regain their prominence: for instance, Truman’s closest friend and adviser, doubling as the century’s most powerfully placed secretary of the Treasury; and Britain’s commissioner general for Southeast Asia who maneuvered for nearly a decade—while holding cabinet rank in London—to commit the United States to Vietnam. This era cannot be understood unless we appreciate these figures and what they accomplished.

Eisenhower never used the term “superpower,” and it barely appears in the jargon of the time. It had been coined amid the depths of war. William T. R. Fox, a professor of international relations at Columbia University, used it in 1944 to categorize nations that possessed “great power plus great mobility of power.” For a country to function as a superpower, it had to be able to project force most anywhere it pleased. That, in turn, required not only an utterly modern arsenal but also a tentacular espionage apparatus and a network of allies who could leverage such strengths. Fox identified the “Super Powers” of his moment: the United States, the Soviet Union, and the British Empire. But we can now see that after the war ended, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States fully met these requirements. The Soviet Union was rather more than 20 percent larger than today’s Russia, with double the population. It was the most massive unitary land power ever, yet it lacked overseas reach, except through spying and subversion. The United States, for its part, had no intention of continuing to entangle itself abroad. It took years to accept the need to garrison GIs in Europe and Asia, to develop a naval presence in the Persian Gulf, and to build an intelligence capability that offered more than amateurish adventuring.

In contrast, the British Empire and Commonwealth was planetary, with deep relationships nearly everywhere, including those of secret intelligence. Britain drew upon statecraft and experience that—as many U.S. officials, businessmen, and field commanders believed—outweighed any nation’s. Its elite career civil servants sat in continuing authority, from government to government. The American press wrote of Britain deploying a million fighting men across a thousand ports and garrisons. Britain led the world in jet aviation, life sciences, and civil atomic power (unquestionably the industries of tomorrow) and in 1952 became the third nuclear-weapon state. Within two years, its Army of the Rhine was the strongest military presence in Western Europe. The prewar system of global trade had collapsed, and during most of this period no substitute was built up to take its place. Yet London was still banker to much of the world, core of its largest trading area, and center of the world’s diplomatic activity.

Only after its “declaration of independence” in December 1956 did the United States find itself pushing out alone into a slew of involvements across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The break point was to come slightly later—specifically in October 1957, when Russia launched the first Sputnik, a satellite propelled by an intercontinental ballistic missile that once and for all stripped America of its island security. There followed a string of glaringly public U.S. missile failures, and America was gripped by dread that it would not be able to catch up. Whatever happened, it was apparent that only the United States and the Soviet Union could compete at this level. Americans were primed for the call of John F. Kennedy, the magnetic young senator from Massachusetts, who was soon to thrill the nation as he evoked “a struggle for supremacy” against Moscow’s “ruthless, godless tyranny.” We have been driven by such dangerous zeal until today, when a new array of irrevocable decisions presses upon us.

The story that follows has not been told, and only some of its outlines may be familiar. It was a world without any American “grand strategy,” and one in which most every move by Washington was a desperate improvisation. We now face another time of historic geopolitical adjustment as the kaleidoscope again spins faster. To recognize what transpired between the two most powerful democratic nations over these dozen years may help us find our way through the current predicaments.



Britain, who thinks she saved the world, is mute in the bonds of austerity; Russia, who thinks she saved the world, sits back, enormous, suspicious, watching; and America, who thinks she saved the world, makes one think of a nervous, hysterical girl holding a hand grenade, not knowing what to do with it or when it will go off.

—Nat Gubbins, 1946, British philosopher-humorist and Daily Express columnist

At 10:30 p.m. on May 1, Radio Hamburg reported that Hitler lay dead in the Reich Chancellery. World War II was at last coming to an end, at least in Europe, and by then over 36 million people had been consumed in that charnel house alone. There were more refugees on the move than at any time until today, some 13 million altogether, including 5 million starting to arrive in western Germany from within the nation’s prewar frontiers. But Winston Churchill made no statement in the House of Commons that night. Speaking to a member of Parliament earlier in the day, he’d merely observed that the situation was “more satisfactory than it was this time five years ago,” when the Nazi war machine had cornered for slaughter some 400,000 Allied soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk.1 Just a few days before Churchill spoke, Russian and American infantrymen had embraced along the river Elbe in northeastern Germany, cutting the Reich in two. This entailed more than Hitler’s downfall. The encounter also signaled the end of Europe’s primacy in world affairs.

Victory had been certain by late 1944. To decide the political division of the postwar world, the great Allied powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, and the British Empire, or “the Three,” as Harry Truman would later call them—gathered early in February 1945 for seven days at Yalta, a czarist-era resort on the Black Sea in the Crimea. Churchill was then seventy, having all the demeanor of a bulldog, as the famous photographs showed. He led a British delegation of around 350 that included the lean and elegant foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, forty-seven, who was Churchill’s closest political ally. General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, the prime minister’s personal military assistant, was there, as were key economic advisers and half a dozen of Britain’s top commanders.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sixty-three, arrived bundled in a wheelchair despite the mild climate, which was due to the sheltering mountains to the north. His big frame looked frail, and he indeed had just two months to live. Accompanying him were some 350 Americans as well. They included his senior White House staff officer, Fleet Admiral William Leahy; the austere army chief of staff, George Marshall; and Edward Stettinius, the silver-haired forty-four-year-old secretary of state, who was in the third month of his seven-month tenure. Joseph Stalin, five years younger than Churchill, was the host—and around him were V. M. Molotov, people’s commissar for foreign affairs; Molotov’s deputy, Andrei Vyshinsky; and three of the Soviet armed forces’ most senior commanders. On the fifth day, the sadistic torturer Lavrenti Beria appeared. Stalin playfully described him as “our Himmler,” referencing the Reichsführer-SS, and it was Beria’s NKVD, the dreaded People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, that handled arrangements for the conference.

At Yalta, the principals addressed those nations and regions that would become flash points in the years ahead: a divided Germany, Iran, Greece, Turkey and the Balkans, the Middle East, Indochina, and Korea. Also discussed were swaths of the Bloodlands—the conquered and reconquered terrain between the Baltic and the Black Sea in which Hitler and Stalin, from 1933 to 1945, killed some fourteen million civilians.2

Historians have long contended that Yalta demonstrated Britain’s waning stature among “the Three,” but that’s not how Churchill and the men around him saw it. They had reasons to expect the British Empire to be the presiding power over much of the postwar world. Churchill, ever the romantic, code-named the conference “Argonaut,” a reference to the ancient Greek myth of Jason and his Argonauts, a band of heroes who had sailed on the beautiful vessel Argo into hostile lands to retrieve the Golden Fleece—a symbol of power and rightful kingship.

The British knew that their empire had neither the industrial heft of the United States nor the hordes of Red Army soldiers and flaming Marxist-Leninist ideology of the Soviet Union. Still, they believed they had other advantages, and the shock of FDR’s appearance added to their confidence. General Ismay concluded Roosevelt “was more than half gaga,” which was untrue, but the president looked so ill that right after the conference U.S. press officers tried to explain away the photographs in which he wanly appeared. He was having trouble with his dentures, they claimed, which affected his speech and caused his face to fall in.3 Men who were there, however, could see for themselves. With a dying president in office—who’d sooner or later be succeeded by an obscure vice president untutored in foreign affairs—the United States would likely play only a marginal role in the months and maybe the years ahead. Moreover, as Roosevelt emphasized on the conference’s second day, America’s three million troops would be gone from Europe within two years of Germany’s defeat.

Russia was known to have been bled terribly by the war, though the figure of 26.6 million dead was yet to be calculated by the Soviet General Staff. Yalta itself had been liberated only the previous April from the Germans, and FDR was shocked by the Crimea’s war-torn landscape. He witnessed it up close during the eighty-five-mile drive over rough and winding roads from the airfield in Saki, where the American and British delegations had landed, to Yalta. Though he remained in London, Tommy Lascelles, King George VI’s shrewd and influential private secretary, predicted that the Russians “will be greatly dependent on us and the USA for their financial and industrial rehabilitation.”4

Copyright © 2018 by Derek Leebaert