THE power of England was so long regarded as a great and fixed quantity that the spectacle of its undeniable decline is as confusing as it is disturbing. The star which shone so brightly is now revealed as a nova in descent, but we are at a loss to know what magnitude to ascribe to it. In referring to the world power constellation we still speak of the "Big Three," but also of the "Big Two." Similarly, we like the term "bi-polar" because it is arresting, and we eschew "tri-polar" because it would be a barbarism. But the preference does not argue a conviction that the former term is descriptively more accurate.

It would, of course, be a mistake to assume that the two Powers which are indisputably great represent whole and equal numbers. The ratio of power between the Soviet Union and the United States is not easily determined, yet each of those nations is unquestionably able to control militarily very large sections of the globe. Each of them would be unquestionably difficult to conquer even by a coalition of all the remaining Powers. But can the same be said of England, that England which on successive occasions saved herself by her efforts and Europe by her example? The example she still provides may be praiseworthy enough in other respects, but it no longer appears to be the kind which can promise salvation to others. On the other hand, the practice of writing off British power was born well before the recent war, and unfulfilled predictions do not age gracefully. We have to start afresh.


Since our appreciation of decline is, by definition, a sense of contrast between existing visible weakness and presumed condition of great strength in the past, it is worth our while to examine briefly some of those historical presumptions. The fact is that Pitt's valedictory summed up the extent of British power much more accurately than did many later historians, on whom Mahan's insights had a somewhat exaggerated influence. At any rate, Britain's influence stemmed not so much from power to intervene on the Continent as from the fact that she bore a charmed life. She could remain alive and intact where others fell, and could endure as a rallying leader—and incidentally a source of subsidies—to those nations who might in time be provoked to resist an otherwise successful conqueror.

In Pitt's own time England fought Napoleon's France for 23 long years, only fitfully interrupted by the brief Peace of Amiens. During much of that time she fought alone. And she was finally victorious. That was the crowning achievement upon which much of her prestige throughout the nineteenth century was based. It was a great achievement. But the span of 23 years argued weakness as well as stubbornness. Here was a country of only 10,000,000 population fighting against a nation of twice the size. Her success was a defensive success. Because she could keep Napoleon from hurling his armies across the Channel she could endure—and await better times. Splendid opportunities occurred again and again on the Continent, but she could raise no armies adequate for their exploitation. Until 1808, when Sir Arthur Wellesley set foot in Iberia to assist a people in revolt, her efforts ashore were a simple succession of disasters.

Then as later, the chief importance of sea power to Britain was that it made her invulnerable at home. On the offensive side it worked slowly and uncertainly, and never came near to being sufficient in itself. In the net, it enabled England to wait until Napoleon hanged himself by his mistakes and then, by conveying small armies to the right spots on the Continent, to contribute an extra push to his final demise. But it is exceedingly doubtful whether in that pre-industrial age the British blockade contributed much in any direct fashion to the defeat of Napoleon. The 23 years would alone argue trenchantly against the notion.

The ensuing period was one too often referred to as the Pax Britannica. There were many factors besides the strength of the British fleet, and equally important ones too, which served to keep Europe relatively pacific. Nevertheless, this was also the century of the Industrial Revolution, in which Great Britain led by a most remarkable margin. It was a century in which her population increased fourfold and in which British capital stemming from British production and thrift overflowed with such teeming abundance that it went out to develop all the lands of the world, not least the United States. The age in which warfare first adopted the modern machine, first on sea and then on land, was also the age in which Britain almost monopolized the production not only of machines but also of iron ore, of pig iron, and of coal. She still did not have the armies which would have enabled her to intervene decisively and at will on the Continent; but she had everything else necessary for war, and the fact that she did not need large armies for the defense of her homeland assisted her in expanding her power in every other respect.

But by the time of World War I, her ascendancy had long since begun to wane. Germany and the United States had already by the turn of the century overtaken her in iron and steel production. Both these countries were more populous, and were growing faster. The United States was of course not a threat in any real sense, as Germany was, but the superiority even of the United States was a hurt to British prestige and at certain times a worry. The development of internal transportation in Europe had diminished the superiority of mobility on the periphery of the Continent which British forces had previously enjoyed through sea power.

And even financially the British position had changed in an interesting fashion. By 1914 her exports of goods and services were already less in money value than her imports. The deficit was made up by an income on foreign investment which was indeed large enough not only to cover the deficit but also to provide for further investment abroad. The economist would argue that there is nothing wrong with such a position and that it reflects only maturity as a creditor. And certainly one would want to know how much investment was going on at home before a deficit of the kind just described assumes any real importance. Nevertheless, unless the investment at home could be proved to be abnormally large in comparison with what was going on elsewhere, the data do suggest that Britain's capacity to consume was overtaking—and perhaps passing—her capacity to produce.

Britain's contribution to the World War itself and its tremendous impact upon her are too recent and too well known to require much comment. It was the first war in her history in which she was obliged to maintain great armies continuously on the Continent, and it cost her 1,300,000 dead. Financially, too, she was dealt a blow from which she never really recovered. The great contribution of her sea power has been generally misunderstood. The blockade was indeed an important element in the pressure which brought Germany to collapse, but historians have too often overlooked the fact that without the great Allied operations ashore the Germans would scarcely have felt the blockade. And more important than the blockade was the availability to the western Allies through sea power of the resources and finally the manpower of the Americas. But the war did not end without a demonstration that the submarine had made Britain's previously unchallengeable maritime supremacy henceforth precarious.

World War II in retrospect is perhaps more remarkable for demonstrating the continuity of the British position than the changes which modern developments had made in it. It revealed strange parallels in British strategy between wars separated by more than a hundred years and by the whole inheritance of industrialization. Once again a conqueror triumphant in Europe was stopped by Britain at the water's edge. Once again Britain hung on, harassing him at the periphery of his power (and to some extent at the center of it), but chiefly waiting—waiting for him to make his irretrievable and apparently inevitable mistakes. At this point the parallel shifts to World War I. Once again the resources of the world are pooled through the instrumentality of sea power and are concentrated overwhelmingly against the continental aggressor. But the obverse of this happy circumstance is the second and intensified demonstration of vital dependence upon the United States. The new giant among the arms of war, the strategic bomber, discloses itself as not too bad a thing for England. It adds powerfully to the economic effects of the blockade, the latter proving not too important by itself. The use of air power is a two-way game, and England provides an excellent base for bombardment of the Continent. But the benefits derived from use of the submarine are again proved not to be equally divided among the belligerents. The same is true of the new V weapons, especially V-2. And what about the atomic bomb?

Some observers have professed to see a disturbing implication for Britain in the successful invasion of Normandy. What has proved possible in one direction, they argue, may at some future time prove possible in the opposite direction. The answer is simply that it has always been possible for the belligerent which commanded the seas to set an army on a hostile shore, provided that belligerent had also the army to throw ashore. There is certainly nothing new in amphibious operations. England has always used that technique when she had the resources; and, incidentally, it was used successfully on English shores some four centuries after the celebrated 1066, when the Earl of Richmond crossed the Channel with a small army and made himself king as Henry VII. What is mainly at issue now is not whether England can be invaded but whether she can be defeated without invasion, either through submarine blockade or air attack, with or without the atomic bomb.

That result of World War II upon Britain's position which needs finally to be noted is obvious enough and widely discussed, but not in terms of its far-reaching military implications, which have not been appreciated. The liquidity of her international financial position, impaired enough by World War I, was at last destroyed by World War II. The question now is not merely whether it can ever be restored, but whether it can be restored with a sufficient margin to enable her to build up substantial military forces. When we see Great Britain confessing her financial inability to maintain the position she accepted in Greece and Turkey or to support her occupation commitments in Germany, when we see her drastically and continuously cutting back the personnel of her armed forces and obliging them to content themselves almost exclusively with existing matériel, when we find her scrapping old capital ships without any promise of replacing them with modern types, we are reminded that it takes a lot of extra money to be a World Power. And money is just what Britain has not got. It is not rash to say that Britain's balance of payments problem is also her greatest single military problem.


A war has to be prepared for and fought, as Professor Jacob Viner has put it, with the potential disposable surplus of the country. The extent of that potential disposable surplus depends primarily on the accumulated wealth or fat in the land, on the size of the population and the per capita productivity of that population, and on the degree to which civilian consumption can be kept from devouring the national product. In none of these three respects is Britain's position today a good one, and in the first and third it is much worse than it has been in the past.

In six years of war and nine of austerity, Britain has consumed her fat. It will be a long time before it is replaced to anything resembling the prewar level. So far as concerns population, that of the United Kingdom has for some time been relatively static in numbers at a level about one-third that of the United States, and is about to begin declining. As is true of all populations in that situation, the average age level is moving upward. That means not only less manpower in the military age groups but also fewer young persons to support more aged ones.

Per capita productivity depends also on the efficiency of industry. With certain notable exceptions, the industries of Britain have long been inefficient by American standards, due in the main to poor organization, to output restriction by labor, and to inadequate investment over the last 30 years in capital equipment. The British are even now debating in the press and in Parliament the proportion of the national income which ought to go into new capital investment—a matter which is very much under the control of the government. The school of thought which seems to be winning out is that there should be less rather than more capital investment than has been going on recently, the idea being that what is most necessary is to halt inflation by turning out more consumer goods. Even at best, the amount which Britain could spend on rationalization of her industries in her present difficulties would be very small in comparison to her needs. Granting the most favorable possible results which can be expected from the ERP, we cannot look forward to any marked increase in the efficiency of British industries over the next decade or two.

It is clear that two decades of depression and two generations of labor union preachments have left their mark on work habits. The habit of "spreading work" as a solution for unemployment conformed nicely with the impulse to slow down in resentment against the "exploitation" of the capitalist employer. Both habit and impulse are now well-ingrained in the subconscious of the average British workman. If nationalization and a succession of Labor governments can accomplish anything for the British economy, it will be mostly in terms of breaking down those attitudes. On the other hand, if the net economic effect of Labor rule is to be a positive one, the régime will have to rid itself of its singular talent for maximizing inducements to leisure.

Finally we come to what is, from the point of view of military power, perhaps the most important single item in the economic category, the margin by which civilian consumption (and investment dedicated primarily to ultimate civilian consumption) can be cut below the over-all national product. For it is out of that margin that the military establishment is maintained and supplied with matériel. The United States is no doubt the only major Power in the world that is relatively free from the necessity of choosing between "guns or butter," and that for the simple reason that its gross production is so great that a formidable military organization can be built up from only a small part of it. There is plenty of butter for all in the remainder. Of course we can always insist upon "more butter" to the detriment of our national security, and are clearly in danger of doing so in so far as our national security is bound up with aid to Europe. But so far as our own armed forces are concerned, we can have our guns and eat our butter too.

The British people demonstrated during the war a willingness to cut civilian consumption to a degree which must command the awed respect of Americans. But whether they will be willing during peacetime to make anything like comparable sacrifices for the sake of maintaining an adequate military establishment on sea, land and air is quite another question. And in their present circumstances the sacrifices necessary to that end would have to be obvious and severe. It does not at present appear that they will be willing to make them.

The British are not living well, but they are living beyond their means. That is one interpretation of their inability to balance their international payments, especially since the deficit appears not to be offset by proportionate investment at home. And as was indicated earlier, so far as current production is concerned they have been living beyond their means for a very long time. In the period between the two great wars the income from foreign investments was just barely making up the deficit between current imports and exports, and that at a time in which the terms of trade—that is, the prices paid for imports as against those received for exports—lay markedly in Britain's favor. To be sure, Britain was then paying for a large navy, but she was not by any means keeping it up to date, and she was entirely neglecting the other services. Finally, in the last three years before World War II, due no doubt to her efforts to redress her unpreparedness, she was failing by an annual average of 45,000,000 pounds to cover her trade deficit out of foreign investment income.

Today her net foreign investment income is for all practical purposes at an end. She is additionally plagued at the moment by the sharp reversal against her of the international terms of trade. But even when the latter situation eases, as it unquestionably will, she will still be obliged substantially to increase her production and to maintain and enlarge her markets in order merely to maintain her present standard of living. One always finds money for the devil, as the old saying goes, and Britain is even now maintaining rather substantial military forces despite her deficits. But she cannot forever go on with a deficit.

In 1808, when the Peninsular campaign was about to begin, a disciple of Pitt, appealing to the House of Commons to fix a national minimum wage, showed that skilled Lancashire operatives were having to work a six-day week of 15 hours a day in order to earn a pittance of eight shillings. That was how England then absorbed the depredations of French privateers and the loss of Continental markets, which accounted for the oversupply of labor in the textile industries and the consequent fall in wages. It was a bitterly cruel system, and no doubt uneconomical even for the end of enhancing the nation's military power. But for the immediate purpose of fighting a war it had at least the advantage that it worked. And in a land completely set against conscription, the desperation of the textile workers no doubt made it easier to recruit an army for Wellesley.

We have left that all behind, for which there can be no regrets. But the British will soon have to ask themselves whether they are not rushing too fast and too far in the opposite direction. The Labor Government is dedicated first and foremost to enhanced economic welfare and equality, with more social security, more schooling, better housing, and all the rest. And in that as in other respects, the main difference between the two major parties is that Labor sets the pace. Perhaps they can accomplish those ends by raising their productivity, but within the crucial next ten or fifteen years they cannot both accomplish those ends and maintain an adequate national defense.

A nation does not have to be rich, in the sense of enjoying a high standard of living, in order to have great military power. A dictatorship like that of the Soviet Union can, despite a low national income, provide a substantial margin for military purposes simply by severely cutting civilian consumption. The poverty of the people and of the economy generally does have adverse military implications, but it does not prevent the development of formidable power. A democracy like the United States, on the other hand, can be very powerful because very rich. But from the military point of view the United Kingdom has the worst of both systems. She is a democracy—and in the modern sense, too, which means accent on welfare and equality—and she is poor. If she is to build up over the next ten or fifteen years real military power in terms of modern requirements, that development will have to be largely subsidized by the United States. Such an enterprise might indeed be a good investment for the United States to make in its own national security, but it is not likely to prove politically acceptable.


"There is no doubt that modern weapons, such as air bombardment, long range rockets, improved submarines, and the atomic bomb have seriously weakened Commonwealth security by greatly increasing the vulnerability of its heart—the United Kingdom." Such is the admission of Field Marshal the Viscount Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the recent war, in a statement made early in 1947. Apart from the fact that it was made by one of Britain's leading wartime soldiers, the only thing remarkable in this declaration is the conclusion, posed in the form of a question, to which it immediately leads. "There are far too many valuable and vulnerable eggs in this very small and seriously exposed basket. Can we disperse some of these vital requirements throughout the Commonwealth? Can we arrive at a more equitable distribution, from a defensive point of view, of our manpower and resources?"

Lord Alanbrooke's reply is implicit in the question. Such a dispersion, however difficult, can and must be accomplished. The idea of dispersing the industrial and human strength of the United Kingdom throughout the Commonwealth and then of organizing the resources of the whole Commonwealth for defense in depth on a global scale combined with concentric offense dominates British military thinking today. An essay developing this theme, by Squadron Leader S. L. Swain, R.A.F., was awarded the Trench Gascoigne Prize for 1946 by the Royal United Service Institution.

A related theme was chosen as the subject for 1948 of the prize essay sponsored annually by The Army Quarterly. A spate of articles dealing with the same general thesis has appeared in the British military periodicals and has, of course, overflowed into popular journals.

Though individually distinct, the ideas represented in these articles generally have in common—besides acknowledgment of United Kingdom vulnerability and insistence upon the dispersion needs thereto attending—a reinvigorated emphasis upon the strategic importance of the Middle East. That emphasis, which rests upon a strange analytical compounding of oil, communications and history, leads in turn to a conception of Africa as the keystone in the arch of Imperial defense. And since modern weapons are likely to necessitate shifting the main lines of communication of the Empire farther south than they have been in the past, it is South Africa rather than the northern part of that continent which is given primacy. Two sentences from the prize-winning essay of Squadron Leader Swain give the crux of the attitude: "As the Mediterranean sea route may be denied, the most central location for a main striking force would be the Union of South Africa. Simonstown, which is capable of development into an excellent base, is almost equidistant from Halifax, Southampton and Melbourne."

Since the object and hope of this pattern of ideas is to create singular strength out of peculiar weakness, it enjoys great appeal. What the rôle of the United States will be in the grand design is not clear, since it is scarcely mentioned. Despite an occasional expression of doubt, the underlying assumption is that the Empire, including the Dominions, will operate together not merely as closely as they have in the past but much more so. The straitened financial circumstances of the United Kingdom will be offset by the unimpaired wealth of the rest of the Commonwealth. That wealth will indeed be enhanced by the redistribution of manpower and industry from the British Isles to the Dominions and colonies.

From the point of view of pure military theory this conception is admirable. It shows imagination, boldness, and a fine soldierly disdain for exclusively defensive thinking. Its only defect is that it is unrealistic. It is not the first duty of soldiers to understand political institutions. Neither can they be expected to appreciate the sociological, political and especially economic obstacles to the kind of organized and deliberate dispersion of industries and populations which they advocate.

This is hardly the place to attempt to develop the military value to the United Kingdom in both world wars of her colonial empire and her connection with the self-governing Dominions. The colonies often provided territories to fight on—it is doubtful whether in the net they contributed much else—but in not a few instances the fighting would have been better carried on elsewhere. In other words, against the military advantages provided in the form of bases and perhaps some net addition to resources must be weighed the commitment to defend, and whatever the net result may be it is not clearly and overwhelmingly on the credit side for Britain. The Dominions were something else again. The amount of manpower and resources they freely contributed amounted in the aggregate to a very substantial and important addition to the strength of Britain; and since most of them—Australia and New Zealand alone excepted and only for a part of the recent war—were far removed from the theaters of war, their contributions did not involve corresponding and offsetting embarrassment.

But the Dominions are in every sense of the word independent nations, and while the strength of their voluntary attachment to the symbol of the Crown is very real, it is not corrosion proof. Many observers, including this writer, were surprised that the Dominions, after having insisted upon and gained full recognition of their right to declare for themselves whether Britain's wars were also their wars, should nevertheless have ranged themselves so promptly on England's side at the outbreak of World War II. But the promptness was not unqualified. In the case of South Africa, the adherence was by a narrow margin in the Dominion parliament and required the turning out of a government hostile to participation. And the troops provided were for part of the war restricted to action on the continent of Africa. During the conflict Australia had occasion to examine very critically the security value to herself of the alliance. And Canada was obliged because of the attitude of her French-speaking population—a minority which promises before long to be a majority—to put service overseas on a voluntary basis.

In any case, there seems to be a gradual relaxing of the ties between the Dominions and the mother country. The prestige value which the connection provided in the past—an item of importance especially to Canada, to whom it was a compensation for being only a small neighbor of a very great Power—was based on the real or presumed strength of England, economically and militarily. The prestige to be derived from the connection has now greatly faded.

The English-speaking Dominions would like an influx of capital which would enable them to industrialize further and thereby presumably raise both their standards of living and the size of their populations. And in so far as they want immigrants at all, they clearly prefer Britons. But they do not wish a great influx of immigrants without a corresponding inflow of capital. The United Kingdom certainly does not have the capital to provide. Nor can she raise it simply by disinvestment at home. The industries of Britain represent, among other things, a good deal of fixed and sunk capital not subject to removal. To be sure, specific industries of strategic importance—like the aircraft building industry, which seems nowhere to be commercially self-supporting anyway—can be helped to develop in the Dominions by some measure of disinvestment at home, but the possibilities in that direction are very limited. While hard times at home may induce some Englishmen to leave, the chances are small indeed that any considerable number of them can be induced to move in peacetime because of some soldiers' strategic calculations.

However, before we leave the matter of Imperial cohesion, it is important to remember that the attraction for security which the United Kingdom has so largely lost is now exerted by the United States. And since the Dominions would otherwise prefer their coequal partnership with the United Kingdom, with whom they share great traditions and sentiments, to dependency upon the all too self-sufficient United States, it lies within our power to harmonize those conflicting attractions. Should American policy show itself consistently friendly to British interests and to the Commonwealth system, the Imperial connection will take on new and added meaning to the Dominions. All that is required is that Americans should realize what a marvelous and rare invention the British Commonwealth of Nations is, how much good it has done in the world, and how much it is to our interest that it should survive.


But how vulnerable is the United Kingdom herself? Is it possible that her ability to resist attack—given reasonable financial and economic means with which to provide herself with military forces—is being written down too far? The answers to this question are a good deal more speculative than those we have dealt with thus far. They involve predictions in a field in which previous predictions have often been notoriously wrong—the field of changing technology in weapons of war. It is not that weapons change less rapidly than is predicted. Quite the contrary is usually the case. But what is often overlooked is that technology marches on with a broad sweep, that the development which commands attention may be in process of having its effectiveness nullified by some concurrent development which is either too unobtrusive to draw attention or is being carried on in secret.

For example, it has now become a commonplace that the "Battle of Britain was won by radar." Although the statement is an oversimplification, it is certainly true that the search radars on the English coasts vitally enhanced the effectiveness of the pitifully small number of British fighters. Yet the Germans were at first unaware of their existence, deducing it finally only as a result of the disasters heaped upon their daylight attacks. Furthermore, it has been argued by senior American military officers that if the Germans had had the proximity fuse to combine with their airborne rockets, and if Hitler had had the sense to promote the use of jet propulsion in fighters instead of insisting for too long upon its use in bombers, the great Allied air attacks of 1944-45 would have been impossible and "the air over Germany would have belonged to Hitler!" Whether that statement be true or not in an absolute sense, there is no doubt that the conditions postulated would have made the task of our strategic bombing forces immeasurably more difficult and hazardous and its execution more costly; and in strategic bombing with conventional bombs, costs in plane losses may quickly become prohibitive.

We are witnessing today a remarkable progress—in terms of experimental models—in the performance characteristics of bombing aircraft. Most noteworthy no doubt, from the point of view of circumventing enemy defenses, are the increases in speed and ceiling resulting from the use of jet propulsion. Techniques of bombing and the performance of guided bombs are also advancing apace. But advancing with at least equal speed are developments in ground to air (antiaircraft) and in air to air guided rocket missiles, to which bombers are quite vulnerable. And with jet or rocket propelled fighters apparently able to penetrate the sonic barrier, it is likely that fighters will maintain or possibly even extend their previous advantage in speed over bombers. Also, while radar and the proximity fuse are of some utility to strategic bombing forces, they are and seem bound to remain much more useful to the defender. Whatever current technological trends may be, it seems pretty clear that as of now the most advanced tools available to both the offense and the defense in strategic bombing (excluding for the moment the V-2 and the atomic bomb, which upset quite a lot of calculations) would, taken altogether, throw a considerable advantage to the defense compared with the conditions of World War II.

However, such a statement is almost meaningless except in terms of "who is fighting whom." It is hardly to be doubted that in comparison with western Europe, let alone the United States, the Soviet Union suffers from a marked over-all technological backwardness. It does not greatly matter that she has some good scientists and even some German scientists and engineers. Specialized developments in weapons must be erected upon the technological base which the whole economy provides. As the weapons of war become more complicated, and as the complicated weapons become more important relatively to manpower or simple weapons, the Soviet Union tends to lose in military capability.

If the Soviet Union rather than Germany must now be regarded as Britain's major potential opponent, then Britain's vulnerability to "ordinary" strategic bombing (i.e., omitting V-2s and atomic bombs) is no greater and probably much less than it was in World War II. But again, that proposition assumes that Great Britain will have the economic and financial means to build up the requisite fighter forces and antiaircraft defenses. An effective defense against large bomber forces may not be technologically or even economically impractical, but neither is it cheap.

But what about the V-weapons, especially V-2? Against the latter no defense at all was available during World War II. The rockets in flight could be watched on radar screens, but nothing could be done to stop them. And the time of flight was much too brief to permit of any useful warning. It may not prove utterly impossible in the future to devise some means of destroying the missile before it strikes, but the problem is inordinately difficult. Moreover, if ever a target were made to order for the V-2 type of weapon, it is sprawling London, containing something like a quarter of Britain's population and industry.

Yet the V-2 has its inherent limitations too, even when used against England. It is by no means inevitable that Britain's enemy in another war will be ensconced across the Channel. During World War II the maximum range reached by the German V-2 was about 220 miles. It is technically feasible, even under existing knowledge, to extend that range considerably. But whether it would be economic to do so is another matter. The rocket is a single-use weapon and relatively inaccurate. To improve its performance markedly, especially in respect to range, might quickly result in a situation where a good deal more resources went into the manufacture and use of the rocket than were destroyed by it. The psychological results might still make it worth while, but even to achieve useful psychological ends the numbers used would have to be very great. So long as the warhead remained a chemical explosive, the chances are good that at very long ranges the game would not be worth the candle. An atomic warhead would be quite another matter, but with atomic bombs as scarce as they are likely to remain for the next fifteen or twenty years, the very-long-range rocket would have to gain greatly in accuracy and general reliability as well as in range before it became a feasible vehicle for the atomic bomb.

However, the atomic bomb does not have to be used in rockets alone, and can we even talk about atomic bombs and the defense of England in the same breath? In terms of the number of atomic bombs it would require to destroy her, the United Kingdom is certainly the most vulnerable of the nations which have any pretense to power. Still, that fact alone does not oblige us to write off her case as hopeless. A good many considerations are involved which cannot be developed here; but vulnerability is a relative term, and depends not only on geographical circumstances but equally on the means of offense available to the opponent. Even after American monopoly of atomic bomb production is ended, it is by no means clear that in the ensuing atomic armaments race—if there is one—the advantage will be on the Soviet side. It is probable that by the time the Soviet Union has enough bombs to threaten the life of England, there will be a large enough number of bombs on the other side (if the United States is included) to put her own life in almost equal jeopardy.

The submarine is a more immediate danger. In 1805, when the British Government encouraged Robert Fulton in his crude experiments with submarines and torpedoes, Admiral Lord St. Vincent remarked that "Pitt was the greatest fool that ever existed, to encourage a mode of war which they who commanded the seas did not want, and which if successful would deprive them of it." St. Vincent's foresight has since been amply confirmed. The occasional benefit which the British have derived from their own use of the submarine cannot begin to compensate them for the threat posed by its very existence.

It is Grand Admiral Doenitz's opinion that if Germany prior to World War II had concentrated her naval preparations on submarines rather than wasting her resources on large surface warships, Germany would have won the war. Doenitz is an ex-submariner himself and probably biased, but since each German U-boat was ten times as effective per day at sea in 1939-40 as it was in 1942, we need only think of the tremendous havoc wrought in 1942 by the German U-boat arm to realize what half the number of U-boats then existing would have accomplished had they been available at the beginning of hostilities. And the submarine is the one type of naval vessel in which the Soviet Union today is strong.

Moreover, the Soviet Union now has several models of the advanced types of U-boats which the Germans were developing at the close of the war and which would have greatly augmented our difficulties had they been available in numbers a year earlier. The improvements involve mainly greatly increased underwater speeds, and German technicians, many of whom are now in Soviet hands, are said to have been close to perfecting a system by which submarines could use their internal combustion engines while submerged without resort to the Schnorkel (a system of pipes extending to the surface and permitting use of combustion engines for recharging batteries at periscope depth). Such an improvement would not only make the submarine far less vulnerable to air attack (the Schnorkel actually had that effect) but would also deprive the slower antisubmarine surface vessels of much of their utility and make detection and attack more difficult even for the faster ships. Nor have the performance characteristics of the torpedo lagged in development.

Yet when we consider that until the end of the second year of World War I the British did not even have the hydrophone or the depth charge, and when we contemplate the catalogue of antisubmarine devices perfected since then, we have some reason to modify our concern. The submarine will not necessarily have the last word in the contest. The supersonic directional detector, though a great advance over the simple hydrophone, is subject to many limitations, and it is those limitations which have enabled the submarine to remain alive. Without its ability to conceal itself the submarine counts for nothing. It may be inherently impossible to operate radar under water, but if the supersonic detector, or some advance upon it, ever develops a performance comparable to radar, the submarine as a type will be on its way out. However, that time is not yet. For the present it is difficult to see where Britain could find unaided the resources to meet another major submarine threat in case of war.


What do these data add up to? The technological progress of weapons has eroded if not destroyed the defensive advantage which Britain previously enjoyed from her island position combined with superior sea power. That erosion would in any case be serious, but whether it be fatal or not depends on the resources which the British can marshal to cope with it. Unfortunately, the grave deterioration in Britain's economic position makes it very dubious that she will be able unassisted to command the requisite resources. The conclusion appears inescapable that, standing by herself, the United Kingdom can no longer fulfil the functions of a Great Power. Nor can she be expected to regain that capacity. The maximum assistance which the Dominions and the colonies could provide—in so far as that assistance could be counted upon for the future—would fall far short of redressing the balance. And the idea of creating a tightly integrated defense system out of the whole Empire is close to being a pipe dream.

What do these conclusions imply for American policy? They certainly do not imply that the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth must be written off as inconsequential partners in the pursuit of world security. The United Kingdom still enjoys the position of leadership not only in her own Commonwealth but also among the countries of western Europe. Her collaboration is therefore indispensable for the essential task of organizing the democracies of western Europe into some kind of unified security system. Taken together, those countries dispose of a population and fund of resources quite adequate to make them a real counterpoise to Soviet power. Their peoples are technologically advanced and have proved themselves tough, and they are devoted to the same basic principles by which we try to rule ourselves. Historically they have not demonstrated remarkable unity in their foreign and security policies, but the circumstances of today may warrant expectation of drastic change in those respects. If among those circumstances we can presuppose an American policy which follows in general the pattern laid down by the European Recovery Program as originally conceived, the prospects are good that economic viability and strategic cohesion in western Europe can both be accomplished. From the military point of view that would be a gain of fundamental importance. It would be absurdly wrong to assume that the Soviet Union is so strong and western Europe inherently so weak that Soviet armies could overrun the latter area at will.

The British rôle is thus a commanding one, and in so far as its continuation in the Commonwealth and in western Europe depends on an inheritance of prestige, it must be American policy to buttress what is left of that prestige. We must indeed remember that England will not again be able to stand alone against an aggressor who has triumphed on the Continent. But what that chiefly argues for our military and economic policy is that she should not again be called upon to do so.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • BERNARD BRODIE, member of the Yale Institute of International Studies and Associate Professor of International Relations, Yale University; author of "Sea Power in the Machine Age" and "A Guide to Naval Strategy"
  • More By Bernard Brodie