IT is sometimes said that America and Britain would understand each other better if it were not assumed that they speak the same language. As a conversational gimmick this may pass, but, of course, it is not the truth of the matter. A common language, and for so long a common history, have established between the two countries an underlying unity. Much of the literature, the poetry and the music of both countries is a shared experience. For the most part we take this for granted. It is implicit in our relationship. But it must not be ignored in any assessment of the present situation, for it makes its own continuing impact upon reality. Indeed, it is mainly responsible for the fact that though many factors tend to prize us apart, there is a surprising amount of good will for America and Americans in Great Britain.

It would be probably true to say that there is more good will for Americans than for America. The concept "America" connotes in British minds, these days, events not always conducive to cordial feelings. During the war, a friend of mine who was an officer in the United States Navy had just taken delivery of a new car. He was driving this with great pride through the streets of London when a taxi grazed his beautifully polished wing. My friend stepped out of his car, went up to the taxi-driver and poured out a flow of expletives of a beautifully variegated type until he was eventually out of breath. The taxi-driver retorted in one simple sentence, "Pearl Harbor to you." It was my American friend who told me of the incident. He recalled it with great glee. He considered that in his exchange with the taxi-man he had displayed more vigor, but the taxi-man the greater virtuosity.

This incident conveys far more than could be done in many long dissertations. American participation in the war was accepted by the British people thankfully, but not necessarily gratefully. It was felt that America did what she did because no alternative course was left open to her. Looked at from this angle. the British attitude is not surprising; Americans should not feel hurt when they find that the British people are not conscious of gratitude to them for entering the war, although highly appreciative of their war effort.

When the war ended, Anglo-American relations were at their best. In ruling Conservative circles they continued at this level for some years, but among the masses of the people, then devoted to the cause of Labor, criticism of American policy began to be heard with increasing frequency. The abrupt ending of Lend-Lease by the Truman Administration was felt to be a bitter blow intended to injure the British Labor Government by hurting the British people. During the war, a division of labor had been worked out between the two countries by which we went on building ships and bombers while America concentrated mainly on supply planes and merchant ships. The supply planes and the ships could be quickly converted to peacetime uses; but not the tanks or the bombers or the battleships. Britain's export trade, so vital to her economy, had been virtually extinguished for six and a half years and had to be painfully rebuilt; whilst America, with a relatively tiny export trade, had been able to maintain most of it in the expanding Americas. At the same time, Britain had suffered grievous material damage by air raids and from guided missiles. One-third of her homes had either been damaged or destroyed outright. I myself was keenly conscious of the magnitude of the task this involved, because for six years I was the Minister responsible for housing as well as health.

The economies of both countries were closely interlocked while they were being built into the war effort. The consequence of this projected itself far into the peacetime years. Disentanglement was a difficult and painful process for Britain, but of no significant consequence to the United States. The abrupt ending of Lend-Lease was, in these circumstances, a sharp, indeed almost a mortal blow, to British prospects of recovery. I understand that Mr. Truman now believes that this action was a mistake. I recall it now, not for the purpose of recrimination, but in order that American readers may understand one, at least, of the reasons for British coldness towards America. This coldness was, of course, partly dispersed by the imaginative generosity of Marshall aid. Nevertheless, it is necessary to appreciate that charity, however lavish, is no substitute for justice.

In 1947, when the dangerous run-down of Britain's financial reserves compelled her to raise a loan in Canada and the United States, it was felt that this had been caused at least as much by American financial policies as by Britain's management of her own finances. Currency convertibility was soon discovered to be a foolish arrangement when the commerce of the world, and especially that of Britain, had not yet recovered. What was meat for the American economy in these circumstances was poison for the British. In her desperation, Britain was driven to cancel an arrangement which ought never to have been made.

At this point it may be well to make an observation which is not usually emphasized sufficiently. The American and British economic systems are not complementary to each other. Britain and the United States are not the natural markets for each other's goods. They are both highly industrialized countries. The goods they produce in the main compete with each other. The natural markets for the exports from Britain are to be found, in most cases, in the underdeveloped countries. Most of these, at least in the years immediately following the war, were either in the throes of political convulsions or, like China, Russia and her Eastern satellites, had come completely under Communist control. Even Russia remains a comparatively underdeveloped country, in spite of her astonishing industrial progress within recent years.

All this adds up to a significant conclusion for which inadequate allowance often is made in attempts to analyze the complex relationship between Britain and America. Britain has been in close political alliance with the United States, to which her economy is not similarly married, and she has been estranged diplomatically and militarily from those areas of the world most suited to her economic destinies. Thus we have economic interest pointing one way and diplomatic involvements in another. If all ideological considerations were dismissed, British diplomacy should follow her material needs. But, of course, they cannot be dismissed. The fact that her ideological affiliations and her economic interests tend to tug Britain in opposite directions is a fact that should be recognized and for which allowance must be made if we are to act intelligently. It is not often in the history of nations that long-term economic trends and needs fail to find corresponding expression in diplomatic policy. That this has not been the case with British policy in recent years is a remarkable tribute to the strength of the Anglo-American alliance. If the Kremlin had not been so obtuse and maladroit, it could have made much more of this. On the other hand, if Washington and the American people understood it more fully, and realized its implications, certain American policies might have been modified.

Britain's trade and commerce were caught at the end of the war, and have been held since, in an unnatural clamp. Her financial and economic recovery has been partly frustrated. The outlets for her exports have either been silted up or blocked, distorted and diverted in a way which has impaired her vigor and enterprise. In spite of the economic enfeeblement resulting from all this, she accepted, largely under United States pressure, a crippling burden of arms. It is true that the United States, from time to time, came to her assistance in various ways, but as I once remarked to Mr. Lewis Douglas when he was Ambassador in London, "the British were getting tired of American dollars being pushed into pockets from which the bottoms had been cut by American policies." The foreign exchange crises which have occurred so frequently in Britain since the end of the war are but the symptoms and expressions of these underlying economic distortions.

I am not contending that the economy of Britain should be interlocked with that of the Soviet world. That might well prove disastrous. It would have made her far too dependent on Communist foreign policy, which is always prepared to apply economic sanctions, as happened in 1948 in the case of Jugoslavia. But it is a far cry from that position to cutting off Britain's expansion almost completely from those parts of the world economically most suitable to her trade.

A particular illustration of this is the policy of the United States towards China. To the British it just does not make sense. It is causing bad blood in British business circles as well as among those whom Americans would describe as radicals. It is easy for the British to understand and sympathize with the emotional overtones involved. American soldiers were killed by the Chinese in Korea. It is therefore understandable that American opinion cannot easily be brought to the resumption of normal trade relations with China. But when we set against that the American policy towards Germany, it becomes difficult for us to understand this one-sided emotionalism. America insists on helping Western Germany, arming her and bringing her into the Western Alliance. For the moment, I am not entering into an argument about the merits of this policy, but it rather assumes that the British are not entitled to have emotions. If it was only yesterday that Chinese were killing G.I.s, it was only the day before yesterday that Germans were killing British Tommies as well as American G.I.s. Taking all this into account, I am afraid the American argument in this respect does not carry much weight with British opinion.

It would be unwise to exaggerate the possibilities of direct British trade with China. There is not much that China could send to Britain in exchange for industrial products. China's greatest need is for extended credits, and these Britain in any case could not provide. But the same is not true of Japan. Before the war, Japan did a thriving trade with China. Both economies grew up together. They became interlocked and a mutual division of labor developed in the interests of both countries. Cut off from the Chinese market, Japanese exports are driven elsewhere, frequently into the British Commonwealth and dependencies, to the injury of Lancashire textiles and other British exporting industries.

Leaving, for a moment, the economic consequences of this American policy, it is difficult to understand what are the American objectives in thus insisting on the maintenance of Chinese isolation. Is its purpose to starve the Chinese revolution? If it is, then it is practically certain to prove ineffectual. On the contrary, all experience shows that by such ways revolutionary governments are consolidated, and not only consolidated but made more oppressive in their methods. The enemy of revolutionary extremism in modern society is industrial expansion. With the development of the techniques of modern industry, society undergoes profound changes. The social structure becomes more complicated as wider sections of the population learn new cultural and technical skills. Methods of direct tyrannical oppression which are effective in a simple homogeneous community prove less and less effective as the social and economic structure grows more complex. It is a law of social evolution that when people come to occupy positions of authority and initiative in industry and commerce, and in all the arts and sciences ancillary to them, they come more and more to resent limitations on personal freedom. The crude, monolithic political apparatus of Communism is shown to be more and more at variance with the underlying facts of a developing community. This is the chief explanation of the series of palace revolutions now taking place in the Soviet Union.

If all this be true, does it not make nonsense of the American policy of economically isolating, as far as possible, the Communist world? It may be a long-term answer, but surely it is the fact, nevertheless, that the way to rid the Communist nations of those features which are most repugnant to the Western mind is to facilitate, not to thwart, their economic diversification. Nor can it be said that economic isolationism is even a short-term answer. (I am not, of course, arguing for the sale of arms or of goods directly for arms production.)

As I have already declared, this economic isolationism which scarcely touches the buoyant American economy damages and hinders in a thousand ways the totally different economic needs of Great Britain. In the past few months, the embargo on trade with China and Russia has been relaxed, but the business world of Britain is conscious that this was accomplished despite prolonged and stubborn resistance from the United States. Gossip was bitterly busy about the number of American officials in Hong Kong whose job it was, apparently, to keep a watch on the extent to which Britain was keeping faith with the embargo.

Because of these considerations, the criticism of American foreign policy, which was confined in the main to the working masses in the immediate postwar years, spread to Conservative circles, until it has now become pervasive. With the coming of the Suez crisis, the emphasis shifted until it is now more marked in Conservative than in Labor areas of political opinion. Indeed, informed circles of Labor actually grew more friendly to the United States in the second half of 1956, for Labor's Suez policy more closely resembled that of the White House than of our own Conservative Government.

Apart from its manifest insanity, the Anglo-French adventure in Egypt provided evidence of the extent to which America and Britain had drifted apart. History shows few similar examples of a nation embarking on such a wild and dangerous undertaking whilst keeping her closest ally in ignorance of her intentions. That the British Government behaved in this way dramatically exposed the gulf that separated Washington from London. Ironically enough, the line taken by President Eisenhower drew him closer to Labor and further away from his political counterparts in Britain.

Conservative speakers made no attempt to hide their bitter resentment against the United States. Those who, like myself, had been for years highly critical of certain aspects of American foreign politics were left far behind in vituperation. Conservative critics of the President's attitude felt no contrition at the way in which they kept him in the dark. When the affair was over, and Egyptian soil was free of the invaders, they pointed in cynical triumph to the Eisenhower Middle East Doctrine that immediately followed as evidence of American perfidy. They believed the Lion had been driven back to its lair only in order that the American Eagle could dominate the same territory. This point of view persists, and is reinforced by the suspicion, amounting almost to a certainty, that arms supplied by America to Saudi Arabia were recently employed against British interests in Oman.

It is openly stated in Britain that the United States is assisting in the liquidation of the British Empire so that she can be the residuary legatee. It is felt that this is particularly true of the Middle East, where British and American oil interests are in persistent collision; nor will these convictions be dispelled until there is Anglo-American agreement about the Middle East. It is not enough that America feels she is constrained to do what she is doing as the champion of the free world in the struggle against Communism. British Conservatives are not consoled if, whenever a blow is struck at Communism, they are made to bleed.

These evidences of strained relations between Britain and America have given rise to the suggestion that some attempt should be made to reach an agreement whereby each is assigned its own special area of influence, without interference from the other. It is hard to see both where and how this can be done. It is a conception belonging to old-fashioned diplomacy and is out of place in a rapidly contracting world. Furthermore, it implies that if either gets into trouble when following its own interests, it can rely on help from the other. Is this really practicable? Could it be reconciled with the obligations of both to the United Nations? It had been assumed until recently that the Middle East was a special responsibility of Britain's. But when she pursued a policy there which offended at one and the same time against American views and against the Charter of the United Nations, she found herself at loggerheads with America. When, at one time, it seemed that America wanted to extend the Korean War, she found herself at variance with Britain. Spheres of influence are not, in the final analysis, consistent with the concept of a United Nations clothed with increasing authority. It is in the United Nations and its Charter that the chief hope of peace lies.

Here we reach the real problem of Anglo-American relations. These cannot be put on a more satisfactory footing until agreement is arrived at on our relations with the Communist world. Failure to do this bedevils our position both in Europe and in the Middle East. In both these parts of the world, it is essential to realize that reaching an accommodation with the Communist countries is not the same thing as accommodating Communism. The distinction is a real one. In fact, it can be argued that a refusal to attempt an understanding with the Communist nations may itself lead to the spread of Communism. Conditions of economic and political disturbance facilitate the spread of Communism or its offshoots. If the frontiers of Communism are to be frozen where they now are, it can be accomplished only by pacifying and stabilizing conditions in adjacent territory. If, on the contrary, these are constantly bubbling with discontent, Communism seeps across by a thousand different channels. Military containment is not the answer, for it invites unsettlement in the most sensitively dangerous areas--the frontiers themselves. Syria is a case in point, and so, of course, is Eastern Germany. Russia reacted with brutal sharpness to the dangers of a weakening of her military frontiers in Hungary.

If, in the countries contiguous to the outposts of Communism, Britain and the United States are in conflict with each other, a situation is created that Soviet Russia can, and does, exploit. Nor, to be realistic, can she be blamed for this if the dominating motif of the Western Powers is the eventual destruction of Communism. On the other hand, if the principal aim is mutual tolerance until time and social changes do their work, a different and more hopeful pattern begins to emerge.

It is sometimes argued that such a course is useless because Communism is bent on the destruction of the institutions of the free world, and that therefore its dynamism must be met by a superior dynamism on our part. But what kind of dynamism? Military, or social and political? If it is the former, then the world will go up in flames and that will be that. But, if the dynamism is to be socio-political, then the circumstances must be assembled in which it can do its work, and this can be accomplished only by reaching an understanding with the Communist nations.

It may be said that there is no sign of the Communist world wanting such an understanding. That may be so. But what of ourselves? Do we want it? If the answer is yes, then let us set about trying to get it. Until we do, Anglo-American relations will continue to be snarled. In the shadow of impending catastrophe, in an atmosphere where military threats and counter-threats dominate, is it asking too much of mankind to expect even minor social and economic adjustments to be hopefully attempted?

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
  • ANEURIN BEVAN, P.C., Member of Parliament since 1929; Minister of Health, 1945-51; Minister of Labor and National Service, 1951
  • More By Aneurin Bevan