Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945–1957

In This Review

Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945–1957
By Derek Leebaert
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
624 pp.

Contemporaries experience the history of their times as full of chaos and improvisation; historians try to find patterns in the maelstrom. The decade after World War II was especially uncertain. Nobody in 1946 understood the depth of the United Kingdom’s exhaustion or the severity of the Soviet challenge. American public opinion strongly favored rapid demobilization and military withdrawal from Europe. Leebaert’s history of the U.S.-British relationship from V-E Day to the aftermath of the 1956 Suez crisis highlights this complexity and attacks the widespread view that the immediate postwar period saw a smooth handoff of world power from London to Washington. In his telling, far from ceding the world to the Americans, the British fought tenaciously to preserve their strategic independence. American strategists were ambivalent, confused, and lacked the coherent grand designs for a liberal international order that historians would later attribute to them. Leebaert’s revisionism is not always convincing, but he is right to challenge the narrative of a seamless transition—and right, too, that a sentimentalized vision of this history will make it harder for policymakers to deal with the enormous challenges facing the United States in the twenty-first century.

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