My Weekly Reader 21 October 2018.

There is a long-lasting illusion that Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union (“The Big Three”) had all emerged victorious from the Second World War.  A further myth holds that the war forged a “special relationship” between Britain and the United States.  Neither of these myths is true.  First, Britain was defeated—heroically—in the Second World War: it was bankrupt, exhausted, and dominated by popular aspirations for a better life and dreams of lost grandeur.  Second, the British imagined that they could maintain international influence by mentoring the “immature” Americans in the ways of the world.  In reality, American leaders do not value Britain much except as a lever with which to move other parts of the world.

The decade following the Second World War should have made these realities clear to British leaders.  Britain abandoned the key parts of its Empire (the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, its advantageous position in China) because it lacked either the will or the power to hold them against rising nationalism; Britain received much American economic aid, while refusing to join the construction of “Europe.”  The United States dominated the conflict with Communism, both in Europe and in Asia.

Yet the British resisted recognizing reality.  They bristled when Dean Acheson said that Britain “had lost an empire, but not yet found a role.”  Britain held fast to one key claim to continued great power status: nuclear weapons.  Yet the independent nuclear deterrent formed another myth.  Britain could scarcely afford to develop weapons or delivery systems that could penetrate Soviet air-defenses, let alone in sufficient numbers to create an effective deterrent.  The coldly logical response would have been to unilaterally disarm in this one area, plow the money saved into conventional weapons that would have increased Britain’s real power, and merge Britain’s destiny with the movement toward European unity.  This they would not do.

C.P. Snow, a novelist with both experience in academic science and government, and a hard-headed approach to the world, played a role in this debate.  In Corridors of Power[1] he looked back at the critical mid-Fifties.

Snow tells the story of Roger Quaife, a youngish Conservative politician who seeks power both to be something and to do something.  The something he wants to be is a cabinet minister at an early age.  The something he wants to do is to end the British pursuit of an independent nuclear deterrent and to ease Cold War tensions.  The botched Suez Expedition (1956) provides a particularly sensitive context.  Britain colluded with France and Israel to fake-up a war that “threatened” the Suez Canal in order to justify an intervention in Egypt.  The Americans then dragged on the reins.  In the aftermath, British politics became bitterly divided, “more even than after Munich.”  Quaife first maneuvers for a key ministerial position.  This makes him enemies among those who resent his rapid rise and methods.  His private life—he is married to a beautiful member of the aristocracy, but has a mistress—renders him especially vulnerable to his enemies.  His campaign against the British nuclear program seems to be shoving Britain yet further down-hill.  In the end, he is forced out of office and out of the public eye.  His former wife remarks that “It must be awful to have a brilliant future behind you.”  She might be speaking of Britain itself.  Not all war books are about wars that actually got fought.

[1] C.P. Snow, Corridors of Power (1964).

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