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Our Battle with Britain

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt lavished such extravagant rhetoric upon the Anglo-American alliance in the Second World War that illusions about its reality persist to this day. By 1945, not only was the United States victorious, its participation in the war had also been profitable. The nation was wealthier than ever. Britain’s defiance of Hitler, however, had rendered it bankrupt. The contrast between the two nations’ circumstances engendered deep British bitterness and envy, intensified by Congress’s abrupt termination of Lend-Lease, the program that had provided billions of dollars worth of material to Allied nations, the moment peace was declared.

It seemed to many British citizens monstrously unjust that having suffered so much, including heavy damage to the physical fabric of their country, they should thereafter be treated with skinflint ruthlessness. Many Americans, for their part, perceived a new world in which the United States’ only rival for supremacy was the Soviet Union. They were impatient, indeed scornful, of residual British pretensions, above all to empire.

The US set about exercising hegemony without much pity for its ally’s plight. Even a loan to London roused significant congressional opposition, reflected by the representative who vowed never to “vote for one dollar [for British aid] to take food out of the mouths of my people.” This was a trifle excessive when Americans were eating handsomely, while the British found themselves forced to celebrate peace by introducing bread rationing. But US skepticism was scarcely diminished when Britain, with what critics deemed a characteristically self-indulgent sense of entitlement, set about using its borrowed American cash to create a welfare state, rather than to modernize its battered and decrepit industrial base. It also strove to sustain worldwide strategic commitments far beyond its shrunken means.

Through the decades that followed, the British experience was dominated by a struggle for solvency. This was rendered exceptionally difficult by the fact that before 1941—the year Lend-Lease was introduced and the year of Pearl Harbor—the nation’s entire securities and foreign assets portfolio and gold reserves had been liquidated in order to buy American weapons. By 1945 Britain, a trading nation, had precious little to sell that the world wanted to buy. The US, by contrast, began the postwar commercial contest possessed of both political influence and vast resources.

The British and Americans perceived commercial aviation as a vital field of competition. Each anticipated a boom, and set about chasing markets. Britain had designed and produced some of the most notable planes of World War II—the Spitfire, Lancaster, and Mosquito. Its aircraft manufacturers employed 1.7 million people, including subcontractors. Above all, the nation led the world in jet engine technology, with the Meteor and Vampire combat jet aircraft in service, and the Comet airliner on the drawing board. In this industry, the US lagged. The British saw a great opportunity.

Other circumstances, however, were vastly more favorable to the Americans. Before the war, the British pursued what proved to be a design blind alley, adopting flying boats for the long-haul civil aviation market. In 1939, the American-built Douglas DC-3 carried a staggering 93 percent of the world’s passengers. When the US entered the war, the British recognized that they possessed no transport aircraft of comparable quality to those built in America. A transatlantic deal was struck, whereby the British continued to focus production on fighters and bombers and relied upon the US for transports.

Late in 1944, as the British government contemplated the postwar implications of this arrangement, it begged the Americans at least to agree that Britain should start building some transport planes of its own as soon as the German war was won, and before Japan was defeated. This request was rejected. The US government envisaged Britain using the American funding on which its ally was totally dependent to gain a competitive edge against it in the commercial market. The Air Ministry in London reported gloomily: “It is out of the question for Great Britain to compete in civil aviation for at least five years after the war.”

With peace came the worse—much worse, for the British—new reality of the cold war. The US was implacably hostile to supplying high technology of any description to the East Bloc. In 1946, an Anglo-American dispute developed, which persisted through the decades that followed. Broke Britain was desperate to sell almost anything it had to anyone who would buy it. Rich America was determined to prevent such sales, and even to forswear passenger routes across the Iron Curtain, from a combination of strategic conviction and—in lesser degree than the British supposed—commercial self-interest.

Jeffrey Engel’s Cold War at 30,000 Feet tells the story of the long-running row that resulted from this divergence of view, which tainted and sometimes poisoned the Atlantic alliance. Americans were disgusted by British lack of principle and even prudence. The British, in their turn, were irked by American insensitivity to their economic plight and indifference to their right as a sovereign state to make their own commercial decisions. Pervading every wrangle was a British belief that engagement with the East through trade was preferable to military confrontation, which the US seemed to favor.

The first dispute took place in 1946, when the Soviet government applied for licenses to manufacture British jet engines, and soon afterward to buy sample Meteor and Vampire aircraft. “We hope,” Rolls-Royce, the engine maker for both types of aircraft, wrote to the government, “that politics will not prevent us [from] executing this order!” At first, the government was indeed hostile. At a time when much of the RAF was still prop-driven, the Air Ministry was appalled by the notion that it might find its squadrons dogfighting Russian jets built with superior British technology.

But the leftist president of the Board of Trade, Stafford Cripps, a politician wrong about almost everything, lobbied fiercely to sell the Soviets whatever they wanted. “Here is a field in which we lead the world and in which we may expect a very valuable export trade,” he wrote. “If we stifle it, do we not risk hampering the firms whose research is producing such remarkable results?” Prime Minister Clement Attlee compromised, approving the sale of engines, but not of aircraft. He wrote on September 26, 1946: “I can see no good reason for withholding [the engines] from the USSR, whereas their refusal will only cause trouble and suspicion.”

Some eighty-five Nene and Derwent Rolls-Royce jet engines were duly shipped to the Soviets. The British air attaché in Washington cabled to London, reporting anger in US military circles. Britain, he said, was coming to be regarded as “a second Sweden.” American officials feared that Britain’s response to its economic plight would be to “give in to adversity and become nondescript like France.” US Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington wrote to a colleague that the Soviet sale “illuminates a distinct British philosophy, not just an engine sale…. If the British sell to the Russians at all…ultimately the latter are bound to get the best British thinking.”

The reckoning for the jet engine transaction came in November 1950. Amid the Korean War, the Russians stunned the West by deploying MIG-15 fighters which outperformed anything the US or Britain could scramble against them, until the Sabre aircraft was deployed in Korea. In April 1951 Representative Clarence Brown of Ohio proclaimed that a shot-down MIG-15 had been found to contain an engine exactly copied from those supplied to the Russians by the British.

Washington vigorously denied this, declaring that no such wreck had fallen into American hands. Brown’s revelations seemed discredited. Yet the congressman was nearly right. The US government was lying to protect the Atlantic alliance. It was true that no wrecked plane had been found. But the allies knew that the MIG’s engine was indeed copied from the Rolls-Royce Nene. Confirmation came from examination of a shot-down airplane, days after Brown’s complaint. London was obliged to recognize that the 1946 decision to sell to the Soviets had been shockingly mistaken.

The merits of most such wrangles were, however, much less clear-cut. Washington opposed British attempts to sell both civil and military aircraft in South America, allegedly because this threatened the regional balance of power, but more plausibly because the continent was deemed American turf. It seemed absurd that the US made passionate objection to the sale of British civil aircraft with axial-flow engines to Yugoslavia and Sweden, while it was happy to provide combat aircraft with such technology to NATO nations, including Italy, where strong Communist influence made it almost inevitable that Moscow would get their secrets by the next post.

Engel refers frequently to Washington’s “Manichean worldview” of friends and foes, which allowed no latitude for British commercial and economic imperatives. There was the further problem that while some Americans were willing to contemplate the possibility of war with the Soviet Union, the British were wedded to coexistence. While the US might, until the late 1950s anyway, have survived a nuclear exchange without intolerable damage, war promised Britain the certainty of oblivion. In American eyes, there were times when their ally appeared eager to fall into its old error of appeasing evil. John Foster Dulles observed crossly in 1954: “At every turn we are blocked by the fact that our principal allies are not willing to take any risks.”

Engel highlights American high-handedness over the fate of China’s civil airliner fleet, which included dozens of American-made aircraft, and was evacuated to the British colony of Hong Kong on the eve of the 1949 Communist triumph in the civil war. When the British pragmatically recognized Mao Zedong’s government, Beijing demanded the return of the planes. Chiang Kai-shek and his American apologists, General Claire Chennault prominent among them, demanded that the US keep them out of Communist hands.

The British, always conscious that if Mao wanted Hong Kong he could take it, were deeply reluctant to defy Beijing’s wishes, as well as instinctively opposed to confrontation. “If we are not to drive Communist China into the arms of Moscow,” wrote Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, “we must do our utmost to maintain Western contacts.” The West’s best hope, he urged, lay in “keeping a foot in the door.” When the Americans remained obdurate, the British government referred the fate of the Chinese civilian aircraft to the Hong Kong courts.

This enraged both the regime of Chiang Kai-shek and the Americans. Chennault, one of the more notable charlatans to achieve heroic status in his own country, had the planes transferred to a US private company that he controlled. William Donovan, wartime head of the OSS but by now a private citizen—though he claimed to speak for the US government—traveled to Hong Kong and stormed into the office of the British governor to demand the immediate release of the aircraft to the American authorities. He reminded the governor that “if it had not been for the United States Britain would have lost the war.” He threatened to ensure that Marshall aid to Britain would be cut unless the planes were surrendered. The issue of who controlled the planes had meanwhile been brought to court in Hong Kong, prompting one of Bevin’s Foreign Office staff to write bitterly:

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