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:

The Americans, more than any other people in the world, traditionally respect the inviolability of legal proceedings. It is therefore intolerable that the United States government should with one voice admit the correctness of our attitude [in respecting the court’s rulings] and with another threaten us if we abide by our principles.

The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and China’s undeclared belligerency, raised the stakes. Every British court found in favor of the Beijing government except the final appellate jurisdiction, the Privy Council in London. There, after two years of wrangling, by a blatant political fix, the British government saved alliance relations by agreeing to surrender the planes to Chennault. No longer fit to fly, they were shipped out of Hong Kong on a US aircraft carrier, breaching American law against the use of naval ships to move private property. It is a dirty story, from which no one emerges with credit, and Engel tells it well.

In 1952, Britain’s economic plight remained no less desperate than it had been seven years earlier. “Still we are not in sight of economic equilibrium” lamented government minister Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s old crony. There was a widespread belief at the time that any manufacturing nation that could sell its planes, with advanced technology, could thereafter hope to offload on the same buyer humbler wares such as machinery, cars, and toasters. The air correspondent of the London Times suggested in 1948 that if his country could be the first to fly passengers by jet across the Atlantic, a bonanza would follow: “Every country in the world, and certainly every airline operator, would want to fly British…our prestige would soar.”

Here was a national dream almost as potent for impoverished Britain as the crusade to reach the moon for Americans two decades later. Perhaps Britain’s proudest moment of the gray, dingy postwar years came in 1952, when the De Havilland Comet jet airliner made its maiden flight to Johannesburg in twenty-three hours, cruising at over four hundred miles per hour, more than double the speed of prop-driven commercial aircraft. Suddenly the Boeing Stratocruiser, which had been introduced in 1949 and dominated the era’s long-haul routes, looked old hat.

The British reckoned the Comet gave them a five-year lead over the US aircraft industry. Americans agreed. US aviation dominance was “seriously threatened by the British,” wrote a New York Times correspondent. If US manufacturers could not respond to this transatlantic technological challenge, “this whole American business abroad will wither.” Orders poured into Britain from all over the world for entire fleets of the new wonder plane. For a brief season, the British celebrated an apparent victory.

Unfortunately, a few months later Comets began to burst in midair. In the year beginning March 1953, four aircraft crashed without warning, killing all on board. Only when the Royal Navy’s divers recovered parts of one wreck from deep water did the painful truth emerge. The stresses of high-speed flight were still imperfectly understood. Combat aircraft were less susceptible to such strains than passenger carriers, because they spent far less time airborne. Metal fatigue and hairline cracks fatally flawed the Comet.

Though later models overcame the problem, the British lead was gone forever. In July 1954 the first Boeing 707 took to the sky, and conquered the world in the years that followed. So shaken was British confidence, and so straitened were national finances, that the Westminster government withdrew cash support for the nation’s next planned long-haul jet, the Vickers V1000.

A recurrent problem of Engel’s narrative is that by focusing exclusively on issues that caused friction between London and Washington, he explores only fragments of the story of postwar aviation. He does not discuss, for instance, the manner in which the British excelled in aircraft design but sorely lagged behind the US in creating planes that could fly at a profit. This weakness in business acumen attained its apotheosis with the supersonic Concorde.

Many of us are mystified by the extravagant boom-and-bust cycles of both aircraft manufacturers and airlines, which has caused Warren Buffett memorably to observe that the world’s investors would have been better off if the Wright brothers had stuck to bicycle manufacture. I long to be told why, through decades when air travel has boomed, it has always proved so hard for the aviation industry to sustain its profitability.

Engel notes that Britain has never been able to overcome the disadvantage that its home market is pathetically small by comparison with that of the US. Between 1945 and 1957, the US military purchased around two thousand transport aircraft. In the same period the Royal Air Force bought forty-six. While the British government provided direct cash subsidies—usually wasted—to its aircraft manufacturers, the US government’s huge military purchasing program provided a funding lifeline for America’s plane-builders.

It is almost impossible for a relatively small nation to compete with another that possesses an overwhelmingly powerful domestic sales base. It became entirely so when the US imposed draconian constraints on British foreign sales. The most spectacular Atlantic row recorded by Engel involved British dealings with Communist China. By 1957, the year Russia launched the Sputnik I satellite, Washington was resigned to the apparent reality that the Soviet regime could not be brought down by economic siege. China, however, was a different matter. The US remained in denial about the survivability as well as legitimacy of Mao Zedong’s regime. Washington was implacably opposed to any high-technology sales to Beijing, and sustained a blockade through the COCOM organization—the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls—which had been created in 1947 to enforce a ban on Western exports to East Bloc countries.*

In 1957, a Rolls-Royce sales team secretly visited China to discuss possible export sales of its Dart turboprop engine, which had been designed in the early 1960s to power a new generation of medium-range aircraft. The British delegation was excited by the interest expressed by the Chinese, but the Foreign Office vetoed any deal. It recognized that such an agreement would enrage Washington, and was fearful of running such a risk less than a year after the Suez Crisis.

Over the years that followed, however, circumstances and attitudes changed. British officials grew impatient about the manner in which the US seemed to make and break trading rules entirely to suit its own convenience. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was furious when, in February 1962, the US sold Hawk antiaircraft missiles to Israel. Macmillan personally cabled President Kennedy: “I can hardly find words to express my sense of disgust and despair.”

A few months later, the administration canceled its Skybolt missile program, which had aimed to produce an air-launched ballistic missile that Britain hoped would provide a new generation of nuclear deterrent. Though Kennedy then agreed to sell Macmillan the Polaris missile system, the British government chafed. If the United States chose to act high-handedly in pursuit of its national interests, so be it. But it was intolerable that it should also seek to impose—in British eyes—foolish and narrowly ideological restraints on the trading policies of other sovereign nations.

The medium-range Vickers Viscount jet was the most commercially successful plane Britain ever produced. By 1961 this kind of turboprop aircraft was no longer a novelty, but commanded worldwide respect. A Vickers sales team visited Beijing in the summer of that year, prompted by the strong enthusiasm of Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. There were hints of additional interest in Britain’s VC-10 long-haul jet. The British government was eager to deal. There were, however, two hurdles. The first was the embargo enforced by COCOM, of which America was the most powerful member. The second was the fact that some electronic equipment in the Viscounts was American-made, which offered scope for a US legal veto.

Washington swiftly made plain that it was determined to block the Beijing sale. “The proposed export would constitute a shipment of great strategic impact,” said the US COCOM representative, “and should not be consummated.” The US explicitly forbade the inclusion in any deal of American-built navigational equipment. Prime Minister Macmillan was unmoved. “Could we not consider resigning from all this [COCOM] nonsense?” he demanded in a Whitehall note. On November 17, 1961, he personally approved an export license for the first six planes, to be delivered in 1963.

The British press was triumphant about “a spectacular export breakthrough,” and erroneously reported that a VC-10 deal was imminent. American reaction was ferocious. “Great Britain is about to be guilty of another disservice to the Free World for the sake of monetary profit,” thundered the Oakland Tribune. The Americans launched a surprise inspection of Vickers plants in Britain, to investigate possible breaches of embargo restrictions on their electronic equipment.

Engel records the outcome: “British tactics reached a level of deceit bordering on conspiracy, reaching into the highest corridors of British power…. The British plotted to defy American export control laws in order to fly beyond China’s Great Wall.” Vickers told the Americans that the planes were being shipped to China with alternatively sourced electronic components. In reality, says Engels, the necessary American parts were “laundered,” and sent to China with the Viscounts in August 1963 through complex shuffling by British European Airways and the Ministry of Aviation.

The British ambassador in Washington, John Kennedy’s close friend David Ormsby-Gore, was deliberately deceived about the deal, so that he could lie about it with conviction. He subsequently vented his anger, asserting that the Americans were entitled to be very upset indeed.

Yet soon after, Pakistan International Airlines started selling its surplus Viscounts and Tridents to China. After a ritual display of pique, Washington shut up. The Pakistanis, says Engel, simply showed themselves more robust and less sensitive to US bullying than the British had been. The British were never successful in marketing VC-10s to China. They sold Beijing just six Tridents in 1971, so the Viscount deal proved much less of a breakthrough than they had hoped. The Americans, as history records, changed their tune so spectacularly in the 1970s that by 1990, one in seven Boeings rolled out of Seattle was destined for China.

Engel’s book contains much that is interesting and unfamiliar, yet makes an unsatisfactory read. His prose is inelegant—“repulsed” does not mean the same as “repelled,” in reference to political attitudes. I am often embarrassed by errors in my own books, but there are too many here: the British lost 306,000 combat dead in World War II, not half a million; the Wellington was not a four-engined bomber. It is implausible that the RAF won the Battle of Britain because “the enemy failed to replace its losses.” It is hard to accept Engel’s contention that World War II was “an airman’s war.” Air power played a very large part, but its impact was much less decisive than its proponents hoped and claimed, until the American detonation of atomic bombs, which is a separate issue. In Europe certainly and in the Far East in some degree, ground forces were obliged to do the hard fighting and accept most of the casualties.

Engel’s tale reads like a series of essays on historical incidents, rather than a continuous narrative. It recounts neither the history of commercial aviation in the postwar era nor that of Anglo-American relations in its full historical setting. He has researched some interesting issues, but fails to carry them to satisfying conclusions. The book peters out in the 1970s, though the issue of technology transfer between Britain and the US remains important to this day. Most Americans are barely aware that though Tony Blair stuck out his neck further than any other US ally over Iraq, there has been acute tension between London and Washington about the supersonic Joint Strike Fighter, a new design for a stealth combat aircraft that Britain is supposed to manufacture jointly with the US. Congress has sought to sustain restrictions on British access to secret technology codes, which might be vulnerable to betrayal to terrorists.

The breach has now supposedly been healed and the program is going ahead. But in London a sense of mistrust and grievance persists. Is Britain the closest ally of the US, or not? It is the old story, still unresolved after sixty-five years, and never likely to be. The two nations hold many interests in common, but sentimental twaddle about a “special relationship” helps neither. The policies of both have been dictated by hard-headed perceptions of national interest, back to the pre–Pearl Harbor days when the US waited until Britain had surrendered every penny of cash it could raise before Roosevelt offered Churchill financial aid to fight the dictators.

This should be no cause for British self-pity, for it is simply the way of the world. Churchill’s nation has always been vulnerable to cash constraints, which no more afflicted Roosevelt’s people than their modern descendants. Britain has traditionally favored diplomatic and economic engagement with all but its most immediate enemies, a strategy that finds little favor in the US. This is as true today of respective national attitudes toward Iran and Syria as it was toward Communist nations half a century ago. Talleyrand observed that treason is a matter of dates. The same is true of international sales of advanced technology.

  1. *

    The seventeen member states of COCOM were Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.