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…

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