The End of the Show

Indian troops under British command entering the Abadan oil refinery in Iran, 1941
Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Indian troops under British command entering the Abadan oil refinery in Iran, 1941

In John le Carré’s 1990 novel The Secret Pilgrim, his donnish spymaster, George Smiley, listens to a young MI6 recruit deliver a long, embittered tirade about Britain’s mistreatment of its former colonial subjects. Smiley replies, to the surprise of others in the room, that he agrees. The cold war, Smiley explains, produced in the British

a kind of vicarious colonialism. On the one hand we abandoned practically every article of our national identity to American foreign policy. On the other we bought ourselves a stay of execution for our vision of our colonial selves. Worse still, we encouraged the Americans to behave in the same way. Not that they needed our encouragement, but they were pleased to have it, naturally.

The uneasy partnership Smiley is describing—a fading Britain struggling to reconcile itself to rising American dominance—is one of the great political dramas of the past century, but it is often accompanied by a thick, obscuring fog of postimperial nostalgia. The myth-making began even before the start of Britain’s long decline: in his 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling extolled Britain’s “savage wars of peace” as a gift to humanity and urged the United States to follow the same path. Decades later, the spy novel itself helped glamorize a dubious historical record of Anglo-American political subversion and oil grabs across the developing world. The James Bond franchise, with its suave undercover agents and globalist villains, hints constantly that Britain’s legacy of empire is helping to keep the world safe for American democracy. These fictions also tend to suggest that the imperial torch passed from Whitehall to Washington more or less amicably. The British, it has often been said, were the erudite Greeks to America’s brash new Rome, and accepted their diminished post-1945 status with weary resignation.

This is a long way from the truth. The British did all they could to maintain their overseas empire and deeply resented American efforts to displace them. For their part, the Americans fought hard to evict Britain from its privileged global position even as they complained about British colonial arrogance.

The rivalry was at its fiercest in the Middle East, where oil was at stake, and that is the focus of James Barr’s revelatory history Lords of the Desert. Barr, the author of two previous books on Britain’s role in shaping the Middle East, has a gift for sketching characters, and one of them is Wendell Willkie, the American lawyer and presidential candidate who toured Asia on Roosevelt’s behalf in 1942. (The president’s ulterior motive was to get Willkie out of the way during the midterm elections.) Willkie started off as an Anglophile, but returned home after forty-nine days with…

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