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 a damning report on the sins of colonialism. “We were running a bad show and the sooner we got out the better,” as one British diplomat summarized it. Those words, Barr writes, would come to encapsulate American thinking about the British empire at midcentury.

Yet the evolving struggle between British and American leaders ran deeper than resentment. Neither power could conceive of its place in the world without the other, though both yearned to break free of the bond that united them. The diplomatic record is littered with anxious variations on the family metaphor. In 1944 a sharp young analyst at the British embassy in Washington named Isaiah Berlin reported on a desire in Congress and the Roosevelt administration for “a brand new 100 per cent American foreign policy not tied to Britain’s apron strings.” In early 1952 Truman told Churchill that he hoped the British would not consider America an “ungrateful child.” Both parties struggled to adjust to the emerging reality of American dominance and tended to slip back into earlier views of themselves and each other.

The British empire was already starting to teeter by the end of World War I. In 1918 Churchill’s private secretary proclaimed himself so grateful for America’s contribution to the victory that he could kiss Uncle Sam “on both cheeks.” Churchill replied with typical élan, “But not on all four.” He may have sensed that a more humiliating kiss was on its way, and the next war drove the point home. Just after the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Churchill wrote to his wife about his hopes that Britain would emerge from World War II on an equal footing with the United States, and then asked, “How can you do that against so mighty a nation and a population nearly three times as large?”

One of the more remarkable stories in Lords of the Desert is about an outfit called the Middle East Supply Centre, created by the British in Cairo in 1941. The British understood early on that the war’s end would create an industrial slump, and the only way to avoid widespread unemployment at home was through foreign exports. So they used American Lend-Lease aid to set up an economic federation of Arab countries that would buy only British goods. If their plan had succeeded, it would have been a disaster for the United States, which had the same worries concerning its own postwar economy. In 1944 Roosevelt sent to Cairo a shrewd, hard-driving lawyer named James Landis, who soon saw that his country was on an economic collision course with Britain. “Landis, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, insisted in regarding the British, not the Germans, as his principal enemy,” one fellow American diplomat said. Landis got his way, and British dreams of a captive pound sterling market collapsed.


By 1947, Britain still had vast foreign possessions (including India until August of that year) and controlled much of the world’s oil supply; large patches of the globe traded in sterling and bought British products. Yet at the same time, Britain was increasingly dependent on American goods (including powdered eggs, an item on Britain’s food rations), which had to be purchased in dollars. It could not get enough of those by selling its own products on hard-currency markets overseas. Its weakness, in other words, was largely relative to America’s strength. This became painfully apparent in July 1947, when the Bank of England made the pound sterling convertible to dollars. There were bank runs, and convertibility had to be suspended after only five days. Two years later, when Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin arrived in Washington to plead for financial help, he told a crowd of reporters, “I never knew a man with an overdraft would get such a wonderful welcome.”

On that same trip, Bevin delivered a speech that illustrated Britain’s other great weakness: its stubborn refusal to recognize the strength of anticolonial sentiment around the world. He spoke of a “world-wide system of regional arrangements” jointly guided by the United States and Britain that would ward off the temptation of communism—a sort of kinder, gentler colonialism. There was no mention of the new force of national assertion across the Global South.

This omission hinted at a blindness to emerging realities in the Middle East, where the British had always prided themselves on their insight and savoir faire. They were the country of T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, with diplomats and spies who mastered every language and bantered with the sheikhs. In 1947 the British were colluding with the king of Jordan on a typically brazen and secretive political takeover in Syria that would have enriched the British and doomed American plans to run an oil pipeline through that country. But before it could succeed, a clever young American spy masquerading as a correspondent for Harper’s magazine got wind of the scheme by playing dumb with a British contact, who couldn’t resist bragging about it. The coup never took place.

The young American was Kim Roosevelt, a cousin of FDR and an intriguing character in a story full of intrigue. A few years later, Roosevelt again beat the British at their own game, this time in Egypt. Concerned about the weakness of the notoriously corrupt King Farouk, Roosevelt tried to persuade him to enact bold reforms, a mission known to other CIA officials as “Operation Fat Fucker.” It went nowhere, and soon Roosevelt was befriending a charismatic young military officer named Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser and his fellow Free Officers launched their coup d’état and exiled Farouk in 1952; Roosevelt had known all about the plot and given it his tacit approval. The British were taken completely by surprise, and would come to loathe Nasser. But Roosevelt instinctively liked the Egyptian strongman, who had a fondness for hot dogs and Esther Williams movies. The Americans sometimes seemed to trust Nasser more than they did the British; in 1956 the CIA secretly warned him that the British were plotting a coup against him.

In Iran, as well, the Americans were at odds with their British counterparts, at least at first. When Henry Grady arrived as US ambassador in Tehran in 1950, he believed his job was to “encourage Iran’s political and economic independence,” Derek Leebaert writes in Grand Improvisation, a study of the British–American rivalry after World War II. Grady’s staff soon warned him that the British called the shots in Iran, and their priority was maintaining privileged access to the country’s abundant oil. Soon after Grady arrived, the British got a shock: the American-run oil concession in Saudi Arabia, Aramco, had agreed to a 50-50 split on profits with the Saudi government. This naturally put pressure on the British to offer better terms for their own oil concession in Iran, which was so profitable that Churchill had described it as “a prize from fairyland far beyond our brightest hopes.” According to one estimate, Britain owned 90 percent of the company’s overall assets. Iran was still a desperately poor country, with a mostly illiterate population that was suffering the aftereffects of wartime occupation. Fairness alone would have suggested compromise, but when the negotiations began, Grady watched in disgust as the British bribed everyone in sight. Another American envoy raced between London and Tehran, trying to arrive at a compromise, but the British refused to offer a more equitable arrangement.


Iran nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1951. The British responded with panic and rage; AIOC was a lifeline to their sinking economy. They could not afford to lose it, and they threatened to seize the oil fields, prompting Dean Acheson, the US secretary of state, to tell a British official, “You must learn to live in the world as it is.” When the British shut down oil shipments and the Iranian economy spiraled downward, Acheson feared that the instability might result in revolution or a Soviet invasion. But even that did not move the British. “If your appraisal of the Iranian situation is correct, then the choice before you is whether Iran goes Commie or Britain goes bankrupt,” one Foreign Office official told Acheson, “I hope you would agree that the former is the lesser evil.”

It did not help the British that Mohammad Mosaddegh, the brilliant but erratic Iranian prime minister who had led the push for nationalization, had an exquisite ear for their insecurities and a perverse sense of humor. “He’d grant an audience to the British ambassador but make sure that a junior American diplomat happened to be in the room,” Leebaert writes. “He’d then only speak to His Excellency the ambassador through this surprised US intermediary.”

In late 1951 Mosaddegh took his case to the American people during a six-week trip. At the National Press Club in Washington, he delivered a speech on the ideals of 1776 and America’s fight against British imperialism and received loud applause. But the British were soon whispering in the ears of the Republicans, who won the following year’s presidential election. The Eisenhower administration was persuaded by the argument that Mosaddegh was the kind of figure who—for all his noble words—could end up leading the country toward communism. British and American spies, including Kim Roosevelt, teamed up this time, and helped foment a coup that brought down Mosaddegh in 1953 and restored the pliant shah, Reza Pahlevi.

Leebaert, who is a management consultant and a former professor of foreign policy at Georgetown, covers much of the same ground as Barr. But his canvas is larger, taking in the entire transatlantic relationship. At times, his account loses focus, and there are a few too many snarky asides (he especially dislikes the legendary diplomat George F. Kennan, whom he considers impulsive and amateurish). But his book is full of vignettes and insights about America’s great Oedipal moment, when the little republic grew up and pushed its elder aside.

The overthrow of Mosaddegh is often held up as the cardinal sin of Anglo-American imperial arrogance in the Middle East. There is some truth in this: it left Iran with a brittle monarchy and a deep legacy of anti-Western anger that helped lay the groundwork for the revolution of 1979. But the supposed centrality of this episode to many accounts of the modern Middle East also reflects a persistent Western narcissism, a belief that the course of events in other parts of the world can always be traced to our own actions rather than those of indigenous players. In fact, the schemes of the CIA and MI6 were often overshadowed by those of Arab leaders.

No one was more prolific in stirring up trouble across the Middle East than Nasser, who helped arrange or inspire coups in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. His intervention in Yemen—sometimes called Egypt’s Vietnam—overextended his military, contributing to its catastrophic defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967. Back in Egypt, Nasser created a punitive police state and a bloated, wildly inefficient bureaucracy that became a model for the rest of the Arab countries. That alone was a much more lasting and damaging contribution to the Arab world than any of the dirty tricks pulled by Kim Roosevelt or his British counterparts.

One byproduct of Anglo-American colonial guilt is a reluctance—at least in some quarters—to acknowledge the rare instances when the spooks got it right. In Lords of the Desert, Barr offers a fascinating account of the British involvement in Oman, where MI6 operatives and soldiers helped beat back a rebellion against Sultan Said bin Taimur in the late 1950s. The sultan was a useful ally against Nasser, but he was also a xenophobic tyrant opposed to building hospitals and schools (“That is why you lost India, because you educated the people,” he told a British adviser). In 1971 the British helped oust him in favor of his son Qaboos, whom they had groomed at boarding school and Sandhurst. The result was five decades of relative peace and prosperity in Oman, where Sultan Qaboos still reigns today.

The central argument of Leebaert’s book is that America’s rise to global dominance took place not at the end of World War II but a decade later, in the mid-1950s. Leebaert argues persuasively that conventional accounts of the postwar era skip over the crucial, vertiginous moment when Britain was less exhausted than is commonly assumed and the American position was far less assured. The Depression was a recent memory, and many people believed the American economy was due for another crash—a suspicion that grew during the economic slowdown of 1949, when unemployment spiked.

Few expected the great industrial boom of the 1950s. Britain was still banker to much of the world, and the United States looked to it to manage the Middle East and parts of Asia. Britain’s military was still powerful; at the end of 1946 it had about as many troops overseas as the United States. Leebaert has unearthed a National Security Council document, written in 1949–1950, that makes clear that American strategists saw the British Empire and Commonwealth as evolving rather than declining. They believed Britain was “America’s outer fortress” in the struggle against communism, as Hubert Humphrey put it in 1949. The British recognized this, and as their weakness became more evident, they tried hard to maintain the myths and obscure hard facts.

To some extent, the British even fooled themselves. When Churchill and his conservative government returned to power in 1951, he seemed at first to believe the world had not changed since 1945. His science adviser, Lord Cherwell, said that the empire and commonwealth “in the end should dominate America.” That plan was dropped pretty quickly. “Perhaps the most noticeable and painful difference between our position now and when we were last in office,” wrote the Tory MP Harold Macmillan in his diary, “is our relationship to the US. Then we were on an equal footing—a respected ally…. Now we are treated by the Americans with a mixture of patronising pity and contempt.”

Gamal Abdel Nasser being carried through the streets after the British evacuation from the Suez Canal, Port Said, Egypt, 1956

Rolls Press/Getty Images

Gamal Abdel Nasser being carried through the streets after the British evacuation from the Suez Canal, Port Said, Egypt, 1956

Yet the Americans, Leebaert argues, were still not confident of their role and needed British reassurance. At a gathering of American diplomats in Paris in late 1949, Assistant Secretary of State George Perkins spoke of a “deep conviction that the US needed Great Britain above everything else.” A few months earlier, Paul Nitze, Kennan’s deputy in the State Department, had declared that the United States could not have an acceptable foreign policy without Britain.

The historic American distaste for British colonial attitudes was subtly shifting. In his celebrated 1946 speech invoking an “iron curtain” of Soviet control descending on Europe, Churchill also declared to his Missouri audience, “Do not suppose that half a century from now you will not see seventy or eighty millions of Britons spread around the world and united in defense of our traditions, our way of life.” At the time, Leebaert writes, many Americans were troubled by those lines, believing Churchill was trying to entangle the United States in Britain’s colonial iniquities. But three years later, when Churchill spoke the same lines word for word in a speech in Boston, he got rousing applause. That year, the American diplomat David K.E. Bruce told a group of colleagues, “Of course we [are] against colonialism. But [can] we afford to be purists and perfectionists? A more pragmatic approach [is] essential.” When the Pentagon created its Special Forces in 1951, it modeled them on the Special Air Service and other British commando units policing the borders of the empire.

As late as 1956, Eisenhower declared, “Those British are still my right arm.” It was a comment, Leebaert notes, that would have been seen as insufferably patronizing ten years earlier; ten years later it would have been a vast overstatement of Britain’s power. The basis for this shift was an enormous expansion in American national wealth between 1954 and 1956. Corporations reported unprecedented earnings, unemployment was down, and the Dow Jones broke 300 for the first time since the Depression. The British economy was also surging, but not on the same scale, which led in part to repeated devaluations of the British pound against the dollar. Even in 1952, during a visit to the US, Churchill lamented, “They have become so great and we are now so small.”

All the threads in the Anglo-American story converged during the Suez crisis of 1956. When Nasser took over the Suez Canal in July 1956, Eisenhower and his deputies were not unduly concerned. The British-owned Suez Canal Company was to have control over the canal until 1968; essentially, Nasser was buying it early—he had offered to pay the current price on the Cairo stock exchange. He had no motive to block oil tankers on the canal, because that would harm Egypt’s economy. But to Anthony Eden, the British prime minister who had succeeded Churchill, Nasser’s gesture was the final straw in a series of provocations by the empire’s once-loyal subjects. Eden and his deputies invoked Munich, describing Nasser as a fire-breathing zealot who meant to gain control of all the oil-producing countries and deliberately destroy Britain’s economy.

Eden never attempted to negotiate seriously with Nasser, and clearly wanted to kill the man he called the “Moslem Mussolini.” As it happens, Eden suffered from a painful abdominal infection and was taking powerful painkillers that may well have worsened his paranoia. But even his aides sometimes sound overwrought. In one exchange cited by Barr, Macmillan told a visiting US envoy that if the British people had to go down fighting, they would “rather do so on this issue than perhaps become another Netherlands.”

What happened next has become a parable of colonial arrogance and mendacity. The governments of Britain and France held secret talks with Israel’s leader, David Ben-Gurion, and laid plans for a combined assault that would begin with an Israeli invasion of Egypt. British and French forces would intervene on the pretext of stopping the fighting and then achieve their real goal: reoccupying the canal. Eisenhower had made clear that he was firmly opposed to military action, so the plot had to be kept secret from the United States, which was, conveniently, in the midst of a presidential election. Eden was convinced that “as on previous occasions the United States would follow our lead if we took it.” Macmillan agreed. The United States would “lie doggo.”

They were wrong. No one was fooled by what the British called “Operation Musketeer,” and the United States went to the UN Security Council to demand an immediate cease-fire. Perhaps more importantly, the pound was cratering under speculative pressure, and instead of helping, the US government blocked Britain’s access to aid from the IMF and began selling its own holdings of pound sterling bonds, driving the price down further. Eisenhower even ordered elements of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet to harass British and French warships on their way to Egypt. The aggressors had no choice but to withdraw.

Leebaert admires Eisenhower’s “managerial calm” throughout the crisis, and points out, rightly, that if the British had succeeded in deposing Nasser, Egypt might well have collapsed into chaos, and perhaps eventually an Islamist dictatorship. Other historians, however, have argued that if Eisenhower had not been so distracted by his own reelection campaign, he might have found a way to defuse the crisis that was less damaging to Britain and less rewarding to Nasser, whose successful defiance of the West earned him a nearly god-like status across the Arab world. Eisenhower himself later wrote that his greatest regret in foreign policy was not supporting Eden, who lost his premiership soon after the guns stopped firing.

America’s leaders dropped any pretense of deferring to the British not long after. Eisenhower declared in January 1957 that “the existing vacuum in the Middle East must be filled by the United States before it is filled by Russia.” His successor, John F. Kennedy, would assert that “American frontiers are on the Rhine and the Mekong and the Tigris and the Euphrates.” Yet Kennedy also spoke against colonialism, and proclaimed his country the friend of all those wanting democracy and independence around the world. The clash between these two principles was not new, though it was becoming more glaring. “Republic or Empire?” asked the American anti-imperialists in 1898, when the United States launched its first foreign occupation during the Spanish-American War. It is a question that Americans still wrestle with, perhaps more than ever after the September 11 attacks. American troops have undertaken quasi-imperial missions around the Muslim world in recent years, often with catastrophic consequences.

Yet for good and ill, the Americans rarely stay for long. The Taliban seem confident they can wait us out in Afghanistan, now the longest war in US history at eighteen years. Even Donald Trump, who tweets so freely about obliterating Iran and North Korea, seemed desperate to avoid being drawn into a military confrontation with Iran in the days after the strike on Saudi oil facilities in September: he wants to bring the troops home, not send them out again. His instincts are not so different from Obama’s in this respect. Both men fear foreign quagmires and prefer nation-building, albeit of very different kinds, at home. If America is an empire, it is a half-hearted one, and not the kind the British tried so hard to maintain.