GRAND IMPROVISATION: AMERICA CONFRONTS THE BRITISH SUPER POWER, 1945-1957 by Derek Leebaert

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“Americans don’t do grand strategy.”

(Oliver Franks, British Ambassador to the United States, 1953)

From the outset of his new work, GRAND IMPROVISATION: AMERICA CONFRONTS THE BRITISH SUPER POWER, 1945-1957 Derek Leebaert puts forth the premise that the idea that the British were about to liquidate their empire because of financial and military weakness after World War II was fallacious.  Further, that the United States was fully prepared to assume the leadership of the west and would do so while creating an American led international order that we’ve lived with ever since was equally false.  Leebaert’s conclusions are boldly stated as he reevaluates the historical community that for the most part has disagreed with his assumptions over the years.  The author rests his case on assiduous research (just check the endnotes) and uncovering documents that have not been available or used previously.  Leebaert argues his case very carefully that American foreign policy in the post war era was very improvisational as it tried to develop a consistent policy to confront what it perceived be a world-wide communist surge.  Leebaert argues that it took at least until 1957 at the conclusion of the Suez Crisis for London to finally let go of their position as a first-rate power with a dominant empire, allowing the United States to fill the vacuum that it created.  No matter how strong Leebaert believes his argument to be I would point out that events in India, Pakistan, Palestine, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of NATO, and the American loan of $3.75 billion all of which occurred before 1948 should raise a few questions concerning his conclusions.

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(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill)

Despite the assuredness with which Leebaert presents his case there are merits to his argument and the standard interpretation that has long been gospel deserves a rethinking.  His thesis rests on a series of documents that he has uncovered.  The most important of which is National Security Document 75 that was presented to President Truman on July 15, 1950.  Leebaert contends that this 40-page analysis has never been seen by historians and its conclusions are extremely important.  NSC 75’s purpose was to conduct an audit of the far-flung British Empire concentrating on its ability to meet its military commitments and determine how strong the United Kingdom really was, as men including John J. McCloy, Paul Nitze, David K. Bruce, and Lewis Douglas feared what would happen if the British Empire collapsed.   All important agencies in the American government took part in this analysis; the CIA, the Pentagon, the Treasury and State Departments and reached some very interesting judgments.  The document concluded that “the British Empire and Commonwealth” still had the capacity to meet its military obligations with an army of close to a million men.  Leebaert argues that “there had been no retreat that anyone could categorize, in contrast to adjustment, and no need was expected for replacement.  Nor could American energy and goodwill substitute for the British Empire’s experienced global presence.  As for the need to vastly expand US forces overseas, that wasn’t necessary.  Instead the United States should support its formidable ally, which included backing its reserve currency.” (234)  For Leebaert this document alone changes years of Cold War historiography.

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(President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall)

Harold Evans points out in his October 18, New York Times review that Leebaert offers other persuasive points that mitigate any American take over from the British due to their perceived weakness.  First, British military and related industries produced higher proportions of wartime output than the United States well into the 1950s.  Second, Britain was ahead in life sciences, civil nuclear energy, and jet aviation than America.  Third, England maintained the largest military presence on the Rhine once the United States withdrew its forces at the end of the war.  Fourth, British intelligence outshone “American amateurs.”  This being the case Leebaert’s thesis has considerable merit, but there are areas that his thesis does not hold water, particularly that of the condition of the English economy, dollar reserves, and how British trade was affected by the weakness of the pound sterling.

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(British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin)

Leebaert’s revisionist approach centers on a few historical figures; some he tries to resurrect their reputations, others to bring them to the fore having been seemingly ignored previously.  The author’s portrayal of British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin is a key to his presentation.  As the leader of the Labour Party, Bevin held leftist anti-colonial beliefs, but once in power the realities of empire, economics, and politics brought about a marked change particularly as it involved the Middle East, London’s role in any attempt at a European federation, the devaluation of the pound sterling, the need to create an Anglo-American bond, and numerous other areas.  Leebaert goes out of his way to defend Bevin in several areas, especially charges that he was anti-Semitic in dealing with the situation in Palestine.  Other individuals discussed include John Wesley Snyder who had strong relationships with President Truman and Secretary of State Marshall, who as Secretary of the Treasury oversaw the transition of the US economy to peacetime and was the driving force behind the Marshall Plan.  The American Ambassador to Great Britain, Lewis Douglas also fits this category as does Commissioner General Malcom MacDonald, who oversaw British policy in the Pacific from his position in Singapore, the hub of British Pacific power.

Leebaert’s narrative includes the history of the major Cold War events of the 1945-1950.  His discussion of the situation in Greece and Turkey including Bevin and US Admiral Leahy’s bluffs in negotiations that resulted in the Truman Doctrine and $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey.  The Berlin Crisis, the Soviet murder of Jan Masaryk, Mao’s victory in China and what it meant for Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the Korean War are all presented in detail.

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(George of Kennan, Ambassador to Russia; Head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff)

Perhaps Leebaert’s favorite character in supporting his thesis is Walter Lippmann, the American journalist who had difficulty deciding whether the British were using the United States as a foil against the Soviet Union, or as a vehicle to fill any vacuums that might avail themselves should England retrench.  But eventually Lippmann concluded that Washington believed that the British Empire would contain the Soviet Union all by itself, not the actions of an empire that was about to fold and pass the torch to the United States.

Leebaert is not shy about putting certain historical figures on the carpet and shattering their reputations.  Chief among these people is George F. Kennan, who was Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Head of the State Department Policy Planning staff among his many diplomatic positions.  For Leebaert the idea that Kennan was a “giant of diplomacy” as he was described by Henry Kissinger is a misnomer to say the least.  He finds Kennan to be emotional, careless, impulsive, and “frequently amateurish.”  Further, he believes Kennan was often ignorant about certain areas, particularly the Middle East and Japan, and lacked a rudimentary knowledge of economics.  But for Leebaert this did not stop Kennan from offering his opinions and interfering in areas that he lacked any type of expertise.

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(British Commissioner General Malcom MacDonald)

The situation in Southeast Asia was crucial for the British as seen through the eyes of Malcom MacDonald.  He firmly believed that if Indochina fell Thailand would follow as would the British stronghold of Malaya.  British trade and investment would be cut and wouldn’t be able to strengthen their recovering European allies, thus ending any American hope of a self-reliant North-Atlantic partnership. According to Leebaert, it was imperative to get Washington to support Bao Dai as leader of Vietnam and MacDonald made the case to the Americans better than the French.  If nothing was done the entire area would be lost to the communists.  Leebaert interestingly points out that in the 1930s when it appeared, he might become Prime Minister some day he backed Neville Chamberlain at Munich, now in the early 1950s he did not want to be seen as an appeaser once again.

At the same time disaster was unfolding on the Korean peninsula and Washington kept calling for British troops to assist MacArthur’s forces at Pusan.  The Atlee government did not respond quickly, and with British recognition of Mao’s regime and continued trade with Beijing, along with its attitude toward Taiwan, resulting in fissures between the British and the United States.  With Bevin ill, Kenneth Younger, the Minister of State argued that London could not be spread too thin because they could not leave Iran, Suez, Malaya, or Hong Kong unguarded.  Interestingly, Leebaert points out at the time the only real Soviet military plan was geared against Tito’s Yugoslavia.  The difference between Washington and London was clear – the British had global concerns, the Americans were obsessed with Korea.  Finally, by the end of August 1950 London dispatched 1500 soldiers, a year later 20,000 Commonwealth soldiers would be involved in combat operations.

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles)

Leebaert’s premise that the British would not forgo empire until the results of the Suez Crisis was a few years off.  By 1951 strong signals emerged that the empire was about to experience further decline with events in Iran and Egypt taking precedence.  If Islamists focused on anti-communism in these areas the British were safe, but when they began to turn their focus to nationalism London would be in trouble.  Domestically, Britain was also in difficulty as financial news was very dispiriting. Due to the Korean War and the US demand for industrial goods the total cost for imports shot up markedly.  This caused a balance of payments problem and the pound sterling plummeted once again.  The cold winter exacerbated the economy even further as another coal shortage took place.  It seemed that the British people had to deal with the rationing of certain items, but the defeated Germany did not.  Further, by 1952 Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya began to take their toll causing London to face another external challenge.

The British strategy toward the United States was to stress the anti-communism fear in dealing with Egypt and Iran.  In Egypt, King Farouk was a disaster and the British feared for the Suez Canal.  In Iran, the English fear centered around the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company which had been ripping off Teheran for decades.  An attempt to ameliorate the situation came to naught as the company was nationalized and eventually in 1953 the British and American staged a coup that overthrew the elected Prime Minister, Mohamed Mossadegh.  In Egypt nationalism would also become a major force that London could not contain resulting in the 1952 Free Officers Movement that brought to power Gamel Abdul Nasser.  In each instance Washington took on an even more important role, and some have argued that the CIA was complicit in fostering a change in the Egyptian government.  In addition, Dwight Eisenhower became president and John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State.  Despite newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s hope that the World War II relationship could be rekindled, Eisenhower saw the British as colonialists who were hindering US foreign policy, in addition the relationship between Dulles and British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden was at rock bottom.  It became increasingly clear that the Eisenhower administration wanted to avoid being perceived as acting in concert with Britain in dealing with colonial issues, except in the case of Iran which the United States is still paying for because of its actions.

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(British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden)

Regarding Indochina, the United States and England could not reach any demarche as regards the plight of the French visa vie the Vietminh, particularly as the battle of Dienbienphu played out.  Leebaert does an excellent job recounting the play by play between Dulles and Eden, Eisenhower and Churchill as the US and England saw their relations splintering as negotiations and the resulting recriminations proved fruitless. This inability to come together over Southeast Asia would have grave implications in other areas.

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(British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill)

In another region, the Eisenhower administration would embark on a strategy to create some sort of Middle East Defense Organization to hinder Soviet penetration.  This strategy, whether called a “Northern Tier” or the “Baghdad Pact” of Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran or other nomenclatures created difficulties with Britain who sought to use such an alliance as a vehicle to maintain their influence in the region, particularly in Jordan and Iraq.  British machinations would irritate Washington as Eden and company resented American pressure to withdraw from the Suez Canal Base and other issues.  The result would be an alliance between England, France, and Israel to topple Nasser in Egypt.  The alliance was misconceived and would evolve into a break between the United States and its Atlantic allies even to the effect of the Eisenhower administration working behind the scenes to topple the Eden government and bring about the Eisenhower Doctrine signaling that the British had lost its leadership position and was no longer considered a “major power.”

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(Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

I must point out that I have written my own monograph that deals with major aspects of Leebaert’s thesis, DAWN OVER SUEZ: THE RISE OF AMERICAN POWER IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1953-1957.  My own research concludes that the United States actively worked to replace Britain as the dominant force in the Middle East as early as May 1953 when John F. Dulles visited the region and came back appalled by British colonialism.  Leebaert leaves out a great deal in discussing the period; the role of the US in forcing Churchill into agreeing to the Heads of Agreement to withdraw from the Suez Canal Base; the failure of secret project Alpha and the Anderson Mission to bring about a rapprochement between Israel and Egypt and its implications for US policy; the disdain that the Americans viewed Eden, the extent of American ire at the British for undercutting their attempts at a Middle East Defense Organization by their actions in Iraq and Jordan; the role of US anger over the Suez invasion because it ruined  a coup set to take place in Syria; and the Eisenhower administrations machinations behind the scenes to remove Eden as Prime Minister to be replaced by Harold Macmillan.  In addition, the author makes a series of statements that are not supported by any citations; i.e.; Eisenhower’s support for finding a way to fund the Aswan Dam after Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal; attempts to poison Nasser etc.

Overall however, Leebaert has written a monograph that should raise many eyebrows for those who have accepted the Cold War narrative of the last six decades.  There are many instances where he raises questions, provides answers that force the reader to conclude that these issues should be reexamined considering his work.  At a time when the United States is struggling to implement a consistent worldview in the realm of foreign policy it is important for policy makers to consider the plight of the British Empire following World War II and how Washington’s inability  to confront world issues in a reasoned and measured way and develop a long term strategy fostered a pattern that has created many difficulties that continue to dog us today.

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2 thoughts on “GRAND IMPROVISATION: AMERICA CONFRONTS THE BRITISH SUPER POWER, 1945-1957 by Derek Leebaert

  1. “raise many eyebrows for those who have accepted the Cold War narrative of the last six decades”

    No one intelligent will get an eyebrow raise from this book.

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