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  • Kennedy, Macmillan and the Cold War: The Irony of Interdependence
  • Oliver Bange
Nigel Ashton. Kennedy, Macmillan and the Cold War: The Irony of Interdependence. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. 288 pp. $78.00.

Francis Bator, assistant national security adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, recently commented, "There were very few people in the German government who had a feeling for American politics. The problem with the British was that they thought they knew too well." One might argue that successive U.S. administrations had to focus on the European Economic Community (EEC), particularly on the (West) Germans, when dealing with economic issues in Europe. The French and the West Germans also figured prominently in discussions of European military issues. But there was only one government with which U.S. presidents could debate the whole range of global problems; namely, the British. Ever since Winston Churchill published his memoirs, a debate has raged both in public and in academic circles about the (changing) role played by the British in this partnership of obvious unequals. Was it, as Churchill once put it, the eternal bond of people linked by blood, culture, and language; or was it the role of wise Greeks advising the rather uncivilized Romans, a role Harold Macmillan cast for himself; or was it the case of "poodles" and their masters, as Tony Blair's transatlantic policies have recently been portrayed by his political opponents?

A proper evaluation of this often personal bilateral relationship must involve a comparison with Washington's relationships with other allies. This, however, is not Nigel Ashton's intention. His book is about the way the British and U.S. administrations and above all their heads of government, Kennedy and Macmillan, perceived and handled global affairs from 1961 to 1963. Ashton writes from a decidedly British perspective; so much so in fact that other people's roles and perspectives hardly matter at all. Ashton's discussion of the Berlin crisis of 1961 must be the first academic piece on the subject that fails even once to mention Willy Brandt, then the governing mayor of the city. One could easily prolong this into a list drawn from the other case [End Page 161] studies in the book, including Cuba, the EEC, and the Middle East. In this, the bilateral concept of the book prefigures its results, leaving the reader with a distinct impression of an Anglo-American approach to world government in the early 1960s. Such a notion of co-ruling would of course be a gross overestimation of Britain's real influence on the course of events, but Ashton's determination to focus exclusively on the relationship between two actors, Kennedy and Macmillan, is what gives his book its particular spice.

Kennedy, Macmillan and the Cold War consists of eight eminently readable, evenly weighted case studies. Ashton makes excellent use of recently published research on each of the international problems and also draws extensively on his own research in British and American archives. Ashton's aim is to use these cases to track down and illuminate the specific nature of Anglo-American relations at the highest level in what could rightly be called a crucial period. But he ends up with a dichotomy that seems to contradict any straightforward interpretation of this personal or national "special relationship." In 1961 a common Anglo-American outlook on world affairs, or at least a sense of common priorities in London and Washington, seems to have prevailed. On a personal level, however, the relationship was more fractious. In 1961, Macmillan was unsure of his relationship with the new U.S. administration and was quite willing to be dragged by the Americans into a war over Laos similar to the one that soon followed in Vietnam. In this case the irony to which Ashton often refers would have been a bitter one, particularly given the innocent civilian population involved. Ashton concludes that it was only the Bay of Pigs fiasco that saved Macmillan from a terrible but foregone decision.

Ashton's interpretation of the Berlin crisis is completely in line with his research focus. The most important conclusion he extracts from the ruins of the...