- The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Birth of the Pax Americana
“I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Winston Churchill spoke these words in the House of Commons in November 1942. Yet, as Peter Clarke’s The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire points out, while not yet liquidated at the end of the war, the empire was definitely liquefying. Clarke’s book sets out to answer the interesting question of why this was so.
The “thousand days” of the title begins in the autumn of 1944 with the Quebec Conference, which was, according to Clarke, “the last moment when optimism still reigned about a less troubled peace than that which actually ensued” (p. xx). In 1944, the prophecies of easy victory disintegrated under German counterattack and tensions grew among the allies that foreshadowed peacetime difficulties ahead. Even with victory, the “broad, sunlit uplands” Churchill had always spoken of proved rather more gloomy than had been hoped. The postwar era saw Britain having to surrender its dreams of parity with the other great powers, locked into an inexorable process of decline in which its influence ebbed away with its empire. [End Page 622]
In Clarke’s presentation, many of the British people were both surprised and dismayed in the postwar period to find that Britain was in dire economic straits. There has been a historiographical debate as to the causes of these ills. Clarke departs from those who view the postwar economic crisis as a self-inflicted wound brought about by expansion of the welfare state. He very pointedly argues that the economic crisis had another source: “The real economic crisis came because of the costs of victory, incurred under Churchill’s own leadership” (p. 507). The costs of the war effort for Britain were very great; indeed, they could not have been borne without the crucial material aid of the American Lend-Lease Program, which Churchill referred to as “the most unsordid act in history.” Yet Lend-Lease was not a simple exchange, nor one impervious to misunderstanding. Clarke’s detailed treatment of the Anglo-American economic interaction from its origins through the postwar period, especially his description of the ongoing negotiations and frustrations over both Lend-Lease and the “American Loan,” is one of the most valuable aspects of the book.
These economic issues were merely symptoms of larger tensions within the Anglo-American relationship. Clarke has a point when he argues that Churchill’s hope in the special relationship between Britain and the United States and his glowing rhetoric at times obscured the difficulties involved in the partnership. He makes a powerful case that much of Britain’s decline as a world power was due to those tensions. The reality was that the partnership Churchill did so much to nurture was an unequal alliance. The advantages of the United States in resources, productive capacity, and sheer numbers of troops led to strains within the alliance—strains that were only amplified by the differing aims of the allies: “Both in paying for the war and in actually fighting it on the ground in Europe, the significant differences between British and American aims, not to mention material resources, need to be understood” (p. 3). The greatest difference in aim concerned the preservation of the British Empire in the postwar world and thus Britain’s status as a world power. Clarke gives a host of practical expressions of this difference: disagreements over strategy, command, logistics, and diplomacy. Indeed, his book makes very useful connections between the decline of British influence and events that are not usually considered in that light, such as the constant wrangling between British and American generals.
The inequality of the Anglo-British alliance was of course viewed differently by the two partners. The British tended to believe that having stood alone against Germany before American entry into the war entitled them...