Churchill: America made the big decisions

Jamie Dettmer Contributor
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David Cameron is still paying the price for his remarks about Britain being the “junior partner” to the U.S. in the “special relationship.” During a town hall meeting in Hove yesterday he was accused by a pensioner of “denigrating” his country. Cameron responded immediately by conceding that he misspoke when he used the date of  “1940” during his “junior partner” interview with Sky News on his trip to the States. But that didn’t assuage the pensioner. His previous corrections as to the date have also fallen on deaf ears. The critics actually care little, I suspect, whether Cameron was talking about 1940 or the 1940s and beyond.

Admittedly, his “junior partner” comment was bold – and some would say foolhardy. But his remark about Britain being the junior partner in the alliance with the U.S. during the Second World War and since are accurate.

Of course, 1940 was the triumphant year for Britain. Without British defiance in 1940, the game for Western Europe would have been up. The stubbornness of Winston Churchill and the Battle of Britain pilots mitigated the Nazi achievement. But the then British Prime Minister was in no doubt in December 1941 what the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor meant. “So we had won after all!” was Churchill’s immediate response.

Read the opening chapters of Max Hastings excellent book Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, if you want to understand how the Americans (and Russians) increasingly called the strategic shots. In the immediate months following Pearl Harbor,  “the Americans deferred to his (Churchill’s) greatness and to his nation’s experience of war,” wrote Hastings, a highly respected WWII military historian and hardly an unpatriotic journalist.

He continued:

“From 1943 onwards, however, Churchill’s influence upon the Grand Alliance dwindled almost to vanishing point. The Soviet Union displayed the icy arrogance it considered appropriate, as paymaster of the vast blood sacrifice necessary to bring Hitler’s empire to bay. The United States made plain its intention to determine strategy in the west and invade Normandy in summer 1944 – Operation Overlord – as its forces waxed in might while those of Britain waned.”

And Hastings quotes the significant players themselves. Churchill’s private secretary wrote that the British war leader is “by force of circumstances little more than a spectator.”

“It was America who made the big decisions,” Churchill acknowledged. And that isn’t surprising considering the huge materiel production of the U.S. and the massive numbers of troops it deployed.

On some of those “big decisions” the Americans got it wrong – Roosevelt was wrong to concede so much to Stalin when it come to the division of Europe, although what in reality he could have done to stop the Iron Curtain descending is another matter. But British strategic vision about the conduct of the war against Germany was deeply flawed, too. Churchill’s obsessive notion of rolling up the Germans from the south, his Mediterranean Strategy, was nonsense and he remained wedded to the idea of penetrating Germany through Italy and Yugoslavia as late as the winter of 1943-1944.

As Hastings writes: “Yet the American vision about the most important strategic decision of the western war, the assault on the continent, had proved superior to that of the British.”

On a personal note, my father, Charles Dettmer, a British Commando, fell victim to the Mediterranean Strategy. He was badly wounded and lost his arm on the heights above Salerno in 1943. Not that he blamed Churchill for that! He remained for years later, critical, however, of the “soft underbelly strategy” and mystified why Churchill thought it a good idea of slogging up the length of Italy to get to Germany. And sitting where I am now writing this blog posting on my terrace in Italy overlooking the high hills and mountain ranges of Lazio and Umbria, I can see why.

Historical accuracy aside, why did Cameron feel it necessary to make his “junior partner” remark? Most professional and lay commentators maintain that he wanted to appease President Obama.

One Daily Mail reader writing online to the newspaper commented:

“Sadly DC showed his inexperience in dealing with ruthless politicians like Obama who will do virtually anything to look good in the eyes of the US electorate. If that means bullying our Prime Minister or BP, that is what he does. Cameron’s mistake was to act in a fawning, obsequious manner towards the charismatic Obama. However he has now discovered that his own electorate has a tad more backbone than he displayed.”

But as Cameron emphasized in the town-hall meeting at Hove yesterday, he didn’t make his “junior partner” remarks to the U.S. president. He first came out with it to Britain’s Sky News – not something carried on U.S. television. Obviously, he knew the comment would be picked up elsewhere and in the U.S. But his selection of who to say it to first – a British outlet – would suggest that the primary audience he had in mind was a British one. Again why?

I think what Cameron is trying to do is to prompt the British to understand that time and circumstances have indeed changed and that Britain’s place in the World has moved on and so should our thoughts about ourselves and therefore what our strategic and foreign policy thinking should be. Hence British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s talk of improving and strengthening our relations with the BRIC countries and of our place in Europe and hence the Prime Minister’s trip to India. This may be unappealing to British traditionalists and those who will not let go an imperial past and pomp and glory and wallow in WWII films, but it is realistic.

Jamie Dettmer is a former political writer for The Times and The Sunday Telegraph. He blogs at www.jamiedettmer.com.