Review: “America’s Planned War on Britain” on UK TV

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Lee P. Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN.

The days of a commander in chief going down the United Nations route to help a prime minister placate domestic opposition to war, as George W. Bush did with Tony Blair in 2002, are over, notwithstanding what historian James Ellison says in the current edition of BBC Knowledge about the future of the ‘Special Relationship’ looking bright (“Old Friends,” Sep/Oct 2011).

Do not get me wrong, Ellison competently examines the past and present of Anglo-American relations. But he overlooks the fact that, for all President Obama’s talk of an “extraordinary special relationship” during a brief meeting at the UN HQ in New York, forthcoming government defence cuts will mean a decline in Britain’s ‘hard’ power. This is a worrying development since the blood price is an essential part of the deal between London and Washington.

It is not as if the ‘Old Country’s’ diplomatic clout will compensate for its military downsizing, either, since, as Ellison reminds readers, the American “colossus is now not so inexperienced.” Make no mistake about it, the ‘soft’ power days of Athens tutoring Rome — such as when British ambassador David Ormsby-Gore proposed JFK move the line of interception closer to Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis or when Foreign & Commonwealth Office mandarin Thomas Brimelow helped to redraft a treaty document for Henry Kissinger to a Soviet proposal for a renunciation of nuclear weapons — are also a thing of the past. 

As distressing as this is to Atlanticists, though, such days pale into insignificance when compared with those of the 1920s and ‘30s when ‘War Plan Red’ (or Joint Army and Navy Basic War Plan — Red, to give it its official title) was developed and approved. While the American strategy to bomb cities in the British dominion of Canada was officially withdrawn in 1939 and declassified in 1974, the Channel Five documentary “America’s Planned War on Britain” is worth watching, if only to see military experts work through the plans as a war game and reveal who would have won if Great Britain’s greatest ally had ever become its worst enemy. 

For those who have not heard of the document before, or know comparatively little about it, ‘War Plan Red’ was a color-coded plan to eliminate all British land forces in North America as well as the empire’s naval forces in the North Atlantic. The United States (blue) devised several contingencies against a repertoire of potential adversaries, including Japan (‘War Plan Orange’), Mexico (‘War Plan Green’), South Africa (‘War Plan Purple’), Germany (‘War Plan Black’), the Caribbean republics (‘War Plan Grey’), China (‘War Plan Yellow’), and the Philippines (‘War Plan Brown’). A further one was also developed by military planners to combat a domestic uprising (‘War Plan White’).

‘War Plan Red’ spoke of “the destruction of British trade, bringing her to the point of economic exhaustion.” It describes the national characteristics of the “red race” as “more or less phlegmatic but determined or persistent when committed to a policy and [was] noted for its ability to fight to a finish.” As such, author General Douglas MacArthur felt it necessary to authorise the use of chemical weapons before signing it off. As difficult as it is to imagine an Anglo-American conflagration at the time Hitler and Hirohito were sitting pretty in the Reich Chancellery and Imperial Palace respectively, the plans were not, Christopher M. Bell informs subscribers of The International History Review (vol. 19, no. 4, 1997), “the product of [military planners’] over-active imaginations”.

Given that the author reminds historians to treat such a contingency as “serious,” we need to ask ourselves — especially in light of the fact that both navies subscribed to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept of “sea power” and the control of seaborne commerce — why a war did not break out when there are so many other examples of this occurring between rising and declining powers? The answer, in short, boils down to the statecraft of two leaders during the interwar period: Neville Chamberlain and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Granted, Chamberlain forever held the belief that it was erroneous to break the long-standing alliance with Japan in 1922 to accommodate American concerns in the Washington Naval Treaty. Yet redirecting readers of Diplomacy & Statecraft (vol. 13, no. 1, 2002), as Greg Kennedy does, to look at Chamberlain’s stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer as a way to understand his anti-Americanism reinforces the popular myth and flies in the face of academic scholarship. Indeed, as Alan P. Dobson, author of Anglo-American Relations in the Twentieth Century: The Politics and Diplomacy of Superpowers, stresses, he “agreed to … what was a rather unsatisfactory trade agreement [in 1938] for Britain in order to bring the two countries closer together” (my emphasis). Ritchie Ovendale, author of Anglo-American Relations in the Twentieth Century, confirms as much and even goes as far as to suggest that “on a diplomatic level, before the outbreak of the Second World War, a ‘special relationship’ did exist” (my emphasis) between Messrs. Chamberlain and Roosevelt.

While few historians would question Roosevelt’s role as one of the founding fathers (together with Winston Spencer Churchill) of the ‘special relationship’ during World War Two, many commentators do question his Anglo-American credentials during the interwar period. Such thinking is in no small measure related to the work published by Roosevelt’s son, Elliott. Penned in 1946, As He Saw It posits that the 32nd President viewed Great Britain and its imperial “system” as a far greater threat than Soviet imperialism. Yet, as Tony McCulloch illustrates in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies (vol. 8, no. 3, 2010), FDR’s ideological commitment to cooperation can be dated back to his first term, in January 1936 to be exact, more than four years before WSC became prime minister and more than five before the signing of the Atlantic Charter in August 1941.

Given that this is something under-illuminated in the hour-long programme which features Dobson (and to a lesser degree) Kennedy, producers would have been better to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Atlantic Charter, a milestone that passed almost unnoticed. “This is a pity,” writes Jean-Pierre Lehmann in The Globalist, “as it stands out as one of history’s most remarkable documents” — something that cannot necessarily be said for ‘War Plan Red’.

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