Lee Ruddin: 9/11 ... The Brits Who Stood with America in Its Darkest Hour

Roundup: Talking About History

Lee Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN. He lives in England.

Reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour made me think of the British officials who supported America during its hour of need 11 years ago. The Bush Administration was caught like a rabbit in the headlights back in 2001, as the symbols of America’s economic and military power lay smouldering, but three Brits ensured that their transatlantic cousins did not stand alone. Given the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I feel it is both a worthwhile and timely exercise to recall the support given by Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, and Sir Richard Dearlove. 

London at the time of Blitz was a city in peril, with Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombing almost nightly, and the capital burning throughout the day. Yet three Americans – Edward R. Murrow (CBS radio broadcaster), W. Averell Harriman (a Roosevelt appointee to administer the “Lend-Lease” program), and John Gilbert Winant (U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s) – witnessed the suffering of Londoners up close and personal and, says Olson, suffered with them. Her book wonderfully illustrates that the presence of three Americans in the heart of Blitz-hit London illuminated beyond any doubt just how much America really cared for and assisted Britain.  

Such care and assistance was evidently at the forefront of the then-Prime Minister’s mind and which, I would argue, directed his course of action in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and determined Whitehall’s relationship with Washington for the duration of his premiership. As Blair reminds readers of his autobiography, Tony Blair: A Journey, he reminded Americans (upon leaving a New York remembrance service on September 20th) that his ‘father’s generation went through the Blitz [and] they

know what it is like to suffer this deep tragedy and attack. There was one country and one people which stood by us at that time. That country was America and those people were the American people. As you stood by us in those days, we stand side by side with you now. Your loss is our loss. Your struggle is our struggle.

Blair had spoken about being ‘shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy’ “That Tuesday” evening, but by physically standing at Bush’s side (and the First Lady’s during her husband’s speech to a joint session of Congress) and embracing members of the congregation at St. Thomas Church nine days after the worst terrorist attack in America’s history made American’s feel, as Blair had hoped, ‘a real arm of solidarity [was] stretched out towards them.’  

There is little doubt that support from “across the pond” (including the band of the Coldstream Guards playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the Changing of the Guard ceremony), to quote Labor’s longest-serving PM, provided a ‘source of strength.’ Cynics will not doubt say “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” But the simple fact of the matter is the President, his Principals, and the population-at-large did genuinely appreciate the support offered by Brits, Buckingham Palace, and Blair especially, as Sir Christopher Meyer, United Kingdom Ambassador to the United States (but who’s diplomatic skills are pushed to the limit when talking about Mr. Blair), illustrates in his autobiography.   

‘Blair had become an American hero,’ Meyer writes in DC Confidential: The Controversial Memoirs of Britain’s Ambassador to the U.S. at the Time of 9/11 and the Iraq War. ‘More than any other European politician he seemed to have understood the shocking impact on the [U.S.] of 9/11: on [Bush], on the [A]dministration … and on the American people themselves,’ he concludes. What impressed Meyer most, though, was Blair’s nuanced policy-thinking and, in this particular instance, his five-page, ‘first rate’ international strategy for tackling Al Qaeda (penned by himself, no less, and not by Foreign Office mandarins) which incorporated “soft” as well as “hard” power elements.  

Talking of “soft power,” and the ability to co-opt (as opposed to coercing with the “hard” variety), Blair’s very own Head of Communications, Alastair Campbell, had a moment in the spotlight and did nothing if not shine when enlisted (six weeks after 9/11) to turn around the Administration’s losing communications battle. As the political aide noted in the fourth volume of his diaries subtitled The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq, he feared that Bush officials were putting out messages that were interpreted positively in the likes of, say, Austin, Knoxville, and Independence but negatively in cities such as Aleppo, Karachi, and Istanbul.

The Commander-in-Chief was, to be sure, aware of the American-centric – even inward-looking – line coming out of the Administration and the need to engage with the Arab world in an attempt to get public opinion on side and to forestall any talk of civilizational war between Muslims and Christians. So much so, in fact, a communicator-in-chief was sought to provide advice on the running of a properly co-ordinated international structure and Campbell did not disappoint Karen Hughes at the White House, Torie Clarke at the Defense Department, or Condoleezza Rice at State with his strategy to eliminate conflicting signals from different parts of Government since, as Mary Matalin (Vice-President Richard Cheney’s press woman) said when leaving an October 24th meeting with him, ‘they had been pressing for this kind of approach for ages.’

We cannot say for certain just how influential or indeed how successful Campbell’s communications paper was because the public relations battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world continues to this day and will, alas, no doubt continue for many more. What we can say for certain, though, is just how influential and indeed how successful his presence and memo was to those members of the Administration whose minds had wandered during the anthrax scare and whom then, going deeper into the Fall, needed to refocus on the bigger picture.

The same can be said, to a certain degree, for the intelligence services. Whilst there have been some obvious failures and many less-obvious successes post-9/11, the fact that Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (commonly referred to as MI6), flew to Washington to meet with his opposite number at the Central Intelligence Agency, Director George Tenet, a day after the attacks illuminated anew the bedrock of Anglo-American relations: the intelligence-sharing relationship. Arriving in a private jet on September 12th – as U.S. airspace was closed to all other aircraft and the Pentagon was still smoking – moved Tenet so much, Gordon Thomas author of Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6 tells us, that he toasted the “special relationship between our countries” that evening before beginning the fight back with Dearlove the very next morning.

At a time when much is made of the regulatory spat(s) between Bank of England Governor Mervyn King and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner it is important to remember, Andrew Roberts, author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, informs readers, that King arguably stood the closest to America since his ‘swift and decisive … action to avert panic-selling of dollars’ ensured a financial crisis was not borne out of a national security one.

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