Lee Ruddin: The Anglo-American Unspecial Relationship of 1942-44

Roundup: Talking About History

The relationship between Tony Blair and George W. Bush is likely to take center stage once more as we approach the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. In the decade since, op-ed writers of all political stripes have pin-pointed the “unspecialness” of the British-American relationship to March 2003 when the UK supposedly fell in line with U.S. policy demands, purportedly without much hesitation or reservation, and marched in line onto the dusty plains of Mesopotamia.   

Listening to Martha Kearney’s two-part program, GI Britain (BBC Radio 4), however, I would pin-point 1942 (the year in which some historians direct students of Anglo-American history to look upon as the start of the “special relationship”) as the annus horribilis in UK-U.S. relations and the start of the unspecial relationship between Whitehall and Washington.

I say this for the simple reason that 70 years ago American troops started to arrive in war-ravaged Britain to form (a huge) part of a massive Allied invasion force intended for Axis-ruled Europe. As well as the military might, Americans brought candy, Coca-Cola and cigarettes, but also social tensions together with the introduction of segregation of white and black GIs. The U.S. institution of segregating troops was accommodated without much hesitation or reservation in Britain and, says interviewee Neil A. Wynn, professor of American history, “Jim Crow” (American laws that excluded blacks from public places and denied them equal access to public transport) was introduced, British social policy notwithstanding, on the home front in 1942.

By late summer of 1942, 12,000 black American troops had arrived in Britain; this number would rise to 100,000 by D-Day in June 1944 when all GIs, white and black, invaded Adolf Hitler’s “Fortress Europe.” (To put that figure into perspective, the black population of Britain was only 7,000 at the outbreak of World War II.) Ever since the War of Independence, U.S. troops had been segregated along racial lines, living in separate quarters and eating at different facilities, but did His Majesty’s Government need to accommodate the anxieties of their visitors who were fearful of racial mixing?

No, is my answer: military apartheid did not have to come to the shores of the British Isles. As naïve as it is to believe Winston Churchill could have laid down the law to Franklin D. Roosevelt (especially after “wooing” him and, post-Pearl Harbor, going to ‘bed and [having] slept the sleep of the saved and thankful’ upon the American entry into the war), the transatlantic practice of institutionalized segregation was nothing if not hypocritical when fighting Fascism. Put simply, black GIs who came across the Atlantic to fight the Nazi juggernaut should not first have had to fight fascistic countrymen. Neither should they indeed have had to fight their hosts, yet Churchill’s repugnant instruction to Viscount Cranborne (during a Cabinet War debate in October 1942) that his Colonial Office staff member – then-excluded from a London restaurant because of white Americans – best take ‘his banjo with him’  next time so ‘he’s [taken for] one of the band,’ illuminates that African-Americans had to do just that.

As Graham A. Smith writes in When Jim Crow Met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain, Churchill’s War Cabinet was simply not prepared to risk the wrath of its number one ally and impair the larger war effort or, as David Reynolds informs readers of Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Fifth Series, vol. 35, 1985), ‘the maintenance of Anglo-American amity and its continuance in to the post-war world.’ The British Government, according to official transcripts, had to be mindful of U.S. racial sensibilities and not actively encourage the breakdown of segregation policy which would, according to some white Americans – says Juliet Gardiner, author of ‘Over Here’: GI’s in Britain During the Second World War – make black personnel more “uppity” and demanding of greater civil rights upon their return home from “across the pond.” The British, therefore, opted for a double-standard policy of covertly supporting U.S. Army segregation on the condition the Home Office did not overtly enforce it.   

Just imagine if British officials had visibly demonstrated their repugnance for narrow-minded prejudice, though: it may have acted as a shot in the arm for the embryonic Civil Rights Movement. What is more, the argument that Uncle Sam does not respect John Bull when pressed is flawed, as Max Hastings illustrates. ‘[A]ll relationships fare best when both parties see each other as they really are,’ the historian writes in the Daily Mail and he concludes that ‘appeasing allies is no more fruitful than appeasing enemies, because it breeds resentment among one’s own people.’ This probably explains why a common quip among the British populace of the time was, Reynolds informs readers of his book, Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain, 1942-1945: “I don’t mind the Yanks, but I don’t care much for the white fellows they’ve brought with them.”

While no official stand was taken against the racial policies of the U.S. armed forces, which managed to transfer segregation to the British mainland effectively in toto, and which also had ramifications beyond the canteens and billets inside the perimeter fences to cinemas and buses outside of them, local folk did take a stand against the imposition of such racial ideology, as Roi Ottley was at pains to point out. He famously goes on to tell of an incident in which   

[U.S.] soldiers boarded a bus in London and tried to eject two [black] soldiers from seats they already occupied.

“You can’t do that sort of thing here,” a woman conductor protested. “We won’t have it. Either you stand or off you go.”

They stood.

Blair not pushing Bush enough to go down the United Nations route over Iraq pales into relative insignificance when compared with how little his predecessor, Churchill, pushed the 32nd President of the United States, Roosevelt, on the exportation of segregation and how much he conciliated the power brokers in Congress, namely the Southern Democrats, who would elect whether the alliance would be “special” and vote on whether Britain would receive all-important aid. The Foreign Office’s poisonous, prejudicial and poodle-like behavior means that we Brits should, this 70th anniversary, reflect upon and acknowledge – through an apology or, more appropriately, a permanent exhibition commemorating the contribution of black GIs in Britain – the Anglo-American unspecial relationship of 1942-44.

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