Lee Ruddin: Alistair Cooke ... A Modern Proponent of the Unsentimental Anglo-American Relationship

Roundup: Talking About History

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

The state of the American economy, not surprisingly, dominated the recent presidential election. What was surprising, though, was the fact that the state of relations with Britain likewise featured, albeit less prominently. Headlines like ‘Romney would restore “Anglo-Saxon” relations between Britain and America’ (July 15, Telegraph), ‘Would a President M[itt] Romney do the special relationship better than Obama?’ (July 27, Birds on the Blog), and ‘Can ... Romney rescue the special relationship?’ (October 15, The Daily Caller) certainly made readers think about a Republican administration.

Now that Obama has been re-elected, however, sentimental Anglophiles are best to tune into -- before reading the history of Anglo-American relations to understand that a President Romney would only have, at best, affected the Whitehall-Washington relationship stylistically and not substantially – BBC Radio 4’s series on Alistair Cooke (In Alistair Cooke’s Footsteps by Alvin Hall), since Cooke was an individual who succeeded in bringing the two countries closer together in unsentimental understanding and helped transform the image of America for the ordinary, working-class Briton.

When it comes to liberals from the Old Country engaging with the New World, it is not too much to mention Cooke in the same breath as Charles Dickens. I say this because, like the celebrated novelist and democratic reformer, Cooke crossed the Atlantic to see if American democracy was an improvement on class-ridden England. Unlike events 170 years ago, though, when Dickens mercilessly parodied the manners of locals and kick-started his “Quarrel with America” upon the publication of American Notes, Cooke did little to disrupt the harmonious nature of UK-U.S. relations with his long-running program, Letter from America, in which he painted a picture for radio listeners in words.

Cooke did not ridicule America or ever charge over the airwaves Americans with abusiveness, arrogance, or anti-intellectualism, as Dickens infamously did and which, during celebrations to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth, has come under the spotlight this year. (All was forgiven, however, when Dickens returned to America on a reading tour in 1867-8.) This is not to say, though, Cooke pulled his punches on Anglo-American affairs when acting as an interpreter of America for Britons. Before we look through a selection of letters recently made available through an online archive of 920 originally broadcast between 1946 and 2004, it is worth considering the one that never was.

Cooke’s first American Letter (as it was originally called) was broadcast on March 24, 1946. Three weeks earlier, on March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill had delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech in which he warned about the Soviet Union’s imperialistic ambitions in Europe but was not reason enough, Cooke concluded, to feature in the first of his 2,869 installments. While he did commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of ‘The Sinews of Peace’ speech on March 8, 1996, it was only (briefly) in relation to its immediate policy effects and (broadly on) the rising threat posed by communist China, and not about how the speech (or what Cooke refers to as ‘the old growler’) affected American foreign policy for the next half century.

This was a grave disservice to his listeners as Philip White, author of Churchill’s Cold War: How the Iron Curtain Speech Shaped the Post War World, illustrates:

‘The Sinews of Peace’ solidified the thoughts and actions of the [Clement] Atlee and [Harry] Truman governments on Russia … and created the most powerful visual image of the division between the democratic, capitalist West and the totalitarian, Communist East … [I]t was Churchill’s message in Missouri that brought [transatlantic] opinions to a global audience and kick-started new policy initiatives.   

The speech acted as midwife to the Truman Doctrine and, in turn, the Marshall Plan, both of which were conceived in 1947, the British-born, American-based researcher illuminates, and, two years later in 1949, the birth of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; NATO ensured that eleven signees would come to the aid of the twelfth should it be attacked by a hostile power – Russia being the most likely perpetrator to trigger Article 5 of the collective-defense Charter. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were profoundly affected by the Fulton speech, leading the former to pursue Churchillian (meaning personal) diplomacy and the latter to paraphrase ‘The Sinews of Peace’ in his ‘Evil Empire’ address of 1983.

You will learn little of the aforementioned listening to Cooke. What you will discover, however, is that the American people, for instance, were appalled at the claims of British brutality in Northern Ireland. Americans hitherto ‘incurably eager to give England the benefit of any doubt,’ Cooke said (on February 5, 1972), ‘gagged at the phrase “deep interrogation”’ and allegations of torture against the Irish Republican Army. Listeners will also know that an advisor to President John F. Kennedy once stated to Cooke – albeit off the record after a Palm Beach press conference (March 19, 1976) – London did not ‘count that much anymore’ and thus would not be visited by JFK during his forthcoming trip to Europe and in between visits to such great capitals as Paris, Berlin, and Madrid.

Yet it is the fact Cooke referred to Robin Renwick’s book, Fighting with Allies: America and Britain at Peace and War, as ‘splendid,’ which illuminated that the British-born, late American citizen was no sentimentalist when it came to UK-U.S. relations. I say this since the word “with” in the title of Renwick’s 1996 work contains a double meaning, and the former British Ambassador to the U.S. concentrates on conflict as much as he does on cooperation when chronicling relations between the two from the War of 1812 up until Vietnam.

Finding Renwick’s history particularly ‘riveting,’ it is of little surprise that Cooke concluded one of his later dispatches (four months after the invasion of Iraq on July 11, 2003 and eight months before his death on March 30, 2004) in an arguably unsentimental, twenty-first century Dickensian way, stating ‘There’s hardly been a time in which the British didn’t deplore the pushy American tendency to go it alone, and the Americans didn’t lament the British tendency to play safe but want to be considered the ring leader all the same.’  

Cooke’s appreciation of the nuances of Anglo-American relations is an example to us all, Anglophiles as well as Anglophobes. His unsentimental belief that a credit balance of sentiment would not be jeopardized by a hard-headed, clear-sighted policy decision was recently evidenced by Attorney General Eric Holder’s mention of ‘strong’ relations notwithstanding the Home Secretary Theresa May’s refusal to extradite an alleged computer hacker across the pond. It is for this reason that Cooke would probably have raised a glass to Obama’s re-election since he too is a modern proponent of the unsentimental Anglo-American relationship.

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