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Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp 150–166 | Cite as

‘The impression is growing … that the United States is hard when dealing with us’: Ernest Bevin and Anglo-American relations at the dawn of the cold war

  • Martin H. FollyEmail author
Article

Abstract

This article examines British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s views on Anglo-American relations during the crucial year of 1947. It challenges the view that Bevin was unquestioningly pro-American. It demonstrates how Bevin pushed the embassy in Washington to project a view of Britain, based on answering American criticisms robustly. He saw Britain’s problems to be a consequence of American failures to act responsibly, as he saw it. Bevin was frustrated with American attitudes, and sought to bring them to underwrite his own policies and shape theirs around his strong belief that Britain had earned their support and that they should compensate Britain for its past sacrifices in the common cause. Bevin was not coldly pragmatic, nor was he uncritically pro-American, or merely a puppet in the hands of his Foreign Office officials.

Keywords

United States Britain Bevin cold war 

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Notes

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    F.K. Roberts, ‘Ernest Bevin as Foreign Secretary’, in The Foreign Policy of the British Labour Government, 1945–51, ed. Ritchie Ovendale (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1984), 29. Roberts served as Bevin’s private secretary in the FO in 1948.Google Scholar
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    Inverchapel private letter to Bevin 15 June 1946, Bevin letter to Inverchapel 25 July 1946 FO800/513. Bevin wrote, ‘In the carrying out of foreign policy I do not believe this method of exhibitionism has any effect at all’.Google Scholar
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    Attlee wrote, ‘There is rather a feeling here that the Americans, while quite willing to shelter themselves behind us and expect us to pull chestnuts out of the fire for them, are unwilling to give us real assistance. In particular there is a good deal of comment on the fact that we are expected to keep our troops abroad in all kinds of places, whereas the United States of America contributes very little in this way’. He went on to criticise the ‘light-hearted manner’ in which the Americans made the situation worse in Palestine, without taking real responsibility. All this, he wrote, ‘leads to a feeling that there is a danger of our being placed in the position of a mere breakwater between the United States and Russia — hence a good deal of Left Wing criticism’, Attlee letter to Inverchapel 23 March 1947 PREM8/703.Google Scholar
  51. 29.
    Maurice Peterson, British Ambassador in Moscow, wrote that Marshall began uncertainly and ‘seemed very wobbly’. He thought, though, that Bevin greatly preferred him to Byrnes, Peterson to Sargent 26 March 1947. Oliver Harvey noted on 1 April that Marshall had ‘come on a lot in the last ten days, and I think now he and the Secretary of State understand each other very well’. Harvey to Sargent 1 April 1947 FO800/272.Google Scholar
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    Bevin letter to Inverchapel 17 March 1947 PREM8/703. For Bevin’s reaction to the Truman speech (like the FO, he regretted the universalism and the wisdom of saying this in public while the Council of Foreign Ministers was in session), see Bullock, Bevin, 379.Google Scholar
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    He did note to Dalton, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that he had discussed Britain’s financial situation on two occasions with Marshall, Bevin to Dalton 24 April 1947 FO800/ 514.Google Scholar
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    Greatest praise for Bevin in the orthodox account is reserved for his part in the genesis of Marshall Aid. According to this view, he alone recognised the opening offered by Marshall’s speech, and acted speedily and decisively to create a European plan that the Americans, as Marshall had signalled, could then respond to. Actually, Bevin was already proposing to raise the issue of American aid through Will Clayton, who was expected to arrive in Britain shortly, and noted that Marshall’s proposal cut across what he was planning. Far from immediately seizing the initiative, the British then paused, waiting for more information from Washington and in particular waiting for Clayton. It was when it was clear that his visit would be delayed, and also that French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault was going to seize the initiative and respond to Marshall, that Bevin then became more active. Bullock, Bevin, 404Google Scholar
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    Bevin’s comments show a considerable impatience with American views, and appear to extend his frustration to the embassy — the unfairness of this is perhaps reflected in the fact that Balfour was actually responding to being told by Sargent that these sudden announcements were deliberate tactics by ministers to bring home to the US government and public how serious Britain’s situation was — a tactic that cut across the long- established information policy line followed by the embassy since before Inverchapel arrived, Balfour to FO 31 July 1947, Sargent to Balfour 6 August 1947 FO371/61003/ AN2922.Google Scholar
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    The embassy noted on 13 September that Britain was still regarded as looking for an easy way out of its economic problems. This was blamed on a nationalisation programme that American opinion saw to be strangled in red tape, while workers were coddled. Bevin was seen as the most redoubtable British figure after Churchill in American eyes and so they were disappointed at his references to the Fort Knox gold, and also some remarks made to visiting American Legionnaires regarding the need for a ‘food Lend-Lease’, Weekly Political Summary 13 September 1947 FO371/61056/AN3199.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Board of Transatlantic Studies 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Isambard Centre for Historical Research, School of Social SciencesBrunei UniversityLondonUK

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