President Trump’s recent cancellation of a visit to London to open a new U.S. embassy was welcomed with almost audible church bells and cannon fire by his many critics in Britain. Whatever one makes of the man himself, some of us can only rue this sorry turn of affairs for the old firm, which currently stands at its lowest ebb since the 1956 Suez Crisis set the former wartime allies at each other’s throats. On that occasion, President Eisenhower’s anger at Britain’s military intervention in the region was enough for prime minister Anthony Eden, in Downing Street, to recall picking up the transatlantic phone and hearing a flow of soldierly language at the other end ‘so furious I had to hold the instrument away from my ear.’ At least for now Theresa May seems to have been spared a similar ordeal, but even so these are clearly not golden days for the Atlantic partnership as a whole.
The announcement of the cancelled visit, which characteristically came in a Twitter post by Mr. Trump that included a jab at former President Barack Obama, is the latest reverberation from a possibly hasty invitation made in January 2017, when he was offered, and accepted, a state visit to Britain. It may be that Mrs. May understandably hopes to negotiate a new UK-US trade deal in the wake of Brexit, or that there are larger strategic or security factors involved. All we know for sure is that any potential visit by Mr. Trump to Britain has become politically polarising, and that even now some of our keenest diplomatic minds continue to grapple with the question of whether to invite the president to the 19 May wedding of Prince Harry and the American actress Meghan Markle.
Reacting to Trump’s claim on Twitter that he in fact refused to travel to London in order to protest ‘the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in town for ‘peanuts’, only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars’, London mayor Sadiq Khan responded: ‘We have made it clear that Donald Trump is not welcome here.’
‘It appears that Mr. Trump got the message from the many Londoners who admire America and Americans but find his policies and actions the polar opposite of our city’s values of inclusion, diversity and tolerance,’ Khan wrote. ‘This just reinforces what a mistake it was for Theresa May to rush and extend an invitation of a state visit in the first place.’
When Trump went on to tweet that the new U.S. embassy was a ‘bad deal’, and that his hosts ‘Wanted me to cut the ribbon – NO!’, his critics gave the explanation little credence. Former Labour leader Ed Milliband replied in a tweet of his own: ‘Nope. It’s because nobody wanted you to come. And you got the message.’
It’s doubly poignant when you compare all this to the state of affairs in the Atlantic alliance of just over fifty years ago. Not only was John F. Kennedy a confirmed Anglophile, with an intellectual and sentimental attachment to the British country-house political tradition he returned to again and again in his favourite book, David Cecil’s The Young Melbourne. He also managed to be physically present at some of the most critical moments of mid-twentieth century British history, such as the morning of 3 September 1939, when, as a 22-year-old visiting Harvard undergraduate, he was on hand in the strangers’ gallery of the House of Commons to hear Neville Chamberlain issue the formal declaration of war against Nazi Germany. Kennedy’s own political career effectively began just three days later, when his father the U.S. ambassador sent him post-haste to Glasgow to deal with the human and political consequences of the Germans’ sinking of the unarmed passenger liner SS Athenia shortly after it had set sail from Liverpool to New York. The London Evening News called the young student the ‘minister of mercy’, and remarked that his ‘boyish charm and natural kindliness persuaded those who he had come to comfort that America was indeed keeping a benevolent and watchful eye on them … He displayed a wisdom and sympathy of a man twice his age.’
Of course, once installed in the Oval Office twenty years later, Kennedy was motivated first and foremost by American self-interest as he saw it. But within that context he was prepared to go to striking lengths in order to accommodate the UK’s lingering ambitions to enjoy a seat at the international top table. An example of this came at the Nassau Conference in December 1962, when Kennedy agreed to continue to provide Britain with its own independent nuclear deterrent, a decision taken over the vocal objections of most of his senior staff. Explaining this arrangement, the British PM Harold Macmillan wrote to the Queen, ‘It has been a hard and at times almost desperate struggle to maintain the two concepts of interdependence and independence. But I must pay tribute to President Kennedy’s sense of fairness and willingness to be persuaded by argument and over-rule those of his advisers who were not sympathetic to our views.’ This was a significant moment in Anglo-American relations, and its direct strategic consequences remain with us today.
Shortly before the Nassau summit, Kennedy had called heavily on British resources and advice during the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unknown even to his own cabinet ministers, the president regularly took the opportunity to discreetly ride down to the newly created Situation Room in the basement of the White House West Wing and pick up the hotline to Harold Macmillan. Both Macmillan and the British ambassador to Washington, David Ormsby-Gore - an adolescent friend of Kennedy’s - played a significant role in helping to save the world from the then-distinct possibility of a thermonuclear war. In a late-night conversation on 26 October 1962, Macmillan told the president that a possible solution to the crisis had just occurred to him, and that this involved ‘helping the Russians to save face, by [our] side’s undertaking to immobilise certain missiles we have here as an incentive’ - which essentially is exactly what then happened. When it was all over, Kennedy sent the man he affectionately called ‘Uncle Harold’ a wire that read, ‘Your heartening support publicly expressed and our daily conversations have been of inestimable value in these past few days.’
In turn, David Ormsby-Gore sent Kennedy an effusive handwritten letter on British Embassy notepaper which began ‘Dear Jack’, and closed:
‘I am lost in admiration for the superb manner in which you handled the tremendous events of the critical week we have just lived through. I mean it quite sincerely when I say that America and all of the world must feel a deep sense of gratitude that you were President of the United States at this moment in history. I and countless millions are deeply in your debt.
‘Well done. With best wishes as always,
Kennedy kept this testimonial from his closest British friend in his office desk for the remainder of his life.
By Christopher Sandford