Natasha GoodfellowConsultant Editor

100 years of the special relationship

Wednesday 07 Nov 2018

The English-Speaking Union recognised the importance of close ties with America long before Churchill coined his iconic phrase. We look at some of the ways in which the ESU continues to work towards common understanding and friendship with our allies across the Atlantic and around the world

In 1946, speaking at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, former British prime minister Winston Churchill spoke of his belief in the necessity for ‘a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States’. Without it, he thundered to the packed room, ‘neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organisation will be gained.’

Though Churchill called specifically for ‘the continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisors’ and ‘the joint use of all naval and air force bases’, his underlying belief in the need for ‘the growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred systems of society’ was something that had been recognised, and acted upon, much earlier on.

Someone who shared his passion was Evelyn Wrench, founder of the English-Speaking Union. Born in 1882 in Co. Fermanagh, in what is now Northern Ireland, he had seen first-hand the difficulties that could divide communities despite a common language. His mother believed strongly in the educational value of travel, and the family journeyed widely. By the time he made his first trip to the States, in 1906, then working as editor of the overseas edition of the Daily Mail, he regarded it as the realisation of ‘a long-cherished ambition’, which had been sparked when, aged seven, he’d met his first ‘real-life’ Americans, on a family holiday to Scotland. ‘I regarded them with considerable awe,’ he wrote. ‘They told me of the land out west where just a few years earlier redskins had been chasing bison on the plains – just as I had seen them doing in the picture-books.’

This sparked a life-long love affair with America and he made two more trips there, in 1908 and 1909, each time being overwhelmed by both the country’s energy and confidence – ‘Seattle vibrated with vitality,’ he wrote; Chicago had a ‘buoyant optimism’ – and the endless generosity and hospitality of Americans towards him.

‘As I sat in the libraries of my American friends and looked at the books by British authors on their shelves, and discussed world problems, I became convinced that the British and American nations must ultimately work together,’ he wrote later. ‘They had a background of common tradition, common law, common literature, despite surface differences; there was an identity of outlook in many things which was fundamental.’

This was doubtless true, but there were larger obstacles to overcome than mere ‘surface differences’. Wrench acknowledged that there was mutual ignorance on both sides. ‘Europeans take their impressions of the United states from the Eastern seaboard, and they never penetrate further West than Chicago,’ he wrote. On the American side, ‘there was woeful ignorance about the modern British Empire’. Worse, for much of the period leading up to and since the Declaration of Independence in 1776, relations had been strained to say the least. Indeed, when, in 1914, a group of Americans keen to strengthen Anglo-American relations proposed a celebration of 100 years of (difficult) peace, the debate in the House of Representatives was fierce. Several people spoke violently against the bill, with the representative of Illinois citing the burning of Washington in 1814 as one of the most ‘shameful acts [to have been] recorded in civilised history… the more disgustingly shameful [because] this atrocious act of vandalism was done under strict orders issued from the Government in England’. The British Ambassador summed up opinion at the time saying ‘one-half of the people of the United States have absolutely no race connection with England and those who have have a strong hereditary reason for wishing ill to their ancient oppressor’.

Wrench was not put off however, and as World War One gathered pace, so his cause came to seem more important and relevant than ever. Spurred on by his meetings with like-minded men, including the publisher F.N. Doubleday and his partner, Dr Walter Hines Page (from 1913 to 1918, US Ambassador to Great Britain), he became more and more convinced that improved relations between the two countries would not only bring friendship, it would help ensure world peace.

Objective: Peace

And so, with the foundation of the English-Speaking Union on 4th July 1918, with the war still raging despite America’s recent involvement, that is exactly what Wrench set out to do. In the first issue of the organisation’s magazine, Landmark, in January 1919, he outlined its creed: ‘Believing that the peace of the world and the progress of mankind can be largely helped by the unity in purpose of the English-Speaking democracies, we pledge ourselves to promote by every means in our power a good understanding between the peoples of the USA and the British Commonwealth.’

Membership grew fast, reaching 800 in just six months, helped no doubt by a founding council that had Lord Balfour, Foreign Secretary, as its chairman and included 30 vice-presidents: Winston Churchill, Frank Doubleday and the later US President Franklin D. Roosevelt among them. It also received a boost in early 1919 when the ESU amalgamated with the Atlantic Union, founded in 1897 by Sir Walter Besant, which had similar aims.

But, after this initial honeymoon period in which US President Woodrow Wilson became the first sitting president to meet a reigning royal (George V), and dignitaries, diplomats and even military commanders such as General John J. Pershing seemed to be echoing the ESU’s cause (King George V said at the time, ‘It has always been my earnest wish that the relations between the two great English-speaking nations should be of the closest and most friendly nature, and that they should work together hand in hand for the good of civilisation and mankind’), the early 20s saw a change in the popular mood. Over 100,000 American soldiers had died or been killed in World War I and many Americans had no appetite for further dealings in European politics. Republican candidate Warren Harding thrashed Wilson in the 1920 election, the Americans refused to join the League of Nations, which Britain and many other countries viewed as a betrayal, and a policy of US isolationism ensued.

Wrench was unperturbed. He had always been clear that the ESU ‘has nothing to do with government’ – indeed the inaugural issue of Landmark begins with a message from Dr Page, noting that ‘…in all free countries, governments are but instruments of the people’s will, the people of the English-Speaking world must be in agreement’ – and set about organising the cultural exchange programmes through which this could be achieved. As early as 1922, a debate tour of America had been arranged. The following year, the Walter Hines Page Scholarship was launched, allowing British teachers to undertake research in the States, hosted by local branches of the ESU; it is still going strong today. By 1928 a scheme was in place enabling British schoolboys (and later girls) to spend a year at a US school, with American children invited to attend school here. Now called the Secondary School Exchange, this remains at the heart of our work, enabling participants to truly ‘get under the skin’ of American culture and delivering indelible memories and often life-changing experiences.

By the time of World War II, American assistance to Britain was still far from a foregone conclusion, though it was soon clear the war could not be won without it. With America committed to a policy of neutrality, Churchill confessed that ‘no lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.’ Over the six years of the war, Churchill and Roosevelt exchanged 1,700 letters and telegrams and met 11 times, and the US Lend-Lease policy, which supplied free aid to any government which could help in the defence of the US, was in place from March 1941.

A helping hand

More informally, aid had also been flowing in to the ESU’s headquarters at Dartmouth House almost since fighting began, thanks to the relationships the organisation had built with the States. American hosts had been found for refugee children (see Dialogue Spring 2018) and US donations of clothes, blankets and medical goods – even ambulances and mobile canteens – were distributed across the country after the Blitz. In 1941 alone, over £14,000 (c.£500,000 in today’s money) was donated. Once American troops started arriving here in number the English ESU welcomed them with open arms, offering a packed programme of talks, visits, dances and parties, resulting in several Anglo-American marriages.

America’s intervention (after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941) was decisive in ending the war and brought Britain and the United States much closer than they had ever been before. Although the ‘special relationship’ as Churchill pictured it has never come to pass, his phrase has stuck, echoing down the decades and surfacing every time a new president or prime minister is appointed, and every time world events threaten to weaken the metaphoric ties. Could Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s relationship have been any closer (she called him ‘the second most important man in my life’); was Blair any more than George W. Bush’s ‘poodle’? In 2010 David Cameron wrote ‘There is a seemingly endless British preoccupation with the health of the special relationship. Its temperature is continually taken to see if it’s in good shape, its pulse checked to see if it will survive.’ With President Trump and Prime Minister May the mercury swings too rapidly to make a call, but Churchill’s Fulton speech showed the importance he placed on mutual friendship and understanding.

And this of course is the lifeblood of the English-Speaking Union. Throughout difficulties of the past 70 years – the Suez Crisis, the Vietnam War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the ESU has gone on trying to improve mutual understanding with America and, as English has spread as a means of communication, with many more countries around the world (there are currently 55 International ESUs). Away from the worlds of politics and diplomacy, it has enabled cultural exchange and opened up the prospects of achievement through schemes as diverse as book exchanges (via the ‘Books Across the Sea’ initiative, founded in 1941 and chaired by TS Eliot, and based at Dartmouth House from 1948); awards, such as the ‘Better Understanding Award’ which ran in the 1950s; and through high-profile lecture series featuring speakers including Henry Kissinger and Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, as well as Churchill himself.

The ESU continues to run its life-changing debate tours and scholarship programmes (adding the American Memorial Chapel Grant and the Lindemann Science Fellowships to its roster in 1961 and 1972 respectively) and welcomes people from across the world to Dartmouth House. And, through its increasing focus on debate and oracy skills for young people, it encourages people everywhere to talk to one another and to try and understand each other’s point of view. This could not be more needed. As HRH Prince Philip, former President of the ESU wrote in 1992, ‘Many members of my generation believed that the end of the Second World War would usher in a new age of peace, humanity and prosperity. Instead, the last 50 years have brought a succession of racial, civil, religious and ideological conflict of horrific brutality in almost every sector of the globe.’ Sadly the ensuing quarter century has brought little change for the better and indeed many people seem more entrenched in their opinions than ever before, something HRH The Princess Royal, the ESU’s current president, mentioned as she marked the centenary of the ESU’s foundation earlier this year, and spoke of the need for ‘tolerance and understanding’ in today’s world. All of which only serves to underline what Churchill, Page and Wrench knew all along – that if people can identify with each other, they have a much better chance of getting along. Or, as one ESU publication once put it: ‘international understanding cannot be left to governments alone’.


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