I met a man from Mississippi the other day. We sat next to each other over dinner at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When he heard my British accent, he thanked me for our support for the United States military in Iraq. He said that America had rescued freedom and democracy in Europe in two world wars, and was pleased that Britain was, in return, standing now with America.
It is quite a common perception in America that it stood up for democracy and freedom in Europe. Just this week, President George W. Bush compared the war in Iraq with the two World Wars
We defeated fascism; we defeated communism; and we will defeat the hateful ideology of the terrorists who attacked America. Each of these struggles for freedom required great sacrifice. From the beaches of Normandy to the snows of Korea, courageous Americans gave their lives so others could live in freedom.
I am not making a point about Republicans: a decade ago Bill Clinton said:
Our people fought two world wars so that freedom could triumph over tyranny.
I am an economist, not a historian, so doubtless somebody will put me right if I have got this wrong, but that isn't how I understand America's involvement in either of the World Wars. The way I heard it, America was a determined isolationist in the run up to both wars:
- Britain went to war on August 4th 1914 in response to an unprovoked invasion of Belgium. The US entered the war on April 6th 1917, nearly three years later, following aggression against American shipping by German submarines (and about two years after the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7th, 1915).
- Britain went to war again on September 3rd 1939 when Poland was invaded. Canada, Australia, New Zealand & South Africa all immediately joined Britain by declaring war on Hitler in 1939, and the United States did not. It wasn't until more than two years later, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 6th 1941, that the United States entered the war. Hitler declared war on the United States, not the other way round. Though some brave and principled Americans chose to join the Canadian armed forces to help fight the Nazis, the US Government remained officially neutral until it was attacked, and most Americans opposed joining the war until the attack on Pearl Harbor.
What's more, as the third volume of Robert Skidelsky's magisterial biography of J. M. Keynes describes, Britain paid a heavy price for US support. The United States demanded that in return for Lend Lease, which Britain desperately needed to sustain its war effort, Britain pledge itself to abandon any aspirations of post-war empire, dismantle the system of imperial preference and shrink the sterling area to prevent it from competing with the dollar. Skidelsky describes the way that Washington managed the flow of Lend-Lease supplies which had the effect, and perhaps the intention, of leaving Britain dependent on US help after the war on whatever terms America chose to impose. And the terms they imposed were not generous. Did you know that, even today, Britain is still re-paying America for its World War II debt? The British Treasury still has to write cheques to the US Treasury, year after year, to pay back the costs of fighting the Nazis. (Britain will make its final payment in December 2006.) Not exactly the behaviour of a close friend and ally, fighting shoulder to shoulder for democracy and freedom.
Of course, I realise that without the help of America, Britain would almost certainly not have won either war; and I pay tribute to the brave American men and women who fought in those wars. I certainly don't mean to belittle their sacrifice. (And we should also remember that without the superhuman efforts of the Russians, America might not have won the second world war either.)
The way I see it, Britain stood up for democracy and freedom, reflexively and immediately. The United States, by contrast, was dragged kicking and screaming out of isolationism. When the US join the second world war, several years later, it exploited the opportunity to pursue its global objectives, including making sure that Britain's economic and military power would be sharply reduced, to strengthen America's position as a global power.
Now I don't hold this against America, or Americans, today. All water under the bridge as far as I'm concerned. I understand the reasons for America's isolationism then, and, as I say, I'm glad they joined the war on our side eventually. Better late than never and all that. I'd rather they hadn't screwed us on Lend Lease, but let's let bygones be bygones, eh? But if Americans are going to boast about their involvement as an example of America's commitment to liberty and democracy, then they must expect to be reminded of the inconvenient facts.
I didn't say anything to the man from Mississipi about any of this, as I didn't (and don't) want to be rude to my hosts here in America. I didn't want to have a fight with a big man at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Maybe I've got this all wrong – I'm an economist not a historian. In which case, please put me right.
Update: have a look at Neil Hall's interesting comment on this post which describes how the United States profited from the second world war.