Greg Kennedy. Anglo-American Strategic Relations and the Far East, 1933-1939. London and Portland: Frank Cass, 2002. xiii + 313 pp. $62.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7146-5188-0.
Reviewed by Erik Benson (Department of History, Ouachita Baptist University)
Published on H-Diplo (March, 2003)
Shifting the Focus: The Roots of the "Special Relationship"
Shifting the Focus: the Roots of the "Special Relationship"
At first glance, the cover of this work might seem confusing. Right under the title, Anglo-American Strategic Relations and the Far East, 1933-1939, is a picture of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Atlantic Conference. This meeting took place well after the period in the title. Why is this picture on the cover of this book? The answer requires a closer look at the photo. A smiling FDR listens as Churchill, index finger extended, makes a point. (Perhaps they are having a friendly debate.) In the background, officers and officials from both countries mingle. A certain cordial spirit is evident in the scene, and it is difficult to believe that this sprang up in the days of the conference. Greg Kennedy argues that it did not.
In his introduction, Kennedy states that his work will focus on the British and American assessments of the Japanese threat in the 1930s and how they worked together to deal with it. It is in this intercourse, he argues, that the roots of the "special relationship" of World War II are found. By the time war came, the United States and Britain had already laid the foundation of this relationship in East Asia. With this as his thesis, the author proceeds to explain how this came about. America's relative diplomatic isolation limited its international role. Yet in East Asia it had a "philosophical" empire to defend. British interests were more substantive--dominions and trade. The United States and Britain needed each other to protect their East Asian interests by means of a balance-of-power arrangement. Their "parallel goals" in the region made it possible for them to forge a "special relationship." Here he makes two important qualifications. One, this relationship was not a policy, but a "sentiment." Two, due to public opinion in both countries, it was forged quietly, without public acknowledgement (pp. 1-2).
Kennedy also addresses other issues in his introduction. He explains his choice of the period of 1933-1939, which addresses the entire development of the relationship. He begins with 1933 because the advent of the Roosevelt administration provided some continuity in American foreign policy. In turn, once the war in Europe started, it trumped all pre-war planning; thus, going past 1939 is pointless. He then addresses the issue of whether or not Britain was in decline. Finding weaknesses on both sides of this debate, he contends that Britain was simply part of a multipolar world that rested upon balance-of-power combinations. Considering its choices, it is natural that Britain gravitated toward the United States. In light of this, the key question is: what was the focus of Anglo-American relations? The answer is East Asia. Kennedy then warns against overemphasizing "archetypes" in Anglo-American relations, which, he argues, overstates the conflict in the relationship and ignores the rational decision-making exemplified on both sides of the Atlantic. He calls for a more sophisticated approach to understanding the British and American views of each other, through the use of "mental maps" that officials on both sides created of each other (p. 6). During the period of 1933-36, when relations between the two powers were strained, these maps were negative. Yet between 1936 and 1939, the maps became more positive and relations improved. To understand how this happened, one needs to focus on Anglo-American dealings in the areas of naval disarmament, intelligence sharing, and diplomacy. These fostered the "special relationship."
The first chapter, "Anglo-American Intelligence, War Planning, and Naval Cooperation, 1933-1939," focuses on intelligence and strategy. British and American officials in the United States, Britain, Japan, and China exchanged military and intelligence information to an unparalleled degree. Furthermore, British and American naval officers had exceptional access to each other's facilities, ships, and technology. Both sides saw these exchanges as useful for developing closer ties and strategic options. The initiative lay largely with the British, who were trying to determine how effective and committed the U.S. Navy might be in the Pacific. As the decade progressed, these relations grew increasingly close, eventually leading to secret talks about naval strategy.
The remaining chapters primarily cover diplomatic issues in Anglo-American relations. Chapters 2 and 3 address the British and American views on the Soviet Union's role in East Asia. Both sought to use Japan's rivalry with the Soviets to check Japanese aggression. From the British perspective, as long as the Japanese were concerned with the possibility of being diplomatically isolated in the event of a conflict with the Soviets, they would be more considerate of British interests. This called for a delicate balancing act on the part of the British. If they went too far in supporting the Soviets, an insecure Japan might lash out; yet if they did not go far enough, an overconfident Japan might act aggressively in the region. Thus, Britain adopted a "no bloc" policy for East Asia (pp. 61-2). It would not formally commit to either the Japanese or the Soviets and, instead, sought to maintain the tension between the two. This balancing act would prove difficult. While the British wanted to use the Soviets in East Asia, they had to be careful not to upset their diplomatic agenda in Europe. Stalin's purges also raised concerns that a weakened Soviet Union might encourage Japanese aggression. However, Japan's attack on China (which tied down vast amounts of Japanese resources) and the Soviet military response to Japanese border incursions in the late 1930s alleviated this concern. Even after the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Soviet Union remained a key in British planning to check the Japanese. It also was a key for the Americans. Like the British, they sought to employ the Soviets in a "balance of power" approach to the East Asian situation. This was expressed in the "Hornbeck policy" (so named for the State Department's East Asian expert, Stanley Hornbeck), which emphasized the need for "cautious cooperation" with the Soviets (p. 101). This was not to be so close as to cause Japan to lash out, but close enough to keep them guessing and thus in check. This approach would largely guide the United States through the 1930s, in a "parallel," though not coordinated, policy with the British (p. 52). For both powers, these parallel policies presented challenges. For one thing, they wanted the Soviets and the Japanese to check one another. They had no desire to see either Soviet communists or Japanese imperialists dominate China. For another, they had to be clandestine in their approach, because neither public would have approved of a balance-of-power policy in the region. So, even though their policies were "parallel," they had to remain separate and "informal" (pp. 112-13). This strategy worked until 1941, when the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union freed the Japanese to act.
Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the development of mutual trust in Anglo-American relations with regard to naval issues. The key to this was the London naval conference of 1935. Before this, neither side trusted the other, yet afterward, they did. The distrust stemmed from past problems, as well as current disagreements over qualitative and quantitative limits on warships. To further complicate matters, there were divisions within the ranks. On the British side, Sir Robert Vansittart (the Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office) and Treasury officials (most notably the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain) favored closer relations with the Japanese rather than the Americans. However, key figures in both the Foreign Office and the Admiralty favored the Americans. This latter group fended off repeated attempts to steer British policy away from the Americans and toward the Japanese. On the other side of the Atlantic, there were key elements in the Navy that opposed any accommodation with the British, but the president and key State Department and USN officials were more open. Eventually, the British and Americans held pre-conference talks, which did not resolve the disagreements, but did lay the groundwork for open exchange, friendly relations, and cooperation. In their wake, pro-American elements in the British government moved decisively to set British policy in favor of the Americans. This cause was helped tremendously by the British ambassador to the United States, Sir Ronald Lindsay, who authored a memo that would shape British thinking during this period and long after. Demonstrating a "masterful understanding" of the American nation and its people, Lindsay counseled that the United States would move slowly and act only when threatened. However, when it did, it would back the British, and this was worth far more than Japanese friendship (pp. 182-184). This, along with several timely and fruitful exchanges between British and American leaders, led the British to look to the Americans for friendship. In turn, the Americans came to recognize and appreciate British naval interests, and became more flexible. Ultimately, the two joined to present a common front against the Japanese. While this led to the demise of the naval conference, the experience fostered a growing closeness between the two nations, and even though this friendship could not be formalized, it was real and useful.
The sixth chapter addresses the relationship between the State Department and the Foreign Office after the conference. By now, the two sides were on "parallel, but not joint" tracks (p. 215). They were certain that if Japan attacked either of their interests, it was risking war with the other power. There remained significant self-interests and restraints on both sides, nonetheless, that prevented them from taking open action against the Japanese. In particular, the American public, with its deep suspicion of the British, limited Anglo-American cooperation. This became particularly apparent after the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, when the British asked the Americans for a joint declaration against the Japanese. FDR, for his part, had to be careful not to be too closely tied with the British. At the subsequent Brussels conference, the United States refused to take the lead or follow the British in condemning Japan. Yet even this proved to be a success, for it served to build trust and closeness between the British and Americans. While this process would face further obstacles (i.e., Chamberlain), it would continue until war broke out.
In his seventh chapter, Kennedy concludes that the British and Americans had constructed new mental maps of each other during the period of 1933-1939 (pp. 262-63). Although, this was due to efforts on both sides, the Foreign Office was particularly responsible. It had overcome the interference of Chamberlain and other "uniformed amateurs" to forge a rational policy for East Asia, where "there was no ... Munich" (p. 264). Furthermore, it had drawn U.S. officials into a useful relationship. This was informal and parallel, but from the Japanese perspective, the two policies appeared to be on the same track. This led the Japanese to strike at the United States in 1941, rather than merely pick at a weakened Britain. In the end, there was a "solid and unified Anglo-American relationship" that would prove "special" in the years to come (pp. 266-67).
In many ways, this work was a pleasure to read. Kennedy's writing is clear and engaging. He does make a powerful argument that the roots of the "special relationship" are to be found in East Asia. This flows from the rather logical assumption that this region was not off limits to American policymakers, as was Europe. Demonstrating a thorough knowledge of the respective bureaucracies and individual policymakers involved, he shows quite convincingly that they did build a relationship while dealing with the situation in East Asia during these years. He makes it clear that this involved figures from the highest levels of government, and stemmed from a conscious decision on their part to pursue a closer relationship. Kennedy is careful to nuance his thesis by acknowledging the limits of this effort, particularly as it involved American public sensibilities. In sum, Kennedy makes a fine argument and one that is well worth making. As he notes, there is a lack of scholarly work that addresses this vital area of Anglo-American relations. His work helps to fill this void.
Nevertheless, his work is incomplete in one regard. It fails to address the economic disputes and rivalries between the two powers--a matter that was hardly inconsequential. Even during the subsequent world war there was an underlying tension in the Anglo-American relationship concerning economic issues. In discussing improved Anglo-American relations and the development of a "special relationship," this area of disagreement must somehow be addressed. Yet time and again Kennedy skirts the issue. Obviously, it is not reasonable to expect him to write exhaustively on this facet of the relationship--this would require a separate volume. Moreover, many of the key economic disputes were outside the scope of East Asia. Still, this area of disagreement is far too significant to merit no attention, particularly when Kennedy himself calls attention to it. In one instance, he notes that British leaders had concluded at one point that "a trade agreement was a logical next step" (p. 222). In another, he reveals that in 1937 Lindsay had advised London that an economic initiative on the part of the British was the best approach for improving Anglo-American relations (pp. 227-28). Yet in both instances nothing further is mentioned of these ideas. Even if they produced nothing, Kennedy should explain why they did not or could not do so.
Economic disputes were the chief sticking points in the "special relationship." In avoiding them, Kennedy does not address the difficulties in this relationship. This reveals a second problem with his work. He seems to assume that the special relationship is an unquestioned historical tenet. In his introduction, in which he engages various historiographical issues, he never mentions any scholarly debate over this issue. This is a rather surprising omission, one that, unfortunately, suggests a simplistic and overly positive view of Anglo-American relations.
There is also the issue of the period this work addresses. As noted above, Kennedy is careful to explain why he chose the period of 1933 to 1939. Even though he makes a plausible case for his choice, there are problems with it. For one thing, in certain regards, good Anglo-American relations predated or transcended 1933. As Kennedy himself acknowledges, the U.S. and British navies had a "strong tradition of informal cooperation in the Far East" which predated 1933 (p. 18). In part, Kennedy claims that he chose 1933 because the Roosevelt administration provided continuity in policy. Yet the American Minister in China, Nelson T. Johnson, was working closely with the British before this and would continue to play a key role in American policy for years afterward (pp. 16-17, 102-3). Then, of course, there is the issue of the 1930 London Naval Conference, at which the British and Americans reached an agreement. Why does this merit no attention in this process of improving relations? In sum, it might be somewhat rigid to use 1933 as the starting date and, unfortunately, Kennedy seems, at times, to be rigidly committed to it. He makes no mention of the failed 1927 and more successful 1930 naval talks, save for one comment that the 1935-36 talks had "led to the elimination of the naval rivalry that had plagued the two nations for almost nine years" (pp. 201-202). At the very least, he should offer some substance if for nothing else than background. Ideally, he should explain why these were not part of the process in improving Anglo-American relations.
Finally, there is his treatment of what he refers to as "personality." Kennedy dismisses as too simplistic labels such as "anti-American," "pro-American," "anti-British," and "pro-British" (p. 6). Rather, he calls for a more sophisticated understanding of the personal feelings at work, as expressed in the "mental maps" developed by individuals on both sides. This suggestion has merit, yet Kennedy treats his actors as completely rational beings, making decisions based solely on realistic assessments of the international situation. This is particularly evident regarding Anglo-American perceptions of the Japanese. In his concluding chapter, he argues that the Foreign Office, which was "in command" of making British East Asian policy, did not make its decisions on the basis of racial or national stereotypes. Rather, it made them on the basis of the "strategic realities" in East Asia (p. 264). In his introduction, he asserts that British and American policymakers accurately gauged the capabilities of the Japanese to wage war. The notion that they dismissed these capabilities because of racial prejudice "does not bear the test of empirical evidence" (p. 10). In sum, Kennedy gives the impression that British and American policymakers assessed the Japanese solely on the basis of realistic calculations. Yet this contravenes much available scholarship. Perhaps Kennedy is wise in cautioning against placing too much credence in personality; however, he also appears to be too dismissive of it.
In conclusion, Greg Kennedy has produced a well-written, well-researched work with a powerful argument. Despite its limitations, it fills a notable need in the historiography of Anglo-American relations. It offers much to historians interested in Anglo-American relations and is well worth reading.
. This is particularly evident in chapter 6, where on pages 222, 225, 228, 229, and 232, obvious opportunities for discussing the economic facets of this relationship present themselves, yet pass without comment.
. For example, see the recent review, Christopher A. Preble, "Review of Antony Best, British Intelligence and the Japanese Challenge in Asia, 1914-1941," H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews, February, 2003. URL: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=175171048835717.
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Erik Benson. Review of Kennedy, Greg, Anglo-American Strategic Relations and the Far East, 1933-1939.
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