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Britain and America after World War II

Bilateral Relations and the Beginnings of the Cold War


Richard Wevill


London: I.B. Tauris, 2012

Hardcover. viii+293 p. ISBN 978-1848859807. £59.50


Reviewed by Kathleen Burk

University College London



There is no lack of books on the immediate post-war period and there are a significant number of books on Anglo-American relations. Does this one add to our knowledge and understanding? On the one hand, yes: there are fewer than might have been imagined on the relationship of the British embassy in Washington with both the US government and London, and this one deals with four important topics, the Financial Agreement, atomic collaboration, Palestine, and the Marshall Plan. The author comes up with occasional points of interest, focusing on who influenced whom when. On the other hand, not as much as might have been expected: on the whole, the embassy behaved as embassies are supposed to behave, although his discoveries can have some piquancy.

As it happens, the first chapter, which is on the embassy, the ambassador, and the political environment, is probably the most interesting. There is even a chart which sets out the structure of the embassy in mid-1946 that conveys the complexity of the organisation. He also considers the lives and their times of the two relevant ambassadors, the Lords Halifax and Inverchapel. The material about the structure is probably not widely known, and here Dr Wevill joins the still small but growing ranks of British historians who are devoting themselves to letting in light on the subject. Given the importance of the embassy’s relationship with official Washington, his work is very helpful.

With regard to the policy chapters, there are details which are new and interesting, but few surprises to those who know their way around the subjects. And here is a major question: for whom was the book written? In certain areas, it might be for beginners:

Traditionally, at least in Constitutional terms, it is the Cabinet, acting through Parliament, which determines Britain’s policies. … The execution of foreign policy, i.e. turning it from a policy desire into action, is dependent upon a number of factors. One of these factors is negotiations with one or more governments. These negotiations are often carried out by diplomats and other officials. … [A] government is likely to maximise its chances of success by tailoring the presentation of its case to the prevailing climate of the time. The information needed to do this is often provided by the British embassy in the foreign country concerned. An embassy, then, can play a significant part in the implementation of foreign policy’. [54]


Representation was a key part of the Washington embassy’s activities. It was a crucial role and formed an important part of Britain’s foreign policy making process particularly with regard to its Anglo-American policy. The embassy was effective because it identified and developed relationships with key people, something which was only really possible by having a permanent presence on the ground. [226]

It is almost as though he is defending the embassy from the attacks of a Parliamentary select committee.

There is also the problem of the author being captured by his subjects: ‘One of the objectives of diplomacy is to seek to influence policy formation in the host country. In the case of America, this was most often achieved by communicating with members of the State Department, people with whom contacts had been built up over the years.’ But then he makes the point that the embassy had erred by not realising the importance of a member of the Administration who worked in the White House, excusing them by saying that ‘it is difficult to blame the embassy for clinging to a structure that had served it well for many years.’ [173] But of course one can, and the author concedes the point by quoting Nicholas Henderson, the very successful ambassador during the Falklands War in 1982:

All one can say with certainty is that the power is divided between the Congress and the Administration; and that within the Administration itself the decision-making process is diffused between the White House and the State Department…a diplomat in Washington will not carry out his duties satisfactorily if he focuses too much of his time and attention on confidential meetings with the State Department. [173]

In this case, the author was too kind to his actors.

Dr Wevill writes very well. His analysis is painstaking, which perhaps contributes to the occasional feeling that he underrates the knowledge of his reader. In all of the chapters, he makes interesting points that those concerned with the relevant topics will find useful in constructing a picture of events. This leads him, for example, to devote quite a lot of space to arguing that it was the embassy, not the BBC, who first alerted Foreign Secretary Bevin to the importance of Secretary Marshall’s speech on the eponymous Plan. Interestingly, some of his most useful information and analyses can be found in the references at the back of the book rather than in the text itself. (Note: Sir Nicholas Henderson, who is quoted in the text, does not have a slot in the Index.)

Overall, Dr Wevill’s conclusion is straightforward: yes, Her Majesty’s Government does consult the embassy, and when they do not, trouble results.


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