[After a mild start, it ended up being a long, cold, very wintry winter. But all winters end, metaphorically as well as seasonally, and in this week’s series I’ll be AmericanStudying a few cultural and historical such American thaws—leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on what Spring means to you in literature, culture, history, and more!]
On how a longstanding animosity began to change, and why the specifics matter.
Thanks to popular cultural texts from Paul Revere’s ride to Mel Gibson’s Revolution, it seems to me that even the most history-phobic Americans are likely to have a sense that our nation began through hostile conflict with the British. Thanks to a burning White House and a flag that was still there, many Americans might even know that we fought another significant war with the same British foe only a few decades after the Revolution. And the animosity between the new United States and its former colonial mother country didn’t end with the War of 1812—from the anti-European import of the Monroe Doctrine to border disputes between the two countries in Maine and Oregon, and through the extended British flirtations with allying with the Confederacy during the Civil War, the 19th century was marked by consistent diplomatic chilliness punctuated by occasional wintry storms.
Yet by the mid-20th century, of course, the two nations were staunch allies, fighting together in the two World Wars (yes, the US began each war officially neutral, but in each case we were aiding the UK’s cause long before we militarily joined it) and subsequently enjoying a so-called “special relationship” that has continued to this day. The late 19th and early 20th century shift that led to this new and enduring relationship has been studied by historians of both nations for many years, and has come to be known as The Great Rapprochement (a term perhaps first coined by historian Bradford Perkins in his 1968 book of the same name). As the many cartoons, lithographs, and other primary documents collected at this site illustrate, the shift was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic while it was happening, and was folded into many other narratives of the two nations’ expanding turn of the century identities, concurrent imperialistic ventures, and other social and cultural trends.
There was no single factor in that multi-decade rapprochement, but I would argue that tying it to those imperialistic endeavors is of particular importance. The first test of the two nations’ newfound friendship, after all, came during the Spanish American War; most European nations sided with their fellow colonial power, but England opted for their new ally, a choice that certainly contributed to the eventual American triumph in that conflict. Perhaps as a quid pro quo, and perhaps as just another reflection of the new relationship, the U.S. likewise sided with the U.K. during the bloody and controversial Second Boer War. It’s tempting, and not I would argue inaccurate, to tie these turn of the 20th century imperial alliances to the two nations’ leading roles in the early 21st century Iraq War, as well as the effects of both British and American influences on and presences in a nation like Afghanistan. But even leaving such contemporary connections aside, the role that imperialism played in bringing together the US and the UK is hugely telling of how the nations moved together into their 20th century and ongoing identities and roles.
Next thaw tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other thaws you’d highlight?