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Just how special was the ‘special relationship’ in the Second World War? (Part 1, 1939–41)

Soldiers of the German navy on the deck of a U-boat, 7 December 1939. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

The US and the UK have often been said to have a special relationship because of the economic, political, military and cultural links which have developed over nearly four hundred years of shared history. America had been Britain’s ally in the First World War and had provided vital economic and financial aid after the war. However the US had become increasingly isolationist during the 1920s and 1930s, refusing to be drawn into any conflicts around the world that did not directly affect or threaten it.

During the 1930s, the US Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts that restricted how much assistance Americans could give to ‘belligerents’ (countries involved in wars). The Neutrality Act of 1935 prohibited arms and ammunition being exported to these countries. This was extended in 1937 to ban US ships from transporting weapons even if they were made elsewhere. However, the President could allow countries to buy and carry away materials provided they weren’t manufactured weapons. This policy was known as ‘Cash and Carry’ and was particularly beneficial to Britain and France in the lead-up to the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.

The Neutrality Act of November 1939 was fiercely debated between Roosevelt and members of Congress but eventually Roosevelt secured new terms for ‘Cash and Carry’ which allowed manufactured weapons to be bought and carried away in foreign ships. This particularly benefitted Britain after the invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium and France in May 1940 that left her fighting alone against Germany. But by December 1940 Churchill informed Roosevelt that Britain could no longer pay for war supplies and was dangerously short of ships due to the attacks by German submarines, or U-boats, in the Atlantic.

Churchill meeting Roosevelt, Atlantic Meeting, August 1941
(© Reproduced from the Baroness Spencer Churchill Papers with the permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London, on behalf of the Master, Fellows and Scholars of Churchill College, Cambridge. Original held at The Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge.)

Roosevelt responded by proposing ‘Lend-Lease’ which would allow Britain and other countries fighting against Germany and the Axis Powers of Italy and Japan, to borrow the equipment and food they needed without having to worry about how they’d pay. The US Congress agreed this in ‘An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States’ of 11 March 1941, better known as the Lend-Lease Act.

In August 1941 Britain and the US published ‘The Atlantic Charter’ as a statement of shared war aims. It clearly stated that they’d work for a world where each group of people could freely choose their government and live according to the principles of liberty. It also said that there must be free trade across all seas and oceans and no restrictions on which countries could trade with which. This was a direct reference to some of the restrictive trading practices of the British Empire before the Second World War. Churchill had to agree to the charter to ensure the US would continue to supply the weapons and food that Britain needed in ever-increasing amounts. From the summer of 1941 Britain had to share the shipments from the US with her new ally, the USSR, after Germany had launched an invasion in June.

However, despite increasing quantities of weapons being sent, Churchill remained deeply unhappy about America’s refusal to enter the war as a belligerent. He was worried about the USSR’s ability to resist the rapid German advance and feared that, by January 1942, Britain would again be left fighting alone.

As it was, events in the Pacific would change the relationship between Britain and the US once again, when Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on 7 December 1941. The US responded the next day by declaring war on Japan and by 11 December she was also at war with Germany and Italy. On hearing the news about Pearl Harbor, Churchill immediately contacted Roosevelt and arranged to travel to Washington. One story goes that Roosevelt was wheeled into Churchill’s suite in Washington, only to find the Prime Minister emerging from his bath stark naked! Roosevelt started to withdraw but Churchill called him back. ‘The Prime Minister of Great Britain’, he announced, ‘has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States’. We don’t know for sure if this story is true but it makes us think about the relationship between the two men and the two countries. Is this really how it was?

The US Navy battleship, ‘USS California’, slowly sinking as a result of bomb and torpedo damage following the attack on Pearl Harbor. (US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons)

➜ Investigation page

➜ The sources

➜ Notes for teachers

Find out more

The ‘Special Relationship’ between Great Britain and the United States Began with FDR
The Birth of the Anglo-American 'Special Relationship' – David Woolner
The Century of the 'Special Relationship': Britain and America in the Age of Churchill – David Woolner
Teaching With Documents: Documents Related to Churchill and FDR
What If Franklin D. Roosevelt Had Disliked Churchill?
British Pathe: Search Results for “Churchill AND Roosevelt”