What has America ever done for us?

Was the US really at Britain's side at her moments of greatest national need - the Second World War,

Woman's Hour recently asked children what they knew about the coming war with Iraq. A five-year-old girl said: "It's because America helped us, so now we're helping them back." The belief that the US saved Britain (or Europe, or the world) from military and economic disaster, and that we have a special relationship, is the main reason our young servicemen and servicewomen will soon be called upon to die in Iraq. For the first four years of his premiership, Tony Blair did not think it necessary to attack Saddam Hussein. The matter became urgent only when President George Bush said it was.

But what (as John Cleese might put it) has America ever done for us? The record since 1918 - which is when the authors of 1066 and All That date the US's emergence as Top Nation - shows that the servile attitude often adopted towards it has never stopped the United States from sacrificing Britain, or anyone else, to its own interests and prejudices.

It is true, for example, that President Woodrow Wilson's was the most powerful voice calling for the creation of a League of Nations in 1919, to prevent war and bring rogue states to heel. But this altruistic idea was somewhat tarnished when the US crippled the league from birth by refusing to join it. After the League of Nations, based in Geneva, had failed to prevent the Second World War, the United Nations, created for the same task in 1945, was sited in New York. Europe's leaders thought this gave them a better chance of keeping the Americans on board. The US stayed in - but for years, until 11 September, refused to pay its dues.

In 1931, the Labour government needed a loan. The only possible source was a US bank, which refused unless unemployment pay was cut by 10 per cent. It was quite specific about this: another equivalent saving would not do. American banks are not fans of unemployment pay. The Labour government fell.

The US entered the Second World War only in 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The ultimate victory owed as much to the Soviet Union as to the US. When Britain was in greatest danger, in the summer of 1940, the US declined to intervene. In that year, the US agreed to let Britain have American military equipment and defer payment for it. This is often held up as a generous gesture. It did not seem like that to the foreign secretary at the time, Anthony Eden, who wrote in his memoirs that Winston Churchill asked for the loan of 50 or 60 destroyers. "The negotiations did not go smoothly," Eden recalled, "nor did I altogether approve of the details of the final settlement. At one time the suggestion was put forward in Washington that the entire British West Indies should be handed over for the cancellation of our war debts. I thought this less than friendly bargaining. At another, the destroyers were to be exchanged for a public assurance that the British fleet would sail to North American waters if Hitler gained control of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister rightly protested that such an announcement would have a 'disastrous effect' on British morale. The West Indian bases alone were certainly worth more than 50 or 60 old destroyers . . . Our desperate straits alone could justify its terms."

In March 1941, Congress agreed lend-lease, by which the US supplied war materials to Britain without expecting upfront payment. Churchill at the time called it "the most un-sordid act in the history of any nation", but Eden noted: "Later the same month documents handing over bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda and the West Indies were signed." The historian Robert Skidelsky, in his biography of John Maynard Keynes, argues that lend-lease was the instrument of an economic war which crippled Britain as an exporting country.

The withdrawal of lend-lease in 1945 was timed and handled in such a way as to destroy, at a stroke, the ability of Britain's war-torn economy to feed her people. The decision that Britain must pay on the nail for everything supplied by the US was taken so quickly and unexpectedly that two ships about to leave New York had to turn around and go home. Clement Attlee, by then the prime minister, drily reminded parliament that the US had expanded its exports while Britain was being bombed. If the roles had been reversed, "we should, of course, be in an immeasurably stronger position than we are today". Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, wrote furiously: "When the PM made his statement in the House on lend-lease, we were met with headlines in the US calling us 'cry-babies'."

Attlee had to borrow money, and only the US was in a position to lend it. He sent Keynes to Washington, expecting to get a loan on friendly terms. He was to be cruelly disillusioned; Keynes found Washington interested only in using Britain's plight to increase America's already huge economic and geopolitical power. The US secretary of state, James F Byrnes, presented Bevin with a list of places around the world where the US would like to have bases, implying that the loan depended on Britain's agreement.

After months of negotiation, Keynes returned, not with the $5bn Britain needed, but with $3.5bn on harsh interest terms. Crucially, he had to agree that, within a year of the loan being granted, Britain must make sterling convertible to dollars on demand. This was certain to lead to a run on the pound and a further economic crisis, which it duly did two years later. The terms made Britain a permanent economic vassal to the US, and set the tone for the relationship between the two countries that still exists. Even so, congressional approval was nearly denied, with the Republicans arguing that America should not lend money to a country that had had the effrontery to elect a socialist government.

Meanwhile the US produced another nasty surprise. During the war, Britain had shared her advanced nuclear research on the understanding that US scientists would in return share further developments. Attlee's intention was that the secrets should be handed over to the UN. To his horror, the US dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without consulting Britain, and then refused to hand over any research, to either the UN or Britain. Bevin won the government round to the huge and unsupportable expenditure required to develop an independent nuclear bomb with a revealing argument: "I don't want any other foreign secretary of this country to be talked at by a secretary of state in the US as I have just had in my discussions with Mr Byrnes." Byrnes no doubt echoed Stalin, who once asked: "The Pope? How many divisions has he got?"

Britain contributed troops to America's war in Korea, but the Americans made it plain that this did not buy Britain a veto over the use of the atomic bomb there, nor over the launch of a full-scale war in China to overthrow the communists. It did buy Attlee an interview with President Harry Truman to advise against these things. But the price even of that escalated: Britain was forced into a far bigger rearmament programme than she could afford.

If the loan defined our economic relationship, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez in 1956 defined the political consequences. Anthony Eden, by then prime minister, had not grasped the reality the loan had created, which was that Britain could not go to war with anyone without explicit permission from the US. President Eisenhower refused permission because he derided what he called an "almost childlike faith" in Anglo-American co-operation to solve the world's problems.

Yet a decade later, the US government demanded British soldiers in Vietnam. Fortunately, Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, had (unlike the present one) both a sense of history and a desire to hold his party together. He somehow managed to convince President Lyndon B Johnson that declining to condemn the bombings, the napalm, and the burning of villages was the best he could deliver.

Margaret Thatcher was President Ronald Reagan's ideological soulmate. She of all people might have expected to call on the "special relationship" to British advantage. And Britain indeed received important US logistic and equipment back-up in the Falklands war. Yet as John Nott, then the defence secretary, records in his autobiography, the US State Department did not want the Argentinian dictator General Galtieri to fall: it saw him as a bulwark against communism. At the time that the British were about to reoccupy the uninhabited outcrop of South Georgia, Nott suspected the US State Department of leaking information to Buenos Aires, risking British lives. "It is a frightening thing," wrote Nott, "that our greatest ally is not wholly on our side." The State Department also tried to deny aviation fuel at the US airbase on the British-owned Ascension Island to Vulcan bombers, which were on their way to attack the runway at Port Stanley - "an intolerable and disgraceful episode", wrote Nott. By contrast, the French - so maligned in the current crisis - gave technical information on Exocet missiles they had sold to Argentina, and supplied aircraft, which they had also sold, for British pilots to practise against. "In so many ways," wrote Nott, a diehard Eurosceptic, "Mitterrand and the French were our greatest allies." Even Thatcher, according to Nott's account, was left fulminating against US "ingratitude".

Later, when the US invaded Grenada, a member of the Commonwealth in which the Queen was still head of state, Thatcher did not merit so much as a telephone call. Only the day before the invasion, the foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe assured the Commons, truthfully, that he had no knowledge of any US plan. "Now," Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, "he and I would have to explain how it had happened that a member of the Commonwealth had been invaded by our closest ally."

When Reagan wished to launch missiles at Libya from British soil, Britain said yes. When George Bush Sr invaded Panama, Britain said how splendid. Bush Sr thought Germany was a more important ally, though Britain got back into favour by sending troops to the first Gulf war. When Bush's successor, Bill Clinton, sat in the Oval Office waiting for his first meeting with John Major, then prime minister, an aide reminded him to mention the special relationship. "Oh, yes," said Clinton. "The special relationship. How could I forget?" And, recalls the ex-ambassador to Britain Raymond Seitz, he burst out laughing. Type "special relationship" into any net search engine and you'll find that the US has one with lots of states: Croatia, Panama, the Philippines, Israel.

Anyone who grows used to instant obedience starts to believe in his own infallibility. That applies to nations, too. The Bush administration is the final corruption of an imperial nation convinced that its destiny is to rule. It speaks to the worst instincts of a humane and generous nation. Its reaction to anyone who questions its authority is the baffled fury and vengefulness of the bully.

The US chat show host David Letterman has observed that there's a new bumper sticker on American cars: "First Iraq, then France". France seems hearteningly inclined to wear the jibe "old Europe" as a badge of honour, much as some Labour Party people proudly call themselves "old Labour".

A US businessman who sends me a regular e-mail joke bulletin spices it with some of the darkest political comment I've seen. The latest one quotes what he says is a genuine letter from a marine based in Bosnia with the multinational force. The marine had met a French soldier who said France would not support war in Iraq. "I told him that since we had come to France's rescue in the First World War, the Second World War, Vietnam and the cold war, their ingratitude and jealousy were due to surface anyway. I also told him that is why France is a third-rate military power with a socialist economy and a bunch of pansies for soldiers. I told him if he would like to, I would meet him outside in front of Burger King and whip his ass in front of the entire multinational brigade."

The letter was signed: "Your loving daughter, Mary Beth Johnson, Lt Col". If Mary Beth represents the new spirit of America, that is partly the fault of toadies like Tony Blair.