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16 March 2021

From the NS archive: Mr MacDonald in America

26 October 1929: The Prime Minister crosses the Atlantic in the cause of the special relationship.

By Sisley Huddleston

In late 1929, Britain’s first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, took the hitherto unprecedented step of sailing to America. His aim was to discuss a naval treaty between the two nations – the London Naval Treaty, signed in 1930 – but also to cement relations in the postwar era. This informal goal was, thought this magazine’s man in the US, Sisley Huddleston, the great prize and the great accomplishment of the PM. “Blood is thicker than all the water of the Atlantic” and the countries’ natural affinity, born of language, history and the high proportion of British descendants in the US, was both real and of a strength that “it is impossible to suppose that any cause could now set them again at war with each other”. According to Huddleston, “It has become fashionable to deny the Anglo-Saxonism of the United States. But it is, nevertheless, a solid fact.” What he sensed was “a universal desire to re-affirm by unmistakable signs the fellowship of the English-speaking lands”.

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New York: 16 October.  

Doubtless the details of the diplomatic mission of Mr Ramsay MacDonald in the United States have been cabled at great length; but it is, as I think, still highly desirable to emphasise the general effect of the Prime Minister’s remarkable voyage. Nothing short of a revolution in Anglo-American relations is in process; and it is probable that, in the retrospect, we shall plainly see that this visit marked a special date in the calendar of the world.

My own impressions of America at this time are shot through and through by the colour of a new friendliness. But it is a natural friendliness, not an artificial diplomatic friendliness with ulterior designs. I have spoken to many men of all classes and of very different habits of thought, and invariably I have been struck by their fresh appreciation of the unity of British and American interests. This does not mean that England and the United States resemble each other in manner or in particular purpose; they have ideals and methods that are at variance. But they are capable of respecting and understanding each other as are no other nations.

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They both pride themselves on their practicality, their common sense. They both like frankness and straight dealing. Though they indulge sincerely in sentiment, they never seek to use sentiment to dishonest ends; and indeed they grow suspicious of those who protest their affection too much. The attitude of the United States towards the European nations is sympathetic enough; but the real American becomes rather dubious when he is treated to eloquent effusions; he wonders what kind of deal is being “put across”. Happily, the English are not likely to make the mistake of slobbering over the United States – of recalling their Lafayettes and their Rochambeaus. There has always seemed to me to be something perfidious in repeating, in season and out of season, that America was helped in its fight for freedom by the French, and that England was therefore the common enemy; it happened to be good policy for the French to embarrass the British, but why, on every possible occasion, bring up this eighteenth-century Anglo-French feud? The British were beaten in their efforts to keep North America as a colony; but blood is thicker than all the water of the Atlantic; and British, beaten by British, owe no grudges.

They have clasped hands, and it is impossible to suppose that any cause could now set them again at war with each other. It has been my privilege to be present at the receptions of Ramsay MacDonald in the United States; and truly I am convinced of the comradeship of our two countries in a still troubled world. The enthusiasm was unbounded; never have I seen it equalled. Nobody really cared very much about naval parity; everybody was thinking in far more vital terms. What does it matter to England whether the United States has more ships than England? It may matter a little to the United States that England should not be superior in sea-power; for sea-power is a new thing for the United States, and equality with Great Britain is a great historic stage in its progress. But though there are discussions about tonnage, it is chiefly with the wider implications of an accord that both countries are concerned.

There is a universal desire to re-affirm by unmistakable signs the fellowship of the English-speaking lands. It has become fashionable to deny the Anglo-Saxonism of the United States. But it is, nevertheless, a solid fact. The new immigration quotas based on natural origins have just gone into operation. The figures which I have before me, are illuminating. The legislators wished to distribute an annual immigration allowance of 150,000 in such proportions as would represent in miniature the actual make-up of the United States after years of unregulated or badly regulated growth. Certainly, the ratio of British stock has been reduced: but by a long way Great Britain leads. The quota for Great Britain (with Northern Ireland) is 65,721. The Irish Free State is, in addition, permitted to send 17,858. No other country can approach these quotas. Germany comes a poor second with 25,957. Nobody else reaches five figures. Italy has 5,802 immigrants, and Poland 6,524. France has 8,086, slightly under the Swedish total, and slightly over the Czechoslovakian total. I do not see how anybody can dispute the overwhelming Britishness of the United States in face of these figures, which are obtained after an estimation of the number of descendants of early colonists and later immigrants, as well as of immigrants themselves.

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The fluctuations of the language, the foreignness of the faces, may be conspicuously evident to an English-born observer in New York or in Chicago; but this slightly exotic quality, these divergences produced by the impact of many cultures, do not alter the fundamental basis of the American people. Basically, they are of our blood, and their intermarriages with other races, though certainly not negligible in their results, cannot weigh in the balance beside their origins.

It is foolish to ignore or to despise this truth, as we have done of recent years. MacDonald, addressing Hoover in a tongue which calls for no translation, brought back to us a clear conception of our half-forgotten or cheaply and paradoxically denied relationship. It is a relationship unique in the world. The folly of those who would arrange the world neatly and diagrammatically in continents lies in their substituting geography for humanity. M Briand, for example, asks for the United States of Europe. But what have European countries to do with each other simply as European countries? Has England closer spiritual affinities with (say) Bulgaria than with Canada? Does even France feel itself drawn nearer to its ally Poland, or Yugoslavia, than to Algeria? Name all the names of European countries, and ask yourself whether England is, by its mere Europeanism, more in unison with them than with its sons who are scattered over the seven seas. Are the British more attracted to France, for example, than to the United States? The question is absurd, but diplomatists, who are often wrongheaded, have not only in recent years put the question, but answered it most grievously and erroneously.

[see also: From the NS archive: Marshall Plan report]

These reflections I have heard all around me: and I endorse them. The far-reaching character of the MacDonald mission is felt by the man in the street, who is usually uninterested in politics. With a curious instinct he knows, better than the politicians, that MacDonald did not come primarily to talk of cruisers or of submarines. The narrow and the immediate subject of negotiations is outpassed by the causes and consequences of the conversations. In 1904 the reaching of an agreement between France and England on Morocco and Egypt and other places was nothing to the real purport of the Entente Cordiale. In 1929 the reaching of an agreement between Great Britain and the United States on battleships is as nothing to the real meaning of an Anglo-American understanding. For before England and the United States could agree, it was necessary that they should persuade each other that in no circumstances could they ever seriously quarrel. That preliminary belief, operating in every domain, is of infinitely greater moment than the logical outcome of the belief in the single naval domain.

Most of our problems are tackled in the wrong way: and the utter failure of disarmament discussions since the war is due to our absence of confidence in each other. How childish is the very idea of disarmament – except as the outcome of confidence! Yet we hammer away at disarmament, when it is confidence that must come first. England and America have been wise enough to know that confidence does not come of an agreement on arms, but an agreement on arms comes of confidence. And therefore the stress should be laid not on the precise accord, but on the feeling which made it possible.

It is obviously a good thing in itself to abolish the outward signs of mistrust; but the initial banishing of mistrust is of incomparably greater worth. The French, who are subtle in diplomacy, are not blind to the chances of what they call a virtual Anglo-American alliance. They see that to the United States and to Great Britain there should be added Canada, source of vast potential riches, and Australia, and all the British Dominions; and they see that the unity of the English-speaking peoples, however elastic it may be, is far easier to bring about (indeed it must, in some measure, exist) than any union of Slavs or of Latins or of Europeans, and they see that Anglo-Saxonism may become by far the greatest power in the world. That is why it will be difficult to convert a two-power naval agreement into a five-power naval agreement.

If the accord is wrecked, will not Anglo-American unity be wrecked with it? The reply is that neither England nor America should permit itself to be outmanoeuvred on this comparatively trivial ground; they should make it plain that, come what will, their accord, as between themselves, stands and is not dependent on its acceptance by a third party. But the reply also is that, if there is the smallest attempt to range up forces against an Anglo-American naval understanding, the two countries will strengthen their bonds in every other respect, and will cooperate still more in defiance of the petty tactics of separation.

The European nations run no risk whatever of Anglo-American hegemony. British policy cannot be aggressive; it is reduced, having regard to the immensity and the extent of its interests, to a conservative role. As for the policy of the United States, it is absurd to imagine that the profound tradition of non-intervention in Europe (a tradition broken by the war but quickly repaired) will be rejected. I have not been long in the United States, but I feel I can already assert that this unprecedented visit of the Prime Minister is doubtless destined to change the whole current of political thought. Snowden began the reaction against Chamberlainism at The Hague; but his work was, while necessary and invaluable, largely negative, MacDonald has taken the second step at Washington, and that second step is positive. We have got clean away from the miserable confusions and entanglements of these later years, and the orientation of diplomacy is entirely changed.  

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)