Despite rough beginnings between our two nations, the Americans and Brits have patched things up. This allegiance is dubbed the “Special Relationship”. While the term technically refers to the nations themselves, it can also be used to refer to relationships between leaders.
Some Presidents and Prime Ministers have been good friends. Others have hated one another. Some are strong allies whilst others bear it through gritted teeth. Starting from FDR and Churchill, let’s look at that special relationship…
Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat)
Winston Churchill (Conservative): In many ways, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had a lot in common. They were both from old, aristocratic families and grew up in luxury. They both lost their fathers as they were on the cusp of manhood. Churchill had four daughters and one son. Roosevelt had five sons and one daughter. Their political lives strained their marriages.
The two were also seventh cousins through Churchill’s American mother.
They were also exceedingly different politically. Churchill was a product of Victorian Britain, an imperialist and conservative. Roosevelt was an anti-imperialist with a left wing streak.
WW2 necessitated strong allegiances between the nations, and this is something Roosevelt and Churchill took to heart. They enjoyed a good friendship and worked well together, even before America officially joined the war. Roosevelt had wanted to help Britain, but felt constrained by America’s isolationism.
Despite the stresses of war, the two were relaxed and friendly to one another. Churchill spent Christmas at the White House in 1941 and would become the first British PM to speak before Congress. They would drink and smoke together into the late hours.
They differentiated on some issues. Churchill deeply distrusted Russia’s Joseph Stalin, whilst the cherry Roosevelt attempted to befriend him. They also disagreed on what would happen after the war, invading France and seizing Berlin among other things. Personal friendship did not mean that they did not disagree.
FDR died suddenly on the 12th April 1945. Churchill was devastated and eulogised his ‘dear friend’ in the Commons. Whilst the war prevented him from attending Roosevelt’s funeral, Churchill would visit the grave, spending several hours there.
Harry S. Truman (Democrat)
Winston Churchill (Conservative): Harry S. Truman, a plain speaking man from rural Missouri, was rather different to his predecessor. His relationship with Churchill, however, was similarly positive. Churchill once even lost a large amount of money gambling with Truman and his friends late into the night. Seeing as Truman had little to know knowledge of proceedings as Vice President, it was smart of him to get in with Churchill. He was, nevertheless, a very well read man with an encyclopedic knowledge of history. This impressed Churchill. Churchill supported Truman in return. They worked well together at Potsdam.
Whilst Churchill was booted out of office in July 1945, he was re-elected in 1951. This gave him some time to work with Truman again. In 1946, whilst out of office, Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, and was introduced by Truman.
Clement Attlee (Labour): Whilst Clement Attlee was not aristocratic like Churchill, he’d nevertheless come from a respectable family and was well-educated. He’d happened to be in the US when Roosevelt died, which saw him meet Truman when the latter had just become president.
Whilst the two were friendly, the relationship was not a close one. They cooperated well.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican)
Winston Churchill (Conservative): In his capacity as a WWII General in the European theatre, Eisenhower had met Churchill on several occasions. They were not necessarily close, however. Eisenhower was dismissive of an aging Churchill, though he generally hid this. He despised Churchill’s imperialist notions. In return, Churchill thought of Eisenhower as a “ventriloquist’s doll”.
The biggest incident occurred when Churchill attempted to organise a meeting between Stalin and Eisenhower. Eisenhower had a deep, seething hatred of Stalin, Russia and communism. Even one of his last letters to Churchill discussed the matter. He was extremely angry at Churchill and their political relationship ended on a sour note.
Out of office, Churchill attempted to talk Eisenhower down during the Suez Crisis, but failed. In 1959, Churchill was a guest of Eisenhower. Age had clearly changed him, causing Eisenhower to say to daughter-in-law Barbara “I only wish you had known him in his prime”. A trip to Gettysburg, however, reignited Churchill’s passion.
Eisenhower was a guest at Churchill’s elaborate 1965 funeral. The old general would die four years later.
Anthony Eden (Conservative): The relationship between Eisenhower and Anthony Eden occurred during a low point in the alliance. They’d met before, as Eden had been prominent during WW2.
That low point was the Suez Crisis. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal after years of it being controlled by the French and British. Angered, the French and British worked with Israel to invade. This greatly angered Eisenhower, who thought it was a stupid exercise and took away the threat from his enemy Russia. He, along with Russia and the UN, condemned the activities. Eisenhower eventually pulled financial support. This caused the invasion to collapse.
Eden resigned two months later due to ill health.
Harold Macmillan (Conservative): Eisenhower got on with Harold Macmillan. Macmillan had endeavored to repair the broken relationship and was broadly successful. The two maintained a correspondence throughout their shared leadership and regularly wrote to one another. Eisenhower did, however, meddle in foreign relations when Russia was involved.
John F. Kennedy (Democrat)
Harold Macmillan (Conservative): Harold Macmillan and John F. Kennedy enjoyed a close relationship. Kennedy’s late sister Kathleen had married Dorothy Macmillan’s nephew William, making them sort of related. Kennedy would call Macmillan “Uncle Harold”. Harold, twenty-three years older than Kennedy, took on a mentor role towards the American President.
One issue that occurred during their shared leadership was the so-called ‘Skybolt Crisis.’ The Skybolt was a missile system designed to defend Britain. America started getting nervous about it, especially when it proved to be failing. They pulled out without warning. Macmillan was angered. Things got worse when a former Secretary of State attacked Britain, accusing it of being a second-rate power. Macmillan angrily rebuked him. The matter was settled. The relationship between Kennedy and Macmillan remained strong.
Alec Douglas-Home (Conservative): There was only one month when both Alec Douglas-Home and Kennedy were in charge. They’d met previously when Douglas-Home was Foreign Secretary. A promising friendship was cut short by Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Douglas-Home was upset by the death. He and his wife Elizabeth were among the delegates to the funeral.
Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat)
Alec Douglas-Home (Conservative): Lyndon B. Johnson was a notoriously difficult man and Douglas-Home soon learned that. Britain ignored Johnson’s wishes for an embargo on Cuba by selling buses.
Harold Wilson (Labour): Harold Wilson also displeased Johnson with his foreign policy. Johnson arrogantly expected that Britain would help America in Vietnam by providing troops. Wilson had tried to mediate in the conflict, which angered Johnson. He also refused to commit regular troops to the nation.
Richard Nixon (Republican)
Harold Wilson (Labour): Harold Wilson and Richard Nixon seemed to get on well enough. Upon the death of Pat Nixon in 1993, Wilson sent a letter of condolence to Nixon, who replied with a thank you. Wilson also praised Nixon and defended him after Watergate.
Edward ‘Ted’ Heath (Conservative): The relationship between Nixon and Ted Heath was not a positive one. Avowed Europhile Heath focused more on relations with Europe and the new European Economic Community. Meanwhile, Nixon and Henry Kissinger dominated the diplomatic scene. Nixon was not a fan of British entry to the EU and apparently worked behind the scenes to stop it. Heath did, however, attend Nixon’s funeral as a representative of the British government.
Gerald Ford (Republican)
Harold Wilson (Labour): Harold Wilson and Gerald Ford’s personal relationship is fairly unknown. The crisis in Cyprus, however, showed differences between the goals of both nations. In 1974, a Greek-backed coup installed a nationalist named Nico Sampson as the new leader. Turkey responded with its own invasion. Britain was obligated to be involved, as agreed upon by the 1960 Zurich Accords. America didn’t want any decisions made without its intervention, this led to disagreements. Wilson resigned in 1976 due to health problems.
James Callaghan (Labour): James Callaghan and Gerald Ford were both appointed leaders as opposed to being elected. Both would eventually lose a general election. The two bonded and became genuine friends, even after both had left office. In 1976, America celebrated its bicentennial. American representatives arrived in Westminster to enjoy celebrations. Queen Elizabeth II was treated to a state visit in July of that year. Callaghan would also undertake two personal visits to the US during his administration.
Jimmy Carter (Democrat):
James Callaghan (Labour): Callaghan and Jimmy Carter also got along, though Callaghan was closer to Ford. Carter telephoned Callaghan before his inauguration and they had a long chat. The two prayed together at another event. When in the U.K, Carter visited the northern city of Newcastle. Both also bonded over being ex-Navy.
Margaret Thatcher (Conservative): Jimmy Carter and Margaret Thatcher were two very different people with different ideologies. They met in 1977, before Thatcher was PM, but did not get along even then. Thatcher thought Carter woefully naive whilst Carter was cold in return. They did have some moments of unity, such as their tough stances on Russia, as well as Thatcher’s sympathy for Carter during the Iranian Hostage crisis. When necessarily, they worked well together.
Ronald Reagan (Republican)
Margaret Thatcher (Conservative): The Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher is probably the closest the leaders of the respective nations. Both were ideologically compatible and represented a conservative renaissance in their nations. They were polar opposites in many respects- Thatcher was an Oxford-educated woman, aloof, combative and not interested in making nice. Reagan was not particularly academic, but was charismatic, cheerful and liked making friends.
Issues did arise, such as when America invaded Grenada and delayed supporting Britain during the Falkland Crisis. Thatcher was not afraid to shoot Reagan down, but he was always impressed by her. They worked well with Mokhail Gorbachev as the end of the Cold War loomed.
Reagan died in 2004. Due to Thatcher’s failing health, she had prerecorded a eulogy to be played. Despite doctors’ advice, Thatcher flew to America for the funeral. She also flew to California with the Reagan family and was invited to his internment. When Thatcher died, Nancy Reagan was too ill to go and was said to be heartbroken that she couldn’t. A representative of the family was invited.
George H. W. Bush (Republican)
Margaret Thatcher (Conservative): Whilst Thatcher and George H.W. Bush were cordial to one another, they were not friends. Neither minced their words when annoyed at the other.
John Major (Conservative): John Major and George H.W Bush bonded over following popular, long-running leaders. The two got on personally and classed the other as a friend. Major attended Bush’s 2018 funeral.
Bill Clinton (Democrat)
John Major (Conservative): John Major and Bill Clinton were generally not on good terms. Whilst opposite personalities worked for some combos, they did not for these two. Major was a serious, dull man whilst Clinton was charismatic and happy. Two major crises affected the Special Relationship.
The first was Bosnia. America wanted to arm combatants, whilst Britain really did not want the embargo lifted. The US worked with other countries to vote for lifting the embargo, which angered the British immensely.
The second was Gerry Adams. Gerry Adams, former leader of Sinn Féin and prominent Irish republican, was granted a visa to visit the US. Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of JFK, was involved in this. The British classed Adams as a terrorist and were absolutely furious at Clinton for allowing this, especially as almost everyone else in the US government disagreed. Adams was received on St. Patrick’s Day 1995 as a ceasefire had been called, though the violence was not yet over.
Ultimately, it was a low point.
Tony Blair (Labour): Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were both proponents of the “Third Way” movement. They presented themselves as sensible centrists who were generally left-wing but had some conservative viewpoints. Both were also fairly young, especially compared to their predecessors. They got along very well personally, which helped in communications.
Disagreements did occur, such as over Kosovo. Clinton’s role in the Good Friday Agreement was fairly large for a third party, and Blair joined the former President at an event in 2023 to recognise 25 years.
George W. Bush (Republican)
Tony Blair (Labour): Despite their different ideologies, George W. Bush and Tony Blair enjoyed a very close relationship. Those different views did not matter when it came to foreign policy, which is something the pair saw eye-to-eye on. Blair became Bush’s closest ally after 9/11, having rushed to DC almost immediately after in support.
The Iraq War was unpopular with most countries, but Britain showed its strong support. It was one of three countries (the others being Poland and Australia) to send troops to the nation. This caused a huge backlash back home for Blair, as Britain was not a big fan of the war, but he never backed down.
The two remained friends throughout, with Bush giving Blair the Presidential Medal of Freedom just a week before the Obama Inauguration.
Gordon Brown (Labour): The personal relationship between Gordon Brown and George W. Bush was cordial, but they were far from friends. Both were often critical of the other’s policies.
Barack Obama (Democrat)
Gordon Brown (Labour): Whilst relations were once again cordial, the Barack Obama/Gordon Brown era was not a high point. Obama thought that Brown was “dour” and Brown thought Obama to be a ‘lightweight.’
Numerous foreign policy issues, mainly down to lack of communication, caused friction between the nations. The release of the man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, in which 43 Brits died over and in Scotland, was a source of great anger. Hillary Clinton’s support of Argentina over the Falkland Island and her attempts to negotiate were not welcomed.
David Cameron (Conservative): Barack Obama and David Cameron, both quite young leaders, got on fairly well as people. Official events showed them chatting and laughing together, such as during Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Cameron used Obama during the Brexit campaign, with the President saying that Britain would be ‘back of the queue’ if Britain did leave the EU. This caused massive controversy amongst pro-Brexit politicians and voters.
Theresa May (Conservative): The Theresa May/Barack Obama was not a close one. Obama was dismissive of Brexit and once again promised that they’d be “back of the queue”. As the end of his administration loomed, Obama said that Angela Merkel had been his ‘closest international partner.’ This was seen as a great snub.
Donald Trump (Republican)
Theresa May (Conservative): The relationship between Donald Trump and Theresa May started out on a positive note, but soon soured. The different personalities of the bombastic Trump and serious May became apparent. Whilst May had a generally better relationship with Trump than other leaders did, it was not generally great. Trump was not hesitant to attack May and her policies.
Leaked cables, written by the Ambassador to the US Kim Darroch, attacked Trump and his administration. This angered Trump, but May defended Darroch. He would eventually resign.
Boris Johnson (Conservative): Compared to the other frequently, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump enjoyed a positive relationship. Trump happily praised Johnson, whilst Johnson was reluctant to criticise Trump as other leaders did. One of the few bumps occured when Johnson attacked Trump over the January 6th incident.
Joe Biden (Democrat)
Boris Johnson (Conservative): Joe Biden had criticised Boris Johnsonbefore their joint leadership era. They nevertheless attempted to have a positive relationship. Johnson was the first telephone call Biden made to another world leader, and the U.K. was Biden’s first visit abroad as President. They worked fairly well together and were apparently personable, but not close.
Liz Truss (Conservative): Liz Truss lasted a record 49 days in office. She telephoned Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky before she did Biden, though she did call him later that day. Both would have interacted with the other at Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. Truss would later blame Biden as being a factor in her downfall, as he’d not supported her economic plans.
Rishi Sunak (Conservative): Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden are the incumbent leaders as of writing. Despite a shaky start in which Biden mispronounced Sunak’s name, there have been no major issues as of yet. Both are very different people- Biden is from a working-class family whilst Sunak was born to wealth and is married to a billionaire’s daughter. There is also a significant age gap between them – nearly 38 years. Biden had been in the Senate for seven years by the time Sunak was born, and all of his children apart from Ashley are actually older than the PM.