The Decline of American Anglophobia
Or, How Americans Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the English

John E. Moser
Assistant Professor of History
Ashland University

[Note: This is a talk that I gave at an international conference entitled, "The 'Special Relationship' between the United Kingdom and the United States, 1945-1990," at the Université de Rouen, in France, November 2002.]

There was during the Cold War a tendency in the historiography of American foreign relations to view the Anglo-American “special relationship” as something inevitable, or at the very least completely natural.  Historians such as Bradford Perkins have noted the strength of the Anglo-Saxon movement at the turn of the twentieth century, and point to that period as that of the “great rapprochement” between the English-speaking nations, paving the way for cooperation in two world wars and laying the foundation for a friendship that has lasted, more or less, until the present day.[1]   Of course, the road to Anglo-American amity was not without obstacles.  A naval arms race in the 1920s grew ugly enough that commentators on both sides of the Atlantic were claiming war “not unthinkable.”  And, of course, there were the American anti-interventionists who opposed giving any sort of aid to Britain even when it stood alone against the Axis powers.  However, in the long run these proved to be relatively minor annoyances, slowing but never stopping the development of what would ultimately become the closest alliance in American history—and perhaps in the history of the world.

In this essay I shall address the question of how the American side of the special relationship evolved, but not in the traditional manner; that is, by identifying American anglophiles and tracing their efforts to bring about greater ties between the United States and Great Britain.  This, after all, has been done many times before, by scholars far more accomplished than myself—some of whom are in this room today.  I begin by taking it for granted that the forces that after 1945 most strongly favored Anglo-American partnership, at least on the U.S. side, were by and large the same ones that had supported it in 1900—that is, the Ivy League-educated Anglo-Saxon elite that dominated major corporations in the northeastern part of the country, the largest banking houses, the most important international law firms, and, of course, the State Department.  What needs to be explained, in my view, is not so much how these forces came to triumph, but what happened to the other side of the debate.  Men like Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, Alfred Thayer Mahan and Josiah Strong had long been advocating the sort of relationship that emerged after World War II, but they had been opposed by a wide range of interests that, for one reason or another, sought to maintain, if not increase the diplomatic distance between the two powers.  It was this countervailing force that, in the space of a relatively brief period, practically vanished.

I am inclined to think that the reason anglophobia has been a little-studied phenomenon in American history stems in large part from its almost complete absence from contemporary U.S. society.  Aside from the occasional Mel Gibson film (and Gibson is, of course, an Australian) one finds virtually no expressions of dislike or distrust of the British in American popular culture.  Indeed, even on the Fourth of July, a holiday which in the nineteenth century offered politicians a natural opportunity for “twisting the lion’s tail,” we hear nothing of “perfidious Albion.”  When reference is made at all to the enemy in that war, it is more likely to be the Hessians (as was the case in a recent film about George Washington) who are mentioned.  It would, in fact, be interesting to learn what percentage of American high school students today are even aware that Americans fought the British in the Revolutionary War, not to mention round two in 1812.

What makes this particularly noteworthy is the fact that Americans are not generally known for their love of other countries, even those that are allies of the United States.  Certainly it would take little effort to produce evidence of anti-French, or anti-German, or anti-Russian sentiment in American popular culture.  Yet the British are given virtually a free pass.

I do not believe that this phenomenon stems primarily from the cultural similarities between the United States and Great Britain.  Both countries were predominantly English-speaking in the 1930s and 1940s—in fact, the United States was far more Anglo-Saxon, both linguistically and ethnically, then than now—yet expressions of anti-British sentiment were commonplace at the time.  Indeed, cultural affinity for Britain often went hand-in-hand with anglophobia; for example, one popular author compared England to “a stupid but exquisitely beautiful wife.  Whenever you have definitely made up your mind to send her to a home for morons, she turns her heart-stopping profile and you are unstrung and victimized again.”[2]

It was precisely this attitude which almost completely vanished in the years after 1945, and I would argue that this was an important reason behind the development of the “special relationship.”  However, to understand why anglophobia disappeared, it is necessary to understand what motivated it in the first place.  It would be impossible to reduce it to a single cause, or even a small set of causes.  As I point out in my book Twisting the Lion’s Tail: Anglophobia in the United States, 1921-1948, the anglophobes never constituted a single united force, but rather represented a shifting coalition of interests that came together at specific points, usually to oppose some measure that involved Anglo-American cooperation.  In fact, there were groups and individuals who were merely opportunistic Anglophobes—not personally anti-British, but willing to employ anti-British rhetoric in pursuit of their ends.[3]

First a bit of clarification is in order.  It is easy to conflate the struggle between anglophobes and anglophiles with the larger debate over the extent of American involvement in world affairs.  To be sure, most anglophobes tended to oppose a globalist foreign policy, and most anglophiles supported it, but the situation is more complex.  One found in the anti-interventionist movement many such as Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-OH), who consistently favored aid to Great Britain, yet feared that foreign policy under Roosevelt and Truman was creating an all-powerful Executive Branch.  By the same token, among the interventionists were men such as President Roosevelt himself, who had little fondness for the British—in fact they saw the United States as the natural successor to the international dominance of a morally corrupt and militarily feeble British Empire.  This explains why certain individuals who were known for their anti-British rhetoric in the 1920s (e.g., Sen. Kenneth D. McKellar of Tennessee) and in the late 1940s (e.g., Henry Wallace, and the editorial staff of the New Republic) were enthusiastic supporters of measures such as Lend-Lease.

American anglophobia came in many varieties, and the reasons for its decline are just as diverse.  For the sake of simplicity, I will place them into three rough categories: “single-issue” anglophobes, ethnic anglophobes and populist anglophobes.

“Single-issue” anglophobes are the easiest to describe, and their brand of anglophobia ran far less deep than that of the others.  Their hostility was directed less against the British per se and more toward a particular element of British society or policy.  Examples of these include liberals who sneered at the British class system or British imperialism in India or Egypt, nationalists who resented Britain’s occasional hesitance to follow the American lead in world politics, and Zionists who protested the White Paper of 1939, which blocked Jewish immigration to Palestine.  All of these groups came forward at one point or another, adding their strength to the ranks of anti-British forces, yet they could just as easily withdraw, or even defect to the side of the anglophiles when their concerns were allayed, or at least subordinated to larger issues.  American Zionists, for instance, did not let their concerns over Palestine keep them from favoring pro-interventionist measures in 1940 and 1941; they rather naturally feared that criticism of Great Britain would lend aid and comfort to the Axis.  Instead they waited until late 1944—when it was clear that Germany was going to be defeated—to raise their voices against the White Paper, and they made up one of the interest groups aligned in opposition to the British loan in 1946.  However, after the British withdrawal from Palestine in 1947, and the formation of the State of Israel the following year, American Zionists abandoned their opposition to British policy once and for all.  The same could be said for anti-imperialist liberals who dropped their hostility after the British gave independence to nations like India and Egypt.

Ethnic anglophobia was a more formidable force; in fact, there was nothing that the British themselves could do to allay it.  Immigrant groups—particularly Irish- and German-Americans, but to a lesser extent Italian- and Scandinavian-Americans as well—frequently carried their ethnic animosities with them from the Old Country, and deeply resented any efforts to align the United States with Great Britain.  Organizations such as the Steuben Society and the Friends of Irish Freedom could be counted on to mobilize their memberships on a wide variety of issues of national importance.  Their numbers made them impossible to ignore; as late as 1940, for example, it was estimated that nearly half the adult population of Chicago did not usually speak English in their homes.  Moreover, many of these ethnic minorities enjoyed a new level of political significance, thanks to their connections to the Democratic Party.[4]

Yet ethnic anglophobia was already beginning to decline by the 1930s.  By 1935 more than three-quarters of the German-American population was born in the United States, and these could hardly be expected to maintain the same warm feelings for the Fatherland as their ancestors.  During the great debate of 1940 and 1941 over aid to Great Britain, Irish-Americans and German-Americans alike were displaying increasing tendencies to oppose the interests of their mother countries—a survey taken in December 1940 indicated that nearly 45 percent of Irish-Americans supported increased aid for Britain.  And as political scientist David L. Porter has pointed out, a majority of Irish-American legislators, and around 40 percent of German-American congressmen, voted in 1939 to lift the embargo on arms sales to the Allies.[5]

By the end of the war ethnic anglophobia had almost completely vanished.  The horrors of the Nazi regime were enough to disgust even the most ardent of the German patriots in America, leading German-Americans to seek inspiration closer to home.  Men like Dwight Eisenhower and Chester Nimitz became the great heroes of a German-American community that now proudly trumpeted its wise decision to have left Germany behind.  As for the Irish, the steadfast refusal of the government of Eire to enter the war on the side of the Allies was a decision that even America’s sons of Erin found dismaying.  As a member of the British embassy staff noted in 1948, Irish neutrality “rankles in even Irish-American breasts and has been a great handicap to exploitation of anti-British feeling by Irish extremists.”[6]

Indeed, the extent to which the Irish question had ceased to be a major concern for Americans became apparent soon after the end of the war.  The government of Eire tried to enlist U.S. support for its efforts to coerce Britain into giving up Northern Ireland, but its response even from Irish-Americans was disappointing.  According to the American Minister in Dublin, they resented “the effort to inject this issue into American politics.”  In fact, the only expression of support for such a move in Congress came from Rep. Thomas D. Lane (D-MA), the representative from Boston and hence of the most vocal Irish-American community in the country.  Yet even Lane would not go so far as to demand British withdrawal from Northern Ireland; he merely suggested that the issue be discussed in a series of Anglo-American conferences.  Such a lukewarm response, of course, would have been unthinkable only twenty years earlier.[7]

The final variety of anglophobia is in many ways the most complex, and not only was it the most enduring form, but also the oldest.  Its origins lay not in the imported prejudices of ethnic minorities, nor in any specific grievance against British society or policy.  In fact, I would argue that it was not even aimed primarily against Great Britain.  What I am speaking about is the anglophobia associated with what American historian Michael Kazin calls “the populist persuasion,” and defines as “a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter.”[8]

There is nothing about populism that necessarily requires anglophobia; nevertheless, American populism through the early 1950s had a deeply anti-British taint, mainly because the elites targeted by populists were frequently associated in the public mind with Great Britain.  In the early days of the Republic, Jeffersonian Republicans and Jacksonian Democrats portrayed themselves as heroic men of the soil, sworn enemies of privilege, while their opponents—not coincidentally usually men from New England—were cast as effete snobs who were more suited to English aristocracy than American democracy.  In addition, both Jeffersonians and Jacksonians tended to view Great Britain as the most dangerous overseas enemy of American liberty.  This attitude became even more pronounced when large numbers of immigrants from continental Europe began arriving on American shores.  Much of America’s political, social, and economic life remained dominated by those of Anglo-Saxon descent, making it easy for populist leaders to combine ethnic and class hostility into a potent brew.[9]

For this reason, there were strains of anglophobia present in virtually every populist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  As Edward P. Crapol has pointed out, the Populist Party, which formed in the 1880s and rose to prominence by nominating William Jennings Bryan as its presidential candidate in 1896, represented the high water mark of anglophobia in the United States.  The party dedicated itself to ridding the country of British influence, referring to England as a “monster” that had “seized upon the fresh energy of America and is steadily fixing its fangs into our social life.”  And when populists like Senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman (D-AL) shouted, “America for Americans, and to hell with Britain and her Tories,” they were talking not only about English capitalists, but the Wall Street bankers whom they believed were in league with them.[10]

American anglophobia died down during the First World War, but made a dramatic reappearance during the debate over the Treaty of Versailles, which focused public attention on the nature of America’s involvement with the rest of the world.  Southern populists like Senators Tom Watson (D-GA) and Morris Sheppard (D-TX) joined with agrarian progressives of the upper Midwest—men like Robert M. La Follette (R-WI), George Norris (R-NE), and Asle Gronna (R-MN)—in denouncing the treaty as a shameful surrender to Britain’s cynical “balance of power” diplomacy and imperial conquests.  Furthermore, they implied that the forces in the country that favored the treaty were motivated by an unpatriotic affection for things English.  Such sentiments were possibly a bit troubling for mainstream Republicans, as their party had traditionally supported a policy of cooperation between the Anglo-Saxon powers; however, since Republicans had their own reasons for opposing the treaty, they tended to keep such concerns to themselves.[11]

The debate over Versailles unleashed latent forces of anglophobia that set the stage for recurrent battles in the 1920s and 1930s, and frequently populists and western progressives were in the forefront.  The predominantly working-class Catholic Knights of Columbus launched a campaign in 1921 to rid the public schools of textbooks that the group deemed “pro-British.”[12]   Populists of both parties denounced Herbert Hoover as an “Englishman” during his nomination as Secretary of Commerce and during his 1928 and 1932 presidential campaigns.[13]   The colorful Senator Huey P. Long (D-LA) argued that the Depression had been manufactured by what he referred to as the “Wall Street-Downing Street Axis,” while the “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin called the League of Nations the “catspaw of the international bankers of the British Empire.”[14]   However, in none of these instances was Great Britain the primary target—the real enemies were rather American academic, social, economic, and political elites.

Unlike ethnic anglophobia, populist anglophobia remained alive and well in 1945; nor was there any reform that the British government could enact, or colony to abandon, that could eliminate it.  Indeed, in the years after World War II anti-British rhetoric could be heard coming from populists from both ends of the political spectrum.  For example, liberal populists such as former Vice President Henry Wallace and Senators Claude Pepper (D-FL) and Glen Taylor (D-ID) assailed the British for allegedly seeking to drag the United States into a war with the Soviet Union in an effort to prop up their decrepit empire.  North Dakota Republican William Langer called for “another revolutionary war to regain our independence from Great Britain,” and after Winston Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech a pack of protestors surrounded his hotel, chanting, “Winnie, Winnie, go away, UNO is here to stay.”[15]

Before the 1930s American populism had been seen almost exclusively as a left-wing, or “progressive” force.[16]   This seemed only natural, given that populism directed itself against elites who were accused of controlling the economy.  However, the centralizing tendencies of the New Deal and the wartime policies of the Roosevelt administration helped to create a more conservative variant, strongest among farmers, war veterans, small business owners, and Catholics.  The elites toward whom such people directed their wrath were not Wall Street bankers or railroad tycoons, but rather the Ivy League-educated lawyers and academics who had found their way into positions in the federal bureaucracy.  They had a special dislike of the State Department, which they accused of being riddled with communist sympathizers, if not actual communists.[17]

Conservative populism was just as likely to take on an anti-British tint as its progressive counterpart.  Men like Senators John Bricker (R-OH), Kenneth Wherry (R-NE) and Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) in the late 1940s attacked Great Britain for continuing to engage in “blood trade” with Communist China.  Moreover, like other populist groups in the past, they sought to associate their domestic political enemies in the public mind with the British.  A favorite target was Truman’s secretary of state Dean Acheson, who was denounced as much for his English mannerisms as he was for his alleged “softness” on communism.  Known for his Savile Row suits and polished manners, the secretary was the butt of constant abuse from McCarthy, who called him the “Red Dean of Fashion,” unwilling to fight the communists with anything more than “a lace handkerchief, a silk glove, and…a Harvard accent.”  Similarly, supporters of the Bricker Amendment such as radio commentator John T. Flynn saw behind the opposition to the amendment a conspiracy “to bring the United States and the British Empire together in a sovereign federal union.”[18]

What happened to populist anglophobia?  In the short term, it might be said that it was populism itself that fell into disrepute.  The left-wing variety had actually begun to fade during the war, and by 1946 nearly all of the old progressives—William E. Borah (R-ID), Hiram Johnson (R-CA), George Norris (R-NE), Gerald Nye (R-ND), Burton Wheeler (D-MT), Henrik Shipstead (R-MN), and Robert La Follette, Jr. (R-WI)—were either dead or had lost bids for reelection.  In a sense, the dark horse presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948 represented the last gasp of such forces, so that for nearly the next twenty years Roosevelt-Truman-style liberalism would face no important challenge from the Left.  It took a bit longer for right-wing populism to go to its grave, and would indeed reach its height during the McCarthy era.  However, with McCarthy’s disgrace in 1954 this version of populism, too, was repudiated; in an age of consensus, when politicians from both parties spoke of a “vital center” and an “end of ideology,” the populist impulse was demonized as an example of what Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in American politics.”  Thus when John T. Flynn suggested in 1959 on his radio program that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States was secretly engineered by the British Foreign Office, he seemed hopelessly out of step with the times—indeed, Flynn would retire the following year, frustrated by his inability to convince Americans that the British were manipulating their country’s foreign policy.[19]

Yet to end the story here would not completely answer the question of why anglophobia disappeared from American political culture.  After all, populism may have temporarily faded from the scene in the 1950s, but it was not completely destroyed.  The Goldwater campaign of 1964 represented in many ways a resurgence of right-wing populism, as did the candidacy of Alabama governor George C. Wallace, while in some ways the New Left of the late 1960s could be seen as a revival of left-wing populism in its critique of “corporate liberalism.”  And, of course, populism in both variants continues to exist today, as seen in the candidacies of Patrick J. Buchanan and Ralph Nader in the 2000 elections.  Yet in none of these movements has anglophobia played an important role.

Why was this the case?  At this point my answer can be nothing more than tentative, but it seems likely that it has something to do with a change in the American elite.  In an age when the wealthiest and most influential Americans tended to be associated with things British—the vast majority were of Anglo-Saxon descent, wore English-tailored suits, drove British-made automobiles, and even spoke with affected British accents—it was quite natural for Great Britain to fall within the sights of disaffected populists.  In more recent years, however, this has changed.  When one thinks of wealth and influence in contemporary America, particularly when one considers those who have made their fortunes in the past thirty years, English culture does not immediately spring to mind.  The modern American millionaire, for instance, is at least as likely to be of non-Anglo-Saxon descent, to wear Italian suits, and to drive German, Japanese, or American-made luxury vehicles.  And when was the last Hollywood film in which a wealthy American character spoke with an affected English accent?

Since Great Britain seems to have lost its cultural monopoly over elite culture in America, it should not be particularly surprising that neither the anti-corporate populists of the Left nor the anti-intellectual populists of the Right bother employing anti-British rhetoric in pursuit of their political goals.  What is particularly striking, however, is how the loss of this monopoly—marking an increase in the cultural divide between Great Britain and American elites—has corresponded so closely to the period in which the “special relationship” came into full bloom.  Anglo-American relations in the age of Reagan and Thatcher were, as a consequence, considerably closer than those during the time of Roosevelt and Churchill; and, indeed, this seems to be the case today as well.  The disappearance of anglophobia from American populism was, in short, the final element necessary to the conclusion of a truly friendly relationship between Great Britain and the United States.


[1] Bradford Perkins, The Great Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1895-1914 (New York, 1968).

[2] Margaret Halsey, With Malice Toward None (New York, 1938), p. 170.

[3] John E. Moser, Twisting the Lion’s Tail: Anglophobia in the United States, 1921-1948 (London, 1999), pp. 6-7; examples of “opportunistic anglophobes” include much of the Republican leadership during the debate over the Treaty of Versailles, or many naval officers who supported the “Big Navy” cause in the 1920s.
[4] Bruce Russett, Community and Contention: Britain and America in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA, 1963), p. 117; Ronald H. Bayor, Neighbors in Conflict: The Irish, Germans, Jews, and Italians of New York City, 1929-1941 (Baltimore, 1978), pp. 79-80.

[5] Raymond James Raymond, “American Public Opinion and Irish Neutrality, 1939-1945,” Eire-Ireland 18 (Spring 1983), pp. 38-41; David L. Porter, The Seventy-sixth Congress and World War II, 1939-1940 (Columbia, MO, 1979), pp. 18, 72, 85.

[6] Raymond, “American Public Opinion,” p. 45; Chancery to Commonwealth Liaison, 26 December 1948, F.O. 371/68045E AN 0120/120/45.

[7] Memo by John D. Hickerson to James E. Byrnes, August 8, 1946, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946, v. 5, pp. 118-119; Congressional Record, 80th Cong., 1st Sess., 93 (February 24, 1947): 1358.

[8] Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Ithaca, NY, 1995), p. 1.
[9] See, for example, Henry Seidel Canby, “Anglomania,” Harper’s (November 21, 1921): 713.

[10] Edward P. Crapol, America for Americans: Economic Nationalism and Anglophobia in the Late Nineteenth Century (Westport, CT, 1973), pp. 112-113; Tillman quoted in Crapol, p. 2.
[11] This story is recounted in Twisting the Lion’s Tail, pp. 7-16.

[12] Edward F. McSweeney to William E. Borah, April 11, 1922, Box 110, William E. Borah MSS, Library of Congress, Washington, DC; Literary Digest, December 31, 1921.

[13] “Citizenship and Residency” Subject File, Special Collections, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, IA; John J. Blaine to Gustav Haas, September 19, 1928, John J. Blaine MSS, Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison, WI; Press Statement by Henry J. Allen, Director of Publicity, Republican National Committee, October 3, 1932, Special Collections, Hoover Library; John Hamill, The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover Under Two Flags (New York, 1931).

[14] David H. Bennett, Demagogues in the Depression: American Radicals and the Union Party, 1932-1936 (New Brunswick, NJ, 1969), pp. 75-76, 245-247.

[15] J. Samuel Walker, Henry A. Wallace and American Foreign Policy (Westport, CT, 1976), p. 135; Karl M. Schmidt, Henry A. Wallace: Quixotic Crusade, 1948 (Syracuse, 1960), pp. 19-20; Glenn H. Smith, Langer of North Dakota: A Study in Isolationism, 1940-1949 (New York, 1979); Wynona H. Wilkins, “Two If By Sea: William Langer’s Private War Against Winston Churchill,” North Dakota History 41 (Spring 1974), pp. 23-24; Burton K. Wheeler to Langer, Box 250, Langer MSS, Department of Special Collections, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND; John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (New York, 1972), p. 309.

[16] Here I use “progressive” in the sense of what David A. Horowitz calls “insurgent progressivism”; see Horowitz, Beyond Left & Right: Insurgency and the Establishment (Champaign, IL, 1996).

[17] For more on postwar conservative populism, see Kazin, The Populist Persuasion, pp. 165-193.
[18] David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (New York, 1983), pp. 195-196; Thomas C. Reeves, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography (New York 1982), p. 299; John T. Flynn, #Z254 Daily Transcribed Series for Thursday, May 14, 1953, Box 15, Flynn Papers, University of Oregon Library, Eugene, OR.

[19] Moser, Twisting the Lion’s Tail, pp. 184-185; see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Vital Center (Boston, 1949) and Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York, 1965); Flynn, “Behind the Headlines,” M290, August 16, 1959, Box 15, Flynn Papers.

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