The phrase, inevitably, is Winston Churchill's. Long an advocate of Anglo-American alliance, the wartime British Prime Minister often spoke of what he called the "ties of blood and history" between the two nations. For Churchill, a "special relationship" with the U.S. had been a matter not of choice or convenience but of life and death. Faced with Nazi Germany's blitzkrieg across Western Europe in 1940, the new Prime Minister had no doubt about which way salvation lay. No lover, Churchill later remarked, had ever studied the whims of his mistress as he did those of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was "the New World, with all its power and might," Churchill declared in the wake of Dunkirk in 1940, that one day would come "to the rescue and the liberation of the Old."
The special relationship returned to mind in the wake of the death of Margaret Thatcher at 87. Among the British, reaction was mixed; they are often much more frank about the vices of the dead than Americans tend to be in the hours after the passing of a public figure. Obituary writers attacked Thatcher for being too tough on, and wrong about, the Irish, miners, the poor, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, and Argentina, which she fought in the Falklands war in the early 1980s. The Daily Mirror called her "the woman who divided a nation."
For many others, though, her death recalled epic days, not so far distant, when both economic stagnation and the Soviet bloc were overwhelming facts of life. Journalist and biographer Nicholas Wapshott, writing in the New York Times, recalled sharing Champagne with Thatcher on a flight home from Japan. "It was Mrs. Thatcher's charisma that those who thought of her as merely a hectoring bossy-boots did not grasp," wrote Wapshott. "And it was that sense of subdued danger and not-quite-erotic excitement that inspired the most important Anglo-American alliance since that of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt."
Among transatlantic skeptics, the Anglo-American special relationship is at best a genial bit of sentimentality. Nations, we are often told, have no friends, only interests. That is true, and the romantic glow of the Roosevelt-Churchill saga obscures many of the real difficulties the two men experienced in prosecuting the war and preparing the peace. It is equally true, however, that the personal friendship Roosevelt and Churchill "forged in the fire of war" (as Churchill put it to Eleanor Roosevelt after FDR's death) had political effects and established a useful template for their successors.
After FDR and Churchill--who, one wartime dinner guest at the White House said, clearly savored acting like a "couple of emperors," drinking, smoking and plotting the end of Hitler--Presidents and Prime Ministers had a new weapon at their disposal. Americans seeking at least the appearance of multilateral action knew they were likely to be able to count on the Brits; Brits seeking a postimperial role and global clout knew they could likely benefit from a periodic renewal of the relationship that had made victory possible in their nation's hour of maximum danger. Is the "special relationship" unequal? Absolutely. Does that make it any less potentially potent in hours of crisis? Not at all.