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Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945-1957.

Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945-1957. By Derek Leebaert. (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. Pp. 586. $35.00.)

A good question for students looking back at the late 1940s to ask is why many historians have downplayed or overlooked Anglo-American enmity. Derek Leebaert joins other recent authors (e.g., Benn Steil, James Barr) whose books have sought to correct the record by reminding us that the British, however much they came to rely upon American power, were not eager to pass the baton across the Atlantic. A peaceful, even friendly "hegemonic transfer" may appear to us now to be rather inevitable, as it did to a few contemporaries, but British officials accustomed to governing large parts of the world put up a stubborn resistance. Their counterparts in America were, for the most part, their unwitting counter-conspirators.

Leebaert takes his story up through the aftermath of the Suez crisis. Britain was called a superpower, along with the Soviet Union and the United States, in 1944 by William T. R. Fox, who made the term popular. Leebaert's emphasis on economics, finance, and technology as causal determinants of status shows that the British were well endowed in all three, or less poorly endowed than subsequent historians have depicted them to be. The losses of the Second World War were severe, but the British still had some men, ships, and money--as well as aircraft, bases, intelligence assets, industrial and scientific technology, and, soon enough, nuclear weapons.

This book's affinity for hard numbers extends to the personalities Leebaert rescues from the relative condescension of posterity: resourceful, effective, experienced, masterful, bare-knuckled, "don't-tell-the-boobs men," which was the columnist Joe Alsop's term for one of Leebaert's late colleagues, Paul Nitze. First among them was Ernest Bevin. Anothet was John Foster Dulles. Leebaert favors them and some lesser known figures--US Secretary of the Treasury John Snyder, British mandarin Malcolm MacDonald, the ambassadors Lew Douglas and Oliver Franks, and other public servants: James Webb, Bob Lovett, Tom Finletter, Julius Holmes, Jack Mower. Their reputations contrast with more familiar, celebrated names like Churchill, Eden, and George Kennan, who appears here as he does elsewhere in Leebaert's writing as an almost comic misanthrope.

Another emphasis of the book is reflected in its title. Leebaert makes a persuasive case that much of US foreign policy, including the Anglo-American relationship, was not well planned--or, "just shy of winging it" (102). That there was a great deal of improvisation on both sides during these years is hard to deny. What made it "grand"? Probably its ironical juxtaposition with "grand strategy," which Leebaert disparages as fantastical in the minds of self-promoters like Kennan and their champions. Yet, the complex and cacophonous Anglo-American pas de deux he relates acquired something like a geopolitical logic. Nearly everything was connected to everything else. The resulting picture is of an interrelated sequence of bargains, negotiations, and standoffs involving burdens and "crises" as superficially unrelated as those in Palestine, Korea, Guatemala, Iran, Egypt, Malaya, Indochina, Thailand, Germany, the Sterling area, etc. The logic connecting them all was familiar to the British--imperial--but meant something else to the Americans--although what exactly that was had not yet been fixed.

The strength of this book is that it illustrates these problems and this logic chronologically through the eyes of the people who tried to deal with them. Leebaert reconstructs their stories with a degree of detail that captivates as well as it educates. Anyone who has ever known Timothy Dickinson--Leebaert's collaborator and an unsung behind-the-scenes man if there ever was one--will appreciate such details as the turnout for the Glorious 12th of 1949 and the names of Dean Acheson's tailors, not so much for their own sake as for their setting a particular Anglo-American tone of ambivalence, mixing mystique with pity, entitlement, bluff, resentment, affection, contempt, righteousness, dignity, nostalgia, irritation, superiority, and admiration.

Perhaps grand improvisations are meant to happen that way. So, reconstructing them requires more than the formidable evidence Leebaert has brought to bear. Also needed is a certain amount of Fingerspitzengefuhl. This book has both.

Kenneth Weisbrode

Bilkent University
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Title Annotation:EUROPE
Author:Weisbrode, Kenneth
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019
Words:682
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