The reign of Queen Elizabeth II (1952-2022) ran almost directly parallel with the British state’s most crucial diplomatic project of the post-war period, claiming a “special relationship” with the United States. In the hands of successive British governments, this was a project which has used the ties of history — and an occasional dose of royal spectacle — to secure a close partnership with Washington.
Queen Elizabeth II was pivotal to this work. Taking the throne in 1952, at the very moment Britons grappled with a profoundly changed world after World War II, the queen was one of those figures (Winston Churchill was another) whose very life was woven into a mythic-history of Anglo-American relations. A key challenge before the new king, therefore, will be to assume this imposing mantle in a post-Brexit age in which British power and prestige have declined even further.
The British monarchy’s connections to the United States reach back over 250 years (and of course the relationship with the American colonies goes beyond even this). From the War of Independence — precipitated in part by the obstinance of George III — to the outpouring of grief in the U.S. following news of the death in 1901 of Queen Victoria (a response not unlike that which we have just witnessed) British royalty has often engaged American interest. The first British royal to visit the U.S. was in fact Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales, who toured North America in 1860. His itinerary included a visit to Mount Vernon in Virginia, where the future King Edward VII paid homage at the tomb of George Washington, the man who had repeatedly bested the armies of his ancestor in the 1780s.
During the 20th century, however, the sight of British royalty in the U.S. became a more regular occurrence, especially when international tensions escalated. The first monarch to tour in an official capacity was the late queen’s father, George VI, who visited America in 1939, just as storm clouds gathered in Europe. Supported by his wife, Queen Elizabeth (later affectionately known as the Queen Mother), the king’s task was to cultivate American sympathy and support, a significant challenge given the strains that were placed on Anglo-American relations by his predecessor, Edward VIII, who had renounced the throne to pursue his relationship with an American divorcée, Wallis Simpson.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt hosted the king and queen, and like the Prince of Wales in 1860, they also took time to visit Mount Vernon, laying a wreath to Washington (a powerful symbolic expression of the distance traveled since Washington’s victory at Yorktown in 1781). By all accounts their visit was a success, and they were greeted by flag-waving crowds in both Washington and New York.
After World War II, Anglo-American relations entered a new era. The call for a U.S.-U.K. “special relationship” was first made by Churchill in a 1946 speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. During the speech, the former British prime minister famously declared that an “Iron Curtain” had descended across central Europe. As Churchill saw it, world peace, stability and security at the onset of the Cold War demanded a close relationship between the United States and the “British Empire and Commonwealth.” In the years that followed, some close connections were certainly established, perhaps most notably between the U.S.-U.K. militaries and intelligence agencies.
But Britain was an empire in decline. Decolonization, growing global industrial competition and of course the severe drain on resources occasioned by two world wars all combined to ensure that after 1945, Britannia’s former economic and military might was much reduced. This became especially apparent in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis of 1956, an event that placed an enormous strain on the Anglo-American relationship. Washington went so far as to reprimand Britain for its role in the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of the Suez Canal zone.
And so, Britain’s contribution to the “special relationship” has increasingly hinged on cultivating image and historical memory, with ritual and ceremony becoming especially useful. Be it the dedication of Anglo-American memorials and monuments (such as the unveiling by the queen of the American Memorial Chapel at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1958) or the various ceremonies hosted at Balmoral or Buckingham Palace, memory became the coin of British transatlantic diplomacy.
The queen has been integral to this assertion of “soft power,” and her historically resonant meetings with American presidents (from Harry S. Truman in 1951, when she was still Princess Elizabeth, to Joe Biden in 2021) have usefully bolstered the activities of successive British prime ministers and foreign secretaries.
In 1957, for example, the queen was hosted at the White House by wartime friend and confidant Dwight D. Eisenhower, an invitation reciprocated in 1960 when Eisenhower visited her in Scotland (for several years the two also corresponded via letter). Their relationship was a powerful reassertion — in the aftermath of the rancor and recriminations connected to the Suez Crisis — of underlying Anglo-American unities born of World War II.
A year later, there was an eagerly anticipated meeting in London with President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy (rumor had it that Her Majesty felt rather upstaged by the glamour that accompanied the King and Queen of Camelot). With the British establishment initially fearful that Kennedy — the first Irish American president — might be less committed to maintaining close Anglo-American ties, this meeting once again reaffirmed (and re-performed) the idea of transatlantic connection and common purpose.
In June 1982 — following several weeks of occasionally tense Anglo-American relations linked to the Falklands crisis — the queen was seen chatting amicably with President Ronald Reagan as the two rode on horseback through the grounds of Windsor Castle. And in the 21st century, several carefully choreographed state visits for presidents George W. Bush (2003), Barack Obama (2011) and Donald Trump (2019) took place. Indeed, inviting American presidents to make a state visit (and thus be formally greeted and hosted by the queen) has emerged over the last 20 years as a key feature of the U.K.’s diplomacy toward the U.S.
While the fine details of such visits might differ, the fundamentals were always consistent. These were purposeful and planned rituals that used history, memory and ceremony for diplomatic gain. And for 70 years, such rituals have frequently revolved around the figure of Queen Elizabeth II. Seen like this, the queen’s death has profound consequences for the “special relationship” — already strained by the tumult of recent years — and now her son, King Charles III, is left to fill the substantive diplomatic void she has left.