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So, you may remember that the United States and Great Britain had a minor spat in 1776, which shall we say, did not put them on the friendliest of terms. In 1812, while Britain was focused on its war with France, the same country decided to take advantage of the situation and declare war. The 1820s saw the Aroostock War and border disputes between Maine and Canada. There was also the Pig's Ear War and whilest 54' 40 or fight didn't result in anything major, you can't say the USA and the UK were on particularly great terms. And, during the Civil War, the UK came awfully close to recognizing the Confederate States of America.

And yet, by the time the USA needed to demarcate its Alaskan boundaries in 1900, the UK was a good friend. By WWI, we were supporting our English ally even over against the Germans, who arguably had populations that were almost as big. And, certainly by WWII, there was a "special relationship" that finally helped tipped the balance.

So, given this history between us, here's the simple question. How did the US and the UK become such good friends? I mean, obviously there's the historical connection, but overcoming the animosity of having to fight for your independence (and the stain of having lost its colony) has to hurt.

When, and how did we patch things up?

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From the top of my mind, they were friendly because of trade, but it was because of WW1 and WW2, they became allies. –  Russell Mar 15 '12 at 9:14
    
@Russell I've rolled back your revision. First, it doesn't follow the rules of capitilization. Secondly, when you capitalize every word in the question title, it becomes harder to read. –  American Luke Sep 23 '12 at 17:22
    
@Luke, oh, sorry. I'll remember that next time. –  Russell Sep 23 '12 at 23:57
    
"decided to take advantage of the situation" - this is highly inaccurate. Brits were quite nasty‌​. –  sds Jun 2 at 20:45

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

It was a slow process but it did begin with trade, most notably Southern cotton. This was followed by grain from the growing Mid-West. As the US became more industrialized, trade in other areas increased.

In the interest of keeping trade going and avoiding being entangled in the war, the British were careful to avoid taking sides in the Civil War and ended up with both sides viewing them in a more favorable light. This, along with the establishment of Canada in 1867, which made it clear that Britain no longer wanted to expand their empire in North America, caused Anglophobia to turn to Anglophilia.

During the Spanish-American War, the British, after a delay and with some diplomatic assurances, supported the US. As the US grew in strength, it made sense for the two nations, who had a lot in common, to work together. Connections and friendship between the ruling classes of both nations increased during the early 20th century. This led into the events of WWI and WWII which insured a strong alliance.

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Mostly right. However, I don't think its fair to say the British were "careful to avoid taking sides in the Civil War". More accurate to say they would really have liked to officially recognize the South, and perhaps even intervene in their behalf, and Abe Lincoln was careful to avoid giving them a good opportunity or reason for doing either. For instance, the Emancipation Proclamation was all about keeping Britain out of the war, and it was timed for maximum PR impact there. –  T.E.D. Apr 4 '12 at 14:43
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@T.E.D. - True, there were factions in Britain that did support the South, mainly those supplying arms and ships and those who used Southern cotton. There were also factions who were against the Confederacy due to slavery. British politicians tried to please both side, foreign and domestic, and were mostly successful at doing so. It was probably more of a political calculation than an actual diplomatic strategy. –  jfrankcarr Apr 4 '12 at 15:14
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Exactly. The EP was all about empowering the anti-slavery political forces in England to argue on the Union's side. Once the war became officially over slavery, there was no way the Brits could publicly support the South. But he needed a victory first so it wouldn't look like a desperate ploy to do just that. –  T.E.D. Apr 4 '12 at 15:52
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The British actually built several commerce raiders for the Confederates, notably the Alabama, and was sued after the war and forced to pay damages. –  Oldcat Jan 25 at 1:18

Several reasons (my answer is based mostly on the book "Dreadnought" by Robert Massie).

The English and Americans spoke the same language and, in those times, their cultures were much closer to each other than, say, English and French or English and German. The increasing wealth of the United States generated increasing respect on the other side of the Atlantic. A strong advocate of US-English friendship had been Joseph Chamberlain. It was part of his dream of building a global community of English-speaking nations (which sort of happened in the form of the Commonwealth, but without Americans).

Around the end of the XIXth century the British realised that they would not be able to defeat the American navy in the (already considered unlikely) event of a war, and they modified their military doctrine from "Royal Navy must be 10% stronger than any other two navies combined, including the US navy" to "RN must be 60% stronger than the German navy" -- effectively admitting that they will not be able to beat the USN anyway, so let's give up trying (the English relocated their bases and RN assets in West Indies accordingly). (after David K. Brown, "The Grand Fleet").

Already hinted in the 2nd paragraph, another major factor has been the growing threat from the Germans. The UK needed allies, and friendship with Americans seemed like a natural thing, due to cultural affinity and lack of direct competition (Americans had no colonial interests in Asia or Africa).

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+1. I not sure I agree that it was all about the fleet, but pretty damn close. –  T.E.D. Apr 4 '12 at 14:46

It pretty much goes back to the Monroe Doctorine (1823). The Brits suggested a joint statement between the two countries, backed by the British Navy and the logistical advantages the US armed forces enjoy in the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe administration decided to just make the statement themselves, since it would be in the Brit's interests to enforce it with their navy anyway.

Wikipedia refers to this as a "precursor to the Special Relationship", which is I guess the point I'm trying to make. 100 years of this kind of tacit military alliance got the two sides used to thinking of themselves as allies (particularly the navies). When the US Navy surpassed the British, all the Brits really needed to do was make damn sure the US kept thinking the same way.

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Aside from hiccups like the Civil War, this is probably the closest answer. There were advantages to both nations in not having to spend money fortifying and protecting the Canadian border and the English Caribbean islands from each other, and keeping other nations from getting into the area. As the US became stronger, the risks to England of going back on the deal became higher. Probably by the time of the Mexican War a US/England war would have meant the loss of Canada to the US. –  Oldcat Jan 25 at 1:25

America and Britain may have had their differences in Colonial Times. But the relationship today,especially since WW2 is a special relationship. Winston Churchill was probably the greatest leader during the war.Im an American and us Americans studied Churchill, I consider myself a amateur Historian, Churchill was a true leader. His relentless leadership against Nazi Germany was Legendary. America and Britain keep the world Humane. Two powerful allies who keep the world peaceful.

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This is a commentary on Sir Winston Churchill's leadership that doesn't actually address the question of how the UK and US became allies. –  Semaphore Sep 14 at 21:32

US/UK relations remained strained through the US Civil War. During the US Civil war, Britain was officially neutral, but a senior British official who may have been suffering from some form of degenerative insanity crossed the line and arranged for the Confederacy to take possession of British warships, notably the Alabama- this violated Britain's neutrality, and obligated the UK to participate in the final settlement of war claims.The US negotiator was instructed to ask for Canada as reparations, but settle for Jamaica.

From the American point of view, the foremost reason for the breach was the construction and refitting of Confederate warships by British shipbuilders during the American Civil War (1861-1865). American politicians argued that such behavior violated Britain's official neutrality, and demanded that the British government make financial restitution--collectively known as the Alabama claims after the most successful of the Confederate ships. NY Times

Several rounds of negotiations took place until Britain sent George Robinson, Viscount Goderich. Robinson was clever enough to approach American Masons and get to know them socially before the negotiations. As a result, in the Treaty of Washington the US gave up almost all their claims, the British finally withdrew their troops from their fort in Puget Sound (thus fulfilling the last clause of the treaty of Paris that settled the revolutionary war). Viscount Goderich's skill at negotiating changed the fundamental underpinnings of the US/UK relations.

I'm not overly fond of the big man theory of history, but George Robinson is a serious candidate.

(aside: I don't have good sources for most of this; I did this research nearly a decade ago and I'm not sure where to look anymore. I can give you enough of the story to find sources on your own, but I admit that I should eat some crow.) (Aside #2: Thanks to @semaphore for reminding me that it actually isn't that tough to find sources if you've a mind to do so. His sources are actually better than my originals; please read his comment, but please note that the Marquis was Ripon, not Ribon.)

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Could you please provide sou.... oh, hehehe. –  CGCampbell Sep 15 at 0:59
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+1 for identifying the Treaty of Washington as the turning point in UK-US amity. @CGCampbell for sources, the relevant Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy chapter also praises the Lord Ribon's diplomatic skills, and HarpWeek has a nice short article covering the process. –  Semaphore Sep 15 at 3:33

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