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“Forced into the Shade”: Churchill and America’s Naval Challenge in the 1920s

Sat, September 2, 12:00 to 1:30pm, Westin St. Francis, Yorkshire


At the end of the First World War, the United States emerged as a major naval competitor of Great Britain. The American naval challenge troubled Britain’s leaders throughout the 1920s. At the end of that decade, the United States government seemed determined to surpass Britain in naval strength. Winston Churchill, then serving as the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Conservative government, viewed this serious problem as upsetting Britain’s international standing and security at sea. Faced by growing American economic and naval might, Churchill lamented Britain’s decline as a world power. He confided to his wife Clementine: “Poor old England—she is being slowly but surely forced into the shade.”

My purpose is to examine Churchill’s views about the rise of American naval power and how he thought Britain should respond to this challenge. Examining Churchill’s views in this period provides an opportunity to explore the topic of how great power democracies attempt to manage their security relationships with each other. Did Churchill subscribe to the notion of a democratic peace—that is, that wars between democracies were not a practical proposition? In particular, was war between Britain and the United States “unthinkable”? What was Churchill’s assessment of American aims? How did he view American aims as conflicting with those of Britain? How did he think that these differences in aims might be resolved? Churchill saw in the United States a formidable rival for world power. While wanting to avoid a contest in naval strength with the United States, Churchill was determined to resist American demands that Britain cede naval leadership.