The British Empire Library

The Secret US Plan to Overthrow the British Empire: War Plan Red

by Graham M Simons

Graham Simons has written a nicely illustrated book about the reasons why the USA felt compelled to draw up plans to contemplate fighting against the British Empire in the Interwar Period. This is a fascinating subject for sure and one that is not always fully appreciated by a wider audience. Through the lenses of the First and Second World War Alliances between Great Britain and the USA it is hard to even contemplate that these two nations could have been adversaries between those two landmark conflicts. The author provides context to explain just how and why the USA might feel the need to wage war against Britain and her empire during this politically fraught period between the two World Wars.

The wider historical debate revolves really around the question of whether War Plan Red was purely a contingency planning exercise or something far more ominous? After all, the USA developed war plans that covered the rainbow and beyond (There were perhaps 15 different colour coded plans in this period plus many more shades for varieties within those plans). Of course the Red referred to the colour of Britain and her Empire on most maps prevalent at the time. But I for one did not fully appreciate that the planners assigned various parts of that Empire with different shades of red for differentiation - so for example, Canada was coded as 'Crimson', India was 'Ruby' and Australia 'Scarlet'. Of course Ireland, which was still technically within the Empire at this time, was an appropriate 'Emerald' which in many ways revealed its far more nuanced political position in any likely conflict. Newfoundland was a different shade of red from the rest of Canada, which the author cannot explain. However, Newfoundland was very much an independent Dominion up until 1949 and even then reluctantly joined the Canadian Federation. So the authors of the plan were correct to mark it out from the rest of Canada. Going back to the contingency planning exercise question, the author provides plenty of evidence to illustrate grounds for hostility and suspicion between the USA and the British Empire in the 1920s and 1930s. There seems to have been at least three influential groups within the USA who might be keen to encourage a War Plan Red scenario. Firstly, there were the Imperialists who were keen to expand the American Empire hemmed in as it was by the British to the North and also down in the Caribbean and over in Asia. These had plans to supplant the British Empire in entirety and especially the Royal Navy. There were the Isolationists, who wanted the USA to be strong enough to defend itself, but realising that this might require domination of the Western Hemisphere in order to keep from the myriad overseas threats. The last group were the anti-Imperialists - or at least anti- the Empires of other nations. The most politically important of this last group in the USA was the enormous Irish diaspora many of whom had felt that they or their parents had been forced to flee the British Isles and on the other were witnessing their old countrymen fighting for independence in the wake of the First World War. Between them, these three groups undoubtedly held political sway in the United States although each ebbed and flowed during the period.

The author certainly comes down on the something far more ominous side of the debate. He takes on the role of an advocate for showing the hostility in the USA towards Britain at the time War Plan Red was conceived and written. He starts from before the First World War with US plans for a Big Navy, takes it through the 20s and 30s with growing US economic power and growth of isolationist ideas into the Second World War where the US realises its power will supplant that of Britain and then on into the Cold War and the era of the US as a Superpower. He examines the difficulties of Wilson in the wake of the First World War and his failure to get the USA to join the League of Nations. He looks at how nationalist politicians like Eamon de Valera were hero worshipped amongst the American-Irish community and how that was portrayed in the media. He follows the home grown and politically divisive figures like Father Coughlin and Lindbergh who came to the political fore during the Depression and growing Isolationism and brought their own hostility to the British along with them. He also points out that significant military figures like Major General Butler of the US Marines who was also implicated in a suspected plot against FDR. What is interesting about Butler is that he was one of the people who would have read War Plan Red and would have been responsible for carrying aspects of it out had it ever gone into operation. The author also goes on to explain the role of the US Special Observers based in London during the early years of World War Two at the time when the US was still technically a neutral country and he considers to what extent they were spying on the British as the British were waged in a war for survival.

The most interesting aspect of the book are the excerpts from the War Plan itself. It is written in a matter of fact manner almost like a corporate document, but the consequences of these words could certainly have been profound if the plan ever had been put into operation. It lays out the various options that would face US decision makers on land and sea. Interestingly, given the way that World War Two played out, there was surprisingly little prominence given to any potential air war. Planes appear to have been regarded very much as servants of the army and navy and not an arm in their own right and little strategic thought is given to them at all. Obviously the role of Canada takes up a large amount of attention from the planners. Whether to invade all of it; parts of it; defend against it, isolate it... all these and more are considered and are tied up with ideas of military initiative and considering potential constraints of international diplomacy. It makes for fascinating what-ifs. Perhaps it is just my take on the primary documents, but it does seem as if they had a healthy respect for the Royal Navy even after the various limitations placed upon it by the Washington Treaties (covered in depth also in the book). It is also interesting to see what weaknesses or difficulties that the Americans themselves felt they might have to face. The fate of Panama was seen as critical given how it linked the American Pacific and Atlantic fleets. They were concerned that Jamaica was the perfect place to either launch an invasion of Panama or at least maintain a blockade of the canal. Hawaii seemed that it might be vulnerable from attack from battle hardened and well motivated ANZACs. The Philippines seemed almost a forlorn US colony given the British Empire's strength in Asia and the distances from US support. Also, whether Japan might join the British in any war against the USA also plagued the thoughts of these US planners. It is an interesting irony that the same US suspicion of the British at the Washington Naval Treaties in the wake of the First World War, led the US to insist on the uncoupling of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty as part of the deal. What a short sighted victory this was for the US with the benefit of actual historical hindsight - as opposed to the hypotheticals. Who knows if the British Empire might have kept Japan from going down its militaristic collision course in the 1930s if they had remained formal allies? Another what-if for sure but an interesting one nonetheless.

I have to say that I would have preferred it if the author could have elaborated on the equipment, tactics and strategies that might have been employed if war had indeed broken out between the two parties in the 1930s. This was a period of real military innovation with some countries innovating far more than others. De Gaulle's Army of the Future and Guderian's Achtung Panzer were both published in the 1930s and hinted at the importance of tank warfare in any war. You would have thought that a war between the USA and Canada would of necessity revolved around mobile warfare but the War Plan Red is oddly silent other than a discussion of a naval assault on or near the important Canadian port of Halifax. You get the feeling that the planners were still wedded to ideas more akin to 1918 than to 1939. It would have been interesting to have a list of the vehicles, planes, units and ships of the two potential aggressors and ponder how they may (or may not) have been used in a conflict between the two. Instead, the author takes the political track and focusses especially on the suspicion and hostility from the United States towards Great Britain. He certainly has evidence to back up these claims, but he does not provide the full picture - not that he has to, this is his book after all. However, he does not point out many of the very strong links between Britain and the USA - the glaring exception is the closeness of FDR to Churchill - which he does indeed rightly include. However, he does not point out the very strong and growing commercial links between the USA and Britain. The USA became the largest single overseas investor in the British economy in the 1920s and 1930s and many household products that Britons have since taken for granted were introduced at this time: Hoovers, Ford, Vauxhall, GEC, Kelloggs, etc... He does explain the similarly growing commercial links to Germany as it suits the hostility angle, but American economic power and links were growing across the board including in Britain and in her colonies. Another example of not providing the full picture is when the author explains the antipathy of Irish community towards Britain and her Empire but forgets that large swathes of the US were very comfortable and well disposed towards Britain, her culture and her social mores - the common language of English had diversified from Shakespeare to common authors, plays and of course the increasing power of the silver screen at this time. These cultural links and affinities brought huge goodwill in both directions as a result, although often swayed more to the elites who were more likely to be the decision makers for any policy direction. The ultimate example of the proximity of the elites must be the intertwining of American heiress' marrying into the British landed gentry which started in earnest at the turn of the 20th Century but its full fruition was only just coming into play in the 1920s and 1930s as families like the 'Astors' and of course the 'Churchills' were reaching peak political power as the 2nd and 3rd generations were reaching the apogee of their professional and business influence. There is a reason that the British found it so easy to have sympathetic films made by Hollywood as war broke out or were able to raise vast amounts of money from American financiers... there was huge goodwill between the two as well as the pockets of antipathy that the author points out.

Of course, it is not the job of the author to undermine his own thesis but any reader of this book should of course try and take on their own advocate role and try to provide evidence to see if they do indeed agree with the author's arguments. In general, I was happy that he made them, but kept on coming back to the conclusion that there was more that bound the USA and Britain together in this period than to pull them apart. Even his chapter on the Special Observers, which could indeed have sold me on the idea that the US were picking at the potential corpse of a condemned man, actually convinced me of the opposite. It became clear from the very documents cited that the Americans in charge of this mission were unbelievably sympathetic to Britain's plight and also provided far more useful and reliable intelligence than their own Ambassador Joseph Kennedy did (and whose contribution is covered in detail). I had not realised just how well the Americans had scoped out potential bases and barracks and earmarked what equipment to move over well before Pearl Harbour - indeed months before. If anything, their preparations showed just how much the military (perhaps under FDR's direction) were bending over backwards to prepare to help the British - going far beyond what was being said publicly by the politicians. To go back to the original question that I stated, to what extent was War Plan Red merely a contingency planning exercise or a genuine preparation for a potential war, I have to come down on the side of the former. And this despite the fact that I think the author missed one of the most important arguments in favour of his thesis; the Atlantic Charter. He mentions it in passing, but he does not mention that it handed over a number of British Caribbean bases to US control and that it demanded that all people had a right to self-determination and most importantly of all gave American companies access to all imperial markets. This 1941 agreement destroyed Britain's Imperial Preference system overnight and allowed a US economy still at peace at that point in time to have untrammelled access to Britain's Imperial markets. Furthermore it ushered in an Anglo-American Caribbean Commission to examine the rights and state of peoples in the British colonies held there. Basically, the USA was gaining nearly all the advantages of Britain's Caribbean colonies without taking on any of the burdens or responsibilities of governance. But even taking this into consideration. I still think that the USA was only ever going to join the war on the side of Britain in World War Two - with or without Pearl Harbour. The political closeness of FDR and Churchill was not an aberration in my eyes, it was actually symptomatic of the proximity in culture, language and ideals that ultimately brought the two countries to fight totalitarianism together.

In conclusion, I am glad that I read this book despite the fact that I disagree with its main thesis. I certainly gained new insights and understandings. I would have preferred yet more focus on the military situation of the two powers in the 1930s after the plan had been published. I understand fully why the author kept to the political angles but I did feel that the further away he got from the inter-war period, the less relevant it became. The last chapter went into an interesting diversion on the CIA's Air interests in fighting communism - which felt that it belonged in another book entirely. I would have preferred a concluding chapter which recapped and restated the primary thesis about War Plan Red and the assets available to put it into operation or to defend against it. Having said all that, the book has definitely piqued my interest in the topic and it has encouraged me to investigate it further. Any book that leaves you wanting to find out more must surely be a successful book to have read in the first place.

British Empire Book
Graham M Simons
Pen & Sword Military


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