The Origins of the Grand Alliance

The Origins of the Grand Alliance

Anglo-American Military Collaboration from the Panay Incident to Pearl Harbor

William T. Johnsen

University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, 2016, 438 pages

Book Review published on: June 2, 2017

There has been much recent scholarship on the subject of Allied strategy and planning during the conduct of World War II. David Rigby’s Allied Master Strategists: The Combined Chiefs of Staff in World War II and Charles Brower’s Defeating Japan: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Strategy in the Pacific War, 1943-1945 are but a couple of examples. While much of the current literature emphasizes Allied interaction that took place after U.S. entry into World War II, William Johnsen’s The Origins of the Grand Alliance takes a different tack and adds valuable insight to our understanding of prewar cooperation between two members of the victorious Allied coalition, Great Britain and America.

Johnsen, a professor of military history and strategy at the U.S. Army War College, contends that military interaction between the two nations, particularly in the period before becoming formal allies, set the conditions for future wartime victory. He effectively frames his period of analysis, beginning with the Japanese sinking of the U.S. gunboat Panay in December 1937 and ending with the American declaration of war following Pearl Harbor almost four years to the day later. Using a number of primary sources and employing extensive research, Johnsen makes a strong case for the overall effectiveness of Anglo-American cooperation in this relatively short span of time.

The author effectively demonstrates that the trajectory of cooperation was evolutionary at best and fraught with dissent, and that Britain and America succeeded almost in spite of themselves. Nonetheless, Johnsen clearly connects the dots, showing the linkages between the earliest forms of cooperation—the initial naval talks in early 1938 as both nations contemplated a response to rising Japanese belligerency following the Panay incident—and culminating with the Atlantic Conference in August 1941, attended by the highest echelons of political-military leadership. In between these were a number of progressively important interactions, among them the Anglo-American Standardization of Arms Committee talks in August 1940 and the seminal American-British Conversations-1 Conference in January 1941. Johnsen clearly lays out these milestone events, explaining each in terms of time, space, and purpose.

However, this is not just a book about static meetings and conferences. Johnsen brings to life the primary actors involved in the process and reminds us of the importance of personal relationships. Indeed, one of his most important observations is that prewar Anglo-American cooperation created a level of trust and confidence among military planners at the lowest levels. These habitual relationships set the precedent for deeper collaboration once America entered the war as a formal ally of Great Britain. While personal relationships were often rocky and disagreements on the most seminal issues were common, they were the lifeblood of the coalition that attained victory four years later.

Military professionals will definitely benefit from The Origins of the Grand Alliance’s detailed analysis and depth of insight. It is superbly researched, highly detailed, and written in terms readily accessible by intermediate and senior staff college graduates. Accompanied by extensive notes and a useful chronology, Johnsen’s effort is highly worthwhile.

Book Review written by: Mark Montesclaros, Fort Gordon, Georgia