Woody Johnson on WWII and the “Special Relationship”

D-Day and the Battle of Normandy not only paved the way for the liberation of Western Europe but was also critical in deepening the ties between the United States and Great Britain. The Allied success in France and beyond would not have been possible without extensive Anglo-American collaboration and the legacy of that momentous military achievement continues to shape transatlantic relations.

75 years since the Battle of Normandy, the “Special Relationship” remains a fundamental bilateral partnership. The Ambassador of the United States to the Court of St James is regarded as one of the most prestigious positions in the United States Foreign Service and it’s current incumbent is Robert Wood Johnson. In office since 29 August 2017, Johnson spoke to History of War about the sacrifices made in Normandy, the continuing importance of NATO and today’s extensive military cooperation between the two countries. 

Robert Wood Johnson’s ambassadorial predecessors to the United Kingdom include five American presidents: John Adams, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan

To what extent was the Battle of Normandy a crucial stepping-stone in cementing Anglo-American relations?

The special relationship America and Britain have today is built on those powerful moments in our history when we have stood side by side to face the most daunting challenges together. The Battle of Normandy was as tough a challenge as we have ever faced. Victory rested on our ability to accomplish immense feats of logistics and planning. We had to rapidly develop new technology to enable the invasion to happen and our military and intelligence forces learnt to communicate and coordinate more closely than ever before.

Never in human history had so many different nations worked so effectively together to achieve one mission: the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny. There has never been a finer achievement in the history of our alliance. This was what paved the way for the unbelievable trust and collaboration America and Britain have today – not only with each other, but with our allies in Five Eyes and NATO as well. 

75 years after the beginning of the Allied liberation of Western Europe, how important is it that we remember the sacrifices made by those during the war?

As time passes, it becomes even more imperative that we remember the men and women who were willing to give everything for the free world we live in today. It would be an act of gross negligence if we failed to preserve the memory of their sacrifices for future generations. The men and women who served our country in the Second World War were willing to do whatever it took to liberate the people of Europe. They were often young guys, not even old enough to buy their first beer back home. Nevertheless, they found the courage to wade out of the landing craft, scale the cliffs, jump out of planes – to keep advancing even as the machine guns fired and they saw their friends cut down around them. We should never forget what our World War II heroes did and why they did it. They were truly our ‘greatest generation’ and we should continue to be inspired by them.

Major General Matthew Ridgway decorates Brigadier James Hill with the American Silver Staff in the presence of Bernard Montgomery, March 1945

How do you feel when you meet surviving veterans of the conflict?

I’ve had the privilege of meeting veterans who have served in various conflicts – from the Second World War to our more recent interventions in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. I always feel the same: tremendous honour and respect. That’s what those men and women deserve. They put their lives on the line to serve our country and the values it stands for. For me, there is nothing nobler. Our veterans are our nation’s heroes, it is as simple as that. 

To what extent do the United States and Great Britain cooperate today in terms of military and security commitments?

We are the same close and steadfast allies we were 75 years ago. Our troops continue to fight side by side for the peace and prosperity of people across the globe. In NATO, our two countries still make by far the biggest contribution to the collective defence. We also still work exceptionally closely together on the technology that keeps us safe – for example, the UK was the only Tier 1 partner helping us to design our new F-35 fighter jet. And there is no country in the world whose intelligence and law enforcement agencies are trusted as America trust Britain’s. The alliance which took us to victory in the Second World War continues.

Since World War II, Europe has enjoyed its longest period of peace for centuries, which is largely thanks to the solidarity created by NATO. How important is the role of NATO in current American foreign policy to continuing this success? 

NATO is without doubt the most important alliance the world has ever seen. It was founded by people who had lived through the First and Second World Wars and saw those conflicts claim the lives of over a hundred million people. NATO was established as a way to prevent such terrible loss and suffering ever happening again.

It has been incredibly successful. For 70 years, it has preserved peace, protected our freedom, and defended our way of life. But NATO’s work is not done. We still face serious threats to our collective security – from the attacks against us in cyber space, to the generational fight against terrorism or the threats individual countries pose to our safety and security – and remember, it wasn’t long ago that we saw Russia bold enough to deploy a military-grade nerve agent on British soil. NATO is as necessary today as the day it was founded.

The amicable tone and close cooperation between the United States and United Kingdom during the Second World War largely revolved around the political relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Their friendship is commemorated on a famous sculpted bench called ‘Allies’ in Bond Street, London

Many democracies are today under threat from resurgences in far-right extremism. What can we learn from the Second World War to ensure that a similar event never occurs?

Our D-Day heroes were ready to pay the ultimate price to stop oppression and tyranny and protect the rights and freedoms of others. The only way to truly honour their memories is to follow in their footsteps and continue to fight for the same principles. Intolerance and hatred must be confronted in all forms – and the US and UK will continue to lead the way in doing so. As Eisenhower once said, “To preserve his freedom of worship, his equality before law, his liberty to speak and act as he sees fit…a Londoner will fight.  So will a citizen of Abilene”. Around the world, these rights are still under threat. Our response must be the same as it was 75 years ago: we have to stand up for what is right.

Robert Wood Johnson’s interview is published in History of War Issue 69, which is on sale now. To purchase a copy or buy a subscription visit: www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk