After four incredible years, the time has come for me to say goodbye to the people of Britain.
It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve as America’s Ambassador here. I’ll never forget President Trump calling me into the Oval Office, and he pointed at the bust of Sir Winston Churchill and told me, “Woody, this is the Special Relationship.” And he gave me the mission to enhance this relationship and make it stronger than ever before, because history has always shown that, if the U.S. and the UK stand strong and united, there is nothing we can’t accomplish together.
So this has been the most important job I’ve ever done. And from start to finish, I’ve loved every single second. I’ll never forget how I started my journey in the UK. It’s a tradition for U.S. Ambassadors to give their first speech to a group called the Pilgrims of Great Britain. This is a society for people who care deeply about the U.S.-UK alliance. And for me, it was an unforgettable moment. It took place at the Middle Temple in London – which dates all the way back to 1562. The Hall of the Middle Temple has welcomed some of the most famous people in history, from Queen Elizabeth the First to Shakespeare – who was thought to have been there to see the first ever performance of Twelfth Night. And there I was, Woody Johnson from New York, sitting at a table that was literally older than my country, made from the timber of the Golden Hinde ship in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the world. As an American, I was just blown away by the incredible history of the place. And I was struck then by the realization that it’s not just Britain’s history, it’s America’s as well.
It has been a tremendous privilege to discover that shared history over the past four years. I’ve celebrated some great moments which helped forge our Special Relationship. I visited Plymouth to see the site where the Mayflower Pilgrims left on their great voyage to America four centuries before. I travelled up to Islay in the Hebrides of Scotland, to pay my respects at the graves of the brave Americans who lost their lives there during the First World War in 1918. And I heard the most amazing stories about the millions of American servicemen and women who were stationed in Britain during the Second World War.
Americans arrived here in such great numbers it became known as the Friendly Invasion. By 1944, in counties like Norfolk and Suffolk, Americans accounted for one in six of all residents. They came bringing with them their jeeps, jazz and jitterbug dances. Over the course of my time here, many Brits have shared their memories of the GIs based in their towns and villages. And their recollections have filled me with pride.
Like Mrs. Knight, from Freckleton, Lancashire – a place they called “Little America” during the war. She wrote to tell me about some of the heroes of the 8th Air Force who crashed down in the village in August 1944. Tragically, they lost their lives, along with some of the local residents. Since that moment, she told me not a year had passed when the village hadn’t come together to mourn and commemorate our shared loss.
I also had the honor of meeting Sheffield resident Tony Foulds. He was a child during the war, and he’d been playing in the park when an American B-17, the Mi Amigo, had to make a crash landing. When the pilot saw the children playing in the park, he aimed the plane toward the edge of the park to save the childrens’ lives. None of the 10 crew members survived, but Tony never forgot the sacrifice those men had made to keep him alive. Decade after decade, he quietly tended a memorial to them. And it was one of the highlights of my time here to help make Tony’s lifelong dream come true, as we got the U.S. and UK Air Forces to fly over the city in memory of those men.
I will never forget going down to Portsmouth during President Trump’s State Visit in 2019 and seeing him stand alongside Queen Elizabeth to lead the world in telling the stories of the heroes of the Greatest Generation who led the D-Day Landings 75 years earlier. Many of them weren’t even old enough to buy a beer back home, but they stood up and found the courage to take those beaches. Many of them never made it home. They gave everything they had in the fight for freedom, but our countries will never forget their sacrifices. Together, we will honor their memories forever, and we will continue to draw inspiration from their service, courage and resolve.
It has been an unbelievable privilege to be here in Britain over the last four years, and see that same spirit alive in today’s generation of Brits, particularly over the last year. This has been a time of tremendous adversity as we have faced all the hardships and losses of COVID. But everywhere I look in Britain, I’ve seen that same grit, resolve and can-do attitude of old. I’ve seen it in the inspiring actions of Captain Tom, himself a World War 2 veteran. I’ve seen it in the healthcare workers who have been battling the virus on the frontlines. I’ve seen it in the brilliant Oxford scientists whose research led to a breakthrough that will save lives around the globe. And I’ve seen it in the businesses which pulled out all the stops to keep supplies moving – sometimes switching production overnight to get the NHS the equipment it needed. Everybody in this country has pulled through together, and I’ve been proud to see U.S. companies play their part here as well. From tech companies like Microsoft, which got millions of NHS workers on the Cloud in a matter of days; to airlines, which filled their passenger planes to the UK with vital COVID supplies; and food and drink companies, which donated money and food to schools and hospitals. This is tough for all of us, but as with any challenge, the UK and the U.S. will face it and get through it together.
Another thing I will never forget about my time here is the resolve this country has shown in getting Brexit over the line. The decision to leave the European Union was never going to be easy. After 40 years, it was always going to be highly complex to take a new direction. It’s been a thrilling journey to witness Brexit come to pass. I heard a lot of predictions of doom and gloom along the way, but I never doubted for a second that the UK would get the job done. I’ve seen great leadership from Prime Minister Johnson, and Prime Minister May before him, and America has backed you every step of the way. President Trump has always supported the decision of the British people to leave the EU. As you negotiated your withdrawal, the U.S. has done everything in our power to stand by your side.
We have spent the last four years strengthening our economies together. We got bilateral trade to grow by almost a fifth, with great British products like beef back on U.S. shelves for the first time in more than 20 years. We got bilateral investment – already the highest in the world – up to a new high of 1.35 trillion dollars. We struck new U.S.-UK deals on everything from AI, to space exploration, to civil aviation and financial innovation. In record time, we also agreed to numerous U.S.-UK deals to ensure post-Brexit continuity in vital areas like law enforcement, nuclear energy and aviation.
And of course, the biggest prize is yet to come. We’ve already completed five rounds of negotiations toward the signing of a major, state-of-the-art US-UK Free Trade Agreement, and I have no doubt about it: When the process is completed, and the ink has dried on a new FTA, the opportunities for both our countries will be limitless.
The U.S. has led from the front to tackle the world’s biggest global challenges through a momentous time in history.
We’ve seen in the Middle East, for example, progress toward peace that nobody ever thought was possible. With the Abraham Accords, more and more nations are recognizing Israel, establishing diplomatic relations and opening air corridors. And during this important time in history, nobody has been a more important ally for the U.S. than the United Kingdom.
When President Trump called for NATO allies to step up and be ready for 21st century threats. The UK was already leading the way forward, paying its 2%, preparing for the future and investing in new, world-class military equipment like F35 fighter jets and aircraft carriers.
When President Trump opened the eyes of the world to the reality of what China was doing – from its egregious Human Rights violations, to its abuse of the global trade system, to its threat to our 5G and nuclear infrastructure. The UK joined us in taking a stand, by banning Huawei from its 5G network, condemning China’s human rights abuses, supporting the citizens of Hong Kong and guarding the freedom of the South China Seas.
And when Russia launched a murderous chemical attack on a British citizen in Salisbury the U.S. and the UK stood strong together and led the international community to expel 153 Russian officials worldwide.
Whether it’s bringing ISIS fighters to justice, or protecting democracy in Belarus, or securing shipping channels free from Iranian aggression, or stopping the global criminals who traffic humans, arms and animals, the U.S. and UK lead the way forward, together, with the vision and determination to create a better, safer world for the generations who will follow us.
This is the Special Relationship. And it has been the privilege of a lifetime to see our closest ally in action, and to meet all the people of Britain who make this relationship so special. In my time here, I’ve travelled all over the UK. I’ve met factory workers in Pontypool, potters in Stoke-on-Trent, port workers in Dover, students in Northern Ireland, fishermen in Grimsby and Peterhead, cabbies in London, veterans at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. I’m going to miss you all.
But as I leave the UK, I want you to know that America is standing by Britain’s side now, your staunchest ally, as we always have been, and always will be. This is now a new era for Britain, outside of the European Union. There will always be challenges. But I am confident that whatever challenges we face, we will face them and overcome them together.
I want to leave you with the same words of optimism Churchill spoke in America 75 years ago – in the very same speech in which he coined the term “Special Relationship”. Despite all the challenges our countries faced after the war, he was sure then, as I am sure now that:
“Opportunity is here now, clear and shining for both our countries.”
Thank you everyone, and farewell!
Ambassador Robert Wood Johnson
January 15, 2021