When Ian Fleming published the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953, Britain was widely seen as a nation in a decline.
During the war years, the UK had been strong, stoic, disciplined, but in the 1950s, it was all about sexual pleasure and self-indulgence (absurd as that looks now) sapping the moral fiber of the nation. On the world stage the United States was clearly the rising star. The old saying was that Britain had an empire on which the sun never set. After WW II it was obviously low on the horizon.
1956 drove this home. Gamel Nasser, the president of Egypt at the time, wanted the US and the UK to help finance the Aswan Dam. After they declined, Nasser retaliated by nationalizing the Suez Canal. Britain, France and Israel then went to war against Egypt, seizing the canal and other chunks of territory. The US and the USSR backed a UN resolution condemning the occupation and American troops went in as peacekeeping forces. Egypt kept the canal; France and Britain got their hands slapped. There was no question who called the shots on the world stage and it was no longer England.
As novelist George MacDonald Fraser writes in The Hollywood History of the World, for Brits a couple of generations older than me the Empire was a fact of life, proof of England’s greatness. I remember some of my teachers in the late 1960s talking about the loss of empire as if they’d been personally diminished by former colonies declaring independence. And of course Kim Philby, one of the top men in the intelligence services, turned out to be a Soviet spy who’d been undercutting the UK’s contributions to Cold War espionage for decades. That betrayal didn’t boost national self-esteem either
Fleming and 007 ain’t having none of that. James Bond in the novels can still travel from one imperial British outpost to another. British intelligence is as formidable and incorruptible as Silver Age SHIELD; the only British traitors are foreigners (ex-Nazi Drax in the novel of Moonraker, Russian Cossack Sean Bean in Goldeneye) until the Craig years. In the real world the CIA was the top dog; in the Bond films Felix Leiter always defers to 007. In Doctor No, where American rockets are SPECTRE’s targets, Leiter still tells 007 he won’t act in Jamaica without British approval. Even when Bond’s on American soil in Goldfinger, Leiter backs Bond’s play rather than acting on his own. It’s 007, Britain’s best, who saves America.
In You Only Live Twice, SPECTRE’s abducting both Soviet and American space rockets. When the nations meet to discuss and argue over this, Britain attends the conference. It’s the British rep who points out the evidence the enemy space vessel landed in Japan, not the USSR but the Americans foolishly refuse to listen. Tomorrow Never Dies treats the prospect of a shooting war between the UK and China as an even match.
Obviously that’s not the heart of the Bond films’ appeal to Americans, or to the fans in multiple other countries, or probably to most Brits today. But I think it’s definitely there.