- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
Where did I first see an American? On celluloid, I suppose, for the cinema of my childhood was an American possession. It was American films we queued to see in wartime Britain, not their tepid domestic imitations, and American stars we took as our heroes and heroines. I was entranced by the way the men in Destry Rides Again or Stagecoach walked, with that loose, let-me-at-the-horizon lope, and even more so by the way they spoke, as if one word were almost too much for them and a second would choke in their throats. It was not only the cowboy films that cast a spell; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town , that sleepy epic of plain folk, caught me up in what I suppose I would now call the American dream, and I was riveted by an Anglo-North American film, Forty-ninth Parallel —blatant propaganda it would seem today—in which an escaped U-boat crew, at large in Canada, tries but fails to bring down the Four Freedoms.
All these misty experiences must have come to me in Britain’s glory time, between Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor, when Hitler’s army stood on the French coast and only a filigree of Spitfires hung between my unthinking self and invasion. No inkling of that impending danger touched my childish happiness in what I remember as an eternal summer, no shadow fell over the hay meadows where we played, not a single tremor of anxiety disturbed the serenity of our family life. I suppose my parents must have discussed between themselves what hope Britain had of extricating itself from its perilous isolation as Hitler’s only enemy. I suppose, too, that they must have pondered—as Winston Churchill, we now know, did day and night—whether the United States would come to our rescue and, if so, how and when. I am sure that what hopes they had were pinned on the United States alone, for I clearly remember that the peremptory alliance with the Soviet Union that followed Hitler’s surprise attack of June 22, 1941, pleased my father absolutely not at all. He not only was fervently anti-Bolshevik but held unwaveringly to the view that we had entered the war to defend Poland, of which country he rightly identified the Soviet Union to be as deadly an enemy as Nazi Germany. Yet if we were waiting for the Americans, not a single word of reproach for the delay do I remember hearing from my parents.
Then, suddenly, in 1942 there were real Americans among us. Soon after Pearl Harbor American servicemen—GIs, as they came instantly to be called—started to arrive by ship and airplane to begin building the great military base from which the bomber offensive against Hitler’s Germany and then the seaborne assault on his Fortress Europe were to be launched. Americans turned out to be flesh and blood, not celluloid, after all. Moreover, they were friendly, indeed positively eager to make friends, and fluent in what unmistakably was a common language. The American voice, I now know, is not classless, but it seemed so in 1942 in England and thus hearteningly refreshing to a people whose accents constantly set them at social sixes and sevens, who spoke too boldly if they felt sure of themselves, mumbled or kept silent if they did not. The idea of equality among Americans was perhaps the one reasonably accurate belief that had taken root, and the British inability to distinguish by ear alone between Bronx and Boston Brahmin, any more than between midtown Manhattan and Manhattan, Kansas, strongly confirmed it. Because the Americans did not lower or raise their voices but maintained an even tone to whomsoever they were speaking, because they seemed to communicate by plain talk, they were taken for plain folk, making their arrival a threat to the natives with a stake in the social order but an excitingly subversive solvent of old rigidities to the majority, who felt excluded.
There was a practical as well as social dynamism to the Americans. They got things done. They brought a breath of fresh air from the New World. Britain’s miraculous age of industry, which had made it the richest country in the world while Americans were fighting over slavery, was long gone by 1942. The railways had been built, the factory towns were in decay, the enormous wealth of the Victorian age was draining away in a desperate and unwanted war; so too was the manhood, already decimated in the war of the trenches a generation earlier. Britain’s second war effort was halting and makeshift; it was inspired by flashes of the old inventive genius—in the development of radar, in high-grade aeronautical engineering—but it was geared to handicraft industries, was undercapitalized, and lacked the consistency of a massproduction economy. Not so America. The GIs descended on the English countryside like the pioneers of a new Industrial Revolution, tearing up the soil to build runways for the strategic bombing campaign, covering farmland with townscapes of hutted camps and hospitals, piling up enormous dumps of ordnance and equipment, and filling an antique road network with endless convoys of trucks and transporters.