- 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
Americans in the Eisenhower years must have felt there was nothing their country could not do. That was certainly the spirit exuded by the ones at Oxford.
This was a wonder time in english life, one I remember vividly to this day. So it was with a half-formed appreciation of what America meant that I first began to make friendships with the American undergraduates I found at Oxford when I became a student there in the fifties. Americans formed the largest of the foreign groups and were particularly numerous at Balliol, to which an outpost of old members at Harvard sent Rhodes scholars in a steady stream; others came to us from Yale, Princeton, the great Midwestern campuses of Michigan and Illinois, and the leading liberal arts colleges, like Swarthmore. What impression did they make? Visual impressions were the most immediate. The Americans looked American, just as in those days the French looked French; the bland, indeterminate international style had not yet been invented. Their hair was crew-cut, and they wore large, heavy, highly polished shoes, waistless tweed jackets, and, whether they had been in the service or not, khaki cotton trousers winter and summer. They threw themselves into rowing—the domination of the University Eight by Americans dates from those days—into hockey and lacrosse, even into rugby. Americans had a passion for debate and took their political differences with a seriousness British undergraduates did not feel in theirs. There were, as it happened, real differences between the programs of the British Conservative and Labour parties not matched by the conflict between Republicans and Democrats, but few of us were committed one way or the other.
Americans, on the other hand, clearly believed in the power of politics to alter the future. Their convictions foreshadowed the future that their own achievements had already preordained for them. They were a national elite—the elevation of the Rhodes scholarship to the status of undisputed prize for “most likely to succeed” in institutions as dissimilar as Harvard and the U.S. Military Academy is the subtlest of the many cultural holds Britain still exerts over the United States—and they knew it. All were of outstanding ability, and a few of exceptional intellect; one of my Balliol contemporaries was to become a Nobel prizewinner. The majority of the Americans were not, however, purely academic. Those with whom I became friends included a future senator, a head of the Exxon Corporation, a leading Wall Street lawyer, an ambassador, a writer of distinction.
Americans in the Eisenhower years must have felt there was nothing their country could not do. That was cer
tainly the spirit exuded by the Balliol Americans; it touched those British undergraduates with any imagination; it touched me. I made friends with every American in college; I remember each one of them vividly; many remain my friends to this day. The making of friendships between America’s and Britain’s best had been a prime purpose for which Cecil Rhodes had left his money. I would certainly not count myself among the British elite, but a surprising number of my Balliol contemporaries were destined to join it. My Balliol years formed a talented group, and the friendships that the foremost of them made with the Americans have lasted, to the very great benefit of my country and with some, I hope, to theirs. Through such friendships Britain succeeded in sustaining the mutuality that the victory of 1945 had bequeathed. The 1950s were the Eisenhower years. The United States bestrode the world militarily, diplomatically, scientifically, industrially, financially. The Oxford Americans of my youth were fitting representatives of the United States at one of its high moments. They were public-spirited, they were able, they were attractive in looks and character, they were brimming with self-confidence, about their own futures and that of the world we shared. Little wonder that I found in them confirmation of my parents’ assertions that the United States was neither a pale imitation of England nor a land of Hollywood fairy tale but a civilization in its own right. There was of course no hope of seeing it for myself. Britain in the 1950s was semibankrupt and in the grip of a dollar famine. Even had I had the money to finance a transatlantic visit, I would not have been allowed to exchange it.
Then, in 1956, a strange rumor began to circulate at Balliol. An American who had been at the college before the war had conceived the idea of founding a sort of Rhodes scholarship in reverse, confined to Balliol undergraduates, so that young Britons could get to know the United States as Rhodes scholars knew the United Kingdom. He was rich, he was serious, and he did not want those selected to attend universities but simply to travel through America in pursuit of some interest in the country that they could justify to the selecting committee. The first group of six departed that year. In 1957 I submitted a proposal to make a tour of the battlefields of the Civil War. As I had chosen military history as my special subject in the Oxford final exams, my proposal was taken seriously. There were months of anticipation. Then, just before graduation, I was told I had been successful. Tickets and money would be sent on. I was going to go to America.