A Personal History
“Any friend or acquaintance who turns to the index,” writes A.J.P. Taylor in the preface to his autobiography, “and does not find his name there can console himself that he was originally the subject of a passage which the lawyer condemned” (for libel, that is). He admits to seventy-six excisions, including all references to the second of his three wives. Americans who begin with the index may be struck by a stranger omission: that of any extended reference to their country. There are, in fact, twenty-seven references to “America,” “American,” or “the United States” in the text, almost all trivial (though many, and flattering, to “Russia” and “the Russians”). They may consider this disregard a libel in itself. It is certainly deliberate. The author records with glee that he has seen the United States only once, when he glimpsed the hills of Maine from Canada during his one and only transatlantic visit, made in middle age.
Such parochialism would be unremarkable in another sort of English-speaking scholar—a philologist or a philosopher. But A.J.P. Taylor is, of course, a great—perhaps the greatest living—international historian. It may be that English History, 1914-45 is his best book. Most of his twenty-six others have taken war or diplomacy as their subject, and that during the period when the United States has been a major, or the dominant, power in the world. His attitude toward the country, unstated but unmistakable, seems therefore perverse. It is also, quite simply, unhistorical. In one of his few full allusions to the United States, when he discusses the British response to American entry into the Second World War, he writes:
There was little of the gratitude towards America that Churchill and others told us we ought to feel. What had we to be grateful for? It was the Americans who should have been grateful to us. Our little island filled up with two million or so Americans almost unnoticed. The social contacts were far fewer than with our European allies, at any rate outside London. The Americans brought their own continent with them and hardly remarked what the aborigines were doing.
Anyone who spent the war outside London, or Oxford, knows that this is simply wrong. Between 1942 and 1944, throughout southern England and East Anglia, the great excitement was the Americans. Their coming was the guarantee that the Continent was going to be invaded, that Hitler was going to be beaten, that the war would be won. And, in the meantime, they provided variety, color, glamour in an otherwise drab and pinched existence.
The Americans, moreover, were by no means indifferent to the natives. Not only did thousands of them marry English girls. The survivors of D-day took back to the United States sharp and often warm impressions of the country in which they had prepared for their epic, as anyone who writes with generosity of their brave and unstinted effort will discover. A recent book of mine on the invasion …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
‘Personal History’ January 19, 1984