The spring this year was bitterly cold in Britain. But for the first week in May the north wind relented, and VE day was celebrated in baking sunshine. The nation wallowed in nostalgia. Nostalgia for past glory and for a war that, apart from a few revisionist historians, people remembered as a just war and a war for our survival. In Moscow there was the familiar parade of tanks and weaponry, comprehensible in present circumstances to remind the world that it was the Red Army that smashed the finest professional army in history. But in London on Wednesday May 8 there was no triumphalism, not a tank in sight. Veterans marched and, when both Houses in Parliament presented loyal addresses to the Queen in Westminster Hall, the only martial forces present were the Beefeaters and Yeomen of the Guard. The Royal Family reverted to their true role: they became iconic figures. On Sunday the Queen yielded precedence to her mother, now in her ninety-sixth year, and followed her out onto the balcony at Buckingham Palace with Princess Margaret, the three of them re-enacting the day fifty years ago when they had stood there with King George VI and Winston Churchill. An enormous crowd stretching all the way along the Mall to Trafalgar Square cheered good-heartedly.
Earlier there had been doubts that the BBC was about to vulgarize the event; but most people thought the BBC got the balance about right between speeches about the need for reconciliation and entertainment that brought back the old times. There was also rock music for the generations that were not yet born then. Vera Lynn (“The Forces’ Sweetheart”), aged seventy-eight, strode out onto a stage set up in Hyde Park and sang wartime favorites of unbridled sentimentality. For three days large crowds gathered there until the moment came on the last evening when for two minutes silence fell as in the days between the wars when everything stopped on Armistice Day at eleven o’clock. Then the Queen lit a beacon and all over the country beacons burned, fireworks shot into the air, and the modest festivities on village greens came to an end.
The celebration later in the summer for the end of the war against Japan was even more successful. It culminated in hundreds of teen-agers, to whom the war was an event in the remote past, carrying torches and surging down the Mall to Buckingham Palace. To the astonishment of the British, America largely seemed to ignore the fiftieth anniversary.
The two World Wars in this century created powerful myths. According to one the First World War was an imperialist struggle for which the statesmen of all five nations involved were to blame. The civilian armies endured unimaginable misery in the trenches, displayed astonishing bravery, and were slaughtered in their millions by generals who were little better than donkeys. Profound disillusion followed: words like “patriotism,” “honor,” “sacrifice,” were nonsense. Pacifism became modish. The only war still popular was the class war. Myths encapsulate truth; our minds would not accept them unless they did. But in doing so they also substitute clichés for reason.
The myth of the First World War so enfeebled the British and French that they were unwilling to contemplate the idea that another war could be both necessary and just. All Quiet on the Western Front and Kameradschaft blinded people to the fact that Germany had been sustained by a different myth. The German myth was that their army had not been defeated in 1918, it had been stabbed in the back by the left. Why respect Versailles when the Allies had broken their word and betrayed Germany? Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace gave the British a bad conscience about Versailles, and Anthony Eden, arguing that Germany must be appeased, refused to take any action when Hitler marched into the Rhine-land in defiance of the Treaty.
The myth of the Second World War was startlingly different. No one except a few mavericks like A.J.P. Taylor denied that Hitler started the war. It was fought to crush European fascism and Nazi bestiality; and because it was a just war the surviving Nazi leaders and Quislings were brought to trial. The memory of the Nazi-Soviet pact was expunged by the enormous casualties the Red Army suffered. Heroes were once again acclaimed, not only in the fighting forces but in the Resistance movements and among the civilians whose morale did not crack under bombing. The conscience of the Western Allies was clear. Even isolationists in America had to concede that it was Pearl Harbor not British propaganda that brought their country into the war; and despite strains and differences the Anglo-American alliance held.
Yet the myth of the Second World War also deluded politicians. It seemed self-evident that aggressors should be stopped dead in their tracks. That led Eden to identify Nasser as another Hitler and to suffer the humiliation of Suez. A decade later it led Lyndon Johnson to imagine that Vietnam was another Czechoslovakia, and to suffer the humiliation of Saigon. Yalta was the new Versailles that gave the West a bad conscience. We had sold out Eastern Europe. We encouraged the people who hated their Communist rulers to revolt, and then stood aside when they were crushed by Russian tanks. Yet when we developed an Ostpolitik in the hope of making the Communist regimes less oppressive, we seemed to the dissidents to be legitimizing the tyrants.
There was, however, one part of the First World War myth that the British took account of in the Second. That was the belief, widespread in America, that British propaganda had gulled America into declaring war in 1917. In 1939, therefore, the British declared they would provide only information; and since the Ministry of Information sat on what little information there was during the Phony War of 1939, no offense was given. According to Nicholas Cull’s account in Selling War the best hope for the British lay in allowing American sympathizers to do the work for them. There were two groups who countered the isolationist America First and Colonel Robert McCormick in Chicago; one, under William Allen White, the midwestern Republican editor, advocated aid, but was at logger-heads with the second group, composed of East Coast hawks and the Hollywood director Walter Wanger, who, along with some conservatives, urged intervention. Lord Lothian, the British ambassador, pinned his hopes on the Jewish community but Wanger had little support in Hollywood, because British policy in Palestine was disliked, and, Cull thinks, because other movie directors did not want to intensify anti-Semitic feeling in America. Worse still for the British, there was in the State Department a formidable enemy. Adolf Berle hated the British almost as much as he hated big business. He blamed them for having reneged on their war debts, and tried to close down British agencies in the US and to block aid programs.
It was not until the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz, Cull tells us, that the most important of all pro-British American groups emerged. These were the American correspondents in London. Edward R. Murrow’s radio broadcasts brought the war to America. Not much was made by the newspaper men of the tensions that lay beneath the heroism they reported. Only James Reston mentioned the occasion when a Communist member of Parliament, Phil Piratin, rushed a lot of workers from London’s East End into the snug air-raid shelter that the Savoy Hotel provided for its guests. (They left next morning having refused to pay more for a cup of tea than they would have paid on the docks.) The stories filed from London had an effect. When Eric Sevareid returned from the US in November 1940 he found himself treated as a national hero. Murrow became such a hero in London that in 1943 Churchill asked him to become the co-director general of the BBC. He declined.
Bit by bit the British improved their propaganda techniques, but in London it was not until Brendan Bracken in 1941 became minister of information that the management of news to North America improved. Even so Churchill never grasped the importance of releasing bad news, such as the sinkings in the Atlantic, in order to galvanize American opinion. In 1941 the British at last reorganized their information service in Washington. They put a popular—though not perhaps their most dazzling—diplomat at its head who could be guaranteed to belt out to applause whatever draft speech his staff put into his hands. The historian John Wheeler-Bennett took a bet that he could insert into a speech the phrase that Hitler might think he had Britain cornered but there was “nothing so ferocious as a cornered sheep”: it was spoken, the hypnotized audience cheered, and Wheeler collected his winnings. Isaiah Berlin arrived from Oxford to cultivate the Jewish community and improbably the American trade union movement. The British also developed another agency, the British Security Co-ordination office, under William Stephenson; it was to conduct covert propaganda and staffed with a covey of highly intelligent young dons such as A.J. Ayer and William Deakin and the future famous advertising agent David Ogilvy. Among Stephenson’s operations was his plan to discredit America First and pin down evidence of secret German support upon the isolationists.
The weakest link in the British efforts was their ambassador to the US. Lord Halifax remained insufferably British, making disparaging remarks about baseball, and worse still, publicly spurning a hot dog. Isaiah Berlin might draft a speech suitable for a CIO convention, but what did Halifax do? He put it aside and talked about God. When he was pelted with tomatoes and eggs by isolationist ladies in Detroit, he replied that in England these missiles were now very scarce and his only feeling was one of envy that they were in such abundance that they could be thrown at him. From then on he was cheered at meetings of realtors, and black workers applauded him on his morning stroll in Washington.
Meanwhile the British developed several secret devices to appeal to American emotions. Their best-known writers, like E.M. Forster, would have nothing to do with propaganda. Cyril Connolly’s Horizon regarded the war as a disagreeable interference with art. But the British deployed a reserve army of middle-brow writers. By August 1941 Americans were buying fifteen hundred copies a day of Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, a character ever so ladylike, so winning with her little ringing laugh, with her gift of putting the lower orders at their ease, so amused when they put her down. What chance did Hitler have against a nation of Minivers? By the fall of 1941 Nicholas Cull judges that America was in such a state of pro-British belligerence that when Pearl Harbor was attacked, there were few doubters left.
Well, yes; but the truth was that in 1941 America was as far as it ever had been from declaring war on the Axis. The Germans were at the gate of Moscow, Leningrad was under siege, and the Don basin in German hands. In the Mediterranean the British had been thrown out of Greece and Tobruk was being invested by Rommel’s army. Roosevelt may have been glad to sense the change of atmosphere but he had far too shrewd a sense of congressional and public opinion to go further than he did. Cull tells the story of a mounting succession of minor diplomatic triumphs in getting US support, but, like most diplomatic triumphs, the change they made to political reality was minuscule.
What did those remarkable professional journalists, Murrow, Reston, Quentin Reynolds, Raymond Gram Swing, and the like see in London? Philip Ziegler’s well-written London at War gives as good an account as any. Ziegler punctures the myth of the Blitz almost as often as he confirms it. The mass bombing of London began on September 8, 1940, when the East End and Dockland went up in flames, to be visited the next day by Churchill and soon by the King and Queen, who became all the more popular when Buckingham Palace was hit. The worst raids were on December 29, when, on a Sunday, a firestorm like that which later devastated Hamburg engulfed the City; and March 1941 saw another heavy raid. Between April 16 and 19 over a thousand people were killed each night and 148,000 houses damaged. The last gigantic raid was on May 10, when three thousand were killed. Thereafter there was a lull for two and a half years. But in January 1944 the Little Blitz began and was followed by pilotless aircraft attacks and later by rockets until March 27, 1945, when the last rocket fell. By then 30 percent of the City had been destroyed and 20 percent of the East End. Half of Britain’s fatal casualties during the war were Londoners.
Certainly there was some panic when the raids began but not about where the bombs fell. The resentment by the East Enders against the rich, who in the early years of the Blitz seemed to be escaping the worst, evaporated when the West End was shattered. At first people were bewildered that there was no anti-aircraft fire. (The sky was cleared for RAF night-fighter aircraft.) Then the anti-aircraft batteries were ordered to London and the noise of the barrage comforted its citizens. It also greatly increased the likelihood of their becoming casualties from falling pieces of shrapnel. There were cowardly air-raid wardens, but they were later dismissed, and most wardens patrolled during the raids.
As Ziegler shows, the clergy excelled themselves. James Pope-Hennessy once indignantly denounced to me the vicars of the Wren churches in the City for not patrolling the roofs of their churches or extinguishing the incendiary bombs that destroyed so many of them. In fact they were at work in the streets, consoling the wounded and homeless and ministering to the dying. When officialdom was stuffy the crowds swept it aside and commandeered the tube stations to use as shelters. In the worst days office girls still came in to work each morning, often finding their jobs gone. By March 1941 looting bombed stores was common and four boys between ten and eleven were birched. When the Café de Paris nightclub was hit, rings were stolen from the fingers of the dead women. Yet as so often when calamity strikes, intense camaraderie arose. People showed dignity, courage, and resolution. Everybody had his bomb story, and fear was defused by humor—black humor. A Lambeth citizen from Victorian times suffered a premature resurrection when a bomb hit his tomb: encased in an airtight lead coffin his remains were strewn across the street and his head landed on the roof of the church. As they used to say in the East End, “Well, you had to laugh, hadn’t you?” But there were also ghouls who would point to wreckage and murmur that hundreds of bodies were buried beneath it.
Ziegler does not conceal the fact that British xenophobia was rampant. The Free French were unpopular simply for speaking French, whereas the Poles were liked. Refugees were distrusted, and among the upper as well as the lower classes anti-Semitism was never far below the surface. On the other hand indignation came to a boil when the famous West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine was turned out of the Imperial Hotel by the woman manager on the grounds that American army clients would not tolerate his presence. The hotel was fined. When GIs began to throng the streets, they were ripped-off by taxi drivers and shopkeepers. As people grew more weary, Ziegler writes, and as food, clothing, and almost everything else that can be consumed grew more scarce, the black market flourished, historic buildings were vandalized and pilfering spread even to air-raid shelters. Whitehall brass hats and mandarins found there was no wine in their clubs and rook-pie was on the menu. The well-to-do, however, could always eat in restaurants, although Woolton, the well-liked minister of food, failed to persuade diners that whale steak was a substitute for beef. The best that could be said for the government-sponsored British restaurants was that the food was wholesome. There was an ominous omen for the postwar future when, at the height of the battle for Britain, there were strikes in aircraft factories. Throughout the war, trade unions would call a strike over even trivial disputes, and management responded by penny-pinching: if it snowed or an assembly line broke down, workers were sent home without pay.
Morale was lower in 1943, when the tide had turned after Stalingrad and Al-Alamein, than it was in 1942, a year of almost unbroken defeat. In the Little Blitz that began in January, 1944 there was more looting and people found conditions getting worse—less food; nothing in the shops; taxis were willing only to take GIs who would pay an extra fare, but would otherwise head for home to avoid the bombing.
Then came the heavy casualties of the flying bomb attacks. Morale revived when France was liberated, only to plunge again when the Germans broke through in the Ardennes. GIs became popular when they helped repair the newly shattered houses. Oddest of all, when the war ended and the shelters were closed, were the laments. “I don’t know what I shall do when I haven’t got to come here every night,” said Mrs. Martyn, a deputy chief warden. “I think of all the people as my children.” Not so odd perhaps: tens of thousands had no homes to go to.
What kept people going in London was entertainment. People read books as never before: the Trollope revival began during the war. They listened night after night to the radio. The long-running comedy hit It’s That Man Again created a team of characters each with a line of dialogue that was his or her hallmark, and the speed at which each punch line followed another astonished Bob Hope when he heard them perform. Everyone knew the punch lines by heart. Memorable productions were put on with Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, Donald Wolfit, and, above all, John Gielgud; and Hermione Gingold camped it up in revues.
There is missing in Ziegler’s fine account a note of the happy frenzy in which we, the young, lived during those years, of our realization that we had burst out of the straitjacket of class, convention, inescapable commitments, obligations. Instead of taking a job and edging up in the hierarchy as the years passed, the young, and especially women, found all sorts of improbable occupations open to them. Some filled posts far more important than the civilian jobs their fathers did. For the first time women went into pubs on their own. Children were evacuated to the country, hated it, and returned to be bombed out of their homes.
British snobbery took a knock; people met others who lived and worked in worlds unknown to them and learned to get on. As always in war, at the very time that habitual bonds were broken, new loyalties—to one’s outfit, to new friends—gripped one. The excitement of war, the emotions heightened by the death of friends or by the ecstasy of unimagined love, has evaporated from Ziegler’s elegant prose. But how well he hears the rich indict themselves. The socialite MP Chips Channon celebrated his birthday with oysters, salmon, and dressed crab. The King of Spain “gracefully proposed my health,” he wrote in his diary, while nineteen cars stood parked outside his house. No wonder Harold Nicolson could not stand the Channon party for VE day, where people who had gone to Hitler’s rallies at Nuremberg and had praised the Munich pact were “celebrating our victory over their friend Herr von Ribbentrop.”
Diligently as Cull and Ziegler have dug into the records, their books are surpassed by Rich Relations. David Reynolds has spent twelve years assembling the materials for his book on the American occupation of Britain between 1942 and 1945. It is a tour de force in assembling archival and oral evidence. But it is more than that. Reynolds shows how the social structures of each nation, its history, its economics, its psychological outlook affected its attitude to the war. For instance the US draft which preceded America’s entry into the war was limited by Congress to one-year service, ending in October 1941. How was General Marshall to keep his forces together when OHIO (Over the Hill In October) was scrawled on the walls of every camp?
He did so by lobbying in Washington, but even more so by persuading Congress that the troops were to be well paid and fed. Many GIs came from poor families made poorer by the Depression: the draft raised their standard of living. The GIs in Britain, coming from a country emerging from the Depression, arrived in a country where rationing was severe, where sixty million people were changing their addresses, and deprivation stared the visitor in the face. Americans also found the class distinctions in Britain distasteful; the British made much of the color bar in the American army, and in pubs would take the side of the black GIs against white GIs who asked them to be expelled. (Within a generation the British discovered that West Indian immigration made them as racially intolerant as any southerner.)
In 1942 American troops began to arrive in Britain and requisition whole areas. Wycombe Abbey girls’ school was taken over, the enlisted men assigned to the girls’ dormitories. Bells soon began to ring impetuously: in each dormitory hung a sign, “If mistress is desired, ring bell.” Such stories of the impact upon each of the two nations multiplied. Northern Ireland was one training ground for GIs. Eire’s neutrality infuriated Washington, but de Valera solved the problem by not interning American airmen based in the North who had crashed or forcelanded in Southern Ireland.
There was simply not enough ground in Britain for the American divisions and artillery for exercises. Unlike the Canadians, who had discovered that billeting troops with civilians made for good relations, American soldiers were housed in camps. So the American Red Cross opened clubs which were so swamped by Allied soldiers that they soon had to be confined to Americans and their guests.
When Eisenhower arrived he encouraged visits by GIs to people’s houses and suggested that each man should carry a day’s rations so that he could make presents to children. Margaret Mead was pressed into service to explain in a pamphlet given to GIs why this tribe of intelligent savages behaved as they did. Strenuous efforts were made to correct the stereotypes of Americans, such as Mickey Rooney’s A Yank at Eton, or Hollywood westerns. Prodigious efforts were made to improve friendships between the natives and the intruders. Reynolds considers that relations between them improved in the six months before D-Day, but they were patchy: in Oxford excellent, in badly bombed Southampton poor.
Sex occupies many of the chapters in Reynolds’s book. He describes how harassment by GIs of British women was matched by the harassment of GIs by the prostitutes in Piccadilly, and how the soldiers abandoned both their women back home and their newfound girlfriends. A quarter of the letters that Americans sent from Normandy were to British addresses. To this day there are stories of British children, now long grown up, searching in American records for their natural fathers.
But not all American soldiers wanted to get laid. Robert Peters, now a writer who taught for many years on the Irvine campus of the University of California, conducted a private war of his own to preserve his virginity. There could have been few recruits less conditioned to be a soldier than this Wisconsin farm boy, a devout Lutheran of the strictest sect. In basic training he could not learn to salute, climb a rope, or master the manual of arms. He graduated from mortar plate carrier to company barber and ended as clerk typist before going overseas. He is shocked by dirty jokes, is ribbed for his innocence, is propositioned by gays and won’t date English girls or Piccadilly whores. He is set upon by women but holds out until, forced into a brothel, he succumbs but doesn’t come. Then, at last, on leave in Paris his heroine appears. He queues three hours to hear Dietrich sing. By now he’s more self-confident: a technical sergeant, he still dislikes giving orders but revels in his smart uniform, polished boots, creased trousers. He attends a Lutheran Christmas service for American and Germans alike. “I ached loving my Savior and the men who were sharing my life. And I ached for home.”
Eventually he falls for a German girl. She is a virgin who is horrified, when he penetrates her, at the sight of her blood, and refuses to sleep with him any more. He wonders whether he is in fact straight and does not prefer one of his buddies. Home to Wisconsin and the same grinding poverty. The GI Bill of Rights saves him. The story is not mawkish; it is written with flashes of feeling and perhaps is nearer the experience of thousands of GIs than the tales of drama and trauma.
The last part of Reynolds’s book deals with the disputes between the high commands of both countries, and he notes how the success of the Americans in Normandy put an end to the supercilious British sneers at their fighting ability. Patton, who despised limeys, won unstinted admiration especially from Churchill. The efficiency of the American supply lines, the prodigal supply of vehicles of every kind—and military observers noted the accuracy of American artillery fire—won British respect.
One of the excuses the British give for their recalcitrance in joining the European Community is that, unlike the Continental states, Britain suffered neither occupation by a conqueror nor the guilt of collaboration, nor the trauma of betrayed resistance fighters—nor, as in Germany’s case, de-Nazification and the ruin of her cities. But then, say the cynics, Britain was, in fact, occupied by an army that was immeasurably better fed and paid, claimed extraterritorial rights, and even set up its own radio network. Curiously enough the American occupation of Britain, instead of leaving behind resentment and envy, convinced Britain that its future lay in remaining a faithful ally. The British consternation when Eisenhower snubbed them over Suez was as nothing to their fury when De Gaulle vetoed British entry to the European Community.
“There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies,” said Churchill, exasperated by Eisenhower’s refusal to forestall the Russians and capture Berlin, “and that is fighting without them.” The Americans worked harder than the British in keeping the alliance a reality. But there was genuine grief in Britain when Roosevelt died: men and women of all classes perceived he had been on their side well before Pearl Harbor. Eisenhower’s devotion to the alliance was legendary. Everyone saw him as a man without pretension and without affectation, humane in the way that few generals allow themselves to be. A friend of mine in counterintelligence in Eisenhower’s headquarters was sitting alone with him in a shelter when the German flying bomb offensive had just begun. As one passed overhead and exploded in the distance, Eisenhower said, “You know, every time I pray, ‘Oh Lord, keep that engine going,’ I feel kinda mean.” It is fitting that in Grosvenor Square, the one part of London annexed by the United States seemingly in perpetuity, there stand the statues of Roosevelt and Eisenhower.
October 19, 1995