A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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Special Report No. 8

23rd February, 1942 .

British Public Opinion and the United States


Between January 21 and 26, 1942, the British Institute of Public Opinion carried out a survey on the above subject. The public were questioned in 158 different areas, situated throughout Britain. The areas covered and the persons questioned were so chosen that the sample was representative of the population, from the age of 16 years and upwards. The size of the sample was such that the statistical margin of error is about 3%. Each interview lasted on an average ½ - ¾ hour.

The majority of interviewers agreed that it was the most difficult Survey they had undertaken. The interest in the United States shown by the public was scant. Most interviewers added that they were surprised at the indifference they had encountered, which was greater than they had expected. An interviewer of more than four years experience remarked, “I met so many ‘Don't knows’ that even I began to feel embarrassed”. The one aspect of the United States and their affairs which seemed to arouse interest was the possibility of our receiving supplies and armed assistance in the war. Queries such as: “When are they really going to fight the war?” were frequently put by the people contacted.

The questions and results have been grouped under three headings:-

Knowledge of America and how people gained it.

America and the War.

America and Britain compared; opinion about America.

This has necessitated altering the order in which the questions were asked, but the original numbering of the questions has been retained.

It appears from the results that there is no very burning interest in America. The picture which people have in their minds is mainly of a pre-1929 America, in which Trades Unionists are ignored or attacked, corruption is common, social legislation primitive and commercialism rampant - a cocksure country, with a high standard of living and a great capacity for mass-production. The public feels, above all, in need of more information about the ordinary ways of life of ordinary American people.


Q. 3. “a. Do you know any Americans ?

b. A lot or a few ?

c. Have you visited America?”

a. b. c.
Yes No Lot Few Has visited U.S.A .
Total: 39% 61% 1% 32% 6%
Men: 44% 56% 2% 33% 9%
Women: 34% 66% 1% 29% 4%
Income Groups
Upper: 69% 31% 2% 50% 17%
Middle: 49% 51% 3% 38% 8%
Lower: 32% 68% - 27% 5%

Notes :

1. The only significant figure emerging from an age-group breakdown was the lower figure (32%) among the under 20s who said they knew any Americans.

2. The most surprising figure is the 5% of the lower income group who stated that they had visited the U.S.A. The statistical error of this figure may be + or - 1%. All the interview forms in this group were carefully re-checked. Only one obviously erroneous form was found. The majority were engineers, fitters, slaters, and two farm-labourers who had worked for varying periods in the U.S.A. On the whole, they had not liked it, and were markedly lacking in interest in it.

Q. 6. “What do you think is the population of the United States?”

Under 120 millions: 33% Under 50 m. 4%
50 - 74 m. 4%
75 - 99 m. 10%
100 - 119 m. 15%
120 - 139 millins: 18%
140 millions and over: 30% 140 - 164 14%
165 - 189 4%
190 and over 12%
Don't know 19%

Notes :

1. Estimates varied from 6 millions to 400 millions.

2. This question was asked as an extremely simple general knowledge question. It reveals a high degree of ignorance. Only 18% gave an approximately correct answer.

Q. 9. “a. Which do you think is the better way of bringing up children - the British or the American?

b. What is the main difference?”

British American Same Don't know
Total: 30% 20% 16% 34%
Men: 27% 21% 16% 36%
Women: 34% 18% 16% 32%

Main difference given in pro-British answers :

We are more strict with children

American children are too precocious

Our children are more respectful to their elders

We give them a better home life.

Main differences given in pro-American answers :

American children are taught to be more broad-minded and independent: they have more freedom.

The Americans are more interested in educating the children; they have more chance to go to the University; they believe in co-education;

They look after the children better in things such as food and clothes.

Notes :

1. For clarity in presenting results, the order of the questions has been inverted. Their substance is unchanged.

2. More people made pro-American comments than were willing to say specifically that the American way was better.

3. An age-group breakdown showed a steady decline in the American preferences and a steady rise in the British. In the under 20 group, the figures were British 26%, American 25%. In the 50 and over group, British 34%, American 15%.

4. A striking figure is the high percentage of “Don't knows”.

5. This and the subsequent question were asked specifically to find out what kind of picture the public had of the life of American women and children.

Q. 10. “a. In which country do you think women have more independence, Britain or the U.S.A .?

b. (If either is chosen) Do you think this is a good or a bad thing for the country concerned?”

a. Britain U.S.A Same Don't know
Total. 16% 52% 18% 14%
Men: 18% 51% 17% 14%
Women: 15% 52% 19% 14%
b. Independence good Bad Indifferent Don't know
Those saying Britain (16%) 79% 11% 6% 4%
Those saying U.S.A. (52%) 57% 25% 11% 7%

Notes :

1. Upper income-groups had the highest figure thinking that American women were more independent (64%) and the lowest figure for British women (13%).

2. The conclusions to be drawn from these figures are:-

That the great majority of those who have views about the relative positions of British and American women think that American women are more independent;

That a majority of this majority thinks this a good thing for the U.S.A. - but there is a substantial minority who think it a bad thing;

That a great majority of the minority who think British women more independent think this a good thing.

The 25% deploring the independence of American women represents perhaps the hard core of British Family anti-feminist spirit.

Q. 11. “What would you like to know more about, so far as America is concerned?”

Total Men Women
War and related aspects 26% 27% 23%
When U.S.A. intend really to fight are they really in this war 9% 9% 8%
What U.S.A. intend after this war 6% 6% 6%
The extent of actual U.S.A. war production 4% 4% 3%
U.S.A. Fighting Forces 3% 3% 2%
How U.S.A. really feels about Great Britain 3% 4% 3%
How U.S.A. is dealing with its Fifth Column 1% 1% 1%
Ordinary ways of living of ordinary people 21% 20% 23%
U.S.A. system of Government 7% 8% 6%
General working conditions, including their Trade Unions 6% 6% 5%
Everything, including wanting to visit U.S.A. 6% 6% 6%
Their houses, household devices, plumbing, cookery 5% 5% 5%
Educational system 3% 2% 4%
History, Geography 2% 2% 2%
Their medicine, hospitals 1% 1% 1%
Racial questions 1% 1% 1%
Miscellaneous 12% 13% 12%
Nothing indicated, not interested 21% 20% 23%

Notes .

1. When these results are grouped, it appears that the subject about which most people would like to know more is the ordinary way of life (home, working conditions etc.) of ordinary people (21+6+5 = 32%).

Next comes the war and its related problems (26%).

Then comes political and social conditions (government, education, social services, racial questions - 7+3+1+1 = 12%).

2. These results provide a positive line of approach for informatory activities.

3. It is notable that 21% were not interested in knowing more about America.

Q. 15. “Can you remember any books you have read about America?”

Gone with the Wind 10%
Sinclair Lewis' books 5%
Upton Sinclair's books 5%
American magazines 4%
Mark Twain's books 3%
Steinbeck's books 3%
Uncle Tom's Cabin 3%
Theodore Dreiser's books 2%
Wild West books 1%
Louisa M. Alcott's books 1%
Detective stories 1%
O. Henry's books 1%
Jack London's books 1%
Log Cabin to White House 1%
Other books and authors (includes non-fictional, technical books) 34%
None mentioned 54%

Notes :

1. Percentages are based on the total number of the sample, some contacts mentioning more than one book or author.

2. When the answers are grouped, it appears that the majority of the books read and remembered (Lewis's, Sinclair's, Steinbeck's and Dreiser's) - 15% - are those with a sociological, and usually a “debunking” theme. It may be suggested that the public attitude to the U.S.A. as shown in subsequent answers is strongly influenced by American criticisms of America, and that there is a big field open for constructive education.

Q. 14. “Which of the films you have seen gives the best picture of what life is like in America?”

Andy Hardy series 6%
Mr. Deeds goes to Town 4%
Mr. Smith goes to Washington 3%
Dead End 2%
Grapes of Wrath 2%
The Jones Family 2%
Gone with the Wind 2%
The March of Time 2%
Boys Town 1%
Of Mice and Men 3%
Boom Town
City for Conquest
Dr. Kildare series
The Women
The Higgins Family
Others 12%
None of them give a true picture 10%
Can't remember: rarely go 22%
Never go 10%
No choice 18%

Notes :

1. The Andy Hardy series are domestic Middle-Western comedies of adolescence, featuring Mickey Rooney.

2. As with books, so with films; if answers are grouped, the preponderant section is composed of films with a sociological “debunking” theme:-

Mr. Deeds goes to Town - a debunking of the American press. Mr. Smith goes to Washington - a debunking of American politics. Dead End - the problem of juvenile delinquancy Grapes of Wrath - the dust bowl tragedy of the small American farmer.

Boys Town - the reformation of juvenile gangsters.

These make up 12%

Q. 16. “Can you remember any wireless talks you've heard about America?”

Raymond Gram Swing 39%
B.B.C. American Commentaries (no names mentioned) 13%
President Roosevelt 13%
Quentin Reynolds 10%
Dorothy Thompson 8%
Alistair Cooke 5%
Elmer Davis 4%
Miscellaneous 9%
None 37%

Notes :

1. Percentages are based on the total number of the sample, some contacts mentioning more than one broadcaster.

2. Listener Research Reports confirm that Gram Swing is by far the most popular American Commentator. Some of the 13% who mentioned the Commentaries without mentioning names probably were in fact referring to Swing.

3. The relatively low figure for President Roosevelt may be explained by the phraseology of the question. Had talks “from America” or “by Americans” been enquired about, he would probably have reached a much higher figure.


Q. 4. Do you think Americans are as eager to beat Germany as to beat Japan ?

Yes No Don't know
Total: 49% 38% 13%

Notes :

1. Breakdowns by age, sex, and income groups reveal no significant differences.

2. This question was asked to see if the public looked upon America as being in “their” war, or in a war primarily directed against Japan.

3. The result may be compared with the answer to a Gallup Poll question asked on December 23, 1941 in the U.S.A.:-

79% - Germany constitutes a menace equal with Japan.

15% - Japan constitutes a menace greater than Germany.

Q. 5. “a. Have you come across the phrase “Lease-Lend” ?

b. (If yes) What does it mean?”

Yes No
a. Total: 92% 8%
Men: 94% 6%
Women: 89% 11%
Income Groups:
Upper: 96% 4%
Middle: 96% 4%
Lower: 90% 10%
b. We repay U.S.A. after the war 54%
U.S.A. sends supplies; we pay back after the war. 36%
U.S.A. sends supplies we repay in kind; we return them after the war; no payment if undamaged 8%
Things lent and leased to us 8%
We might pay back, might not; depends upon agreement reached 2%
U.S.A. sends supplies, in return we lease her bases 9%
I know it helps us; help for democracy 7%
U.S.A. gives what can't be paid for: no national debt 6%
Barter: getting goods on barter basis 2%
We put ourselves in pawn; U.S.A. helps us fight her battle 2%
Miscellaneous 7%
Don't know the meaning of the phrase 13%

Notes :

It will be seen 54% of those who had heard of the phrase had a fairly correct idea of what “Lease-Lend” meant. Only 2% gave replies suggesting resentment at Lease-lend - that we put ourselves in [Text Missing]down to the U.S. etc.



Q. 1. “In which country of the world do you think a child of poor parents has the best chance ?

(Give first and second choices)

First choice Second choice
Great Britain 39% 22%
Russia 22% 10%
U.S.A. 20% 26%
Dominions, 9% 17%
Miscellaneous or of no choice 10% -

Notes :

1. This question was placed first in the questionnaire, so as to avoid bias resulting from the subject of the enquiry itself.

2. The only significant differences emerging from the detailed breakdown of the results were:-

a. Among men, 36% gave Britain as first choice, while 26% gave Russia as first choice

Among women, 43% gave Britain as first choice, while 18% gave Russia as first choice

b. The proportion giving U.S.A. as first choice declined with the income groups:- Upper: 25%, Middle: 21%, Lower: 18%.

c. People of 50 years and over were more inclined to choose Britain first (44%), and less inclined to choose Russia (17%).

3. The low percentage giving Russia as a second choice indicate that many either named Russia first or not at all. The high percentage giving U.S.A. as a second choice suggest a latent appreciation.

4. America apparently no longer figures in the public imagination as the “land of promise”.

An interesting commentary on this point is provided by the emigration figures from Britain to the U.S.A.:-

Between 1925 and 1929, the annual quota of 34,000 people was filled. In 1930, when the quota was raised to 65,000 (at which it remained until 1939), the emigration figure rose to 50,000. In the next three years, it fell rapidly:-

1931 12,924
1932 2,099
1933 1,171

Between 1934 and 1936, the figures fluctuated around 1,500. After this, there was a slight progressive rise which in 1939 reached 3,146.

Q. 2. Which do you think has the better way of governing the country, America or Britain ?

U.S.A. Britain The same Don't know
Total: 17% 47% 20% 16%

Reasons given for chosing:-

United States - 17% Great Britain - 47% Both the same - 20%
% % %
U.S.A. more democratic. 8 Our electoral system results in better representation 12 Both systems are the same 8
All representatives elected - none hereditary 5 I'm English - that's good enough 7 Both systems are democratic 6
Government less bureaucratic; a younger country 3 Absence of graft and gangsters; cleaner elections 7 Both systems are bad 3
Miscellaneous 1 We have older traditions and more experience 6 No reason given 3
President too hampered; our decisions reached more quickly; better civil service 5
I like to have a King 4
Miscellaneous 2
No reason given 4

Notes :

1. A breakdown of the total figures showed Opposition voters to be slightly enthusiastic for the U.S.A. and slightly less enthusiastic for Britain (21% and 45%) with Government voters the reverse (12% and 56%).

2. Enthusiasm for U.S.A. declined with age, while enthusiasm for Britain increased with age.

3. Spontaneous comments showed considerable confusion between State and Federal Governments, and a fairly general belief that the American system is corrupt and cumbersome.

4. A belief was commonly expressed that, whichever country's system of government was chosen as the better, it was more democratic, less bureaucratic, and more rapid in action.

Q. 12. “What do you think is done better in America than in this country?”

Total Men Women
Production, large scale industry; roads, railways, transport, cars 29% 38% 20%
Houses, buildings, labour-saving devices 16% 12% 20%
Higher standard of living; wages, labour conditions; educational more opportunities for getting ahead 14% 15% 13%
Films 12% 10% 14%
Publicity, advertising, broadcasting 6% 7% 5%
Food, canning 6% 6% 7%
Nothing, or nothing much 6% 5% 6%
Speed in getting things done 5% 5% 5%
Health services 4% 5% 4%
They seem to enjoy themselves more 4% 5% 4%
Miscellaneous, including women's clothes Planning, farming, boasting 15% 16% 15%
No comment, and don't know 14% 11% 17%

Notes :

1. To men, American production and large-scale industrial methods make the greatest appeal. To women, the structure of home and the high standard of living are most admired.

2. If the sociological subjects mentioned (homes, standard of living, food, health services) are grouped together, they make the substantial figure of 40%, the highest single group.

Q. 13. “What do you think we do better than the Americans?”

Total Men Women
Craftsmanship; engineering, ship-building aeroplanes; machinery 17% 21% 13%
We are more temperate and sure; have more tradition; older culture 13% 11% 15%
Dispense law and justice government 13% 15% 12%
Social welfare; education 12% 14% 11%
Home life is better 6% 5% 7%
Sports played in a better spirit 4% 5% 3%
Art 4% 4% 4%
Our fighting forces are superior 4% 5% 3%
Trade Unions are better 2% 3% 1%
Broadcasting 2% 2% 1%
Business methods no graft 2% 2% 2%
The Press 1% 1% 1%
Religion 1% 1% 1%
Miscellaneous 12% 11% 13%
Nothing mentioned 17% 13% 21%

Notes :

1. To men, our quality production and our legal justice make the biggest single appeals. To women, our steadiness is a prominent feature.

2. Once again the sociological preferences (social welfare, education, home, Trades Unions, non-commercial broadcasting) form a substantial group - 22%.

3. The emphasis on the sporting spirit, the lack of graft, and the cleaner commercial methods of Britain throws a light on feeling about America, when the converse is considered.

Q. 7. “What do you like most about the U.S.A.?”

Total Men Women
U.S.A. is go-ahead, resourceful: efficient business methods 20% 25% 16%
They are free and easy, have a direct personal approach 15% 14% 16%
Absence of class distinctions 10% 11% 10%
They've helped us in the war 6% 6% 5%
The people have a better time, own cars, have more amusements available 8% 8% 7%
Their houses and buildings are better than ours 6% 5% 7%
Better climate, bigger country than Gt. Britain 5% 4% 6%
They produce better films 5% 4% 7%
They have a better educational system, more opportunities 4% 5% 3%
President Roosevelt 2% 2% 2%
Their food is better 2% 2% 2%
They are Anglo-Saxon, speak English 2% 2% 1%
They are more hygienic, e.g., in hospitals, handling food 1% 1% 1%
Their smart women 1% - 2%
Miscellaneous 9% 11% 7%
Nothing indicated 12% 11% 13%

Notes :

1. The “free and easy” way of the Americans and the absence of class distinction together constitute 25% of the preferences.

2. The sociological preferences (standard of living homes, education, food, hospitals) make up 21% of the preferences.

Q. 8 “What do you like least about the U.S.A.?”

Total Men Women
Brag, conceit, cocksureness 30% 30% 30%
Gangsters, courts of law, graft police, corruption 17% 18% 16%
Everything in terms of money: competitiveness, combines, methods in industry 15% 15% 14%
Their accent 9% 7% 11%
Their Isolationism unpreparedness for war 5% 5% 6%
Their Jazz; films 4% 4% 4%
They have no unemployment relief 3% 3% 2%
Too many mixed nationalities 3% 2% 3%
Their easy divorce 2% 1% 2%
Treatment of negroes, attitude to race problems 2% 2% 2%
Their Government 1% 1% 1%
Miscellaneous 11% 12% 11%
Don't know; no choice 18% 17% 20%

Notes :

1. The answers to this question show the very large field which is open to corrective education.

2. A relatively large proportion of women (11%) disliked the American accent.

3. In this question, as in many others throughout the questionnaire, the proportion of persons expressing no opinion was very high.

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