A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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No. 40. 11th March 1943

An American looks at American Troops in Britain

The following report was prepared by an American civilian, working in Cambridge and Huntingdon during the first half of March 1943. It is presented as submitted.

Subject of Investigation :

The state of mind of American troops stationed in England, with particular reference to

a) Their attitude toward the English people among whom they are living, and

b) Their attitude toward the coloured American troops with whom they have been sent here.

Method of Investigation :

The investigator, himself an American, wandered about the streets, entered the pubs, the restaurants, the cinema, the barber shop, the bank, the dance hall, the hotels, the shops, the market place, the cafés of the community at all hours of the day and evening. He struck up conversations with American soldiers about matters far afield and, gradually and he trusts imperceptibly, led them around to the subject of the investigation. At no time were the soldiers told an investigation was in progress. The investigator attempted always to conceal his real interests behind a cloak of idle bar-room gossip. He thinks, based on his intimate knowledge of Americans and their habits, that in this process of concealment he was sufficiently successful to justify the statement that the material gathered is at least uncoloured by the self-consciousness, and probably lacks most of the inaccuracies, that usually accompany evidence given for publication.

Qualifying Notes :

It should be noted that, although the investigator was wearing civilian clothes, most of the soldiers interrogated did not ask the reason for his presence in the district. In three instances, when the question was asked, the investigator replied that he was in England on a writing assignment for a New York magazine. The explanation did not result in a noticeable diminution of the desire to impart information. On the contrary. There was an immediate increase in loquacity and variety of information. The investigator attempted to take this artificial increase into consideration in assessing the facts thus divulged.

The conclusions in this report are based exclusively on information extracted, either by direct statement or by eavesdropping, from men in the ranks and non-commissioned officers. Although the investigator was successful in drawing several commissioned officers into conversation, he found that their statements were far from spontaneous. These officers were friendly enough, but guarded in their comment and so generally noncommittal in their opinions that the investigator decided to dismiss their evidence completely rather than run the risk of weighting his conclusions by what appeared to be deliberately, although not maliciously, jaundiced evidence.

In all, 23 American soldiers were talked to at some length, about 30 contributed evidence by joining conversations to agree or disagree or in some way add to a discussion already under way, and about 40 soldiers were eavesdropped upon in the midst of discussions among themselves. No Negro soldiers were talked to or eavesdropped upon.

To avoid the cumbersome process of documenting each conclusion with a statistical table of the number of conversations on which it is based, the investigator has decided to employ the device of a hypothetical spokesman who shall be known, in this report, as “the American soldier in England”. At the risk of being tedious, the investigator would like to point out that, so far as he knows, the individual he has labelled “the American soldier” does not exist. He is an artificial mouthpiece, a composite portrait, a mosaic constructed of bits culled from various sources, a blending of opinions that run all the way from vigorous statements to indifferent shoulder shrugs. Similarly, the words “in England” actually mean “in Cambridge and Huntingdon.”

Findings :

A. General.

The American soldier in England is not completely at ease. Although attempts have been and are constantly being undertaken, by his own morale units and by the English people around him, to make him comfortable and welcome, he does not feel thoroughly at home. He appreciates the attempts, and is in fact surprised by their intensity, but he cannot help feeling that they are doomed inevitably to fall short of their ultimate goal. He is, against his wishes, a stranger in a foreign land. He would prefer to be in the only place where he feels really comfortable, namely, at home in America. He realises, however, that the necessities of war make this, for the moment, impossible. He considers himself fortunate, therefore, to be stationed in a foreign land where the people are friendly and, apparently of tremendous importance, speak his language or, as he thinks of it, a sufficiently close variation of his language to serve most practical purposes.

The excitement of coming to a new country (none of the men who contributed evidence had ever been to England before and only one had ever been outside the United States: a two-day business trip to Montreal, Canada) has worn off. This novelty did not last very long. The excitement aroused by the exotic quality of a foreign land visited for the first time, to which he had looked forward, proved disappointing. The points of difference between American and English life, although many, proved to be differences of degree rather than of kind. There was, therefore, not enough excitement to outweigh the discomforts, which he hastens to add were minor. It would not be inaccurate to wonder whether he really considers them minor.

The American soldier in England wonders a trifle wistfully how it would be if he were stationed in Australia where, he has heard, and this is somewhat paradoxical in view of the original desire for exotic experience, the people and their customs are closer to America. He says (about half the soldiers interviewed raised this point themselves) that he thinks he would prefer to be stationed in a totally foreign land, North Africa, for example, because there he would know he couldn't possibly expect even remote similarities with the life he knew at home. (Several soldiers added, however, that they knew the grass always seemed greener in another pasture and they stated, with wry grins, that if they were transferred to North Africa they would probably regret the change in a short time.)

On the whole, therefore, the American soldier in England is not happy, but it is also true that he is not unhappy. He is, in short, a human being transplanted from his home against his will.

(Whenever the opportunity arose the investigator asked if they, the soldiers, thought their feelings would be different if they had come to England of their own free will, as tourists, rather than as soldiers. Most of the men answered in the affirmative. Some shrugged and said they didn't know. None made a negative reply.)

The American soldier in England has gone through a period of adjustment that, although it has not resulted in the ideal Anglo-American relationship, nevertheless has borne comparatively happy fruit. He admits himself that it could have ended in a fashion far worse than the situation that exists at present.

He arrived in a fairly eager, almost zealous, frame of mind. He is neither an intense student of politics and international affairs nor is he even an analytical newspaper reader, but he had the impression that England was in a difficult position, that she needed help, that she had asked her traditional friend, ally, and comrade-in-arms, America, to give her that help. The American soldier in England arrived with the expectation that he would be welcomed with open arms. He was welcomed, of course, but the open arms were more in the nature of a gesture than a spontaneous movement prompted by the heart. The American soldier in England, knowing nothing in the beginning of British reserve or the Englishman's true feelings toward America in this particular conflict, but highly sensitive to variations from the open-handed, loud, cheery, easy-going camaraderie to which he has been accustomed since infancy, was rocked back on his heels and flung into a period of bewilderment not unmixed with resentment.

(Only one of the soldiers interviewed still harboured this resentment and he[Text Missing] at the time of the interview, was much the worse for liquor. The investigator considers it an open question, as well as a reflection on his ability as an observer, whether the soldier in his cups, with all his unconscious censors out of action, was not closer to the truth than his more sober fellows.)

The American soldier in England is not quite certain (perhaps it would be more accurate to say the investigator was unable to discover) precisely what it was that brought him through this dangerous period of bewildered resentment to what he considers the present state of reasonably good relations with the British people. He is inclined to attribute it to a gradual and perhaps fortuitous muddling through to an approximate understanding of the two things previously mentioned, about which originally he knew nothing: British reserve and the Englishman's true, as differentiated from the editorial writer's, feeling toward America in this particular conflict.

Unfortunately, the American soldier in England is unable to state clearly the nature of his new understanding of these two things, although he is able to give many examples of how he, the American soldier in England, has learned to combat, or rather live harmoniously with, them. Many of these examples are frankly cynical. More are unconsciously cynical. Some, however, by far in the minority, are the products of unalloyed sincerity. The balance of this report is devoted to a statement and, wherever possible, explanation of as many of these samples as the investigator was able to discover.

B. Specific.

The American soldier in England has learned that the violently adjectival, frequently brutal, criticism that Americans in high spirits are accustomed to indulge in about their native cities and states is not the blueprint for a successful relationship with English people. Regardless of what he may feel about England, the American soldier in England has learned not to express himself openly except to his fellows. “If you want to get along with them, don't knock their country because they can't take it. Just tell them you think everything here is great.”

The American soldier in England, however, does not think everything here is “great.”

He thinks the country is inexcusably old-fashioned. He concedes that there is something to be said for tradition, but he will not admit that you can say enough in this direction to counterbalance the agonisingly leisurely shopkeepers, the uncomfortable hotels, the outmoded lavatory equipment, the funny trains, the cut of the women's clothes, the style of men's haircuts, the left hand drive, the slovenly business offices, and the dozens of other things that visiting Americans have, with a singular lack of either originality or effect, been mentioning for years.

He thinks the monetary system is an example of carrying a national joke a bit too far. He doesn't take pounds and shillings really seriously and, knowing very little or almost nothing about the workings of international rates of exchange, he is convinced they are part of an elaborately contrived device for extracting dollars from the pockets of visiting Americans as quickly as possible.

He prefers the English civilian to the English soldier. He gets[Text Missing] along better with the Englishman and the Englishwoman of middle and later years than with the young people, except the girls. He feels that the English soldier is jealous of him because he earns more money and resents him because it looks as though he has come over here to win a war that the English soldier has been fighting desperately but without conspicuous success for three and a half years. This is where the American soldier in England grows bewildered. He realises that the British soldier earns less money but he says, with inexorable logic if unnecessary frankness, that he can't do anything about that. He therefore resents the British soldier's resentment. He admits, though he may not sincerely believe, that the British soldier is a great fighter, worthy of respect and admiration, but he cannot escape the incontrovertible fact that here he is, at Britain's request, in uniform and under arms, to help the British soldier fight. He does not understand the Englishman's feeling that America is not really helping Britain, that this is as much America's war as it is Britain's war, that Britain stood alone in the gap for a long time, holding the common fort against overwhelming odds, while America dawdled and shirked her responsibility. When this is explained to the American soldier in Britain he nods and says he agrees, but he does not really believe it. He sees, however, that the British soldier does believe it. This confuses him. Therefore, as much as possible, he avoids the British soldier.

The American soldier in England has a faintly patronising attitude toward the British civilian. Because he has always been taught to respect older people, he does not himself realise how much real contempt is mixed in with this apparently only faint patronising attitude. He thinks the lower and middle-class Englishman is docile, satisfied because of timidity with far less than the American of similar station in life.

He does not understand the deep, sincere, unshakeable, and universal loyalty to the Crown and the royal hierarchy. He says it is undemocratic, without himself understanding, save vaguely, the true meaning of the word. In spite of himself he is, however, awed by the Crown and the respect it commands. He does not like this involuntary awe. He feels that somehow it is an unfair attack, hitting below the belt, on his principles which, by the way, he cannot define with clarity.

The Englishman's good manners embarrass him. He realises it is better to have good manners than bad, and he wishes halfheartedly that his own manners were better in the Englishman's sense, but he prefers to believe that this universal good breeding is “sissy” and merely another sign of the Englishman's unmanly docility. “You'd think they'd say nuts to the politeness and yell their heads off once in a while to get a little more dough for their wives and kids.”

The Englishman's precision of speech, the clarity of his enunciation, embarrass the American soldier in England. The fact that even an English waitress[Text Missing] seems to talk “better” than he does makes the American soldier in England feel uncouth. This manner of talking is associated, erroneously but firmly, in his mind with the upper classes. He thinks of it as a sort of national Harvard accent, put on deliberately by an entire nation instead of a small snobbish group in his own country, to make the outlander feel inferior, to “ritz” him. It does make him feel inferior and, as a result, he is derisive about other things. “They ought to lay off this cheerio stuff and learn how to eat right.”

He thinks English food is abominable, English cooking inexcusable, English coffee atrocious, English restaurants unclean, English waitresses untrained, English dietary habits unhealthy. When he is asked to remember that he is talking about, and living in, an island nation, dependent almost entirely on ocean commerce for its produce, a nation that has been totally at war in many theatres all over the world for three and a half years, he stops carping, seems embarrassed for several moments, as though he has been caught berating a child for its inability to get a man's work done, then shrugs truculently and says, “I hear it wasn't a hell of a lot better in peacetime.”

The American soldier in England realises he is drinking too much, far more than he drinks at home, and he admits it, but says, “What else is there to do?” The alternatives suggested do not strike him as convincing.

He prefers the English girl to the English young man. He feels an English young man will be nice to you when you are facing him, but the moment your back is turned he will “do” you. He attributes this to jealousy and is secretly proud of it.

He has very little sincere respect for English girls. By and large, he is convinced they are all inferior to American girls, in beauty, in intelligence, in knowledge of the world, in smartness of clothes, in traditional submission to men, in the use of make-up, in the ability to dance, in independence of spirit, in verve. His attitude toward them is that they are all that is available and will have to do until he gets back to God's country. He considers them all fair game. He is convinced he can sleep with all of them and will, without much prompting, substantiate his statement with a variety of detailed and colourful examples out of his allegedly personal experience. He says they live dull, stodgy, drab existences, work far too long hours for too little pay, and didn't know what a good time meant until the Americans came along. He says he can cut out any Englishman, soldier or civilian, with any girl and admits freely that this is due in large measure to his novelty as a visitor from a country where beautiful clothes are ridiculously inexpensive and the world's best dance bands grow on trees, and the fact that even on the pay of a soldier he has more money to spend than any Englishman these girls are accustomed to going out with. He realises this is not contributing toward his popularity with Englishmen, particularly English soldiers, and he admits this is unfortunate, but he has no intention of voluntarily giving up his concrete advantage for so nebulous a thing as better Anglo-American relations.

The Negro question makes him angry.

(On this point the investigator would like to depart somewhat from his device of an artificially created mouthpiece. It is the one subject on which the investigation proved most unsuccessful. The moment the question was raised, however obliquely, the soldier to whom it was addressed seemed to become suspicious. The investigator received the impression, perhaps erroneous, that the soldiers he was interrogating had been either badgered in this respect to the point of distraction or they had been warned, perhaps by other American soldiers or their officers, to avoid discussing it. Some facts, very few, were brought to the surface of several conversations and others were gleaned from such unreliable things as facial expressions and pregnant shrugs. On the whole, the investigator would not regard his findings in this connection as anything more than contributory evidence toward a later and more thoroughly documented conclusion.)

If he comes from a southern state, the American soldier in England is angry with the American authorities for putting the Negro into the army, with the Negro for daring to don the same uniform he wears, and with the English people for not sharing his views about the Negro. If the American soldier in England comes from a northern or, as the phrase goes, more enlightened state, he is angry with the southern soldier for bringing his bigotry into a war and into a foreign country where enough misunderstandings exist already, with the American authorities for not having enough sense to work out some discreet system of segregation similar to that which operates in the northern cities of the United States, and with the English people, who have never had to face the problem, for daring to take sides in a dispute about which they know nothing and in which the dictates of pure reason, elementary liberalism, and simple decency do not, unfortunately and according to all past experience, point the way to a solution. Aside from the southern white soldier, who has never been able to think straight or see anything but red on the Negro question, this particular problem to the American soldier in England arouses feelings similar to those that, let us say, Job might have experienced if, after all the sufferings he bore with so much patience, he found that someone had stolen his last razor blade. It is the last straw.

For all these points of difference with the English people, (there are undoubtedly others not revealed by this rather cursory investigation, just as there are a great many other points of identity and harmony) England, to the American soldier stationed in it, is the traditional ally, the homeland of the mother tongue, the country of Dickens and Shakespeare and Keats, the fountain head of much of spiritual beauty and worth that was hammered into him by his parents, his teachers, his school books, his childhood songs, even some of his games. He does not use these words to express this feeling, but he comes fairly close. (Even the most illiterate soldiers interrogated spoke respectfully of “this guy Shakespeare.” During the height of one soldier's vitriolic and not unfunny comments about the filthy towels in the barber shop where he had had his hair cut that morning and the long, infuriatingly patient queue in front of the cinema where he had spent the afternoon, the investigator asked if the speaker thought these sufficient reasons for refusing to fight by England's side in this war or for fighting on the side of the Axis where, with the assistance of America's genius for laundry equipment and her talent for efficiency, the barber shop towels in Berlin would soon be spotless and the queues in front of Rome's cinema theatres would disappear overnight, the caustic and critical soldier almost started a brawl before the investigator could complete his hasty assurance that he was speaking in jest.)

Conclusion :

The American soldier in England is, first and foremost, fortunately or unfortunately, an American. This means that, along with many other and better things, he thinks his country is the best and only place in all the world, that every other country, ally or enemy, will fall short of this to him faultless standard, and that, for better or for worse, he will insist, against all advice, pleas, or orders to the contrary, on his right to say so vociferously and often.

Precisely what can be done to change this is not, happily for this investigator, the subject of this investigation.

Final Note :

Most of the findings in this report are on the negative side. This does not mean that relations between the American soldier in England and the British people are hopelessly bad. It is merely a lack of balance in the report due to the fact that the investigator, conscious of friction between American troops and their hosts, was more interested in the points of difference than the points of affinity. Also, it seemed easier to get the soldiers to talk about the things that irked them than the things that pleased them. It is interesting, and highly significant, that in almost every instance, where a grievance was aired exhaustively, the speaker invariably added a comment couched in a variation of these words: “But don't get the idea I'm kicking. They're (the English people) okay and I'm for them and we'll win this war. It's only that, well, you know --” The unfinished sentence would be completed with a rueful grin, a bewildered shrug, and a suggestion that we all have another. We did.

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