A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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For internal circulation only .

A.B.B.C. Listener Research Report on the changes in the state of British Public Opinion on the U.S.A. during 1942 and 1943

1 Two years ago a survey of the attitude of the British public towards the U.S.A. was made by Listener Research for the guidance of the New York Office. The enquiry was based on the observations of over 1,000 Local Correspondents and was carried out very shortly after Pearl Harbour. The fact that since then American troops have become a familiar sight in Great Britain was felt, apart from anything else, to be a justification for a repetition of the enquiry on broadly similar lines. A second enquiry was, therefore, made in January 1944, and nearly 900 Local Correspondents supplied evidence for it. Throughout the analysis a division was made between the observations of Correspondents from areas where there had been considerable opportunities for people to meet or observe American troops, and those from areas where no such opportunities had occurred. The following is a summary of the results.


2 Two years ago the prevailing view in this country was that the Americans were a “mixed lot” in which, however, the British strain predominated. This is still true the experience of having met American troops in this country having tended to confirm it. It is very noticeable that among those who have not met American troops and who must, therefore, rely for their evidence upon secondhand sources, the view that Americans of British descent are now in a small minority is very common. There is a notable tendency for alleged defects in the American character, political institutions, or war effort to be attributed to the ethnographical complexity of the United States.


3 The vast majority of the British people refuse to subscribe to the wholesale statements about the American character, whether they declare it to be in all fundamental respects very like the British, or in all fundamental respects different from it. This was the conclusion arrived at after the enquiry in 1942, and it still holds true today. It is noticeable, too, that it is among people who have met American troops that wholesale judgments about the American character are least common. Among the minority, however, it must be noted that, whereas two years ago the tendency was to say that the American character is in all fundamental respects very like the British, today the minority take precisely the opposite view.


4 Two years ago comparatively few people in Britain considered that American political life was less democratic than our own. This view, however, though still that of a minority, is much more widespread than it was, particularly among those who have met American troops. In the same way, there are fewer people today than there were two years ago who declare that American political institutions are more truly democratic than our own, though this view is still prevalent. It should be remembered that it is only within the last two years that many people have actually seen the colour bar in operation, and this has made a profound impression in some quarters. There seems, too, to have been a growth in apprehensiveness about the power of “big business” in the United States, and it is certainly true that many people find American politics extremely bewildering. The tendency to equate Congress with Parliament and party divisions in America with party divisions here, is increasingly recognised to be misleading, though what the precise functions of the House, Senate and Administration are, and what the real differences between Republicans and Democrats are, remain for many, if not most, people a profound mystery. It may be mentioned here that admiration and even adulation of President Roosevelt is still very common, anyone who opposes him on domestic issues tending to be automatically dubbed reactionary.


5. The British people, looking back over the period between the two wars, are much more inclined than they were two years ago to take a harsh view of the American contribution to international peace during 1919-1939. Those who have met American troops tend to be considerably less critical than those who have not, but taken overall there is reason to believe that at least half the British people believe that America made fewer contributions to international peace and order between 1919 and 1939 than any other democratic country.


6. In January 1942, in the first enthusiam of welcoming so powerful an Ally as the U.S.A., most people declared that America would have entered the war eventually on the side of the United Nations, even if she had not been attacked first. Today this view is much less prevalent. Indeed, the view that America would never have come in on our side if she had not been attacked first is almost as frequently held, and there is little difference between the views of those who have, and those who have not, met American troops here. It is not doubted that the President would have endeavoured to lead America into active participation by the side of this country, but it is feared that opposition to entry into the war was, in fact, far stronger than the ordinary man here thought it was at the time.


7. Very nearly 80% of the reports received show that the ordinary man's opinion is that the American people are still not wholeheartedly in the war, and that, man for man, their war effort is on the average not as great as our own. This view is even more prevalent among those who have had personal contact with American troops than among those who have not. Domestic disunity, whether in the form of political or labour opposition to the President, and the absence of comprehensive rationing systems, are cited as evidence of this. Politics, it is pointed out, still come first. There seems to be a belief that the physical remoteness of the American people from the areas of combat, and their freedom from air raids and from the threat of invasion, are enough to account for any defects in the American war effort.


8. Opinion is very much divided over the role America will play in international politics after the war. Most people think she will work in cooperation with Great Britain, but a substantial proportion of these doubt whether she will be prepared to work in equal partnership with the U.S.S.R. as well. A substantial minority believe that she will not work in equal cooperation with any other great power but will bid for world leadership, while another minority, almost as big, believe that she will revert to isolation. People who have met American troops tend to be more hopeful of cooperation in the postwar period from America than do those who have not made contact with Americans, Hero again, stress is constantly laid upon the position of the President himself. It seems to be generally believed that all will be well if the President is returned for a fourth term, but that if he is not, “big business”, which is not interested in international cooperation, will have its head unrestrained.


9. Correspondents in districts where American troops have been stationed were asked to say whether or not these troops are generally popular. Very few reported that the prevailing attitude was an extreme one: that American troops were very popular indeed or highly unpopular. The vast majority were almost equally divided between saying that American troops were quite popular and rather unpopular. Opinion is also sharply divided on the American soldier as a fighting man. But on this point there is a significant difference between those who have, and those who have not met American troops. Those who have not met American troops incline to the view that once they have acquired experience the “American is as good a fighting man as the British”, whereas those who have met them incline to the view that the “American fighting man will never be equal to the British”.

10. From the comments it is obvious that the sorest point is the difference in pay between the American and British soldiers. Though the American troops themselves are not blamed for this, it is felt to be the source of much ill-feeling. There are complaints that they are boastful and overbearing, but these are much less frequent than might have been expected. It is clear, however, that many people are shocked by the sight of so much drunkenness among American troops, by what they regard as undisciplined behaviour and slovenly dress, and that these, probably as much as anything else, have led many to doubt the efficiency of the Americans as soldiers. There were statements that the coloured troops are preferred because they appear to have better manners, though others deplored their wild outbursts as reported in the press. The attitude of white American troops to their coloured compatriots was mentioned only to be condemned and used as evidence against the reality of American democracy. The behaviour of American troops with women was severely criticised though the blame was not always laid exclusively on the man. Comments which said they were “really decent chaps when you got to know them” were perhaps as revealing as any, implying that many of the adverse criticisms came from people who had not, in fact, taken the trouble, or had not the opportunity, to make personal acquaintance with the American troops, and certainly the generosity of the Americans, particularly towards children, and evidence of their warm-heartedness and gratitude for hospitality have made a favourable impression.


11. Two years ago the sight of an American soldier anywhere in this country would have been a source of immediate comment and interest; today the United States uniform is, in many parts of Great Britain, as familiar as, if not more familiar than our own. How are these American soldiers regarded in this country? There would appear to be no basis for alarmist statements to the effect that American troops are universally unpopular, though their much higher pay is a source of considerable ill feeling. In general they are accepted as including, like all large groups of men, both good and bad. Inevitably it is the behaviour of an obtrusive minority which is noticed, however unrepresentative that behaviour may in fact be, so that drunkenness or an overbearing attitude of white to coloured troops creates a bad impression far out of proportion to the real incidence of such occurrences. The British people are, too, somewhat shocked by what they feel to be a slovenly appearance or bearing of American troops, and this makes a very great many doubt whether the American soldier will ever be the equal of the British. It is only fair to add that American soldiers' generosity, to children for example, is quickly appreciated, and such significant comments as “they are really decent chaps when you get to know them” were not infrequent. In a word, bearing in mind the potentialities of misunderstanding and discord, the relationship between American troops and British civilians is more satisfactory than many sanguine observers might reasonably have expected.

12. There have been certain other modifications in British opinion about America which are not necessarily greatly affected by, or at any rate not exclusively due, to the presence of American troops here. It is not unfair to say that two years ago British opinion about the U.S.A. was a little naive. It is less so now. There is more readiness to be sceptical about the superiority of American to British ideas of democracy, more doubts about the likelihood that America would have participated in the war had she not been attacked first, and a harsher judgment on American international policy between the two wars.

13. The prevailing view here is that the American war effort is not, man for man, equal to our own. The spectacle of domestic strain and continued internal political warfare is cited as evidence of this, yet this judgment does not seem to cause any marked degree of bitterness or ill feeling. People feel that the remoteness of America from the scene of the conflict must inevitably mean that the American people cannot feel the compulsion to total war as it is felt here. Opinion about America's attitude to the postwar world is clearly much divided. Hopes tend to be fixed on the President, the average man feeling that if he is defeated anything might happen to the prospect of American cooperation with Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. after the war. It is difficult for the British not to read an exact parallel between the position of President Roosevelt today and President Wilson in 1920. Admiration for the President and bewilderment at the workings of American political machinery seem to be as widespread as ever.

Listener Research Department

17th February, 1944.

NOTE : The findings of this investigation confirm those of Home Intelligence Division over the past year.

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