As I Please
Tribune, 17 December 1943
letters have arrived, attacking me for my remarks about the American soldiers in this
country, that I must return to the subject.
Contrary to what most of my correspondents seem to think, I was
not trying to make trouble between ourselves and our Allies, nor am I consumed by hatred
for the United States. I am much less anti-American than most English people are at this
moment. What I say, and what I repeat, is that our policy of not criticizing our Allies,
and not answering their criticism of us (we dont answer the Russians either, nor
even the Chinese) is a mistake, and is likely to defeat its own object in the long run.
And so far as Anglo-American relations go, there are three difficulties which badly need
dragging into the open and which simply dont get mentioned in the British press.
1. Anti-American feeling in Britain. Before the war,
anti-American feeling was a middle-class, and perhaps upper-class thing, resulting from
imperialist and business jealousy and disguising itself as dislike of the American accent
etc. The working class, so far from being anti-American, were becoming rapidly
Americanized in speech by means of the films and jazz songs. Now, in spite of what my
correspondents may say, I can hear few good words for the Americans anywhere. This
obviously results from the arrival of the American troops. It has been made worse by the
fact that, for various reasons, the Mediterranean campaign had to be represented as an
American show while most of the casualties had to be suffered by the British. (See Philip
Jordans remarks in his Tunis Diary.) I am not saying that popular English
prejudices are always justified: I am saying that they exist.
2. Anti-British feeling in America. We ought to face the
fact that large numbers of Americans are brought up to dislike and despise us. There is a
large section of the press whose main accent is anti-British, and countless other papers
which attack Britain in a more sporadic way. In addition there is a systematic guying of
what are supposed to be British habits and manners on the stage and in comic strips and
cheap magazines. The typical Englishman is represented as a chinless ass with a title, a
monocle and a habit of saying Haw, haw. This legend is believed in by
relatively responsible Americans, for example by the veteran novelist Theodore Dreiser, who remarks in a
public speech that the British are horse-riding aristocratic snobs. (Forty-six
million horse-riding snobs!) It is a commonplace on the American stage that the Englishman
is almost never allowed to play a favourable role, any more than the Negro is allowed to
appear as anything more than a comic. Yet right up to Pearl Harbor the American movie
industry had an agreement with the Japanese Government never to present a Japanese
character in an unfavourable light!
I am not blaming the Americans for all this. The anti-British
press has powerful business forces behind it, besides ancient quarrels in many of which
Britain was in the wrong. As for popular anti-British feeling, we partly bring it on
ourselves by exporting our worst specimens. But what I do want to emphasize is that these
anti-British currents in the U.S.A. are very strong, and that the British press has
consistently failed to draw attention to them. There has never been in England anything
that one could call an anti-American press: and since the war there has been a steady
refusal to answer criticism and a careful censorship of the radio to cut out anything that
the Americans might object to. As a result, many English people dont realize how
they are regarded, and get a shock when they find out.
3. Soldiers Pay. It is now nearly two years since
the first American troops reached this country, and I rarely see American and British
soldiers together. Quite obviously the major cause of this is the difference of pay. You
cant have really close and friendly relations with somebody whose income is five
times your own. Financially, the whole American army is in the middle class. In the field
this might not matter, but in the training period it makes it almost impossible for
British and American soldiers to fraternize. If you dont want friendly relations
between the British army and the American army, well and good. But if you do, you must
either pay the British soldier ten shillings a day or make the American soldier bank the
surplus of his pay in America. I dont profess to know which of these alternatives is
the right one.
One way of feeling infallible is not to keep a diary. Looking back
through the diary I kept in 1940 and 1941 I find that I was usually wrong when it was
possible to be wrong. Yet I was not so wrong as the Military Experts. Experts of various
schools were telling us in 1939 that the Maginot Line was impregnable, and
that the Russo-German Pact had put an end to Hitlers eastwards expansion;
in early 1940 they were telling us that the days of tank warfare were over; in mid 1940
they were telling us that the Germans would invade Britain forthwith; in mid 1941 that the
Red army would fold up in six weeks; in December 1941, that Japan would collapse after
ninety days; in July 1942, that Egypt was lost and so on, more or less indefinitely.
Where now are the men who told us those things? Still on the job,
drawing fat salaries. Instead of the unsinkable battleship we have the unsinkable Military
Expert . . .
Books have gone up in price like everything else, but the other day I
picked up a copy of Lemprières Classical Dictionary, the Whos Who
of the ancients, for only sixpence. Opening it at random, I came upon the biography of
Laïs, the famous courtesan, daughter of the mistress of Alcibiades:
She first began to sell her favours at Corinth for 10,000 drachmas, and
the immense number of princes, noblemen, philosophers, orators and plebeians who courted
her, bear witness to her personal charms. . . Demosthenes visited Corinth for the sake of
Laïs, but informed by the courtesan that admittance to her bed was to be bought at the
enormous sum of about £200 English money, the orator departed, and observed that he would
not buy repentance at so dear a price. . . She ridiculed the austerity of philosophers,
and the weakness of those who pretend to have gained a superiority over their passions, by
observing that sages and philosophers were not above the rest of mankind, for she found
them at her door as often as the rest of the Athenians.
There is more in the same vein. However, it ends on a good moral, for
the other women, jealous of her charms, assassinated her in the temple of Venus
about 340 B.C.. That was 2,283 years ago. I wonder how many of the present denizens
of Whos Who will seem worth reading about in A.D. 4226?