“It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your
allies” (Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942)
A High-Contrast Pair of Peoples
By World War Two, the original vitriol between
America and Britain, born out of the American Revolution, had faded into a comfortable good relation which would eventually
evolve into one of the closest alliances in the world. This reinstitution of good feeling, generally dated from 1898 to 1913,
is known as the Great Rapprochement. As America became an empire after the Spanish-American war, Americans began to
see parallels between their own troubles and those Britain was having with her colonies in Africa.
This reconciliation culminated in the American entry into World War One, which, though later than much of Europe would have
preferred, most certainly helped to turn the tide of the war. As WWI catapulted America to the position of world power, it
also began the decline of the British Empire; as such, the relationship between the nations ought to have been unpleasant
and strained. On the contrary, this period saw a marked increase in cooperation between the two.
for the soldiers on the front,they were perhaps the most similar and most different groups out of all the Allied nations.
The shared language only serves to highlight their differences in culture and manner, making them a peculiarly stark contrast.
Both sides, however, at least in official documents seemed to portray the other as a dear friend and a valued ally; all prior
conflicts set aside for the sake of the war effort.
In discussing the Britons' opinions of the Americans,
and vice versa, it is necessary to distinguish between any given American and 'The American', and any given Briton and 'The
Briton'. While technically, most of this piece is referring to the common conceptions about each people, to say 'the common
conception of the American was like so, though of course many individuals differed' is both time-consuming and rhetorically
distracting; henceforth the disclaimer shall be omitted.
Americans’ view on Britons
The Americans' opinions of their British allies
seem to be summed up as 'polite, hard-working, but oddly private.' The booklet Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain,
published in 1942 and given to American soldiers on the way to their postings in Britain (which, being quite comprehensive,
provides the vast majority of this section) particularly stresses that last, the reserved nature of the Brit in comparison
to the American. An entire section headed "British reserved-- not unfriendly!" explains this particular national
peculiarity away as having to do with the geographical spread of the American population as opposed to the comparatively extreme
compression of people in London, which at the time was home to over two-thirds the population of the British Isles. With so
many people in such a small space, they reason, one learns to keep to himself and to respect the privacy of others.
This manifests as a warning to the Americans-- behaviour which at home would be seen as merely exuberant and charming could
(and often did) come across as arrogant or irritating. American soldiers are specifically told that the English phrase 'he's
chucking his weight about' means that they are being over-enthusiastic, over-boistrous, with the implication that this is
an admonition they will hear often.
Another warning to the Americans was to avoid criticising the
rather dowdy wartime state of the country. They are reminded that while America is a country at war, Britain is a war zone,
and has been for some years already. The run-down state of what is otherwise an extraordinarily beautiful country is explained
to be a rather touchy point for its citizens, and one the Americans are specifically asked not to mention. The fact that this
particular warning was necessary at all raises some questions about what was expected of the American soldiers-- did even
their superiors assume them to be crass and rude enough to insult the state of tidiness of the country taking them in? It
seems less of an expectation of rudeness, and more one of obliviousness, the aforementioned boisterousness getting them accidentally
As a point of interest, it would seem that British women in the fighting forces were more
respected than the Americans, as a section is devoted to describing their bravery and camaraderie, reminding the American
soldiers that "a girl in khaki [...] with a bit of ribbon on her tunic [...] didn't get it for knitting more socks than
anyone else in Ipswich."
The entire book is sweet and complimentary to the Britons in tone,
an obvious attempt to engender friendship, and one which seems to have been mostly successful (despite the traditional argument
of whether the Americans were "over-paid, over-sexed, and over here" or the Brits were "under-paid, under-sexed,
and under Eisenhower"). It describes the Britons as "the best friend[s] in the world", and reminds the Americans
to treat them with respect and brotherhood. On the whole, the Americans seem to have seen their British cousins as trustworthy,
good allies, even though they did get into arguments about beer and language and other such trivial outlets for wartime tensions.
The heart of the matter lies in an honest respect from both sides, a resilient respect which would survive even being overturned
for the sake of argument and blame.
Britons’ view on Americans
The greatest trouble in convincing the Brits to
get on with the Americans seems to have been the tendency to think of them like estranged cousins, rather than foreigners;
foreign habits and manners are fascinating, whereas the habits and manners of a slightly disturbed Briton, as many seemed
to believe the Americans to be, are merely incorrect. The demonstrative, expressive, and altogether space-taking manner which
seemed typical of the American could anger and mystify the Briton.
Nevertheless, a significant contingent--
perhaps even the majority-- saw those very things as endearing, charming, even attractive. The 'dashing American soldier'
is a type which appears in period-set works of fiction near-contantly, whether the author is a Briton or himself an American,
and perhaps for good reason; contemporary accounts abound of American soldiers' kindness to the children (giving them gum,
sweets, and chocolate) and kindness to the Tommies' girls (giving them soap, stockings, and a pair of arms to lie in-- something
which quite angered the Tommies in question).
Tendencies to steal British women aside, one of the
rather polarised images of Americans was of the handsome, wealthy gentleman. While one question at a talk by Maurice Colbourne
(a contemporary writer who spent many years traveling in America and took it upon himself to explain its peculiarities to
his countrymen) was simply: 'Why do all American women look alike?" he answered it by explaining in no uncertain terms
that it was because all American women were "one hundred per cent radiant". (Indeed, throughout his book America
and Britain: A Mutual Introduction one gets the definite impression he rather desired to be introduced to an American girl
Sadly, the other image of the American was of the foolish brute, but even in this, he was
the good-natured foolish brute, a creature of crass movement and speech but a good heart; perhaps this is why they were in
general found so endearing.
Britons were warned of the unkempt nature of their American cousins while
at the same time being told that back home, the Americans dressed in far newer and more expensive clothes than they. They
were politely asked not to be too offended by the Americans' tendency to throw money about rather than learning common thrift;
this, they were told, was the result of America's status as a producer nation and abundance of material wealth, particularly
in the West. They were informed that while, yes, the American soldier had a much higher wage, that this was because the cost
of living was much higher in America; he would not be the rich man he seemed if he was attempting to live on soldier's wages
back at home.
On the whole, the British view of Americans seems far more critical and honest-eyed
than the Americans' of them, but loving nonetheless. Where the Americans were fawningly complimentary to the Britons, the
Britons seemed to take American flaws into account and embrace them whole-heartedly nonetheless-- except, of course, for the
aforementioned wartime arguments. While on a personal level, nothing makes for easier fodder than national differences, on
the large scale those differences were accepted and overcome, rather than simply ignored; thus America and Britain were extraordinarily
close allies-- a closeness which continues today in the aptly-named Special Relationship between their governments.
Colbourne, Maurice. America and Britain: A Mutual Introduction. Aldine House Bedford St,
War Department, Washington, DC. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. University Press, Cambridge,
2004 (reprint of a book first published in 1942)