A myth to encourage Uncle Sam: how US journalists sold America the story of heroic Britain in 1940

Their finest hour: the Battle of Britain memorial at Victoria Embankment in London. CarlsPix via Shutterstock

Of the myths initiated in the summer of 1940, none was more essential than that Britons were “all in it together”. This image of a united people was a brilliant invention. It worked because it actually inspired the conduct it purported to describe and had the added benefit of influencing American opinion. Convincing Americans that Britain was capable of fighting on was an urgent priority. American journalists contributed enormously to its achievement.

Isolationism, the belief that America should avoid involvement in foreign wars, had widespread support in 1940. Joseph Kennedy, US ambassador in London, warned the State Department against involvement. Noting Churchill’s hunger for American aid, Kennedy advised: “Unless there is a miracle, they realise they haven’t a chance in the long run.”

Such official pessimism was reinforced by questions about why, if it was a democracy, Britain still had an empire. There was widespread doubt whether its notoriously stuffy bureaucracy was capable of fighting a modern war and Americans wondered why Britain’s class system was so rigid.

Britain’s class-ridden social order offended America’s certainty that “all men are created equal”. The Britons of 1940 did not appear equal and American mass media did not depict them as such. Historian Angus Calder notes that in the United States “a Disneyland conception of England as a country of villages, green fields and Wodehousian eccentrics” clashed with a harsher reality of inequality, injustice and snobbery.

This was depicted in The New York Times. It greeted Britain’s wartime coalition by reporting that observers “see in the new government evidence of a trend towards breaking down the class social structure which existed in England before the war”. But London correspondent Robert P. Post warned: “Class distinction is very strong in this country. It will take some time before it breaks down completely.”

CBS radio broadcaster Ed Murrow (seen here in the 1950s with US president Harry Truman) was an influential voice in favour of supporting Britain’s war effort. University of Maryland Library

Journalism academic Philip Seib recalls that the famous CBS radio correspondent Ed Murrow also worried about “the inequities of the British class system”. However, as the Battle of Britain began, Murrow set off for Kent to witness aerial combat between the RAF and the Luftwaffe. Ably supported by American newspaper reporters, he would use the opportunity to guide American opinion in precisely the direction the British war effort required: towards the belief that Britain could win and was worthy of their support and admiration.

‘Hell’s Corner’

The journalists worked from an area of the Kent countryside just outside Dover, known as “Hell’s Corner”. A group of reporters, including Vincent Sheean of the North American News Agency, Ed Beattie, of the United Press, and Drew Middleton, of Associated Press, travelled down from London to this location from which, as Middleton wrote: “You could be on your back, with glasses, and look up and there was the whole goddamn air battle.”

If Middleton’s description indicates excitement, it is not misleading. Any reporter who has covered conflict knows that adrenaline plays a role as important as any commitment to public service. Indeed, adrenaline and commitment make excellent partners. They worked for Ben Robertson of PM, a left-leaning New York evening newspaper. Robertson promoted his paper’s anti-isolationist views in his reporting from Shakespeare’s Cliff, a mile west of Dover. He recalled that: “It was not we who counted, it was what we stood for. And I knew now for what I was standing – I was for freedom. It was as simple as that.”

Robertson was one of 150 correspondents who gathered on the cliff to witness the fighting, two-thirds of them American. The veteran British war correspondent Richard Collier notes in his book The Warcos: The War Correspondents of World War II that: “They had brought along their typewriters, their cameras and their binoculars but somewhere back in their London hotel rooms they had left behind their objectivity.”

British virtues explained

Virginia Cowles, a Vermont-born society figure and columnist whose work appeared on both sides of the Atlantic was determined to promote the British cause. On June 29 1940, she broadcast to the United States on BBC Radio.

Reports current in America that England will be forced to negotiate a compromise – which means surrender – are unfounded and untrue. The Anglo-Saxon character is tough. Englishmen are proud of being Englishmen. They have been the most powerful race in Europe for over 300 years, and they believe in themselves with passionate conviction … When an Englishman says: ‘It is better to be dead than live under Hitler’, heed his words. He means it.

Vincent Sheean of the North American Newspaper Alliance compared the RAF’s defence of the skies to the defence of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War while, for PM’s Robertson, the battle conjured images of American settlers defending their stockades. Raymond Daniell of The New York Times did not regard partiality for the British cause as a flaw, arguing that: “Neutrality of thought was a luxury to which war correspondents in that first world war could afford to treat themselves. We, their successors, cannot.”

The Blitz: young children sitting in front of their bombed-out house in London, 1940. UK National Archives

The American reporters were greatly assisted by the news department of the Foreign Office and the American division of the Ministry of Information. Initial plans to ensure that Britain’s story would be told effectively in the United States had been prepared before the war. Now Whitehall made sure that America’s news about the war was routed through London and moulded by British publicity and censorship.

Britons were not equal during the Battle of Britain or the Blitz that followed. The experience of evacuation had illustrated the extent of class division. Newspaper archives (sadly not available online) report that in September 1939, there had been cries of protest when children from inner-city slums were evacuated to wealthier middle class homes. Suffering in poorer areas of cities during air raids would confirm it.

But total war inspired a desire for social justice. It culminated with the election in 1945 of Clement Attlee’s Labour government. The irony is that American journalists, few of them committed socialists, helped to inspire it.

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