Mention the war.

A couple of years back, I was in Warsaw doing some work with Agora, the Polish publishing group. Agora is responsible for Gazeta Wyborcza, the first non-Communist controlled newspaper to published in post-Solidarity Poland. It has a left-of-centre editorial slant (unsurprisingly) and supported the intervention in Iraq. Adam Michnik has been chief editor since its inception and the online version is the most visited newspaper site in Europe.

One evening, I went out to dinner with some of the online editorial staff and the conversation drifted into politics. We talked about Iraq, Poland’s entry into the EU and other stuff. As the wine flowed, the dialectic was replaced by banter and, soon enough, the discussion moved onto the war. To summarize, I was invited to concede that we had our ass saved by the US and I returned the favour by suggesting Poland owed its very existence to Britain’s stand against Hitler. What happened next was something of any eye-opener. It would be wrong to say that things turned serious, but although the good humour remained – and even though I was half cut – I detected that my Polish guests had a point to make and, well, they made it.

My ‘O’ level History course gave us about one half of one lesson on the Yalta Conference, but I’m broadly familiar with what happened there. I’m less familiar with the East European perspective which – if my Polish friends are anything to go by – is that the decisions made at Yalta effectively consigned half a continent to half a century of totalitarian rule. Far from feting Britain and the allies for defeating Nazism, the consensus round the table that night was that I should be doing a mea culpa for the role we played in establishing Soviet hegemony in the east. Now, my guess is that the objective historians amongst us will conclude things are little more complex than that, but I was left in no doubt that this is the predominant view amongst Poles and other East Europeans.

What put me in mind of this event was my holiday reading. Alistair Cooke is the British journalist who became an honorary American. For 6 straight decades he gave us his weekly Letter from America, the longest running radio series in broadcasting in history. There’s a advert running on TV at the moment (I think for the Ford Fiesta) which samples Richard Burton’s reading of “Under Milk Wood”. Truly, the English language has never sounded better. If you’re unfamiliar with Cooke’s broadcasting style, then try to imagine Richard Burton reading the news. “Mellifluous tones” may be a cliché, but if it wasn’t invented to describe Cooke’s delivery, then it should have been. And if you’re into lazy, Sunday afternoon inactivity, you can do worse than visit the BBC LfA archive which contains every one of Cooke’s broadcasts from January 1999 until his retirement in February 2004. What you get is not Stateside reportage, rather authentic and unrivalled insight into a country that many claim to understand and know, but few genuinely do.

Less famously, Cooke produced a remarkable piece of work in war-time America when, immediately following that day of infamy in 1941, he set out by rail, road and bus to discover how the war was changing the lives of ordinary Americans and the landscapes in which they mined, farmed and traded. Even more remarkably, this unique travelogue was thought lost until a couple of weeks before Cooke’s death in 2004, when it was discovered at the bottom of a wardrobe by his secretary, to be published 2 years later as “American Journey: Life on the Home Front in the Second World War”.

So why was I minded of my dressing-down in a Polish restaurant two years ago as I split my time between reading “American Journey” and saving my young daughters from drowning in the Mediterranean? Well, I’ve worked for and alongside Americans most of my professional life. I count many as friends and, as friends do, we’ve often engaged in banter about our respective national traits, characteristics and shared histories. On more than one occasion, this has led to ribbing from me about America’s late entry into WWII, quickly followed by suggestions from them that without US help, the constitutional status of the UK would look a little different today. As I read “American Journey”, it felt as though Cooke was, ever so politely, rebuking me and every other Brit who has occasion to light-heartedly denigrate the US war effort pre-1941. It’s almost as if Cooke knew that for the next 60 years, successive generations of Britons would grow up making the same jokes; and of course, there’s nothing wrong with such mickey-taking… long as you know they are ‘jokes’, have no basis in fact and indeed are historically ignorant. And whilst I suspect most of us would recognize this as the case, I, for one, am embarrassed by what I didn’t know.

In the foreword, fellow journalist and broadcaster Harold Evans gives us a taste:

Britain trebled its war output between 1940 and 1943, a ratio surpassing both Germany and Russia, who doubled theirs, though Japan excelled with a fourfold increase. And America? America stepped up its war output by a staggering twenty-five times. Instance: in 1942, a Liberty cargo ship of British design required 200 days to launch. Henry Kaiser, the dam builder from Spokane, had never before built a ship or airplane or handled steel, but he experimented with prefabrication and cut the time to 40 days. For his next trick he finished the John Fitch 24 hours after laying the keel. Without the fleets of Kaiser’s ships carrying ships, Britain would no doubt have starved.

There are countless other examples, but don’t imagine Cooke’s book constitutes a lecture about America’s war sacrifice or that it entreats us to acknowledge the debt she is owed; Cooke is simply telling us what he saw, the good and the bad. For instance, he visits an internment camp for Japanese-Americans rounded up in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour. Again from Evans:

Cooke is moved by the experience of visiting the Japanese-Americans in a camp at Manzanar. They have put the ramshackle place in order and run it themselves with elections, a newspaper of their own and free speech. Somehow they have also kept their faith in America. Driving away in a somber mood, he is ‘none too proud’ of what his proudly adopted country has done: ‘How slippery seemed the solid abstractions we preach when you journey 6,000 miles and find democracy in a concentration camp.’

There isn’t much more to say other than buy the book, but I’ll finish doing what I did the last time I posted on Cooke and reproduce one of his ‘letters’ in full. It was broadcast to Britain on the eve of Independence Day in 1943 and can be found in the book, from which I’m transcribing.

July 2nd, 1943.

A couple of weeks ago I stepped off a train in New York. I had gone ‘round and across the American continent, and I was back where I started. If you had met me then, and said to me, ‘It must have been exciting, what was it like?’ – well, I will try in a few minutes to tell you some of the things it was like.

You have heard a lot about America in the past three years, and perhaps rather too much of Washington and New York. Since 1939 it has been hard, and at times embarrassing, to say what America was doing for the war. To you, who had lost your homes and the people you loved, it was hard to talk of American sacrifice. It must have seemed as if we were asking you to take out your handkerchief and weep for a very rich man who had mislaid a favorite diamond ring. Even very early last year, it was the same America, the same landscape; the automobile highways were getting emptier every day; the boy next door went into the army; you heard about small farming towns here and there turning into smokeless powder factories. But last year, however much people felt about the war, or didn’t, there was one big and obvious fact. Industry and agriculture were committed to the war and all their brains and investment were going into it. This was something the civilian didn’t quite see, until suddenly this year the war took him by the scruff of the neck and moved him across this continent wherever the Army, or war industry or farming needed him. Now this year you can talk about American sacrifice and really mean all sorts of strange and inspiring things that have a special American twist, that are different from the sacrifices of countries which have, for instance, only one climate.

For example, you have known for a long time the minor hardships of traveling by train in wartime. But at least you have the consolation that not many railway journeys in England take two or three or four days, or even an overnight trip. I would pack my bags to leave Tucson, Arizona and get to the station at midnight – the train was meant to leave at eleven o’clock. At one-thirty the great monster came roaring into the station. There were hundreds of people on the platform, sailors, wives and soldiers, a few Mexicans, a Chinese or two, long-legged Western girls dressed in gay colors , shuffling negro porters, government service men. They all surged forward to board the train. Then a voice booms out – ‘Attention. Train No. 5, the Thunderbolt, now arriving on track two for Phoenix, Yuma, Los Angeles and points west. All civilian accommodation cancelled on this train. Will the two hundred Selective Service men line up opposite the subway enclosure. The Californian will arrive in one hour.’ The Thunderbolt shot into the west. So we waited for another hour, then sat up all night, then waited until all the soldiers were fed before we could eat. It’s good to treat civilians like that. In America it’s new, and very cheering.

Then you have heard that Americans haven’t got the petrol they used to have, and maybe you think this means the poor things will have to do without a picnic. But consider that everywhere west of the Mississippi, cities were built on the assumption that the only way a human moved was by motor car. A rancher in West Texas said he was going to have to work on horseback, for the first time in fifteen years. Then out on the Great Plains I stood with a sheep rancher in Wyoming and he looked over his workshop – it was all the sweeping, rolling shortgrassed earth between him and the horizon. He had a rationing form from Washington in his hand. He looked at it forlornly. He said, ‘It says here to share your car with your neighbor. My neighbor lives 97 miles away’.

You may have heard too that the workers in shipyards and aircraft factories are producing thousands of torpedo boats and Liberty ships and four-motored bombers. And so they are. You may also have heard that they’re all living the life of Riley. Well, a month ago I spoke with a family, one of hundreds of families living and working on the damp, hot Gulf Coast of Mississippi. This family of four was making over forty pounds a week. But they are in a town that simply can’t house ten times its normal population. So what does this family’s money buy for it? Well it buys them a tent with a dirt floor and no lighting and no heat. If they’d gone back home, to Dallas, Texas, they would have earned a fifth of what they earned now. But they’d have had comforts they’ll never know till the war’s over. Well, they aren’t going home. They’ll stick it out and bring up their children in a tent or a trailer. That, too, is sacrifice.

Or let your mind fly four thousand miles north and west to the beautiful Cascade and Bitterroot mountains, and all the drenching green valleys of Oregon and Washington, where noble Douglas firs stand across the tops of mountains almost like avenues of cathedrals. Here is the greatest concentration of trees in the Western hemisphere. You’d think that one thing these people wouldn’t lack is wood. You can’t buy a stick of wood to make a toy for your child. When I was there, the Navy had just gratefully received eleven million tons of lumber. In the golden Sacramento Valley, in California, last year, I saw vast fields flooded and rice being sown – by airplane – pretty tricky work. You have to skim parallel to the land not much more than a few yards above it. They used to lose good flyers. This year I went back…the man I knew who sowed rice there, and who had never been outside California, this year used the same low-flying technique to fly wounded over the barren hills of North Africa.

There is today no part of America where you can expect the landscape to look the way it looked last year. I drove last year through an orchard in Georgia – a pecan nut orchard, five miles long. Today, the earth has been ravished by tractors and bulldozers, and planes sit out there in the sun, wings touching, like battalions of bluebottles.

Maybe you have heard some of these things. But too often the news that’s cabled across the ocean is the people’s outcry against a new regulation from Washington. This is because Americans temperamentally don’t like much government…they think of it as a healthy man thinks of a surgeon’s knife. And when somebody tries to ration their life, their liberty, and their pursuit of happiness, they feel that they’re being forcibly plumped on an operating table. You in Britain have the fine habit of grumbling. Americans howl. They are as convinced as you are that the operation is essential to their future health. But they howl for the record. Unfortunately, a howl travels across the Atlantic louder and clearer than a deep conviction of a hundred and thirty million people. Dr. Goebbels says Americans are mad at the war. Dr. Goebbels is right. But he left out an essential word. Americans are fighting mad.

They transform a farm the size of Surrey into a tank training ground. They tear up the sagebrush from a desert the size of Yorkshire to make an air base. And if you ask them how many planes will fly out of here, the number is enough to make you fall in a dead faint; enough to make Hitler speed up his plans to abdicate. And when you ask why they need yet another airfield in a region of the country that breeds airplanes like flies, they say – ‘This is one of the air bases we’ll use in 1945 or 6.’

They have changed the look of their vast and beautiful landscape; they have set in motion a migration of working populations unequalled since the pioneers walked across the West. They have nine million men tanned, and tough and confident, ready to bounce into action against the anxious armies of the Axis.

They are doing this because they cherish fiercely the things that their nation stood for when it was created a hundred and sixty-seven years ago, and that it stands for now. The boys in the Pacific, one of them said, are fighting for blueberry pie. That’s a little thing they don’t intend to lose. There are some big things, the right to vote into power any man or government they want. The right to live in their own house and bring their children up as they please, and go fishing on Sunday, and pitch horseshoes, and say what’s on their mind whether Washington agrees or not.

And on the eve of Independence Day, this is what the New World, with its blood, its humor, and its roaring energy, is fighting for.

In the future, I know I’m going to find it difficult to make the same merry quips about American time-keeping. Not because they can’t, in any circumstances, ever be funny, but because I know there are far too many people who simply don’t know – and, worse, probably don’t want to know – just how facile and trite that particular joke really is.