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3 March 2003

“Immature, immoral, vulgar, materialistic . . .“

How Britons viewed Yanks in the 1940s

By Robert Taylor

”They should have bombed New York, not the natives on those islands. A few bombs in the guts of them will do all the good in the world.”

“I like them not in the way I like the French, as an equal, but in the way a fond parent likes his children.”

“Wait until they have a few real air raids. They are sure to panic and there will be a terrible mess.”

“They are a set of truculent and opulent barbarians, glorying in atomic bombs and the almighty dollar.”

No, not views on recent events, but British views of the Americans in the 1940s, taken from the Mass Observation archives at the University of Sussex. Mass Observation, founded in 1937 by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson and others, surveyed British attitudes through diaries and recorded conversations.

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In October 1940, when Britain stood alone against Hitler, only a quarter of those surveyed held a favourable view of Americans, with about the same proportion voicing disapproval. Many British regarded Americans as “opportunist, self-interested and mercenary”. They also described them as “generous, frank, likeable, sincere and dynamic”. But “the affections could not be described as passionate and seldom even as emotional”, commented Mass Observation. The British held a far more favourable opinion of the enemy Italians. Only the collaborating Vichy French rated less favourable mention than the then neutral Americans.

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By June 1941 – after lend-lease had started (see main article) – the Americans were more popular, with as many as 60 per cent taking a positive view of them. But, noted Mass Observation, “even in the most favourable comment there is often a strong undertone of impatience and suspicion”. The comments included: “When we have pledged all our possessions, America will be Uncle Sam indeed.” “If they feel so strongly this is a crisis for democracy, why don’t they come in and fight for us?” “That’s what they always do, leave someone else to do the hard work.” The British, suggested Mass Observation, judged Americans by higher standards because they saw them as distant cousins, not foreigners like Continental Europeans.

Even the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, which forced the US into the war, didn’t make the British all that sympathetic. They had thought the US was efficient and well organised; its lack of readiness for the Japanese attack showed them to be “naive, stupid and gullible”.

The arrival of American soldiers in Britain often hardened negative views. While there was widespread friendliness towards individual Americans by the spring of 1942, Mass Observation found this “tempered by a recognition of certain defects of character”. The Americans “tended to be rather vulgar and ostentatious” as well as “pushy and arrogant”. Though a third of the British liked the idea of closer economic ties with the US once the war was over, and a quarter even wanted strong political and military ties, many thought, even in 1945, that they were “immature, too materialistic and immoral”, “tiresome children with a mental age of 12”.

By 1947, after all the postwar arguments about loans, economic aid and convertibility, a Mass Observation survey found that a third of middle-class Britons continued to take an unfavourable view of Americans and only a quarter said they were real admirers. The Americans were “too self-satisfied, loud-spoken, too ignorant” as well as being “politically backward, uncultured and half-educated”. Mass Observation commented: “Americans are, despite their central heating, business efficiency and industrial superiority, still the younger cousins.” But comments already betrayed the resentful inferiority the British increasingly felt: “The USA will always expect to be the petitioned, not the petitioner.” “We shall have to play second fiddle – safe but no longer powerful.”

But perhaps the comment most apposite of all to the events of our own era was recorded in 1941: “They share a presumption of interfering in the affairs of others without the intention of coping with the consequences”.

Robert Taylor is research associate in the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics