Honoring the Second World War Debt Britons Owe Americans
Lee Ruddin is Roundup Editor for the History News Network. He lives in England.
American GIs and British women's auxiliaries mingle at a St. Patrick's Day celebration in Northern Ireland, 1942. Credit: U.S. Army Signal Corps.
Anglo-American relations are somewhat strained at present. Yes, the UK and U.S. are combined in their efforts to forge an alternative to the Ba'athist regime in Syria and have set aside funds (£5 million and $25 million respectively) for political opponents of President Bashar al-Assad. And yes, security experts have also joined forces with the Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta in an operation (codenamed "Pulo Shield") to tackle ex-militants and sea pirates operating on the Nembe and Ogbia waterways in order to prevent economic sabotage caused through pipeline vandalism.
But the strain between the Conservative and Republican Parties would appear to be insurmountable (notwithstanding a delegation from the former attending the latter's Tampa-based convention) after a senior British Member of Parliament admitted that their American sister-party's 'extreme' social positions had alienated many "compassionate" Conservatives. To add insult to injury, Mervyn King and Timothy Geithner had a (second) regulatory spat (in a month) which ended -- after the New York State Department of Financial Services alleged that UK bank Standard Chartered PLC broke U.S. money-laundering laws -- in the usually reserved Governor of the Bank of England urging the Treasury Secretary to ensure that regulators refrain from public statements during any investigations.
Readers would be forgiven for thinking, then, that the airing of Tom Brokaw's film, which honors the debt Americans owe to the British people, was a timely shot-in-the-arm for the Anglo-American "special relationship." As the press release to NBC's "Their Finest Hour" states, :In 1940 and 1941, just prior to the [U.S.] entering World War II, Britain miraculously stood firm against Nazi terror. And, as historian Anthony Beevor states in the documentary, Hitler would have ruled all of Europe, and there would have been very little the [U.S.] could have done about it."
To say, as indeed Brokaw does, "England stood alone, when England was all that was left between liberty and tyranny," fails to tell the whole story, though. Taking to task the myth of Britain "standing alone" in 1940 first and, second, illuminating the influence of (both private and public) Americans in 1941, I -- like producers Brian Brown and Joe Gesue -- shall endeavor to shed "light on a piece of history that may be unknown to the American" reader.
For seven decades, Brits have been brought up to believe that in 1940-41 an under-equipped, little island in the north-west of Europe stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut as it bestrode the European continent like a colossus. This cherished national myth (best illustrated by political cartoonist David Low in his "Very Well, Alone" drawing in which a solitary, steadfast soldier stands on a sea-ravaged island and shakes his fist at a fleet of enemy aircraft overhead), according to David Edgerton, author of Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War, is "one of the most misleading images in British history."
It does not help, therefore, when a former Foreign Secretary affirms such an image, yet this is exactly what David Miliband MP did in 2010 when lambasting Prime Minister David Cameron for mistakenly saying that Britain was the "junior partner" in the fight against Germany after the fall of France in 1940. Britain was neither weak nor alone, Labor politicians and American documentary makers must remember, so both constituencies would do well to consult Edgerton's text given that he a) reminds readers when Winston Churchill spoke about fighting "alone," he almost always referred to the British Empire rather than the British Isles and b) thus focuses on Britain's role as the hub of a global system of power to illuminate how the country was supported by its dependencies as well as "economically and politically by much of the rest of the world, from … the states of the River Plate [to] the African empire of a defeated Belgium [and] to the Dutch West and East Indies." If you do not take the Imperial College of London professor's word for it, take Punch magazine's -- and their caption to a cartoon of 1940: "So our poor old Empire is alone in the world," one soldier says to which the other, looking out to sea, replies "Aye, we are -- the whole five hundred million of us."
For all its purported command and apparent capital, though, the British Empire soon began to run out of gold and goods and it was by no means certain that America, a former colony, would come to the aid of its trans-Atlantic cousin. The fact that Uncle Sam came to John Bull's aid, however -- arguably becoming the senior partner as early as 1941, in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor -- means that it is we Brits who owe Americans a debt of gratitude.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, let us not forget, originally forced "cash and carry" through a cautious Congress in 1939, thus enabling Britain to collect weapons from the U.S. in their own ships once they had paid for them. When Churchill could not purchase any more FDR, once again, forced through another piece of legislation, commonly referred to as the "Lend-Lease Agreement" (but a bill "shrewdly entitled "An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States,'" David Dimbleby and David Reynolds, coauthors of An Ocean Apart: The Relationship between Britain and America in the Twentieth Century, point out), amid much domestic opposition from isolationists in 1941, side-stepping war debts and supplying Britain with what it needed as well as postponing any payment (if required) until after the end of the war.
"Roosevelt had promised that the country would be the 'great arsenal of democracy,' and had compromised," historian Juliet Gardiner reminds readers of The Blitz: The British under Attack, "its neutral status to a remarkable degree." For all America's generosity, such as its Red Cross supplying vast amounts of foodstuffs during the Blitz, it is worth noting that the first American troops to be seen in the port of Liverpool since World War I manned huge mechanical excavators and were accompanied -- given the terms of the "Lend-Lease Agreement" -- by a detachment of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, who were to assist Royal Engineer personnel with their usage.
Aiding locals (who were using picks and shovels) in the clearing of mounds of masonry, broken beams and twisted tramlines onto waiting lorries in 1941, GIs helped sustain civilian morale on Merseyside (second only to London in the continuous bomb damage it sustained, it is worth reiterating) and, in turn, maintain -- thanks to Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie and Ambassador John Gilbert Winant visiting the city at the beginning and end of the year respectively -- "full-scale war production and thus Britain's ability to prosecute the war at a time when victory was very far from assured."
While A. P. Herbert's Farewell poem (1944) may be wasted on certain bankers and particular Tories who chastise their opposite number's across the Atlantic for U.S. regulations and stances on abortion, health and religion, I hope it will not be so on a British documentary maker who can someday soon honor the debt we Britons owe Americans and illuminate "Their Finest Hour."
Goodbye GI. Don't leave us quite alone.
Somewhere in England we must write in stone
How Britain was invaded by the Yanks,
And under that, a big hearty ‘Thanks'.
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