Yanks in Limeyland
RICH RELATIONS: THE AMERICAN OCCUPATION OF BRITAIN, 1942-1945 by David Reynolds HarperCollins, £25, pp. 546 Generalisations usually tell part of the truth, but rarely the whole of it. The British really did complain that American service- men were 'over-paid, over-sexed and over here'. The Americans really did retort that the British were 'under-paid, under- sexed and under Eisenhower'. Both had a point. But this was only one face — and by no means the most conspicuous — of a relationship that was infinitely complex and variable. It is a particular merit of David Reynolds' wise, scholarly and well-balanced book that he realises that every human relationship must be between individuals, that every individual is unique, and that, though generalisations are possible, even essential, they must inevitably be treated with reserve.
No such inhibitions troubled the British in 1942, whose profound ignorance of the United States was flawed only by miscon- ceptions based on Hollywood movies. They expected — and therefore saw — glossy supermen, emerging from a background of vast affluence based on mass-production; they in fact were meeting the children of the depression, many of them for the first time enjoying the pleasure of spare money in their pockets, their sense of personal responsibility eroded by the routine and regimentation of army life, bored, lonely and ill-at-ease in their new surroundings.
There were two schools of thought: those who wished to foster close contacts between the races, and those who argued that such contacts were bound to lead to friction and should be kept to a minimum. On the whole the British favoured the first, the Americans the second. The American Red Cross in particular pursued an isola- tionist course; in all the facilities which it organised for visiting troops, complained Anthony Eden, it 'concentrates on repro- ducing the American atmosphere and deliberately discourages any intrusion of British friendliness'.
Eisenhower, at least, was conspicuously opposed to such a policy. Ike is the hero of this book. 'Gentlemen, we have one chance and only one of winning this war and that is in complete and unqualified partnership with the British,' he told his staff. 'I shall govern myself accordingly and expect you to do likewise.' He believed that if the British could be induced to ask Americans into their homes, and the Americans to accept the invitations, misunderstandings would evaporate and harmony prevail. His optimism was not invariably justified: the GI's reply to the British officer who asked him how he liked the country — 'Sir, we like you and you like us and that's our orders, sir,' — summed up the limits of some of these factitious friendships. But on the whole Ike was right: at the worst, such aborted relationships led to frustration and disappointment, but more often the GIs broke through to establish 'close, affection- ate and often intimate relations with individual Britons'.
'Intimate' is the crucial word. The demands of sex alone made it sure that the American Red Cross would never succeed in keeping the races neatly segregated. Here national preconceptions proved particularly mischievous. Americans were assumed — particularly by British men — to be lustful, promiscuous and unscrupu- lous in buying favours with their greater wealth and access to unlimited cigarettes, silk stockings and other such delights. Naomi Mitchison, having been warned of their proclivities, successfully navigated a Piccadilly Circus thronged with GIs and said that, when she reached the other side, she felt like a Grecian Urn — 'Thou still unravished bride of quietness'.
English women were assumed by Ameri- cans to be easy lays — 'The only things cheap in this country are the girls,' said a GI shopper disgustedly. Girls in their late teens and early twenties, often ripped prematurely from their family circle, starved of the petty luxuries which Ameri- can admirers could offer them, emerged from a gruelling day in the factories and sought whatever solace came to hand — '"good-time" girls . . . reacting to the bad time they had at work.' Of course, many relationships between GIs and British girls were impeccably chaste, many others ended in marriage, but Life magazine has calculated that 22,000 children were born out of wedlock to white US soldiers between 1943 and 1946.
No similar guess has been hazarded for black fathers. The advent of negro troops did as much as anything to kindle animosity between Americans and Britons. At first the British government tried to keep them out, Eden arguing disingenuously that the climate was ill-suited to coloured races. The Americans blandly assured him that no trouble need be expected: 'The Ameri- can negro was now integrated on a basis of complete equality in the economic and political life of the country'. They changed their tune when British civilians displayed a disconcerting readiness to integrate the new arrivals in the social life of the country as well. Sometimes they even preferred black troops to white: 'I don't mind the Yanks, but I don't care much for the white fellas they've brought with them,' one per- verse countryman remarked.
The British authorities made furtive and happily unavailing efforts to persuade civilians that they should ape the white American troops in handling their black counterparts. When miscegenation fol- lowed fraternisation, the law was invoked. In July 1943 the Derbyshire police were prosecuting racially mixed couples on account of the damage they were doing to growing crops. Public opinion was inclined to agree that making love to negroes was carrying a good thing too far, but it never accepted that they should be treated as inferiors. 'Now we're niggers again,' a black GI remarked as his troopship berthed in New York.
This is a long book; longer, indeed, than it needs to be. The fighting at Omaha beach or in the Ardennes is not irrelevant, in that it affected the attitude of the British to American troops, but it does not demand the coverage that Reynolds affords it. Those with only a casual interest will find enough to satisfy them in Juliet Gardiner's recent and skilfully written Over Here. But this important study is a contri- bution to the social history of the Second World War and to the proper understand- ing of Anglo-American relations; It deserves praise and the gratitude of all students of the period.