Estranged bedfellows

To Win the Peace
April 17, 1998

In the middle of the second world war the British government saw fit to issue some words of advice on how to deal with the foreigners who were their closest allies, "Notes for Guidance of United Kingdom Officials Visiting the United States" (1943). "Try to like Americans," it suggested gamely, "and show that you like them." The reserve had cracked, but not the condescension. "An American's knowledge and interests are often wider than appears at first. Remember this."

In a curiously reflexive way, the greatest propaganda task facing the British was the British. To be British was to be typecast; but everyone knew the type. The American broadcaster Cecil Brown skewered one in Singapore in 1941. "He was smug, priggish, aristocratic with no understanding of sex, poverty, misery or fervour. But worst of all, the way he talked, more daringly English-accented than Hollywood would attempt in caricatureI He was a Tory who was determined that his world of comfort and stodginess would never change, no matter how many wars might come."

The most successful British propagandists in the United States during the second world war played up their professionalism and played down their birthright. At the end of the war, the editor of the Christian Science Monitor paid tribute to the "beautiful job" done by the "intelligent, affable, quick-witted and pleasant" staff of the British Information Services in New York. "They know newspaper language (and) they are not too British, at least they try not to be."

Susan Brewer's study of the information warriors and the war they waged is both effective and efficient. A compelling story is compactly told. It may be that she tells too much and shows too little - there is room for more flavoursome quotation here - but she is an assiduous truffle-hunter among the manuscripts and memoirs of the protagonists, British and American, and an acute commentator on the diplomatic game, as often as not in a well-turned footnote. "The contradiction between Americans' anti-colonial beliefs and their imperial behaviour puzzled British propagandists. They viewed the United States as a continental empire, 'with its subject negro and American Indian inhabitants, and its vast areas acquired from France, Spain and Mexico', to which was added Alaska, as well as overseas possessions in the Pacific and Caribbean." A footnote reads: "Britain was not included in the list of countries from which the United States acquired territory."

To Win the Peace might be described as a case study in the British way in warfare by other means (to conflate Liddell Hart and Clausewitz). It is equally interesting on national styles in propaganda - then as now, though perhaps more convincingly, the theme was "new Britain" - and on the calculating mobilisation of the "special relationship" as a passport to peace and security in the postwar world. One of Brewer's best quotations is from Jawaharlal Nehru, who predicted as early as 19 that, "in order to save herself" Britain would "incite the imperialism and capitalism of America to fight by her side". Her own conclusion grants to the British wartime propagandists a partial victory and a coveted prize - not "an Anglo-American partnership on equal terms, but a peace in which Britain's economic and security interests would be protected by the United States" - a Greek victory, as Harold Macmillan might have said, against the American Rome.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

To Win the Peace: British Propaganda in the United States During World War II

Author - Susan A. Brewer
ISBN - 0 8014 3367 3
Publisher - Cornell University Press
Price - £31.50
Pages - 269

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