Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Longing for a return to the good old days when America was liked? When exactly was that?

President Harry Truman introduces Winston Churchill at Fulton, Missouri, March 1946

So much has been said and written in recent years about the dim view of the United States around the world -- even in allied lands like Britain. Surely there are millions of fair-minded fellow English-speakers who would love to love the former colonies, as they did in olden times, if only America would right its ship of state?

There is little doubt that America -- and Americans -- were better liked and appreciated in many places, including Europe, during the decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the death of East European Communism, when Westerners generally felt optimistic about the possibility that serious global conflict was finally at an end. Then came 9/11, the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and rising world antagonism toward American policies and the Bush Administration. Pew Research's Global Attitudes Project documented a steep decline in favorable public opinion about the United States in many countries across the world. In Britain, Pew found that while 83% of Britons had a favorable opinion of the United States in 2000, a mere 53% held such a view in 2008.

So there you have it. Even the people we regard as our closest and most steadfast allies and with whom we have enjoyed a "special relationship" for decades have soured on America. It's not like the good old days when we were shoulder to shoulder fighting the Nazi threat!

Well, maybe, maybe not. In the course of reading this book (which I highly recommend), I came across a startling bit of public opinion data from Mass-Observation, an academic social research project that delved deeply into public attitudes in Britain about a host of topics during the Depression and World War II years and beyond. In March 1946, seven months after V-J day and less than a year after the capitulation of Hitler's Germany, only 22% of Britons held a favorable view of America, and the number declined further toward the end of that year. Twenty-two percent! And that was in the very month that the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke at President Truman's invitation in Fulton, Missouri, and called for the first time upon the "special relationship" between the United States and Britain to counter the evil of a new totalitarianism, as an "Iron Curtain" had descended across Europe. Not so "special" a relationship, apparently, if only one in five Britons thought well of their American cousins.

The news from Mass-Observation was better during the war -- but not all that much better. From 1941 through most of 1944, about 45% of the British people viewed America favorably -- twice as many as in 1946 but still less than that supposedly dismal 53% in Pew's 2008 poll. Only in 1945 -- the year in which millions of American soldiers flooded across Germany -- did a solid majority of Brits, 58%, give the Yanks the high sign. By the end of 1945, the good will already was waning fast.

There are a lot of good reasons for the mostly lukewarm to cool British sentiment during the war and immediately after. By 1946, the average Briton felt that Americans had emerged from the war richer and more powerful, while Britain was impoverished, enfeebled, and perhaps worst of all, in hock to the Americans. All that after Britain had led, bled and paid so much more than those Johnny-come-lately Yanks.

Whatever the reasons, it's striking that even though the US-British wartime alliance was likely the closest and most effective trans-national military effort in history, feelings were not all that positive and were vulnerable enough to post-war strains to plunge to that meager 22%.

Still, it should be noted that this alliance held fast to defeat the Axis Powers and firmed up again to resist Soviet expansionism without the benefit of wildly good feelings all around.

Any thoughts? Post a comment.

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