Cooke's Tour: Notes From WWII America

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

THE AMERICAN HOME FRONT, 1941-1942

By Alistair Cooke

Atlantic Monthly Press. 336 pp. $24

Late in the winter of 1942, a young journalist named Alistair Cooke "drove out of Washington with five re-treaded tires" and began a journey around the United States. He was a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corp. who the previous year had become a U.S. citizen, but he was still far better known in his native England. The great fame he enjoyed in the last several decades of his long life -- he died in 2004, age 95 -- had yet to come his way, and he was able to wander the States with the comfort of anonymity.

He made the trip because he sensed that Washington had little real understanding of how World War II "was changing the people and the landscape of America," and he wanted to see that change at first hand. It wasn't an easy time to travel, especially by automobile, because rationing was in full force and the basics -- a car, tires, fuel -- were hard to come by. He had clearance from the War Department and a letter from his employer attesting to his integrity and reliability, but essentially he was on his own in a vast country that, while he had fallen in love with it, he scarcely knew.

Apparently, he kept up his regular broadcasts for the BBC while on the road -- by war's end they became known, famously, as his "Letter From America" -- and he also made notes for what was intended to be a book. He didn't finish it until war's end, though, and his publisher decided the moment had been reached for looking forward rather than backward. So the project was scrubbed, and the manuscript was stowed away in a closet, where it remained until just before Cooke's death. Published now, more than six decades after the fact, "The American Home Front" has the look of an unexpected and welcome discovery in a time capsule.

Cooke worked his way across the nation along a somewhat peculiar route. He went west into the Appalachians and Kentucky, then made a hard left down to Georgia and Florida, missing the Mid-Atlantic and the upper South entirely. From there it was west again, to New Orleans and Texas, then up the West Coast through California and the far Northwest, east through the Breadbasket and the industrial Midwest, finally ending up on the coast of Maine. In 1944 he wrote a postscript from New York City, and the next year he wrote another wrapping up the undertaking.

That his publisher chose not to release the book at the time is a mystery, but better late than never. Cooke was then in his early thirties and hadn't yet developed the fluid, informal style that became his trademark, so there's a certain stiffness to his narrative, but even after all these years and all those countless previous books about the wartime home front, Cooke has interesting and revealing things to tell us.

In his later years, especially after he became the host of "Masterpiece Theatre," Cooke acquired a decidedly benign, avuncular air and became near-universally beloved, with the consequence that people tended to forget that, though he was a passionately loyal American, he could also be sharply critical of his adopted country. He understood, perhaps more keenly than most native Americans, that ours is a land of deep contradictions, capable of great generosity yet susceptible to smugness and arrogance. In his last years, he often spoke to his British listeners of his apprehensions about this country's future, and there are hints of this concern in his account of America at war.

Thus, it is not surprising that much of what Cooke says here remains pertinent. Writing about Henry Ford's mixed record in converting his celebrated Willow Run plant into an efficient manufacturer of trainer airplanes, but not the fighter planes he'd boasted of being able to produce, Cooke somewhat dourly observes:

"Willow Run will be cited at grandfather's knee as the very type of majesty before which other nations bow their heads in envy. But I have told its melancholy story because it symbolizes the grandiosity that is to other nations the most unpleasant of all American traits -- the unbridled promise, the wild freedom of untested assumption, the invitation to share the cornucopia that is stuffed with the peculiar American riches: such unique things, the native honestly believes, as devilish ingenuity wedded to unequaled material and spiritual resources. What exacerbates the foreigner's annoyance is his secret awareness that there is an uncomfortable measure of truth in the boast."

How many foreigners would feel that "secret awareness" today certainly is open to questions, but the rest of Cooke's indictment is as true now as it was then, perhaps even truer as the rest of the world eyes our Middle Eastern adventures with skepticism at best. Cooke admired American energy but despaired of American provincialism and ignorance. In Kentucky, looking at "the high-school kids crowding the drugstores," Cook was struck by their "matter-of-fact listlessness and incuriosity," and continued: "Just as brashness is the abuse of the Northerner's liveliness, this looks like the dark, dull underside of Southern manners."

Cooke was also keenly aware of the ways in which, then more than now, America fails to live up to its own promise. In Florida, he took note of blacks working in the turpentine industry and dryly noted: "The chipping of the pine for its gum, which is then distilled into turpentine and resin, is a Negro monopoly for the commonest and most wearisome reason: it is work thought unfit for whites." At a time when most Americans accepted the internment of Japanese Americans without question, Cooke drove away from the Manzanar camp in Southern California "none too proud of the showing we had made in running the first compulsory migration of American citizens in American history -- not counting the Indians."

Mostly, though, Cooke liked what he saw. The war seemed very far away to most Americans, he found, but this enabled them to concentrate on the task at hand: "Ordinary people talk very little about the strategy of the war, or indeed about the battles lost and won, but think first and always about the way the war affects their work." It was, he also found, a nation very hard at work and very much on the move. New England's small towns seemed emptied out, their workers having "gone off to better pay in the East Coast shipyards" or other more remunerative employment.

Change, some of it surprising, was everywhere. An "ominous symptom of America with its belt tightened" was a sign that read, "Zippers repaired." A gas station owner apologized to Cooke for having no maps in stock. The tin shortage led to the replacement of canned with dehydrated fruit. The "ravenous Hollywood consumption of synthetics" came to a halt: No more "breakfast foods for snow," so "there will be fewer snow scenes till the war is over." Service stations closed left and right, and taxicabs "were beginning to creak and stall." Dartmouth College "was now a Navy indoctrination school and training center for the Supply Corps."

Et cetera. The war may have been far away, but the nation was very much at war. Overall, the people responded energetically and selflessly, though there was plenty of shirking and profiteering; the black market thrived. Of course we've known all this for years, so "The American Home Front" doesn't really alter our understanding of what things were like then, but it is, in effect, a letter from the front lines, and the immediacy of it is real and valuable.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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