Two hundred years after independence was won at Yorktown, Va., America is preparing to re-stage that decisive battle. But this time, the enemy may not play its part.
The British, it appears, aren't coming.
"Official Britain is showing very little interest," says Wilton Dillon, a Smithsonian Institution official who is helping coordinate the four-day bicentennial celebration at Yorktown in October.
The Britons' reserve contrasts sharply with the eagerness of the French to commemorate their role in the last battle of the Revolutionary War. The French, who blockaded the York River and provided infantry support for George Washington, are sending 300 troops, two warships and military marching bands. France's newly elected president, Francois Mitterand, said last week he might also attend.
"It is natural that the French would want us to remind them that we owe our existence to them" says Dillon. "The British don't have the same motivation."
British officials said last month that a delegation from the embassy in Washington might make the 180-mile trip to Yorktown. No British bands will be present, however, unless the United States pays their way from England. As for a visit by the Queen, Hugh Crooke, the embassy's cultural attache, said this week that "it's very unlikely that would happen."
"Britain feels it can hardly be expected to make a great fuss of celebrating one of its most humiliating defeats," wrote the London Daily Telegraph last month. The article characterized the British government's response to a bicentenneal bash by its former colonies as one of "less than overwhelming enthusiasm."
The Americans, meanwhile, are still trying to convince the British that after 200 years, there are no hard feelings. "This celebration is not one of surrender," insists Jim Rollings, spokesman for the Yorktown Bicentennial Committee.
The committee did receive one piece of good news last week. President Reagan wrote to Virginia Republican Rep. Paul S. Trible, whose district includes Yorktown, to say he planned to attend the celebration. It is only fitting, say committee officials, that Reagan should honor the battle that helped establish presidents instead of kings.
But even if Reagan and Mitterrand attend, organizers concede that the bicentennial celebration, scheduled for Oct. 16-19, will be no match for earlier commemorations.
In 1881, President Chester A. Arthur brought with him to Yorktown his Cabinet, all members of Congress and the Supreme Court. The British were not invited. Fifty years later, Yorktown hosted 200,000 visitors who heard Prsident Herbert Hoover speak to most of Washington's elected officials, as well as the governors of states that were the 13 original colonies.
This year no one is yet sure who will be coming or what they will find. Plans to set up a federal commission four years ago with a multimillion-dollar budget never materialized. Instead, the task has been undertaken by Virginia political leaders, with help from Secretary of the Army John Marsh, the Smithsonian and a sometimes confusing array of local, state and federal agencies.
"Communication is one of the things we have trouble with around here," concedes Rollings, who must keep track of spearate bicentennial plans being made by his own comittee, the Yorktown trustees, the York County Board of Supervisors. Virginia's state government, the Army and the Interior Department, which owns the historic beach where Cornwallis and his 7,500 troops were trapped.
Then there is Mary Mathews, wife of a Greek restaurant owner in Yorktown, who is lobbying to have a recently constructed bathhouse removed from the beach.
"We are going to ask the public of the United States to assist us in saving the spot where the U.S. won the American Revolution from becoming an unmarked swimming hole with a crescent-mooned privy," says Mathews.
Meanwhile, at least one emissary is attempting to lure the British back to the battleground. Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton is on a six-day visit to England promoting tourism and commercial investment for the Commonwealth, noted for its romance with royalty and sometimes called a breeding ground for Anglophiles.
Five years ago, during the opening national Bicentennial salvo, Queen Elizabeth II visited Thomas Jefferson's home near Charlottesville, where she was told by then-governor Mills E. Godwin, "In the hearts of Virginians, there will always be an England."
But in the heart of the British Isles, apparently, they would just as soon forget the Battle of Yorktown.