Published Date

July 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

By Herbert Heaton
Professor of History, University of Minnesota
(Published July 1944)


Table of Contents


Asking Questions about Each Other

A Crowded Country

What Do the People Do for a Living?

The Social Landscape

What about the British System of Government?

A Thousand Years of Political Development

Parties and Policies

Britain and the Aggressors

To the Discussion Leader

Suggestions for Further Reading


Since the middle of 1940 we have rapidly grown conscious of the place of the British in the world and in our world. In the early months of the war we took it for granted either that the conflict was no concern of ours or that of course the French and British would win it. But when the German blitz swarmed over western Europe, crushed the French, and seemed only to pause for breath before striking down England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland—yes, and the rest of Ireland as well, in spite of Dublin’s neutrality—it suddenly dawned on us that the British people, their industries; and their navy were our front line of defense against Axis ambitions. The collapse of that line, we began to realize, would be the prelude to a mighty attack on the Americas from east and west alike. In that onslaught Germany and Japan would control the resources of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, and be masters of all the oceans. We should, as the President put it, be “living at the point of a gun,” or rather of two guns; an island with enemies on both sides.

“Hard-headed concern for our own security and for the kind of and civilized world in which we wish to live” therefore dictated the need for giving Britain every possible support short of war. This policy was not based on any unselfish or sentimental regard for the harassed British or on our admiration of their dogged ability to take it on the ground and to dish it out in the air. An American poet could let her heroine declare that “in a world where England is dead I do not wish to live.” But American political prose said that “in a world- where England is dead, it is going to be very much harder for us to keep alive.”

By winning the Battle of Britain in the air, the British saved themselves, and gave us time to make the necessary investment in our own security. We traded old destroyers for the use of British bases in the western Atlantic. We gathered up guns, ammunition, and planes to help reequip the British army which had leftmost of its stores behind at Dunkirk. We invented Lend-Lease to cut the cash out of “cash and carry” purchases of munitions. We took over more and more of the work of patrolling the western Atlantic to make the “carry” part of Lend-Lease less dangerous, and on the eve of Pearl Harbor we decided that our own merchantmen could arm themselves and take cargoes all the way to Britain. Thus step by step a growing realization that our interests were tied up with those of Britain led us to stand behind her. Then Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on us by the Axis powers forced us to stand alongside the British.

Meanwhile the British also rapidly realized their need for us. In the early days of the war, if an American said to a Briton, “We are not going to be in this one,” the reply would probably be, “I hope not.” When Germany bared her full might, that hope had to be abandoned. But for a time the Briton thought he might be able to pull through if we would relax the restrictions on his purchase of supplies. “Give us the tools and we will finish the job,” said Mr. Churchill in the spring of 1941. Yet tools would probably not have been enough. As events developed there was no chance to see if they were, but we may doubt whether the 47,000,000 people of Great Britain, supplemented by the men from the dominions, would have been able to defeat an enemy which had the manpower and industrial plant of central and western Europe at its disposal.

For more than two years now we have been allies on the basis of common dangers, mutual aid, and similar interests. We are mixed up together in a manner unknown in World War I. The British have accepted our generals as supreme commanders in the Southwest Pacific and Europe, regardless of the relative numerical strength of British, Australian, and American contingents in these battle zones. Our Lend-Lease materials go to help supply their needs, while their goods and services are handed over to meet our requirements in lands where our men are stationed. The political, administrative, and military leaders of the two nations are frequently in conference—an interesting contrast to World War I, when President Wilson met none of the Allied prime ministers until more than a month after the Armistice. This mingling is likely to continue long after the last shot has been fired and the last bomb has been dropped. Americans will probably be working with Britons and people of other nations, making plans, and generally helping to get the world back onto its feet.

In such circumstances it is natural that we should ask: What sort of fellow is this partner of ours? Can we understand him? In what ways is he like us, in what ways different? What did he do in peacetime? What sort of government has he? Can it be democratic with its king, lords, dukes, knights, and other titled folk? Is he conservative, class-ridden, hidebound, Tory? If he is, why do some of our people come back from London and tell us Britain is headed straight for socialism? And what really is this Empire, Commonwealth of Nations, or whatever he calls it? Why should he be proud of governing other peoples, sometimes even against their will, or at any rate be so determined to hang on to his empire? Finally, why didn’t he do something to stop Mussolini and Hitler before, they grew too powerful?