Thursday, January 29, 2004

You will not hear from most of them any glib anti-Americanism. They may at times have disagreements with aspects of US foreign policy but their prevailing sentiment, as it has been for sixty years, will be one of appreciation of American generosity.

This article appeared in the English-Speaking Union magazine Concord
(Issue 9, 2003)

You will not hear from most of them any glib anti-Americanism. They may at times have disagreements with aspects of US foreign policy but their prevailing sentiment, as it has been for sixty years, will be one of appreciation of American generosity.

I refer to the several thousand Brits, now mostly in their seventies, who were evacuated across the Atlantic in World War 11. Many, like my brother Gerald and I, enjoyed five years of American hospitality at that time, and if Britain had lost the war, would have probably stayed there. I have just received an email from the great granddaughter of my Boston hosts announcing the birth of her son--five generations of an American family interacting in friendship with an English family unknown to them at the start of the war.

My Boston host, was Walter Hinchman. J. Sinclair Armstrong CBE, when chairman of the English-Speaking Union of the United States, wrote me, ‘Thrilled to hear that you refugeed in 1939 to the Hinchman home. 'Wally' (as we boys called him behind his back, Mr. to his face) Hinchman was my English teacher in 3rd and 2nd class years (grades 10 and 11). He was an inspiring teacher, and motivated me to take English as my field of concentration at college.’

In early summer of 1940 thousands of private Americans offered their homes, companies like Kodak and Hoover and Warner Brothers arranged for children of their British employees to be accommodated in the US, and universities like Yale and Swarthmore approached their counterparts in Oxford and Cambridge. The English-Speaking Union in both the US and UK were at the heart of moves to find safe havens. Frank S. Coon, General Secretary of the English-Speaking Union of the United States, cabled to Dartmouth House: GUARANTEE CARE HUNDRED CHILDREN PRIVATE HOMES PLEASE CIRCULARISE MEMBERS.

Miss Helena Mills John, General Secretary of the English-Speaking Union, wrote to the Ministry of Health, which was in charge of evacuation, ‘If any plans are being considered for the evacuation of British children to the United States, the ESU would wish to take part in those activities particularly as it is the largest British-American organisation in peace times and also because I believe I am right in thinking that the original suggestion that the United States should offer refuge to British children came from the American English-Speaking Union .. Through our British and American Schoolboy Scholarships Scheme we have had many years experience with regard to the sending of British boys to live in the United States for a year at American private schools and during the holidays, and should be very glad to cooperate with the Ministry with regard to this new proposal’.

It is hard for parents today to understand how parents of yesteryear could have been willing to send away their young children on such a hazardous voyage. When our daughter, Juliet, was eight I realized more than I ever had before how dire the circumstances and prospects must have been for our parents to part with us.

In July and August, when most children travelled, it looked as if England might be invaded. One American paper wrote, ‘The fear that children could be brought up as Nazis was worse, even, than the fear of death’. Historian Alistair Horne records how his father told him as he set off, ‘We’re going to lose everything, old boy. But you’re my only son - and my most precious possession, and I just want you to come through it, even if I don’t’. Sadly, his father died after an accident in the blackout in 1944. Happily, our parents survived. But they, I am sure, had no idea in 1940 that our separation was going to last five years. Just as American hosts could not have imagined that the generosity of their offer of homes at a time of crisis would be so stretched out. Not many people were as prescient as Harold Macmillan, who when asked in 1940 how long the war would last, replied, ‘Twelve months if they win; five years if we do’.

For young Americans the passage through grade school and junior high school is a time of change and discovery but few Americans can have had that period so clearly framed as my brother and I did. It began with an ocean voyage in a liner in a convoy escorted by a battleship and five destroyers across the submarine-infested waters of the Atlantic and ended with our return trip in an escort aircraft carrier across these same waters believing, but not taking it for granted, that all enemy submarine commanders knew the war was over. It was a dramatic change of mood, of culture, of language, of accent, of perspective, even of humour. It was a switch from shorts and gartered long stockings and a school cap to dungarees or corduroy knickerbockers and ski cap and an introduction to the decimal system. And then five years later it was back to school blazers and school scarf again and to the archaic calculations of pounds, shillings and pence.

For young children it was an adventure. Even at the tender age of eight, many if not most of us, thought of ourselves as ambassadors. That we were patriotic was indisputable, and with what historian John Keegan has called ‘the fierce patriotism of a war child’. Tremayne Rodd, now Lord Rennell of Rodd, was an evacuee in kindergarten on Long Island. Learning that America had beaten Britain in the war of independence, he stoutly responded, ‘It’s not true. I won’t have it’.

Right across America evacuees landed in a variety of homes and of situations. Peter Isaac, later a documentary film maker and author, found himself hosted by a Hollywood film producer. He and his sister were taught to swim by young Ronald Reagan. Chris Eatough had George Bush as captain of his high school football (soccer) team at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts. Writer Anthony Bailey went trick or treating one Halloween and was rewarded with a silver dollar by Orville Wright. Our host had captained the Gentlemen of Philadelphia cricket team.

Ann, Venetia and Oliver Gates were taken in by the Felix Frankfurter family. Their father had worked with the American justice system. Soon Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter was regaling Washington with stories about them. President Roosevelt asked to meet the youngsters. So, accompanied by their nanny, the children called at the White House. Later the Justice called the president to thank him and tell him that he had made a marvellous impression on the children, except that is on Oliver, who seemed reserved in his reaction. ‘Send him over and give me half an hour with him alone,’ said Roosevelt. It really troubled the President, commented Frankfurter, ‘that someone held out against his charm’.

Of course, not every evacuee looks back on those war years with pleasure. There were mismatches and some were abused. A few had no home to return to. Some social scientists regard the whole overseas evacuation as a terrible mistake. But for many of us who spent the war years in the United States and Canada new horizons were opened. Shirley Williams (now Baroness Williams), for instance, enjoyed ‘freedoms I never enjoyed in England’ and felt her years there gave her a sense of the promise of ‘a new world where everything is possible,’ while Eric Hammond, who was later to become General Secretary of the electricians union EETPU, was delighted to find that ‘you didn’t have to accept British assumptions or its supposedly insurmountable class barriers’. Writer Anthony Bailey speaks of the ‘impetus’ derived form those childhood years which offset the disruption and separation. Alastair Horne believes that in a funny sort of way evacuation helped him and all the ‘bundles’ who went to America to also appreciate their own country the more’. ‘Thank you, my other country’, he writes.

All I can add to those assessments is that Gerald and I rate those years as a gift for which we have always been grateful. I would say the same as another evacuee, Felicity Hugh-Jones, ‘I don’t think I would have missed it for anything’.

On our return to England in 1945 our parents, who had been totally immersed in the war effort, in the War Office and the Censorship, may have been a little irritated by our belief that America won the war; our uncle, an artillery officer who had been shelled by his American allies, may have been a little jaundiced in his view of the Yanks, but the predominant thought of our family and of the nation at that time was one of gratitude to America and the Americans and what they had done to help preserve liberty in the world. It has affected for good our attitude to the United States ever since.

I was a proud little English boy in Harvard Yard in 1943 when Churchill spoke there. He said on that occasion, ‘Whatever form the system of world security may take, nothing will work soundly or for long without the combined effort of the British and American people. I, therefore, preach continually the doctrine of the fraternal association of our people, not for any purpose of gaining invidious material advantage for either of them, not for territorial aggrandisement, or the vain pomp of earthly domination, but for the sake of service to mankind and for the honour that comes to those who faithfully serve great causes’.