In nearly three thousand BBC broadcasts over fifty-eight years, Alistair Cooke reported on America, illuminating our country for a global audience. Shortly before he passed away, a long-forgotten manuscript resurfaced in a closet in his New York apartment. It was a travelogue of America during the early days of World War II that had sat there for sixty years.
Published to stellar reviews, Cooke’s The American Home Front is a “valentine to his adopted country by someone who loved it as well as anyone and knew it better than most” (The Plain Dealer). A portrait frozen in time, the book offers a charming look at the era as it journeys through small towns, big cities, and the American landscape as they once were. The American Home Front is also a brilliant piece of reportage, a historical gem that “affirms Cooke’s enduring place as a great twentieth-century reporter” (American Heritage).
“An interesting eyewitness record . . . It recalls transcontinental travel in the pre-interstate highway era, and with greater depth, social problems that Cooke detected beneath the win-the-war exhortations he encountered from coast to coast.” —Booklist
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About the Author
Alistair Cooke, KBE (1908–2004), was a legendary British American journalist, television host, and radio broadcaster. He was born in Lancashire, England, and after graduating from the University of Cambridge, was hired as a journalist for the BBC. He rose to prominence for his London Letter reports, broadcast on NBC Radio in America during the 1930s. Cooke immigrated to the United States in 1937. In 1946, he began a tradition that would last nearly six decades—his Letter from America radio appearances on the BBC. Cooke was also beloved as the host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre for twenty-one years. He wrote many books, both collections of his Letters from America and other projects. After his death, the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Award in Journalism was established to support students from the United Kingdom seeking to study in the United States, and vice versa.
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Introduction to a War
La Guardia Airport is more than just a place where New York-bound airplanes land. It is a City playground, and, as with all the best American games, it has a ritual to which everybody pays almost religious attention. At frequent intervals, a disembodied voice like God's or the March of Time recites from a loudspeaker and tells you what is coming in, and from where, and why, carrying how much tonnage of human flesh, after what storms and stresses, and how many miles. People who had gone out to the airport to smell the air, or to brood over the little red gasoline wagon that commutes among the bellies of every incoming plane, hear this voice begin to intone and bow their heads slightly. It is a custom as American as a Thanksgiving Day proclamation or the carols that are played in Grand Central Station at Christmas.
Lunch at the airport is paradise for children, who in the terrace restaurant are pacified with little paper airplanes and a special menu from which they may lisp their order to brusque but accommodating waiters, most of whom – just to scare up the proceedings a little more – sound and look like German spies masquerading as airport waiters in a Warner Brothers movie.
It is also a Parthenon of the living but anonymous great, of the tense little bureaucrats and correspondents in shabby overcoats, who may be seen at no cost to the visitors carrying their secrets and 'interpretations' in little black briefcases between the New World and Lisbon. Often you will see a little group of people waiting outside the immigration room who turn out to be practically a cheering squad for some arriving celebrity.
It was to this American place on Saturday, November 15, 1941, that a transcontinental plane brought into New York a small stocky man with spiky black hair, thick spectacles, and an excitable voice. As a special envoy from Japan, he was expected to know more than anybody else whether the situation in the Pacific was to come to a crisis or remain, in the diplomatic lingo, simply 'critical'. A month before, very few Americans even knew his name. It was Saburo Kurusu.
Pleasant news had flown on ahead of Mr Kurusu. He was said to be the most pro-American of all the close advisers of the Japanese government. A few years earlier he had been Japanese Consul in Chicago, and while there had married a girl with the unthreatening name of Alice Little. He had two daughters and a son. Mr Kurusu was very tired that Saturday, not only because he had flown 13,000 miles with hardly a break, but because he had had to miss his daughter's wedding and had left a brother on his deathbed. And because, as a national news magazine reflected, after flying 10,000 miles of ocean in a week, he had crossed the 'enormous room' of the American landscape and had looked down first on 'California's infinitely fertile farmlands, over forests of oil derricks', until by the time he reached New York 'he had glimpsed steel, oil, aircraft and other productive facilities that make pygmies of those which Japan possesses.'
Mr Kurusu was a few minutes too late for his plane connection to Washington, DC, and although most people at the airport seemed to know nothing about the visit from Japan, more newspapermen were on hand there than I'd ever seen before. We went after Mr Kurusu like a pack of Disney hounds and found him in a small, bare room containing one desk and one ashtray. He sat behind the small desk, and a very thin, sallow Japanese press attaché stood at his side looking tense and miserable, as if he already knew that Mr Kurusu was going to let the cat out of the bag – if that's what he had been carrying from Tokyo. Reporters sat or pressed on the edge of the desk, chiefly because the ones behind them were panting for air. All through the questioning that followed, the cameras were splashing light and puffs of smoke all over everybody, and Mr Kurusu was so ragged that he didn't know whether he was standing or sitting. He would say one sentence up and the next one down.
'What chances for peace?' somebody bellowed, and Mr Kurusu tried to make a wide gesture without hitting the two reporters who took his chair as he stood up. Still, the gesture collided with a waistcoat, and he grinned mechanically from ear to ear. The next instant he looked very gloomy and replied, 'A single man's effort is too small.' He looked around as if he were trying to memorize a slogan from a phrase-book. He said, with terrific pointlessness, 'We must all pull together.' He tried to sit down again, while the camera flashbulbs went off like rockets. His little secretary was wriggling at the back of the room saying something about 'rest'.
'Do the Japanese people feel that they want to fight?' Mr Kurusu was asked.
He blinked several times and looked down at the desk. He tried to answer, but he seemed to be so excruciatingly aware of his reputation for fluent English that he gave the impression of speaking the language in public for the first time. He panted, rephrased his reply, and managed to say, 'They feel just as your people feel, I suppose.' He fell back into the hurly- burly of notebooks, arms, legs, and smoldering cigarette butts.
Finally, his press attaché said aloud with a desperate smile, as if he were talking about the weather: 'I think Mr Kurusu very tired from long journey, yes?' He pronounced it as 'wrong journey', but nobody paid the slightest attention. The questions, the flashbulbs, the heavy breathing filled the air for another minute or so, and Mr Kurusu began to sigh and his hands were shaking. It was then that he scored his first touchdown. He pushed both hands out in an inadequate appeal and said, 'This country is the rland of rliberty, you call it. Please then, give me rliberty of silence.'
And we all mooched away, a touch ashamed.
It has become the habit of historical narrative in our day to assume that history is an inveterate believer in dramatic irony and throws out to sensitive people, and to journalists with a flair for the dramatic, hints and early symptoms of impending glory or disaster. By this tradition, which has been relentlessly cultivated by the movies, Washington, DC, on the evening of December 6, 1941, should have been a place of unexplained disquiet, or of almost criminal apathy. It was, of course, simply an evening like any other Saturday night in the early 1940s. Since the First World War, Saturday night has become the urgent festival of the Western World, the time when most people 'relax' into their favorite form of tension, whether it is the movies, or poker, or cut-rate shopping, or love, or alcohol, or, on a thousand neon- blinking Main Streets, a time to roam up and down and feel the pressure of other humans out for no harm and no good, and perhaps for a nightcap soda at the drugstore.
In Washington it was a raw, misty night, and poor weather for wandering abroad. At a Washington editor's home, half a dozen guests speculated on the pressing diplomatic topic of the moment: the imminent arrival of the new Soviet Ambassador, Maxim Litvinoff. As they sat around happy on highballs they wondered how the President would, on this delicate occasion, manage to synchronize his gifts for politics and drama. The tricky issue was how to reassure, among others, 20 million American Catholics who had been told continuously that Stalin was the Antichrist and would be, if Hitler fell, the succeeding overlord of the continent of Europe. We eventually settled for the prospect of Roosevelt's personal envoy to Russia, Harry Hopkins, standing at the prow of the welcoming Presidential yacht, the Potomac, bearing an icon or a fistful of candles from the Russian Orthodox Church. With just such pleasant whimsies could politically minded citizens of the United States reasonably beguile themselves on the evening before December 7th.
Similarly, the Sunday itself, which was later named 'a date which will live in infamy', was hardly recognizable as a December Sunday, and certainly not in Washington, where doing duty as a climate from November to April there's a clammy mist that covers the city like an unwrung dishcloth. This Sunday morning was balmy and crystal clear. It is conceivable that some Americans were thinking about Japan, for overnight the President had sent a personal note to Emperor Hirohito in hopes of learning that the Japanese troop concentrations in Indo-China were not aimed, as they clearly appeared to be, at Thailand. Yet the Japanese problem, if there was one, was still something to be left to editorial writers to balance on the one hand against the other hand. Some of them had other worries. Out in San Francisco, one of them was offering for the Sabbath meditations of his readers a prose sermon bearing the title, 'The Republican Party Must Save Itself. Most of them, however, who only a few days earlier had been thrown into verbal epilepsies over the cool remark of labor leader John L. Lewis that 'You can't mine coal with bayonets,' were now celebrating the success in the House of Representatives of a bill that outlawed all strikes on questions of union organization, banned all mass picketing, made a sixty-day cooling-off period compulsory before any sort of strike could be called, and further subjected the American labor movement to restraints unknown in its history.
Yet on such an impossibly sunny and tingling day Americans must have crawled out of bed and felt decently happy that the two news items carrying most space on the front pages were the romantic marriage of the King of the Belgians to a commoner and the timely reassurance of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox that 'the American people may feel fully confident in their Navy. In my opinion, the loyalty, morale, and technical ability of the personnel are without superior. On any comparable basis, the United States Navy is second to none.' Any neurotic who might read these brave words with a twinge of doubt had only to thumb back to his Friday's copy of Time magazine and there read its first two printed sentences: 'Everything was ready. From Rangoon to Honolulu, every man was at battle stations.'
Isolated this way, these assurances suggest an anxiety that nobody – with the possible exception of the Japanese Ambassador and his stocky little guest, Mr Kurusu – had any reason to feel. The Vice- President of the United States was in New York. The Speaker of the House was out taking the air in his automobile. Washington correspondents were away for the weekend, abed, or like fathers everywhere throughout the land, were out in their preening Sunday innocence walking with their children. The psychological relation of the United States to Europe's war was still very much that of the charitable friend who leaves a hospital bouquet of lend-lease for the unhappy European psychopath having convulsions inside.
America was sleeping in after a week of work, or making dates for parties, climbing snow-laden fences in Minnesota and Vermont, flitting fruit flies in Florida, fishing in the mist off the rhododendron coast of Oregon, dishing up homemade ice cream and apple pie for the family dinner in Kansas, or pounding crab-cakes on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; chewing pecans on the high sidewalks of West Texas, risking a newly earned pile of silver dollars on a high throw at faro in Nevada's saloons, taking grandmother to church in New Hampshire; slicking up for the Sunday whirl, away from horses and cattle in Cheyenne, away from oilfields in Houston, away from insurance in Hartford, Connecticut.
America was making arms and food for the British and feeling suddenly happy about Russia, but at home 130 million people were living their own lives, doing the American things: reading the football and hockey scores, taking out insurance, getting sinus trouble, sitting on the porch fanning themselves; thinking of turning in the old automobile for that 'snazzy' new model without the gear shift on the floor; thinking of having a baby, or getting a divorce, or going fishing, or staying home and listening to the Philharmonic; taking a nap; taking it easy, taking it easy everywhere.
The families who were privileged to feel the first sharp thrust of the awful event, the neat stab between the shoulder blades, were those who stayed in to listen to the Philharmonic, either because they are musical, or think it is a cultured thing to do, or who belong to the normal majority of families on this continent who use the radio as a background to living, a species of wallpaper, against which they eat and snore and quarrel. The Philharmonic was tuning up for the Shostakovich First Symphony when a flash was handed to a bewildered announcer. He read it, and at twenty-six minutes after two, a lot of people were left sitting in their homes not 'stunned' as the newspapers have it but fuzzily wondering where Pearl Harbor was. I remember sitting with my host in a living room in Washington. He was a man who knew a lot about the war fronts, and especially about how the battle lines that weave across oceans and continents come by their supplies. And as honestly as I can recall it, the moment the news came over, I tried to decide rapidly and guiltily if Pearl Harbor was where I thought it was. I don't know what my friend was thinking, for it took a half-minute or so for us to appreciate the miraculous impertinence of the Japanese in being – with or without aircraft carriers – anywhere so far from home. Possibly the most honest quoted reaction of a public man was the heartbreaking sentence of that same hellion John L. Lewis, who, caught at his home, asked, 'How the hell did they get there?' Isolationist Senator Gerald Nye had the misfortune to be addressing an America First meeting at Pittsburgh. Shortly before he started speaking he received a scribbled note about the Japanese attack. He fumbled and paused, said, 'I can't somehow believe this,' and then with a troubled brow continued warning his twitching audience against the American warmongers. For Isolationists especially, it must have been a lonely and terrifying day.
The moment the suspicion was confirmed that Pearl Harbor was indeed the main base of the Pacific fleet, yet where happily – as Time had reminded us – 'every man was at battle stations,' it was a matter of seconds before our minds began to move with reckless abandon. It was a minute or two later before the clammier thought struck us that this meant war. The bells on the news tickers in the National Press Club would be ringing like trotting deer, and things probably would be happening at the White House.
There was a discontinuous line of people staring through the White House railings. They were a handful of stragglers, families pausing, bums, and people who looked as if they had heard a noise and were not sure where it came from. As soon as a car swerved into the entrance, the police and Secret Service men swarmed around it with a zeal that was foreign to the White House custom. And whenever a car came out, the small gathering crowd craned as if the whole mystery was embodied in the somebody sitting in there.
The White House press room already had that air of tobacco-choked energy that is the Washington odor of panic. Reporters were passing notes to each other with the furtive haste of a bunch of bankers who have just heard their books are about to be subpoenaed. Very few people were writing but everybody was smoking, walking nervously around to see how they should adjust to their first world-shaking crisis. Two fat men were jammed into the only two telephone booths and would pass out a note to a waiting messenger or wave impatiently at the emergency electricians who were kneeling on coils of wire and plugging and unplugging attachments into the NBC microphone that Stephen Early, the President's press secretary, had let them set up. At agonizing intervals, Mr Early's secretary, a girl in a blue sweater, would tear into the press room like a nurse in a maternity ward where things are going badly. She would say, 'Mr Early will see you now.' We jostled into his room, and he announced that the President was with the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall. There would be a Cabinet meeting at eight-thirty in the evening, and a half-hour later the Congressional leaders would meet with the President. The sudden summonses to the very bedside of the nation's woes came at such unpredictable intervals that after an hour or two, and even when the news was dull, it was too much for some people. After one such excursion a very pretty girl, correspondent for one of the news services, came into Mr Early's room when he was already half-way through reciting an announcement. She was ruddy and windblown and tugged at her trembling gloves. One glove wouldn't come off, and in frustration she pawed at her bag for a pencil and broke down. Coming after an hour or more of an emotional tension that hadn't yet resolved into any settled mood, it was one of those perfectly trite outbursts of emotion that have, like all good platitudes, to be felt to be understood. I bequeathed a newly sharpened press pencil to her and made for the door and my friend's car feeling inexplicably blithe. As we pulled into the driveway a long black limousine rolled down the center path and drove out ahead of us. It paused a second at the gateway, and there was a long glimpse of the single figure sitting in the back — the white hair, the aquiline composure, the glistening modest eye and the pink flushed neck of Secretary of State Cordell Hull. For once the crowd, which was now several hundred thick and blurred in the late-afternoon light, was not disappointed. Here was wise King Nestor himself, the people's spokesman, departing from a scene so classic in its staging that even the official reports cannot vulgarize it. It appeared that the Japanese envoys, having asked for an interview at two o'clock, had arrived twenty minutes late and thereupon were kept judiciously waiting by Mr Hull for exactly another twenty minutes. The moment they handed him their reply to the American proposals of November 26th, the news was flashed through to the White House of the attacks on Honolulu and Manila. Mr Hull is reported to have adjusted his black-ribboned pince-nez, read dispassionately through the document, and then turned on the two guests and replied: 'In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions — infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The American Home Front 1941-1942"
Copyright © 2006 Estate of Alistair Cooke.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Introduction to a War,
2 A Passport to the People,
3 Through the Appalachians to the Pioneers,
4 Deep Down South,
5 The Gulf Coast,
6 The Southwest,
7 Westward the Course of Empire,
8 The Pacific Northwest,
9 The Great Plains,
10 From Wheat to Steel,
11 The Rise and Fall of New England,
Epilogue: Four Months in 1945,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I listened to the book on CD and I'm now ordering the hard copy. You're back in time with this author as he travels across American during WWII. It's a brilliant time capsule.
Alistair Cooke gives you a clear picture of American life, emotion, strife, and pride in every corner of the U.S. I was convinced I lived during the war years thanks to his descriptions and interviews of the common people. One of the best books on U.S. History, and yet written by one from the UK.