To watch a selection of the British documentaries that helped to win American sympathies, including London Can Take It! and Words for Battle, click here.
Just weeks after German bombers began their nightly raids on London in September 1940, Warner Brothers released to American theaters a quietly powerful 10-minute documentary, London Can Take It! Narrated by Quentin Reynolds, an American war correspondent for Collier’s Weekly, the film focuses on ordinary Londoners’ everyday stoicism under fire. Over Reynolds’s low-key, unemotional voice appear images of men, women, and children going about their daily lives, walking to work past mountains of debris, nonchalantly sweeping the glass out of broken shop windows, manning fire hoses and air-raid posts at night amid the flash of antiaircraft fire and the thunder of falling bombs. “These are not Hollywood sound effects,” Reynolds drawls in a hushed monotone. “This is the music they play every night in London. The symphony of war.”
Toward the end of the film, the king and queen—pointedly unremarked on in the narration—are seen visiting bombed-out neighborhoods. Families calmly salvage their possessions from destroyed homes, double-decker buses thread their way through rubble-piled streets, and civil defense workers pull a live cat from a heap of wreckage. “I am a neutral reporter,” Reynolds says. “I have watched the people of London live and die ever since death in its most ghastly garb began to come here as a nightly visitor five weeks ago.… I can assure you there is no panic, no fear, no despair…among the people of Churchill’s island…. London can take it.” The closing image is of the statue of Richard the Lionheart, on horseback, sword raised, before the bomb-pocked façade of the Houses of Parliament.
Within a couple of months the film had been shown in 12,000 theaters to an audience estimated at 60 million. “All America imagined that this was an unbiased, personal report made by one of their own people,” one of the film’s directors, Harry Watt, later recalled. In fact Watt and his codirector, Humphrey Jennings, were employees of the Crown Film Unit of the British Ministry of Information (MOI), whose job was to deliver propaganda in aid of the war effort. Nowhere on the American release of London Can Take It! is there any mention of the film’s producers; Reynolds’s is the only name that appears on the opening credits. But in reality, his role was limited to providing an American accent to go with newsreel footage assembled by the film’s real authors, and his voice-over was recorded in the bar of London’s posh Savoy Hotel—from which Reynolds rarely ventured forth during the day, and from whose basement air-raid shelter he never ventured forth at night.
London Can Take It! was not only brilliantly effective propaganda at a time when American aid to Britain was vitally needed and American isolationism was still running strong: it made money to boot.
From the beginning of World War II to well after its end, the British government carried out a massive propaganda offensive designed to sway popular opinion in the United States. The MOI and other agencies recruited and mobilized hundreds of British writers, actors, lecturers, labor leaders, filmmakers, religious figures—and not a few American journalists, radio executives, and Hollywood moguls—to help bring the British message to America.
Everything from art exhibits to transatlantic radio quiz shows to costume dramas were pressed into service to hone an image of Britain as the defender of the two countries’ shared democratic ideals during the precarious two years before America’s entry into the war, and as a worthy ally fully carrying her share of the burden once America had joined the fight.
Though not without some tone-deaf miscues as they learned to adjust their pitch to American ears, the British quickly perfected the art of propaganda that did not seem to be propaganda at all. And while events rather than words—Britain’s stalwart resistance against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, the growing Nazi U-boat menace in the Atlantic, and ultimately the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—spoke loudest in moving America from neutrality to assistance to intervention, the British propaganda machine subtly shaped American opinion at crucial junctures throughout the war.
As the British historian Nicholas John Cull says in his book Selling War, the British effort to sway the American public was “one of the most diverse, extensive, and yet subtle propaganda campaigns ever directed by one sovereign state at another.”
From the moment he took office as prime minister in May 1940, Winston Churchill made it his objective to get America and Britain “somewhat mixed up together” in the fight against Germany, as he later candidly admitted. Along with urgent requests for ships, planes, and other material assistance, he ordered an all-out charm offensive aimed at top American officials. Lord Lothian, the British ambassador in Washington, offered to provide American military officials with briefings on top-secret British weaponry, and the result was what one astonished American general reported to be “a gold mine” of technical information. Churchill was confident that even token exchanges would inexorably lead to a flood of American aid, and ultimately American entry into the war itself.
But both the British and the largely sympathetic American government were well aware that American public opinion was the real obstacle to be overcome. Though Franklin Roosevelt and his administration were strongly in favor of aid to Britain from the start, Roosevelt knew the political impossibility of getting ahead of public opinion. In a 1937 poll, 95 percent of Americans said they flatly opposed American entry into another world war under any circumstances. In the spring and summer of 1940 FDR had sent what small assistance he could to the collapsing Allied forces, but found his hands tied by legal restrictions and adamant opposition in Congress. When Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts, the isolationist and Anglophobic Irishman who chaired the Committee on Naval Affairs, learned of Roosevelt’s plans to send 20 new small torpedo boats to Britain that summer, he exploded in a fury and threatened to “force legislation prohibiting sale of anything.” Running for an unprecedented third term that fall, Roosevelt delivered speech after speech promising “no foreign wars.”
In London, British officials found themselves increasingly frustrated by what one Foreign Office official politely termed the “irritating spectacle” of an American president ready and willing to help but restrained by public opinion and the power of Congress—something alien to the British system. “The American Constitution was designed by the Founding Fathers to keep the United States clear of foreign entanglements,” Churchill growled at one cabinet meeting, “and by God it has stood the test of time.” Lord Halifax reported back to London in February 1941, shortly after assuming the ambassador’s post in Washington, that American politicians seemed to be as afraid of public opinion as they were of the Germans. But the conclusion was obvious. As David Scott, the undersecretary in the Foreign Office in charge of American affairs, wrote in a memorandum: “It follows, then, that public opinion in the United States is the point we must attack.”
Equally obvious, however, was that British propagandists faced a very tricky and delicate situation in trying to reach the American public. Not just isolationists but all Americans were extremely resentful of any obvious efforts from abroad to manipulate them. Partly this was the legacy of the Great War, when lurid stories of German atrocities in Belgium—later exposed as fabrications—had been heavily promoted by British propagandists as part of the effort to get America into that war. Lothian warned London that any conspicuous propaganda roused Americans to a “cold fury.”
It also handed a powerful weapon to American isolationists, who were ready to pounce on any example of the “insidious wiles of foreign influence.” Even something as seemingly innocuous as the arrival of a prominent British public figure for an American lecture tour could set off waves of protests and hysterical articles in the isolationist press. Alfred Duff Cooper, who had resigned from Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet to protest the Munich agreement, was met in San Francisco by demonstrators carrying huge cardboard lollipops that bore the slogan, “Don’t be a sucker for war propaganda.”
Lothian, who had arrived in Washington in August 1939, accordingly steered a cautious course. At every opportunity he stressed that his government was pledged to a strict “no propaganda” policy when it came to the United States. With the outbreak of war the MOI discouraged British lecturers from touring the country and issued stern edicts advising British officials to avoid using words like “Hun” and “barbarians” in referring to the Germans. In New York City, the staff of the British Library of Information—the publicity arm of the British Foreign Office—“kept their heads down and their mouths shut,” as one staff member recalled, taking pains to be seen as responding only to requests for information initiated by American citizens, and limiting their responses to “true facts.” When some of the library staff suggested that the library might be a bit more effective if it would respond to inquiries from American journalists in time to meet their deadlines, the library’s director was aghast. That, he replied, was exactly the sort of “Teutonic efficiency” that “we are fighting the war against.”
But the other problem—as Lothian, Scott, and other British officials who knew America well were keenly aware—was that nothing could get through in America without a certain amount of salesmanship. “Everything in this country requires to be a drama, or a ‘story,’” noted one British Embassy official in Washington. The legendary British propensity for understatement, and for that matter the typical British upper-class accent—which, as one worried Foreign Office official noted, tended to sound “pansy” and affected to Americans—also worked against a campaign based on simply letting the facts speak for themselves.
Maurice Gorham, who headed the BBC’s North American Service, recalled how the BBC would put on the air some British commando “with a most desperate record…an enormous athlete” who had just performed an impossibly heroic feat in combat. “And then over the microphone would come: ‘Oh it’s nothing much really,’ in a little piping voice.”
Lothian, who had charmed the press corps and Washington with an easygoing and informal manner well calculated to counter the American stereotype of the stuffy Brit, staged several low-key publicity events during the so-called Phony War in the winter of 1939–1940 to reinforce the message of America’s and Britain’s common values and interests. In late November 1939 he presented one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta to the Library of Congress for safekeeping, declaring at a ceremony that the document would take its place “alongside its own descendants the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution.”
But by the fall of 1940 Lothian and other key officials had concluded that much more active measures were needed to advance Britain’s cause in America. “Events of course are the real propaganda,” Foreign Office undersecretary David Scott observed, “but in the long run these events can only be made to tell in the right way if they are seen in the proper perspective.” The trick would be to bring that perspective to the largest possible American audience—yet still without leaving any visible British fingerprints behind.
In the weeks following Roosevelt’s reelection in November 1940, polls showed a significant shift taking place in public sentiment on aid to Britain. By a two-to-one margin Americans now supported lending warplanes to Britain, letting British warships use American ports to refit, and offering other assistance short of outright intervention. In November half of Americans said they would help Britain even if it meant risking that the United States would be drawn into the fight. A month later, that number had grown to 60 percent.
But in traditional isolationist strongholds, the Midwest especially, anti-administration and anti-British feeling was also becoming much more strident and bitter. In response to FDR’s January 1941 announcement that he would seek legislation opening the door for major American military aid to Britain—the Lend-Lease program—a half-million Illinois citizens signed petitions circulated by the America First Committee opposing the move and the Chicago Tribune declared, “This is a bill for the destruction of the American Republic.” Protesters marched in front of the British Embassy in Washington carrying placards that read, “Benedict Arnold helped England too.”
Prodded by the British Embassy and the MOI, the British Library of Information in New York had quietly expanded its Survey Section, which kept close tabs on American public attitudes with a round-the-clock clipping service and a growing network of personal contacts. The picture of American opinion that emerged was complex and volatile. The positions that Americans took toward Britain and war were less a matter of ideology than of mood and attitude, surveys found: there were Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, business and labor in each of the opposing camps.
And there were signs that even those now favoring aid to Britain nurtured some very traditional gut dislikes and suspicions of their long-ago mother country. Polls showed that Americans of all classes, geographic regions, educational levels, and political persuasions saw the British government as guided by selfish interests and imperialism, British society as anti-democratic and class-bound, and British people as condescending. Chamberlain’s appeasement policies and the long Phony War had reinforced a feeling that the British were an irresolute ally.
London Can Take It! was the opening salvo of a campaign designed directly to attack those attitudes and feelings. The film underscored that Britain was fighting for survival, not aggrandizement; its people were humble but strong; the war was a “people’s war” that brought all classes together; Britain was the historic pillar upon which American liberty and democracy stood.
As the debate over Lend-Lease raged through the winter of 1941, other British-produced short films appeared in American theaters in quick succession. Christmas Under Fire—ordered up, in the words of one MOI official, “to make the American public uncomfortable while they celebrate Christmas”—again has Quentin Reynolds narrating; scenes of Britons gamely stringing tinsel across blasted-out storefronts appear as Reynolds declares, “Destiny gave her the torch of liberty to hold, and she has not dropped it.” In Words for Battle, Laurence Olivier is heard reading poems of Rudyard Kipling, John Milton, and William Blake that speak to Britain’s mythical past as images of England’s countryside and country people roll by, ending with a stirring shot of British tanks passing Abraham Lincoln’s statue in Parliament Square as Olivier recites the Gettysburg Address.
The most unusual of Jennings’s documentaries came the following year. Listen to Britain is completely unnarrated, and the camera moves without hurry or any seeming calculation or pretext, capturing the sights and sounds of mostly working-class Britain at war: female factory workers tend their machines to the accompaniment of the daily Music While You Work radio broadcast; a crowd of servicemen and girls dance at the Blackpool Pavilion; an orchestra of men in uniform perform Mozart with the famous pianist Myra Hess for an audience of soldiers, workers, and women in pearls sitting side by side; a gaunt-faced Scottish woman watches from a window as children play in an adjacent schoolyard; draft horses clop through the predawn dark in a gritty Midlands factory town.
Nineteen forty-one brought an opening of other fronts in the British propaganda offensive, still always at arm’s length from the British government. British union leaders were recruited to speak to American labor groups, then confidentially supplied with MOI talking points: they were to emphasize that “the workingmen of Great Britain are behind the present policy of the government,” that morale of the populace was high, that the war had brought solidarity to the social structure of England, and that “Britain would not fight an imperialistic war.”
Writers such as C. S. Forester and the poet Alfred Noyes, who were well known in America and would not be seen as having any obvious government ties, were sent on speaking tours across the country to explain Britain to American audiences. The MOI anonymously produced and mailed to 3,500 influential American Catholic religious leaders and editors a weekly Catholic newsletter, emphasizing the moral values at stake in the war between Christian Britain and godless Nazism.
And, not without a bitter internal struggle, the staid BBC was finally persuaded by government officials to drop the Oxford accent in programs aimed at America, and even to launch its first-ever soap opera as part of the effort to bring the “people’s war” message to American listeners. Front Line Family was unabashedly lowbrow, a daily serial offering up “the adventures of an ordinary family in wartime conditions” with all of the sentimental clichés of the hugely popular American soaps. One of the most popular BBC programs carried on American stations, however, was a tear-jerking “reality” show, Children Calling Home, which used the shortwave facilities of the BBC, NBC, and CBS networks to put British children who had been evacuated to America on the line with their parents in England.
The British secret intelligence services meanwhile had begun to cautiously venture back into the once-taboo area of covert propaganda, using friendly “cut outs”—middlemen with no conspicuous ties to the British—to leak to the American press almost daily rumors discrediting American isolationist leaders and placing stories, some more reliable than others, of Nazi atrocities in Europe.
But nothing reached the American masses as the movies did, and as Selling War author Nicholas John Cull notes, the success of London Can Take It! “revolutionized British film propaganda in the United States.” MGM’s Louis B. Mayer welcomed a Ministry of Information representative in late 1940 with the assurance that he and his fellow producers would do “everything possible to help the great cause,” and the heads of Warner, Fox, and Columbia all promptly agreed to distribute MOI documentaries to American theaters at a rate of about one a month.
Meanwhile the Hungarian-born British film producer and director Alexander Korda had arrived in Hollywood and was at work on a much more ambitious project. The story passed down in Korda’s family is that Churchill himself ordered him there with the mission of coming up with a full-length spectacular to arouse American sympathies. Whatever Churchill’s actual role may have been, Korda wasted no time: That Hamilton Woman, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, was shot in six weeks. Telling the story of Horatio Nelson’s passionate love affair with the notorious Lady Hamilton—and, not incidentally, the Royal Navy’s triumphant defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar—the film was a sensation when it was released in April 1941.
In one scene, whose significance was lost on no one who saw the film, Nelson declares, “You cannot make peace with dictators. You have to destroy them.” Korda always claimed that Churchill had written that line. More pro-British films poured out of Hollywood that year, among them A Yank in the R.A.F., starring Tyrone Power as an American flier who fights in the Battle of Britain, and a raft of melodramatic spy movies depicting sinister Nazi agents at work to undermine America.
While an undeniable success for the British propaganda effort, the British presence in Hollywood attracted some uncomfortable attention both in America and in Great Britain. Korda, Olivier, and other British figures in Hollywood were savagely attacked in the British press for “gallantly facing the footlights” rather than returning to defend their country. Olivier, Cary Grant, and other British actors sought Lord Lothian’s advice in Washington. Privately Lothian adamantly supported their staying put; he advised London that keeping a “powerful nucleus” of British actors in Hollywood “is of great importance to our own interests,” both to counter possible German influence in Hollywood and because “the continuing production of films with a strong British tone is one of the best and subtlest forms of British propaganda.”
But publicly he could say little. He issued a weak statement that the British actors had “repeatedly offered their services to the British government” but had been turned down because “there is no shortage of manpower in the United Kingdom.”
Meanwhile, the isolationist Republican senator from North Dakota, Gerald P. Nye, announced he would launch an investigation of “non-American” Hollywood producers who had been injecting war propaganda into films, and he and others began talking ominously of a British and Jewish cabal in Hollywood. America First threatened to boycott theaters “whose consistent policy is to show films inciting war hysteria.” Korda was summoned to appear before Nye’s committee on December 12, 1941. The events of five days earlier changed those plans.
With America in the war, Churchill was able to extend Korda the official recognition he had been denied, and in 1942 he was knighted, an extraordinary honor at that time for a foreign-born Jew in the entertainment business.
British propagandizing hardly ended with America’s entry into the fight. On the contrary, concerned with maintaining American support for the Allied effort and ensuring that America would not retreat into postwar isolationism as it had at the end of World War I, the British government stepped up its campaign for the hearts and minds of the American public, for the most part with the support of the United States government.
By 1944 one in three American radio stations were carrying programs from the BBC’s North American Service, including a number of shows targeted at the traditionally isolationist plains states; these often included interviews with Midwestern American soldiers in England and stories about British farm life.
A representative of the British Information Service set up shop in Los Angeles and, with the full support of studios and the U.S. Office of War Information, was sent all scripts dealing with British subjects for review; the British officials kept pushing the studios to avoid the clichéd Hollywood image of a Britain of quaint villages and “palaces and peers” and instead portray the country “as it really has become during the war,” with an emphasis on the democratic evolution of British society that the war itself was driving.
A veritable army of British government officials now could openly visit the country, and they came armed with an MOI briefing book titled Notes for Guidance of United Kingdom Officials Visiting the United States. It advised visitors to show enthusiasm and confidence in Britain’s future, avoid “British reserve,” and “try to like Americans and show that you like them.” It also underscored that Notes for Guidance was not suitable reading for Americans.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, one of a number of British academics who served in the British information operation in New York during the war, concluded afterward, “We didn’t convert anybody.” But, he added, Britain’s propaganda campaign in America had made “friends friendlier.” And in the volatile world of American popular opinion, that was more than enough to achieve many of Britain’s vital aims.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of World War II magazine. To watch a selection of the British documentaries that helped to win American sympathies, including London Can Take It! and Words for Battle, click here.