Allies, Images of
ALLIES, IMAGES OF
When Americans entered World War I, they held a less than flattering image of their British, French, and Russians, allies. Since gaining their independence, Americans had frequently defined their identity against what they perceived as a tired and corrupt Old World. A recurring image in the discourse surrounding American entry into the war was that of the United States as a vigorous, dynamic force juxtaposed with the torpid, decaying European powers. Whereas the United States stood for individual liberty and unfettered initiative, Europe still represented the kind of privileged, effete society Americans had rejected in 1776.
For some Americans this image made them fearful that devious European diplomats were duping them into an imperialistic war. But for others, the image of a stagnent Europe infused their entry into the war with a crusading zeal. Henry Cabot Lodge said of the war, "We are resisting an effort to thrust mankind back to forms of government … which we had hoped had disappeared forever from the world." The New York Times conjured up the image of "millions of free Americans flocking to the rescue of beleaguered and exhausted Europe." More significantly, President Woodrow Wilson saw America's effort as a crusade to finally bring an end to Europe's reactionary regimes and "make the world safe for democracy." Wilson hoped that the New World idealism of the Fourteen Points, the peace program he laid out at the close of World War I, and the League of Nations might eradicate the ills of the Old World.
In the brief time they were there, American soldiers and military hierarchy developed a similar image of their European allies as stuck in the past. General John J. Pershing, leader of the American Expeditionary Force, derided the European tactics of attrition and entrenchment, favoring instead a strategy based more on mobility and initiative. Many soldiers' first-hand accounts of Europe perpetuated the image of allies as archaic by ruminating on the quaint and archaic nature of European society and customs.
After the war, the failure of Europe to embrace Wilson's international vision led to a sense of disillusionment among Americans. The bickering among former allies in the peace negotiations seemed to confirm earlier suspicions of Europe's moral decay. As a result, when the United States entered alliances with Great Britain, Russia, and later France in World War II, a negative image of European allies remained.
world war ii
At the outset of World War II, the prospect for a strong alliance between the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union seemed remote. Despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt's sympathies for the plight of the British, many of Roosevelt's advisors viewed Great Britain negatively. As Mark Stoler notes in Allies and Adversaries (2000), many of the Joint Chiefs of Staff still believed that Great Britain had drawn the United States into a war to protect its imperial interests in 1917 and feared that the same thing was about to happen again. Moreover, Roosevelt feared that the British lacked the resolve necessary to fight Nazism. The election of Winston Churchill as prime minister in May 1940 quickly dispelled Roosevelt's fears and altered the image of Great Britain for most Americans. Soon after the fall of France in 1940, Churchill declared, "there will be no negotiations between London and Berlin." Churchill represented the kind of uncompromising leader in both word and deed that convinced Roosevelt that Great Britain would prove a steadfast ally. By war's end, the United States and Great Britain had developed a "special relationship" that continued through the Cold War (1946–1991) and beyond.
Just as the British and U.S. political alliance contained initial tensions, the image that allied soldiers held of each other were not entirely positive at first. U.S. troops carried their own preconceived images of the British when they first arrived there in January 1942. Despite their common language, U.S. troops found many
cultural differences between themselves and their allies. In particular, many found British civilians and troops to be more socially reserved. For example, the British did not avidly shake hands, and they were far less likely to speak freely with recent acquaintances. Some American soldiers considered this behavior a sign of aloofness. Many found the more class-based British army and the use of imperial troops to be a sign of outdated mores and a reactionary mindset. Similarly, many American soldiers left the war believing that the French were a tired and decaying power. The once-proud French military failed to instill fear in the American troops that fought against them in North Africa, nor did they inspire much confidence when they fought alongside them during the latter stages of the war. To the average G.I., the relative disarray of French forces in terms of organization and material seemed to confirm France's decline as a major world power. These images permeated the highest levels of American decision making. Both Roosevelt and General Dwight D. Eisenhower marginalized Charles de Gaulle, head of the French Committee on National Liberation, in the planning for D-Day and the last stages of the war. Only de Gaulle's opportunistic seizure of Paris (much to the chagrin of many American soldiers) and the Allies' need for a viable civilian authority to administer the newly liberated France allowed de Gaulle to exert such authority over postwar France.
Although over time, the shared experience of battle and the desire to vanquish a common foe allowed the British, French, and American soldiers to set aside differences, many Americans returned home with a strong image of European decay. For many, the erosion of the once-mighty British and French empires before their very eyes confirmed the waning power of the Old World and the ascendancy of the New. Contact with the British and French served to inflate America's self-proclaimed identity as a virtuous and vigorous nation and helped propel America into the active global leadership role it was to adopt immediately after World War II.
The mutual suspicion between the United States, the United Kingdom, and France proved minor compared with the tensions inherent with the Societ Union. Here too, each side's initial image of the other made an alliance seem unlikely. Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the United States had viewed the Soviet Union with suspicion and contempt. For ideological and financial reasons, U.S. officials resented Soviet Communism's closed society and calls for world revolution. The Stalinist purges of the 1930s further outraged the American public. For their part, the Soviets resented America's decision to send troops against the Bolshevik revolution in 1918 and its refusal to recognize the Soviet Union until 1933. The necessities of war, however, dictated that each side put aside their differences and embrace a more positive image of the other.
In the United States, the Roosevelt administration cultivated an image of Joseph Stalin as a heroic wartime leader. Although the idea of Stalin as a kindly "Uncle Joe" struck some as absurd, the military advantages of an alliance with Russia made such an image necessary. Churchill shared Roosevelt's reservations about the nature of the Soviet state but revealed the pragmatism behind the Grand Alliance when he commented, "Any man or state who fights Nazism will have our aid." The Soviets also set aside their ideological problems with the United States and publicly lauded Roosevelt for his resolute stand against the Nazis. Although such positive images managed to hold the alliance together just long enough to defeat Germany and Japan, the end of the war quickly shattered the illusion of harmony. Almost immediately, the old suspicions reemerged, ushering in the Cold War.
As the experience of World War I and World War II reveals, America's image of its allies not only changes to suit the purposes of policy, it also influences the shaping of those policies. Moreover, the images that they hold of their allies often force Americans to further define their own identity, the values for which they fight, and their role in the global community. In such subtle ways war can affect American identity, culture, and society.
Mead, Gary. The Doughboys: America and the First World War. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2000.
Schrijvers, Peter. The Crash of Ruin: American Combat Soldiers in Europe During World War II. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Macmillan, 1998.
Strout, Cushing. The American Image of the Old World. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.