I HAVE been invited to write about the reasons for misunderstandings between the British and American peoples. This is rather a delicate subject, for any criticism of the United States may be taken out of its context and used by those who do not desire friendship between the two peoples to suggest that I am personally unfriendly to the United States. This would be entirely untrue. Therefore, I think that it is well that I should start by putting on record that I have nothing but goodwill towards the great nation across the Atlantic and that I am very sensible of the great contribution which America made during the war and afterwards to the furtherance of those democratic ideals which both countries hold. Further, I enjoy the friendship of many Americans, including both Democrats and Republicans.

For many years I have held the view that close coöperation between the two great branches of the English-speaking peoples is vitally important for the peace of the world and for the defense of democracy, and I know that this view is held by the majority of British people whatever their political persuasion may be. This coöperation depends not only on agreement between governments but upon mutual understanding between peoples, for in both countries public opinion is, in the long run, the decisive factor.

It is, of course, inevitable that even where long-term objectives are the same, differences of opinion in international affairs on particular questions are bound to arise between allies from time to time; and this has occurred between Britain and the United States. Accommodation is generally reached, though sometimes not without some friction, and there is apt to remain a certain soreness and a feeling of grievance that the one party cannot accept the other's point of view. When this happens old memories are revived and old disputes recalled, just as when two people have a tiff and, in the course of it, each brings up former vexations which the other had hoped were buried in oblivion.

It is, therefore, worth while to consider some of the reasons for these disagreements. It would, of course, be presumptuous of me to try to indicate the feelings of Americans, but I must show that I am aware of them lest this article should seem to be a mere recitation of Britain's grievances.

First of all, we should take note of the kind of picture which the people of one country have been taught to form of the other and for this we have, I think, to go to the schoolroom and perhaps to the cinema and the newspaper.

American history naturally, while not disregarding the colonial period, tends to regard it as a mere preliminary to the emergence of the United States into nationhood. It tends to start with the Boston tea-party, the American Revolution, George the Third and all that. The picture the young American forms of Britain starts with this struggle of a freedom-loving people fighting against an oppressive colonial imperialist Power.

To the Englishman, on the other hand, whose history goes back at least to 1066 and all that, the revolt of the American colonies is a regrettable episode. He learns that George the Third and his ministers were stupid and wrong. Lord North is condemned and Chatham eulogized. He learns that the lesson of the loss of America has been well learned, as is shown by the subsequent development of the British Commonwealth into a free partnership of equals. To him the American Revolution is an old unhappy far off thing, but to the American it is still vivid as the birth of a nation. People tend to forget unpleasant things. The average Englishman would like to forget some of his history, especially the more predatory phases of British imperialism, just as, I expect, Americans don't care much for remembering the Mexican War.

It is difficult to shake off the influence of what has been learned in childhood. I have found well-educated Americans who did not understand the evolution of the British Empire into a free Commonwealth. A friend of mine, not so long ago, was lecturing to an audience of New York businessmen and was actually asked how much Canada paid in taxes to Britain. This conception of Britain as an imperialist, colonial Power exploiting large areas of the world is still very potent. It gives a background of suspicion about all British policy. I think that even President Roosevelt was not wholly free from this prejudice.

The Briton, on the other hand, has seen the steady expansion of self-government overseas, first to the colonies inhabited by people of European stock, then to the great Asiatic countries of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, and gradually to African colonies such as the Gold Coast, and to the Islands of the Caribbean. He knows that many of the colonies have been for years run at a loss to the home country. He has come to look upon the colonial peoples, not as objects for exploitation, but as subjects for trusteeship and he feels that he is misunderstood. He is indeed sometimes irritated by what he feels to be a degree of self-righteousness on the part of people who have not to take responsibility.

He is apt to recall that, after all, the British Empire in the old colonial days was freely open to American traders and missionaries, while Britain carried the burden in blood and treasure of preserving order and bringing in settled government. He feels that perhaps in these matters Britain has a very wide experience and that the average American is a little apt to apply first principles without adequate knowledge. He thinks that some Americans are prone to think that all colonial peoples are in the same stage as were the 13 North American colonies, ripe for full self-government.

On the other hand, the American has a perfectly just grievance in the fact that in earlier days the British ruling classes, or some of them, were apt to take a superior and supercilious attitude to Americans which must have been very infuriating. One can find this attitude in nineteenth century newspapers. The same people were, of course, pretty scornful of the pretensions of their own working-class people. Things have changed a good deal since then, but the tradition of the Britisher as a noble lord dies hard. Similar mistakes are made over here. There are people in the Labor and Socialist movement who really believe that all American policy is dictated by Wall Street. The hidden hand of American finance is seen behind every move on the international chessboard. I think this comes from a certain pleasure in depicting one's opponents as diabolically clever and unscrupulous persons plotting evil in secrecy. The Wall Street gang of well-dressed capitalists plotting the downfall of the workers is paralleled by the picture of the bloodthirsty "Reds" of the Labor Party. One may say that these are the mistakes of the ignorant but they form part of the background.

There is a rather similar myth relating to the British, and even to any member of a European diplomatic service, as being a terribly clever and experienced person liable to pull the wool over the eyes of the innocent American. The parallel here is the British conception of the American businessman as being far superior to our home-bred industrialist who is sure to be out-smarted by the clever Yankee.

Oddly enough, one of the causes of misunderstanding lies in the fact that we speak the same language. The Briton and the American each expect that the other will be more like him than is actually the case. The different traditions and environment make for an increasing diversity of view on many points, but each side is apt to be surprised and hurt at this. The Briton is prone to forget that very many Americans who speak perfect English have nevertheless a continental background--German, Polish or whatever it may be. They have been brought into the American melting pot and have become good Americans, but they look back to other countries than Britain.

The geographical point of view is different and so, I think, is the ideological and historical. I had an interesting example the other day which shows how different the same set of facts may appear to two people. I had a very abusive letter from an American who said that it was disgraceful that I should criticize America when I ought to be humbly grateful to America for having come along and saved Britain in two wars after she had made a mess of things. I understood his point of view, but a Briton of the same mental caliber would have said to an American, "Don't you realize that in two wars for the defense of civilization we bore the brunt and held the fort until you were ready to come in?"


I will now come to some practical problems of Anglo-American relationship. There is first of all the question of trade. Britain's industrial structure, built up through the nineteenth century, is such that she cannot live without foreign trade. She has a highly diversified industry and must seek markets all over the world and, indeed, must be constantly seeking out new avenues as old ones become blocked up by the industrialization of newer countries. Britain must sell her goods and services abroad to buy food and essential raw materials. The United States, however, is a continental Power with immense resources. Great as her foreign trade is in total, it is but a small part of her industrial activity.

It is, I think, hard for the average American to realize just what Britain's position is; still harder to realize the shattering effect which two world wars have had on Britain's economy. I was Prime Minister when lend-lease was suddenly brought to an end. Our whole economy had been keyed up for the production of munitions of war and integrated with the American economy. We had had to let go our overseas trade. At short notice the whole position changed. We were grateful to the United States and Canada for the generous help they gave us, but we sought to free ourselves from debt and pay our way. The only way we could do this was by selling our goods and the products of the Commonwealth and Empire, but here we came up against American protection.

It seems to us that Americans, while agreeing with us that we want trade not aid, do not help us to attain that objective. I realize, of course, the difficulty that any administration has in the traditional protectionist atmosphere of the United States in resisting demands for protection, but the fact remains that it does make it difficult for us. Furthermore, there seems a certain inconsistency in the constant adjurations to Europeans to get together and to get rid of restraints on trade. We are apt to think, "Physician, heal thyself."

It also seems inconsistent to maintain tariffs and other protectionist devices such as the Battle Act while demanding that Britain should give up her Commonwealth and colonial preferences in the sacred cause of freeing trade from all restraints. We cannot see that the fact that parts of the British Commonwealth are separated one from another by sea, whereas the American states are part of a single land mass, should make all that difference. However, accepting the American position that she must have tariff protection, we then turn to the rest of the world. Many voices tell us that we are betraying the free world if we trade with countries behind the Iron Curtain. In particular, although we are carrying out strictly the conditions laid down by the United Nations as to the supply of munitions to China, we are attacked for carrying on trade in non-warlike commodities. We thus find ourselves cut off from the East and the West. Yet we find Japan and other states trading with China without any fuss being made. But here I am touching on the China question with which I will deal later.

I think that everyone in Britain recognizes the great and wise generosity shown by the United States to ourselves and other countries which have suffered through the war, but there have been instances in which "strings" have been attached to aid which seemed to have been conceived in the interests of America. Hence the talk in some quarters of what they call "dollar" imperialism, meaning thereby the use of the economic power of America to enforce policies on other nations. This seems quite natural to many Americans who say, "We are obliging these people with loans, why should we not lay down conditions?" But this is where commercial practice conflicts with international relations. The position of giver and recipient of aid is always difficult in the case of individuals; it is still more delicate in the case of states. Sometimes, I think, there has been a lack of tact shown.


I do not think that there is anyone who underestimates what the United States did in the war and how much it has contributed to world stability in the postwar period. Marshall Aid is one example. American participation in NATO is another. There was a real danger that Soviet imperialism might overrun all Europe, as it has already become the dictator of Eastern Europe. Yet it is permissible to doubt whether still more of Europe might not have been saved from the Russian yoke if those who controlled the policy of the United States had been rather more fully aware of the European position.

Everyone is aware of the difference of opinion on strategy between Britain and America in the later stages of the war. These differences were not solely due to military theories but to divergencies on international policy. It was our view that an advance into Austria from Italy was a sound proposition, not merely from the point of view of military strategy but to save the states of Middle and Eastern Europe from becoming satellites of Soviet Russia. As it was, Russia was able to pose as the deliverer of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other states from the Germans, and Communists were able to make themselves masters of these states. I do not think that this danger was sufficiently present to the mind of American statesmen who, as I saw at Potsdam, were rather too ready to think that they could make a deal with Russia. I think, too, that some Americans thought that the British plan was dictated by imperialism.

I think that there has been some lack of understanding of Europe which is entirely natural. After all, for a good long time the United States tended to stand aloof from Europe and its troubles, whereas our geographical and historical position has necessarily bound us more closely to the Continent. For instance, various plans have been advocated for the integration of Europe--politically and economically--and occasionally impatience has been shown at the reluctance of European states to merge their sovereignty. There is here, I think, some disregard of the long histories of these states and of the wide differences between them. There are, of course, great differences between the states of America, but the difference between, say, Virginia and Pennsylvania is nothing to that between France and Germany or Holland and Italy. The merger of sovereignty is a very difficult thing to bring about and its advantages may be cancelled out by the loss of the distinctive characteristics which diversify the European scene. Let me hasten to add that Britons often make the same mistake in assuming that public opinion in the Eastern States is representative of opinion in the Middle West, the Southern States or California.

I am not writing this by way of captious criticism but am trying to point out some of the inevitable consequences that flow from historical and geographical facts.

To take another instance. It is, I think, impossible for Americans to understand fully the feelings of the people of France with regard to Germany. The French, in the course of only 80 years, experienced three great wars with Germany, including long periods of occupation. They cannot forget these facts. They inevitably look with the greatest suspicion on any suggestion for the rearming of their old enemy. The same thing applies to Belgium and to a lesser degree to Holland and the Scandinavian countries. Even in Britain, where invasion did not take place, we have still a very vivid memory of the "blitz" and we live in London and many other cities with bomb-cleared areas and ruins as ever-present memories of what we suffered. I am well aware of the great sacrifices of American lives made in the Western and in the Eastern theaters of war, but America did not have her soil actually invaded or her homes destroyed. This difference of experience undoubtedly has its effect on the outlook of the two peoples.

To turn to another area--what is called the Middle East and particularly the Moslem world. We have been intimately associated with Turkey, Egypt, the Arab countries and Pakistan for several centuries. We have many people who have lived in these countries. There are families whose friendships with people in Pakistan go back for several generations. Naturally, therefore, we have quite a considerable understanding of these peoples and equally they understand us. With the best will in the world it is not possible for those who have not had these contacts to see things in quite the same perspective. I have heard an American talk as if the Moslem world were a unity, ignoring the differences between the Sunnis and Shi'ahs and the long history of the relations of the Turks and the Arabs. It has sometimes seemed to me that Anglo-American differences of opinion on policy in this region flow from a tendency on the part of Americans to think that the British view is solely due to an imperialist approach, whereas so often it is based on wide knowledge both of the past and present of the peoples in that part of the world.

There is one other point which is perhaps rather a delicate one. In the composition of the American nation there are elements drawn from many races, but not in equal proportions. There are, for instance, more Italians than Jugoslavs, a great many Jews and practically no Arabs. It is natural that the Italians and the Jews should be more influential in America than their rivals. They are able to make their voices heard very emphatically at election time, and quite inevitably party leaders listen to them. The elections being close and the international complications being far away, home considerations may be more effective than foreign affairs.


Let me now turn to the Far East and, particularly, to the question of China. Here again, we must consider how opinion is influenced by historical and geographical considerations. We have had long trading relations with China and we have many Chinese living under the British flag in Malaya and elsewhere. We have also had many years of rule over Asiatic peoples. On the other hand, Americans have for years sent many missionaries to China and given great material aid to the Chinese people. Furthermore, there is a point which the Briton may easily fail to appreciate, namely, that the West of America faces China across the Pacific with only scattered islands in between. More than that, the Americans bore the heaviest burden in the war against Japan and have the memory of Pearl Harbor. Americans, therefore, are likely to be more conscious of the danger of a strong hostile Power on the eastern shores of the Pacific.

Britain was, until recently, a great Asiatic Power and is today the equal colleague in the British Commonwealth of three great Asiatic countries--India, Pakistan and Ceylon. She still has colonial possessions in Asia. She is, therefore, in a sense in Asia. Despite its connection with the Philippines, the United States is not in Asia, but is concerned as living in a neighboring continent.

Britain brings to the consideration of the Chinese problem her experience of other parts of Asia. Now, one of the outstanding events of this century has been the rise of Asiatic nationalism. I think the emergence of Japan at the turn of the century as a Great Power was one of the stimulants; but the education of Asiatics in European and American universities has been another, especially in the latter where they naturally imbibed the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Here was the beginning of the end of colonialism in Asia. In India, the nationalist movement grew in strength; and ultimately, under a Labor Government in Britain, four great countries in Asia attained their independence. Two major wars quickened the demand for independence. Experience shows that unless this demand is met in time reasonable men get thrust aside and the extremist takes control. It is just here that Communism has its chance. The Communist is always ready to use the language of freedom and democracy the better to enslave people. I have no doubt that had not timely action been taken, Communism would have taken hold in India. I think that the Dutch acted just in time in Indonesia. I think the French delayed too long in Indo-China and are suffering the penalty in a long and exhausting war there.

What relevance has this to Anglo-American understanding? I think that it is of prime importance in considering the attitude to be taken up in respect of the People's Government of China.

The struggle between the Kuomintang faction under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists ended in the complete victory of the latter. The remnant of Chiang's forces survived in Formosa only owing to their protection by the United States. I think that this victory was due to the corruption of the old regime and to the fact that the Communists offered something that appealed to the mass of the Chinese people. The evidence seems to show that where the Communists gained possession of territory in the course of the civil war they gave a new hope to the masses of the people. It was at least clear that the Communists had become the effective government of China, and the British Government, though totally opposed to Communism, recognized this as a fact. The United States took a different view, as it was perfectly entitled to do. The disagreement between Britain and the United States arose on the question of the filling of the seat assigned to China on the Security Council of the United Nations. It was mainly due to President Roosevelt that China had been assigned this seat as one of the Great Powers. She was certainly not one at that time. She was weak and torn with dissension. I thought it an unwise decision at the time. Now, when she has become powerful, the seat is filled by the representative of a discredited faction. The People's Government was denied this right because it was a Communist Government, and this before there was any question of aggression in Korea. The inevitable result has been to make the Chinese Government draw closer to Russia as its only friend and to strengthen Communist control, for Communism is now reinforced by nationalism. The Chinese feel affronted because America denies China her rightful place in the world's councils.

I think the American attitude unwise. It seems to resemble the short-sighted attitude of the British Government after the First World War when it supported Kolchak and the reactionaries against the Bolsheviks and thus rallied to Lenin the support of Russian nationalist feeling. There are other precedents in history, such as the support of the emigres against the French Revolutionaries at the end of the eighteenth century. One can imagine what the effect would have been in America at the time of the revolution if European Powers had supported a rival government in, say, Bermuda against President Washington.

It may well have been that had China been given her seat in the United Nations the Korean War might never have been started. In dealing with Asiatic countries the matter of self-respect or "face" is of great importance. The refusal to recognize the effective government of China affronted the self-respect of the Chinese people.

We in Britain recognize as clearly as do the American people the danger of Communism, but we differ as to the right way to deal with it. I think it unlikely that the Chinese people with their ancient civilization are likely to swallow the whole Communist doctrine. Still less do I think that China is likely to become a docile satellite of Russia. But the more China is shut away from the Western World and forced to ally herself with Russia, the more strength will be given to her Communist masters. The greater the contacts with the Western World, the less will be the danger of the integration of the great Asiatic mass in a Communist bloc.

I consider that as soon as support for aggression has ceased, the People's Government should be given the Chinese seat on the Security Council. I hope that thereafter an attempt might be made to get a real settlement in the Far East. I recognize very fully the feeling in the United States that Korea and Formosa might become advanced bases for an attack on the American continent by the Communists; but equally I recognize that from the point of view of the Chinese Government these two places are regarded as bases whence an attack on China might be launched by a hostile Power. The United States has very vivid memories of the attack of Japan against her, but China has memories of the Japanese War launched from these very bases. My view is that the only solution is that they should be neutralized.

Above all, I am sure that it is vital to the peace of the world that we should be very careful to avoid any action which would seem to set Asia against the West. Colonialism is dying, but in the new relationship between the Asiatic peoples and the West there is an immense work to be done in helping to raise standards of living in the East. This is, in my view, the best way of preventing the spread of Communism.

I think that here we should recognize that there is a certain difference of outlook between the British and American people. I think that Americans tend to see things in black and white where we see shades of grey. For instance, many Americans tend to lump together all kinds of left-wing movements as Communist. They do not discriminate between democratic Socialism and Communism. Some even look with horror on what we consider to be very mild liberalism. This absolute view is paralleled by the attitude of some people on the left who lump together every government that is not Socialist as being Fascist or reactionary. On this ground, the extremists of the left and right meet, for the one only sees everything with which he disagrees as black and the other as red.

It is unfortunate that much more publicity is given in the press to the extremists than to reasonable people. In America you get reports of anti-American sentiments expressed by a writer or speaker in Britain without realizing that he represents a small minority, while we hear a great deal about a speech by some Senator who is not highly regarded in his own country.


I have, hitherto, been trying to give a general review of causes of misunderstanding between the two peoples without any special references to any political party, but I would like now to say a word about my own party. The Labor Party is not anti-American and if any Labor adherents are prejudiced against the United States they are only a small and unimportant section; but it is right that I should express some feelings of disquiet which have arisen in our ranks recently.

The British Labor Party is not Marxian. Its philosophy is based on Christian principles rather than economic dogmas. Amongst its leaders and supporters are prominent adherents of all the Churches, including Roman Catholics. In the Labor Government there were three Catholics. The Labor Party has always been democratic and, in the broadest sense, liberal. It has been painful to find that some Americans, including people in high positions, fail to discriminate between Communism and Democratic Socialism.

The Labor Party is Socialist and believes in a large measure of public ownership and control. It works for a classless society and a wider measure of social justice. These views are not held by most Americans, who are devoted to the capitalist system and do not disapprove of great inequalities of wealth. But these differences of outlook on social and economic matters do not prevent us from agreeing in our conceptions of the worth of the individual, in democracy and freedom and in absolute moral values.

Incidentally, I would remark that the Socialist Party is strong --and, in some instances, in power--in several of the democratic countries in Europe and Australasia.

We have, therefore, been disturbed, as I know have many Americans, at the apparent strength of Senator McCarthy and those who hold his intolerant views. Every state has, of course, the right to defend itself against those who seek to overturn its institutions by violence or are in fact devoted to the interests of an alien power, but there is a danger lest those who profess to defend freedom sacrifice liberty itself. Those who wish to make a breach between Britain and America say, "You profess to be standing together for freedom, but look at the witch-hunting in America." Some of our people fall for this argument. The Labor Party has had nearly 40 years of fighting Communism in Britain and, despite war and economic depression, the Communists have utterly failed. We are pardonably annoyed at being instructed by a beginner like Senator McCarthy.

Another difficulty is the support given to those whom we consider undemocratic reactionaries, such as Chiang Kai-shek, Syngman Rhee and General Franco. We know that one cannot always choose just the associates one would wish in the international sphere, but we feel that there is a danger lest there should be disregard for the fundamentals of the democratic alliance.

As I have said, I want to see the utmost coöperation between Britain and America. I have stated frankly some of our difficulties, but they do not really affect our wide measure of agreement. In the thought of the Labor Party there is a wide range of ideas, idealistic, anti-imperialist, anti-privilege and social reform, which are held by many Americans. These ideas really stem from our common heritage of the Christian ethic. The difficulty is to get the personal contacts between like-minded people. The number of Labor people who can visit America is at all times very limited by financial considerations, and the dollar situation increases the difficulty. No doubt the same thing applies, but in a lesser degree, to Americans. Yet it is only by visits to each others' homes that real understanding can be reached by the unprivileged classes. I am certain that this understanding is vitally important for the preservation of our democratic and free way of life.

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  • CLEMENT R. ATTLEE, P.C., O.M., Labor Member of Parliament since 1922 and Leader of the Labor Party since 1935; Deputy Prime Minister, 1942-45; Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury, 1945-51
  • More By Clement R. Attlee