Revealing portrait of America in the early years of WWII.
Those who remember English-born Cooke as the avuncular and courtly host of Masterpiece Theatre may be surprised to learn that he was ever young—and that, as a young journalist, he had few illusions about his adoptive land. Reporting for the BBC’s Home and Empire Services, Cooke took off from New York long after Pearl Harbor to see what this giant ally would mean to Britain, and he opens apologetically, since Britain had been fighting alone for two years. Asking his listeners to hear tales of “American sacrifice,” he admits, “must have seemed as if we were asking you to take out your handkerchief and weep for a very rich man who had mislaid a favorite diamond ring.” He is duly incensed when he heads west and discovers wealthy playboys playing golf and sunning themselves poolside in places like Tucson and Los Angeles; he is scornful when he meets gringos who deride their Mexican neighbors for being dirty and disease-ridden; he is astonished by the “fact that most regions of the country, passionately knowledgeable about their own characteristics, and patient in helping the stranger refine his knowledge of them, yet show the blandest ignorance of what goes on thirty or 100 miles away.” Yet Cooke is also mindful of sacrifices made, among them the disruptions suffered by the commandeering of civilian transport to the federal rationing program, which forced one West Texas rancher to get back on a horse after years of riding the range in a truck (“Of course,” says another, “the cows don’t know the war’s on”). Americans being Americans, he notes in a 1945 postscript, that rationing begat a huge “black market in meat [that] was so now expertly organized that its profits far outshone the amateur take of the liquor lords of the 20s.”
A vivid, endlessly interesting view of the home front.