"Uncle Sam Prepares": The Presentation of the United States in British Newsreels Before the Second World War
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 30, Number 2, 2000
- pp. 50-59
- Additional Information
Bell I "Uncle Sam Prepares" U UNCLE SAIM PREPARES" THE PRESENTATIOM OF THE UNITED STATES IN BRITISH NEWSREELS BEFORE THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Peter Bell, College of Ripon and York Neville Chamberlain once remarked that "the real trouble with the Yanks" was that they could "never deliver the goods."1 In making this statement he encapsulated the frustration shared throughout the British Government during the 1930s concerning America's isolation from international affairs. Yet the image of the USA presented to the British people through the cinema newsreels told a different story. British newsreels during the 1930s devoted more coverage to the United States than to any other foreign power. This partly reflected the availability of abundant footage aboutAmerica, as the newsreel companies were subsidiaries of American corporations. Equally significant, however, was the fact that the British people found it easier to identify with Americans than with Europeans and other foreigners. By the twentieth century the common heritage of language, custom and political philosophy had displaced echoes The newsreels found in the image of the revolutionary past. As device for propaganda. "Anglo-Saxon cousin," "sister democracy" and "friend across theAtlantic" —phrases often cited in the newsreels—the United States was easily presented to the ill-informed people ofBritain as a natural ally, especially in view ofAmerica's decisive contribution to Britain's victory in the First World War. As the clouds of international crisis gathered, no image could have been more welcome to the British than that of a well-armed American ally, of benevolent "Uncle Sam" ready to help his good friend across the Atlantic in the increasingly likely event ofanother war. It was, however, an image that grossly misrepresented contemporary historical reality. The breakdown of peace during the 1930s presented the British and American governments with differing priorities, which certainly did not translate into diplomatic harmony. For Britain the problem was how to defend herself and the vulnerable Empire against a triple threat from Japan, Germany and Italy. ForAmerica it was a question of how best to ensure neutrality in the event of another war. As international tension escalated this difference of emphasis was reinforced rather than diminished. Britain was unable to contemplate war with even one enemy, let alone three, because of extensive post-war disarmament, while financial and domestic constraints precluded rapid rearmament. Her predicament, moreover, was worsened by the lack of a strong reliable ally. The Empire Dominions, reliant on the mother country for protection , were liabilities rather than assets. The Soviet Union, who shared the same enemies as Britain, was distrusted for its ideology and not regarded as an effective fighting force. France, whose support would be crucial in containing Hitler, was considered politically unstable and militarily unreliofPresidentRoosevelt a most flexible aDle. The United States, the only power capable of resisting Japan, showed little inclination to do so, and looked even less likely to intervene in Europe; yet, without her economic and military aid it was impossible to see how Britain could survive another world war. Whilst the British would have liked to isolate themselves from international aggression but were unable to do so, the Americans believed they could achieve exactly that. Most citizens regarded intervention in the Great War as an aberration damaging to American interests, a deviation from the well-tried policy of isolation. It was thought to have been precipitated by compromising her neutrality; economic and financial assistance to the bankrupt British had earned German hostility and forced President Wilson to support Britain militarily to protect American investment. As another war loomed, Congress, in deference to public opinion, enacted strict neutrality legislation to insure against a repeat performance of 1917. Thus, despite President 50 I Film & History Television as Historian | Special-ln Depth Section Roosevelt's own inclinations he was powerless to commit American power against aggressors. Even in East Asia, where American interests were threatened by Japan, all commitments risking war were avoided, despite rearmament. In fact, the latter tended to reinforce isolation rather than facilitate intervention : it was "Fortress America," designed to insulate the New World against the spreading contagion of war. Consequently, as Britain's security declined and her need for allies grew, opportunities for cooperation with...