Whitehall, Washington, and the Promotion
of American Studies in Britain,
Most of Britain seems to believe that nothing happens in America except 'gangster shootings, rapes and kidnappings'. That was the complaint of Joseph P. Kennedy, the US Ambassador, in a speech in Liverpool in May 1939. Kennedy blamed this perception on the British belief that American 'home life, history, and even legal practice are typified by motion pictures'. He appealed for better press coverage of the United States and for the study of American history in British schools and universities.1
Kennedy's appeal fell on deaf ears in 1939. This was not because of its rich irony—the Ambassador was a 'compulsive philanderer' who had made his fortune from movies, liquor, and insider trading.2 More important, the time was not yet ripe. But two years later, in the spring of 1941, the British Government decided to mount an ambitious campaign to promote the study of America throughout the British education system and this was implemented, particularly in schools, with remarkable alacrity. The originators of the campaign—the Ministry of Information and the Board of Education—were not exactly 'heavy hitters' in Whitehall but they received consistent support from the Foreign Office and the BBC. On the American side, Kennedy's successor as Ambassador, John Winant, was equally enthusiastic. The story constitutes an important and neglected episode in the development of American studies in Britain. It also offers an interesting sidelight on the place of cultural relations in British and American wartime diplomacy.
Kennedy's strictures were justified. Well over half the British population between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five attended the cinema every week, in the
This chapter was originally published in Journal of American Studies, 16 (1982), 165–88. It is
reproduced here with a slightly reordered opening and the removal of most of one paragraph to
avoid duplication with earlier chapters.
1The Times, 19 May 1939, 18.
2 Quotation from Robert Dallek, John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, 1917–1963 (London,