The American Home Front: 1941-1942 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

The American Home Front: 1941-1942

By Alistair Cooke, Atlantic Monthly Press, $24.00

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Ever so rarely, a long-lost treasure comes to light, unearthed in an attic, at a bric-a-brac sale, in the false drawer of an ancient piece of furniture. In this case, a British journalist, who himself would come to be regarded as a treasure on both sides of the Atlantic, had relegated an unpublished manuscript to the dustbin nearly 60 years ago. The work, by Alistair Cooke—host of "Masterpiece Theatre" on PBS from 1971 to 1992—surfaced in 2004. Cooke's discerning secretary, who was clearing out papers in his Manhattan apartment a few weeks before the broadcaster's death at the age of 95 in March of that year, rescued the manuscript. Now Cooke's reportage appears in the form of a book entitled The American Home Front: 1941-1942.

When the United States entered the war in 1941, Cooke, an Englishman who had recently become an American citizen, was working as a correspondent for the BBC in New York City. He immediately undertook what was, for the time, a daunting assignment: to trans-navigate the entire country, coast to coast and north to south, reporting on America's state of mind as its citizens assumed a new role as allies of already war-torn England. The challenge lay not so much in the journey ahead as in securing the means to make it. Gasoline and tires were severely rationed; railways, carrying troops, were impossibly crowded.

Cooke portrays an America gearing up for war in the shadow of the Great Depression. In Charlestown, Indiana, for example, he met a couple he identifies only as "a Texan and his wife." Like tens of thousands of others, they had traveled great distances to find jobs, in this case, at a new gunpowder plant, then the largest in the world. "They had tried," Cooke reports of their odyssey, "sleeping in a drugstore cellar, a firehouse, a barn with a patched roof, a trailer....Through a winter and a spring and a steaming, rancid summer they came and settled and somehow stayed fed and alive."

Cooke punctuates his story with the testimony of ordinary people, those who could not fathom the arcane economic decisions of Washington's War Production Board any more than they had comprehended the programs of the Works Progress Administration that had preceded it. Midwestern farmers, for instance, complained that despite drastic nationwide bread rationing, they themselves saw nothing but surplus, "storing [wheat] in schoolrooms and empty stores, in churches, in railroad shops, and in garages closed down for lack of gasoline and customers." The problem, they believed, could be attributed to "the incompetence of ‘the men in Washington' who cannot provide enough boxcars to get the wheat away from Kansas." (The real issue was that the government wanted to stockpile against any future shortages.)

Cooke writes movingly of the nation's response to horrific shipping losses from German U-boat attacks in the Atlantic. Wisconsin farmers and Florida growers, he reported, sent their products to factories where tons of milk, eggs and oranges were processed into shipments of powdered milk and eggs and concentrated citrus juice that were transported across the ocean so that half-starved British children could have a proper breakfast. And at shipyards and factories on both coasts, he found the nation rallying to the war effort. In California, industrialist Henry Kaiser, who had overseen the construction of dams before the war, had his factories producing "liberty ships" at the unheard of rate of one a month. In Detroit, too, Cooke writes, tanks and airplanes were moving off assembly lines at a stupendous pace.

In small towns, most men had gone off to the military or the war plants, leaving behind the kind of scene Cooke recorded on the Great Plains: "a mother in a floppy hat plowing a cornfield, and two daughters bent over low in the beet fields." He began, also, to chronicle sorrow and loss. In Deming, New Mexico, for example, Cooke found an entire town in shock: their local state guard unit, 150 men, had been posted to a place in the Philippines called Bataan, which had fallen ten days before; not one of them had been heard from. In Pasadena, California, an auto dealer told him that unscrupulous speculators were "looking for cars with good rubber and making heavy profits on the immediate resale." In Vermont, a state famous for its high-quality marble quarries, he discovered local citizens who predicted a grim upsurge in business: chiseling tombstones for fallen soldiers.

Cooke's narrative captures the whole of the American scene in vivid detail, from Chicago slums to smoke-belching factories of the East and the Midwest, to the boundless beauty of the desert and the mountain states. Many of his observations were broadcast worldwide over BBC airwaves, but by the time Cooke finally turned them into a book in 1945, the public wanted to forget the war. No publisher was interested, so there the matter rested for more than 60 years. We rediscover it now, timeless in its eloquence.

Winston Groom is the author of 1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls.

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