World Brain, by H. G. Wells

Appendix 4. — Transatlantic Misunderstandings

Published in Liberty, January 15th, 1938

I HAVE recently been going to and fro in America, talking to all sorts of people and hearing all kinds of opinions. I am one of those realists who refuse to be blinkered by current political institutions. I belong to that great and growing community which has a common literature and a common language in English. There has been a revolution in communications during the past hundred years, a virtual abolition of distance, which makes our old separations preposterous. The English-speaking states and nations scattered about the world are no longer divergent. They are coming together again, in their thoughts, knowledge, interests and purposes. They have a common future.

I believe profoundly in the synthetic power of a common idiom of thought and expression. Given a free movement of books, papers, radio beams and the like, this is a unifying force that will triumph ultimately over every form of particularism, nationalism and imaginative antagonism. It is bringing the Californian into clearer and closer understanding with the Kentishman, the New Yorker, the Scot, the Maori, the Afrikander, the Canadian, the Welshman, the Anglo-Indian and the Eurasian. I doubt if the green barriers of a censorship and an artificial language will suffice to keep the Irish Free State out of our world-wide coalescence for long. Irishmen are not going to live content talking faked Erse in a small damp island when they have for wit and abuse and the whole English-speaking world at their disposal. I refuse to call myself foreign or alien among any people who speak, read and think in English. It is because they are less reasonable today than ever they were, that I find the resistances to this greater fusion, increasingly remarkable. There are such resistances, one must admit. There are still all sorts of queer and out-of-date frictions and obstructions in the confluence of this new world-wide English-speaking community of ours. This is particularly evident between the United States and Britain. Partly this is due to bad tricks of manner and bad habits of mind on the part of the British which irritate many types of Americans excessively; partly it is due to deep-rooted traditions of distrust and antagonism which have long since ceased to have any practical justification.

Almost all English people forget that so far as origins go the population of the United States never was wholly British. They disregard the early Dutch, Swedish, French and other non-British settlers who slowly adopted the English language and traditions before the War of Independence and the immense infusion of the later immigrations, immigrants who had no earthly reason for Anglomania. These people accepted English and the forms of English thought, they amalgamated with the American school of the English-speaking culture, many of them transferred their ancestors to the Mayflower and acquired a kind of pre-natal pride in the Battle of Bunker Hill, yet steadily and particularly since the beginning of this century, their distinctive qualities have manifested themselves in a greater variety, a wider range, in American imaginative literature and a broader, more enterprising quality in American thought. For long Boston remained more English than England, but forty years ago my generation hailed the intellectual revolt against Boston (and refined Anglicanism) first in a sprinkling of isolated writers from Whitman to Stephen Crane, and then in a comprehensive expansion and release, which has now made American intellectual life not so much a continuation as a vast extension and Europeanisation of English culture. The annexations have been enormous. The English element has played the part, not so much of a direction as a flux. These are matters all too frequently ignored by English people. The thing has happened in history before. just as American education has oriented itself to the War of Independence, in which not one in a score of living Americans had an active ancestor, so the great Phoenician, Babylonian and Carthaginian populations acquired and entered into that tradition of Judea which holds together the comity of Judaism today. Probably, too, under the empire, millions of Roman citizens from York to Egypt without a drop of Roman blood in their veins felt a personal pride in Romulus and Remus. Assimilation is far easier and more powerful than inheritance. It is the linguistic link and the progressive development of common ideas and understandings that are destined to hold the English-speaking community together in the future. Britain never was the mother country of the United States, and the first thing an English visitor to America should do is to get rid of that illusion. Long years ago, a century ago, one of the great New England writers of that time — was it Lowell? — wrote a stinging paper on “a certain air of patronage in foreigners.” It was an excellent reproof to visiting Europeans and particularly to Englishmen who came over to see America as a new young country, betrayed a sort of upper-form attitude to the new boys, and were quite unable to realise that a man of forty in America is just as old as a man of forty in England, has seen just as much of life and counts as many ancestors between himself and Adam. The political association of Britain and America lasted hardly a couple of centuries. But it set a perennial stamp upon their destinies. From the beginning of their separation there has been a peculiar mutual irritation between Britain and America. It has in it something of the vexation of a divorced couple who still resentfully care for things they had in common. “Think what the Empire would have been if you had stuck to us,” is the unspoken accusation of the ordinary Britisher. “Why did you make things so that we had to break?” says the American. “It was your fault,” say both of them, “and my side was in the right.” Maybe you will think that is now ancient history. It is not. It is as alive today as it was a century ago. The mighty growth of America makes the British none the less regretful for the loss of a common world outlook. They paid too much for clear old George the Third. It was the Hanoverian monarchy, the hungry exploitation of America by the British governing class and the narrow traditions of the Foreign Office that caused that breach. Plebeian Britain was on the side of the colonies in the War of Independence — John Wilkes was very brother to Tom Paine — and from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1776-88) to Winwood Reade’s Martyrdom of Man (1872) you can find the liveliest anticipations in English literature of the role of North America as the hope and refuge of Western culture and freedom. Nothing is forgotten so rapidly as very recent history, and few people nowadays realise how near Britain came a century ago to following the United States along the path to republicanism and to emancipation from an aristocratic ruling class. Joseph Chamberlain, the father of the present Prime Minister, was a republican outright, but nowadays we forget his talk of ransom — his New Deal phase. Both countries are amazingly ignorant of each other’s history during the early nineteenth-century period — they were too busy in other directions to observe each other closely — and few Americans seem to realise the struggle that went on in England during their civil war between the ruling class, which looked forward with pleasant resentment to the break up of the Union, and the liberal British, who instinctively realised that the strength and freedom of America were bound up with their own. To this day relics of that old upper-class resentment lingers. The Bourbons of the court and the diplomatic services still betray a lurking patronage, depreciation and a weak vindictiveness towards America. “Society” is in politics in Britain and out of it in America, but the economic, social and political trends in both systems are alike, their massive interests and mental dispositions converge, and however these retrospective elements may falsify our superficial relationships the enduring disposition of the generality in Britain towards America and the drive behind the national policy are, and always have been, co-operative.

But balancing the retrospective resentment of the British ruling class, there is on the other side a whole system of estrangement between these great populations arising primarily out of the too-cherished tradition of the War of Independence. For several generations that great revolt formed the basis of historical instruction in America. The bridge at Concord, the Boston Tea Party were exaggerated gigantically. The new immigrants took them over. The incoming German or Eastern European learnt to boil with indignation at the employment of Hessian troopers by the Hanoverian king. The inevitable misdemeanours on the part of the British were charged up against them in the true spirit of war propaganda. In the war of 1812 they burnt the Capitol. This was not all. All that might have been forgotten. But the newly separated states developed a financial organisation only very slowly. They were not industrialised for nearly a hundred years and they had to be industrialised by foreign capital — which in those days meant British capital. And they developed a diplomatic service belatedly. Because of this an inferiority complex towards the British arose, quite naturally, but one that has long since lost any material justification. Wall Street as it grew seemed to the Americans generally very like a British foothold in their economy. America felt that it was entangled monetarily, sold out to London, mysteriously out-manoeuvred in its foreign relations.

America grew, a unified continental mass. Her population is now two-thirds of the English-speaking world, while the British find themselves responsible for an empire which spreads about the planet, the most vulnerable, the most entangled, the most threatened of all existing political systems. Its foreign policy has become now an almost pathetic self-protective opportunism. But to the American this empire is still a greedy octopus, to be distrusted systematically. It has kept an unguarded frontier to the north of him since the separation, nevertheless it is to be distrusted. Its fleets have never threatened America and for fifty years at least Americans have had no uneasiness on their eastern coasts very largely on account of Great Britain, nevertheless it is to be distrusted. Wherever the Union Jack goes it takes the English-speaking American commercial traveller and a friendly banking system with it, nevertheless it is to be distrusted. Some mysterious undermining process is believed to be going on. The phrase adopted, since the War to express this profound distrust has been “British Propaganda.”

Suspicion of British propaganda has become a mania. Old ladies in the middle west look under the bed at nights for British propaganda. At home, I am a persona most distinctly non gram with the court, the church, the public schools, the universities, the whole Anglican system; but when I go to America I am discovered to be a British propagandist. America in her serene path to abundance and happiness, is being lured into another war — for the sake of the British. That is the story. America has no interest in the welfare of China, it seems, because the British have great investments there. But we tempt her in. We invented the Pacific coast on her. It is British propaganda to suggest that America has some slight interest in the destinies of the Spanish and the Portuguese-speaking· worlds. To say that isolation from the rest of the world’s affairs is a rather cowardly and altogether impracticable ideal for America nowadays, is British propaganda.

There is a copious literature of propaganda against this imaginary British propaganda. The other day I read a book by Mr. Quincy Howe, England Experts Every American to do his Duty, which is quite typical of the methods of the campaign of distrust and estrangement. The history of Anglo-American relations is combed through to present America as the simpleminded cat’s-paw of British cunning. This sort of thing crops up everywhere. I found it in the questions put to me after my lectures; I met it in conversation. “You British” they began. Though I had come to America to talk about educational reorganisation and not about international affairs. A hostile power preparing for a conflict with England solo or America solo could not cultivate a crippling breach of their natural alliance more efficiently than this probably quite spontaneous misinterpretation of the British drift. It may prove a very disastrous thing for the entire English-speaking world.

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