Burke: What Alistair Cooke’s 1942 road trip said about U.S.

Not all of it was flattering, and the BBC correspondent seemed to sense what might result here.

By Tom Burke

Herald columnist

Let’s take a road trip!

We’ll drive round trip from Washington, D.C., to Washington, D.C., via Virginia, Florida, Texas, California, Washington state and twenty-six other states.


And we’ll do it in a 1938 Lincoln Zephyr V-12 with five retread tires, a gas-ration coupon book, and credentials from the British Broadcasting Corp.

Our driver is a young Alistair Cooke, who folks might remember as an original host of PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater.” But he started life as a BBC correspondent and was quite famous for his reporting.

In early 1942 Cooke began a four-year journey, mostly on the road, to “discover” how home-front Americans were facing World War II.

He was writing a book. But it took him until 1945 to finish, and by then the war was near-over and the project abandoned.

So his book, “The American Home Front 1941-1942” wasn’t published until after his death, in 2006, when the manuscript was discovered in a box, in the back of a closet, under a pile of old papers as his estate was being settled.

Its value today is not just the detailed description of this important historical era, but the cultural observations Cooke makes about 1940s America.

I always fancied taking Cooke’s trip. I found a 1942 Rand McNally road atlas and plotted Cooke’s itinerary mile-by-mile, blue highway by dirt road by gravel path.

Years ago it was a vacation fantasy. Today, it would be an MRI of America under Donald Trump.

As Cooke stated, “I wanted to see what the war had done to the people, to the towns I might go through, to some jobs and crops, to stretches of landscape I loved and had seen at peace; and to let the significance fall where it might.”

Today, I would want to see what Trump has wrought on the American landscape and psyche.

Cooke interviewed scores of folks and painted word-pictures of the country he was traveling through, sometimes stating the obvious, albeit nicely phrased, as when he wrote about his trip through Washington state, “wherever the highway rises and you go through a gorge, you emerge on sweeping hills that, ‘round the whole arc of the horizon, stand magnificently tipped with the cathedral spires of Douglas firs. If there is a sublimer tree in America, I have not seen it.”

But the magnificence of our landscape becomes, to Cooke, a language dilemma, much like the president’s language.

Cooke asks, “If you have already pinned the word ‘magnificent’ on, say, the Green Mountains of Vermont, what words are left to describe the Olympics or the Cascades?”

We might ask that when we hear Trump claim to be, “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”

He isn’t, so he called himself, “the world’s greatest person.” (Which I’m sure is dismaying to fans of Jesus of Nazareth, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Teddy Roosevelt, Elanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, Golda Meir, George Washington, et al.)

He also claims the “the best words” (better than Dickens or the Gettysburg Address?); that he’s “the king of debt” (true, if we’re talking his U.S. debt); understands things, “probably better than anybody” (maybe he could explain relativity or how to use a cable TV remote); and “nobody loves the Bible more.” (More than what, vanilla ice cream? Diet Coke? More than who? Pope Francis? Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein? Mike Pence?)

Cooke’s time travel takes us from German, Italian and Hungarian diplomats interned at the ritzy Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia; to the world’s largest gunpowder plant in Charlestown, Indiana, (and an “overnight” population of 14,000 in a town designed for 900); to Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

He illustrates WWII-specific issues, but also portends future trends: anti-Semitism and racism, for example.

Cooke’s anti-Semitism observation comes via a Louisville doctor who alleged Jewish syndicates were taking over businesses; but couldn’t identify which Jews or which syndicates.

(Today anti-Semitism is Trump’s “very fine people” marching and chanting “Blood and soil!” and, “Jews will not replace us!” And the murderous white-supremacist slaughter of Jewish worshipers in their temples.)

He described racism against blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics. And his observation that, “Whites in most Southwestern towns might say that only a Communist (today, a Democrat?), a crackpot (also a Democrat?), or editorial writer (a fake-news Democrat?) would even find a problem there to solve.”

But problems existed and he observed “that it will take only a couple of generations of breeding…to produce enough of them (whoever “them” are) to constitute a problem.” (And he was correct.)

Alistair Cooke, writing how Americans felt as the war started observed, “It was as low a point as American morale could ever fear to touch.”

But we are approaching that point today. Because two years of Presidential lying, greed, bigotry, narcissism, collusion, obstruction, stonewalling, ignorance, laziness and the mania to be America’s first dictator has brought us almost as low.

Tom Burke’s email address is t.burke.column@gmail.com.

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