how the world sees america

WWII Sailor Nostalgic, Disenchanted

"Here's lookin' at you, kid," Bogart told women around the world.
1943: As World War II raged, Casablanca flooded the big screens, and a young British sailor named Sid Grant prowled for a “beautiful, young bird” in Manchester. These were years of romance for Sid, and America’s image was at its heart.

Now Sid is an 82-year-old living in a rough part of Manchester. He’s been divorced three times, estranged from his children, and passes his time researching his genealogy and refereeing professional weightlifting competitions.

Waxing nostalgic, he told me how he admired American soldiers six decades ago. “They were very good looking, smartly dressed, taller than us British, and always eager for a good time.”

During WWII, a suburb of Manchester hosted one of America’s largest overseas bases. When Americans came into town to meet girls at the dance halls, Sid was right there, smoking the same cigarettes, speaking with the same accent, and hoping to emulate their “confident, bold” style. Sometimes it worked, and he was invited over to meet a young girl’s parents and tell them about Topeka, Kansas, his pretended home. “I memorized the names of all the states,” he told me, “so I’d never get fooled.”

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He dreamed of visiting the U.S. Like other British citizens, he knew America through its smoke-filled, black-and-white movies. Humphrey Bogart was the embodiment of charm and Ingrid Bergman of glamor.

But now he and other British citizens are more “worldly.” To some degree, he’s “disenchanted.” He’s traveled around the U.S. and is fond of it, but the country no longer fascinates him as it one did. America is just another nation, he tells me, a powerful one that’s generally good, but another one nevertheless. So do I have any advantages picking up British girls as an American, I ask him hopefully at the end of the interview.

"No better than anyone else."

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Comments (23)

constitution high:

i would like to talk to you about your time in the war and how your life has been effected

constitution high:

i would like to talk to you about your time in the war and how your life has been effected

constitution high:

i would like to talk to you about your time in the war and how your life has been effected

David Rushworth, UK:

I think that the feelings that people had for American films until the 60's were pure escapism. Here in the UK (and in large parts of America) from the 20's to the late 50's many people lived in what would now be described as poverty. The colour of their lives was largely grey.
But a couple of nights a week they would escape from this into a world of glamour where they could forget their cold, poverty stricken lives and be entranced by the likes of Bogart, Stewart & Bacall.
Now it is different. My standard of life is beyond the wildest dreams of my grandmother or my mother and I do not depend on the cinema for experience of the outside world.
And cinema has changed. In the main it sets out not to entrance but to shock.
The magic has gone.

JRLR:

Sharon, I know, there are circumstances when it is better to say nothing. I wish it were feasible somehow, right now: Deep inside, your comments did "touch a nerve in me".

Sharon:

JT:
I'm didn't mean what I wrote as a lament, although I guess in a way, it is. I agree that Jim Crow America was hardly a beacon of light and yet, somehow, we as a nation do seem to stumble towards the dream of democracy that our forefathers envisioned - even if it is in fits and starts. When I asked how we saw ourselves - through a mirror or a cloud - I meant do we see ourself through a mirror of self-understanding? do we realize that as the only superpower left (for now at least, China awakes) that we have an obligation to ourselves to understand that power and the admiration and the fear that it evokes.

Do we see ourselves through the cloud and only despair at what we have become? Is what we have become all bad? Is it all good? I assure you I don't see America past through rose-colored glasses. Although I admit I fear we are losing our way towards the future.

Were internment camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII a shining example of our country's ideals? I don't think so but neither do I think that means we were - or are - a terrible people. We did, after all, help Europe defeat Hitler. Yes, we we were a little late to the party and probably wouldn't have come if not for Japan bombing a little port in Hawaii but we did come through in the end. I think JRLR is right -Sid is nostalgic - for his youth, his ideals, his hopeful admiration - who doesn't dare to hope that their generation left the world a better place? That they had some small part in making the world a better place for their children and grandchildren? Who doesn't reflect on their life and try to make peace with it as they enter old age?

Reflection isn't really such a bad thing, is it?

I guess what I'd like us to start thinking and talking about what we want to be as a nation - we will never be perfect but does that mean we should stop trying? Last time I checked, Jim Crow laws HAD been repealed - have we stopped prejudice?, rid our country of all its race problems? No, and we never will - but we have made some positive changes. Steve IS a network administrator living a safe, comfortable life instead of working in a dank factory or on a farm!

It seems that we have very little dialogue in this country as to what we want to be, what the consequences of our actions are - before we actually take the action. The war in Iraq is just the most glaring and present example of that - how much different might things have been if instead of debating changing the name of french fries to freedom fries in the Congressional dining room, our elected Congress men and women had spent as much time debating whether war was the answer and what the consequences would be? But, to paraphrase Rumsfield, sometimes you go to war with the Congress you have, not the Congress you want to have.

And what is our responsibility in this? We ELECTED these people - and we elected Bush twice! Bush now is no different that Bush was in 2000 or in 2004 - why did he seem so appealing? What can we learn?

Steve - I'm glad you live a safe, comfortable life, but I'd like to remind you that many German Jews felt the same way even as Hitler began his campaign against their neighbors - Hitler hadn't effected their safe, comfortable life, so why put up a fuss? A couple of years later, there wasn't a Jewish life in Germany that hadn't been effected. In fact there wasn't a life in Europe that hadn't been effected by Hitler.

America may have a great future, the best may be yet to come but it won't come if we do not understand where we were, where we are and without some vision for our future. (And I personally think, that it won't come without the realization that you cannot find happiness on the backs of the misery of others. Iraqis matter, Somalis matter, even the French matter!)

Like it or not, we are a global economy - finacially, environmentally, socially. We allinhabit this big blue marble in space. It's not humanistic social relativism - it's reality. We are good, we are bad, and we are neither, we are both - one man's trash is another man's treasure. That fantasy of a fair and equal world is what this nation was built on and it ideals do matter - robber barons get old and become interested in philanthropic works - no one wants their legacy to be: he made a lot of money and was a complete A**hole! And that fantasy in large part is why you Do live a comfortable life. Someone dared to dream that the world could be a better place and set about trying to make it so.

And so JT, I apologize for rambling on - the questions are much more for me - to help understand my successes and failings, to help me make sense of an America and a world that is increasingly harder for me to understand. One old man's reflections on his youthful ideals and aspirations touched a nerve in me. And an anonymous post is a safe and somehow reassuring way to vent my fears and frustrations - after all, something I wrote touched a nerve in you.

And so, perhaps, I helped start a dialogue with someone I will never meet. Isn't that how revolutions are started? With people talking?

katakaha:

To some extent, others don't look up to the US so much these days because the US has succeeded. We are no longer so different than the rest because now the developed world is full of prosperous democracies that respect human rights. Think of what Germany and Japan would be like today if they had been occupied by Russia instead. It is good that the hero worship has ended; making a hero out of someone is a terrible thing to do to him/her.

SPQR:

replytobarskia-holle: Your comment is clearly xenophobic at best, racist at worst, and unacceptable either way.

It is sad to see that you (and some others on this blog) cannot recognize people who have loved and still love America and Americans so much, even when they stare you (literally here!) in the face. To call what they say, as reported by Amar C. Bakshi, "American bashing" is simply outrageous.

I understand that for people who consider themselves "more established Americans", to compare America's image in the world, today, to what it once was, can be a very painful experience; indeed, sons can seldom accept not being equal to their fathers and grandfathers. However, I do not see that as a sufficient reason for them to close their eyes on American reality, to claim they do not care about and to dismiss outright what people around the world think of this country, as well as to call "rubbish" the highly professional, most interesting work presented here.

Under present circumstances more particularly, not only can Americans do better than live what Henry David Thoreau once called "lives of quiet desperation", they ought to.

Steve:

No nation on Earth has ever created a fully equitable state of existence for all. The reason we in America and the rest of the world are so dissatisfied with the modern world is that we, for whatever reason, believe that a fully equal and fair world is not only desirable but possible.

This is complete folly. The world will never be fair and the actions of ones country should be judged against the net result for oneself rather than by the gauge of humanistic moral relativism where we value the Iraqi as much ourselves. Again we have a complete fantasy. One can never value another as much as themselves and to pretend otherwise is simply self deception.

America today is doing quite well as far as I am concerned. I make good money and live a quiet, safe, comfortable life. As far as I'm concerned America's golden age is now or yet to come. When else could a poor welfare kid grow up and make excellent money sitting in a chair as a network administrator?

Any other time in American history I'd be lucky to be working on an assembly line in a non-climate controlled factory 12 hours a day losing my hearing and experiencing other work related injuries. Or drafted and sent off to die, or working on a farm somewhere.

America's best years are yet to come my friends. As for the rest of the world - who cares?

Amar C. Bakshi:

Penn and JT, great points about the grave dangers of nostalgia. Much appreciated. Thanks, Amar

demas:

re: HOLLE... Humanity has stars in its future and that future is too important to be lost under the burden of juvenile folly and ingorant superstition.

Amar C. Bakshi:

replytobarskia-holle. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your concern about bringing preconceived notions to the site and look forward to hearing about your experiences abroad.

By no means do I think individual Americans are hated abroad, nor have I received such comments from any of my interviewees thus far.

This was a post on one man's nostalgia. Follow the journey and see what else comes up. By the way, I like your use of the word schadenfreude; it's quite a word.

replytobarskia-holle:

I take offense to Bakshi's guised anti-americanism. Bakshi is an example of the newest immigrant's hatred and envy of more established Americans. They use our system and then use their "priviledged" pulpit to bash us. What is the point whether or not American men were more coveted in the WWII arena. What does that have to do with anything??? The world is a different place now, everyone knows the damage that the Bush Administration caused over the last 7 years. While the world hates Bush & Co., they do not necessarily hate individual Americans. I just spent 2 years abroad and Americans are still coveted. Bakshi writes with envy and schadenfreude. How can the Wasington Post allow such rubbish to be published?

JRLR:

How nostalgic! How moving!

Yes, there was a time when American soldiers were greatly admired! How difficult that is to imagine and to believe, after so many years of lies and deception, after Vietnam and operation Phoenix, after Afghanistan and Iraq, after Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, after agents orange and purple, after depleted uranium.

There are no “just” wars, no human wars, no humanitarian wars. Lao Tzu: “War ought to be treated as a funeral service. Even victory is a funeral.”

However, WWII had nothing in common with Vietnam, was nothing comparable to Afghanistan and to Iraq. Sid remembers when they were here, comrades in arms.

At the time, those American soldiers were fighting for a just cause. He does not spell it out in so many words, does not need to. Sid simply remembers his heroes, and there is no doubt in the bloke’s mind: “Blimey, they were taller than us, I smoked their cigarettes, spoke with their accent, and yes mate, I could make people here believe I was a native from Topeka, Kansas…” The ultimate tribute: Sid's irresistible desire, his attempt even to be “one of them”... "taller than us"...!

Nostalgia: today, Sid is disenchanted... just another nation... fond of it but disenchanted... no better than anyone else. Sid is no longer fascinated; makes him feel older than he really is.

Where have all the charm and glamour gone? The Gods of a young soul never collapse for no reason when old age arrives. What has happened to the young sailor’s gods?

Forever in Sid's dreams they subsist, exactly as the young sailor saw them, in the golden age of his youth.

Pen:

As a minority living in the US, I feel our diversity is something special. I wouldn't be able to live comfortably back in the days as compared to now. And, why do we care about some old man's perception of the US based on Bogart and Bergmann? The US has changed--the people, culture, image--the perception needs to change, too. Heck, what was ideal look back then shouldn't be ideal now.

The only weakness for the US, as I see it, is the lack of proper education for our minority groups. We need to instill the love and value for printed literatures and the arts. We need to get on track with math and sciences in our school system. We need to somehow shed the state of laziness and over access to the media. We need to stop wasting our minds.

demas:

When a man and a women have an overwhelming passion for each other, it seems to me, inspite of such obstacles dividing them as parents or husband, that they belong to each other in the name of Nature, and are lovers by Devine right, in spite of human covention or the laws.

JT:

I'm surprised by Sharon's perspective and lament, though not necessarily her criticisms of today's America.

I think it's fundamentally flawed to compare 21st century America to a prior iteration. For example, how can one say that "Jim Crow" America was a beacon on a hill? That's just wrong.

Certainly, I think it's worth reflecting on how the world sees us today. I just wouldn't fool myself into thinking that yesterday's America was a Garden of Eden.

Sharon:

I think that you are missing the point. Jolie-Pitt vs. Bogart and Bergman isn't it. At one time America was considered a shining beacon of hope to most of the world. Others wanted to act like us, be like us and they admired what we stood for. We were considered bold, smart, can-do people with boundless energy, ready and willing to take on the hard tasks - and to succeed. Sure, we were also alittle loud and sometimes a little gauche but our hearts and intentions were perceived to be good.

How the mighty have fallen - isn't it pride that goeth before the fall? And what are we proud of now? Abu-Ghraib? Guantanamo? Warrentless surveillance? An Attorney General who "can't recall" just about anything apparently? A foreig policy that threatens to put match to the tinderbox that is the Middle East?

The world now sees us as "just another nation". Sad. But more important - how do we see ourselves? Through a mirror of understanding or through the cloud of the failed policies of "pre-eminent warfare" and elected officials who b3elieve that it's OK to subvert the laws of our land?

Redemption comes at a difficult price and through the grace of others. But I prefer to believe that we can redeem ourselves both in our eyes and the eyes of the world. It will take time, determination and above all a return to the values and ideals set forth in our Constitution - not only that all men are created equal, but that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, that due process of law is the only way to justice and that to prevail we MUST both set an example and follow the example we set.

Laura:

I wonder if you asked him to do his American accent, and what it sounded like!

I also wonder about the construction of wartime American masculinity-- "very good looking, smartly dressed, always eager for a good time"-- versus British knowledge of American femininity at the time. American men in the military had so much more mobility and freedom than their female counterparts to meet the citizens of the countries they traveled to. As a result, Sid probably knew few "real" American women, aside from movie stars.

Mike:

Brad Pitt? Substance?

Brad Pitt is camera-seeking, self-aggrandizng hypocrite.

Anthony:

Given Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's philanthropic activities compared to Bogart and Bergman ... I'll take substance over style.

Margaret:

I do miss the days of Bogart and Bergman. We don't have people like that now. Who would they be? Brad Pitt and Anjolina Jolie?

Sternberg:

The "new guy in town" always has a better chance.

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