THE conventional wisdom regarding the great migration of 3 million American troops (and a few civilian auxiliaries) into wartime Britain derives from the British sneer that the Yanks were ``overpaid, overfed, oversexed - and over here.''
That class-ridden cliche, so patronizing about the young Americans, some of whom did misbehave in pubs and dance halls, has been brilliantly exploded in David Reynolds' beautifully written book, ``Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain, 1942-1945.'' An experienced, imaginative British historian with a deep knowledge of all the relevant archives, Reynolds rightly presents a fascinating yet neglected sidebar of World War II. His is not military history in the traditional battles-and-leaders sense, though it brilliantly assesses issues such as how the lack of training space in crowded Britain hampered the large-scale operations needed after D-Day.
Reynolds is far less concerned with combat as such than with the military sociology that scholars have developed in recent decades, as they investigate questions of morale, attitudes, cohesion, leadership, groups, and sub-groups, each with its own culture and life.
There was, for example, an enormous difference between the 29th Division, waiting interminably for an invasion of France that seemed never to come, and the 8th Air Force bomber units who made of East Anglia ``a mosaic of aerodromes five miles apart,'' sallying forth day after day to suffer fearsome losses in the German skies. These flyers and the villages over which their planes roared forged the closest of contacts. An Englishwoman recalled how ``when we used to call in at the pub, and enquire `Where's Tex?' or `Where's Pennsylvania?' they would just say that they hadn't made it back.''
In contrast, the American ground forces were simply waiting for the great catharsis of D-Day, to gain victory and return to their normal lives. Reynolds is superb at showing how unrealistic - as well as manipulative and sly - were Churchill's hopes of basing a future Anglo-American alliance on the emotional bonds of wartime.
Reynolds draws on the British archives to show that only the Foreign Office men with solid American experience truly understood that the Americans were not mere ``cousins,'' ex-colonials who were at last doing their duty by supporting the motherland. The British elite simply could not forswear three centuries of colonialist attitudes.
So no memories of Shakespeare and Magna Carta, no orations about ``hands across the sea,'' no number of visits by American soldiers to British homes, could ever influence the Americans politically. To the contrary, the American soldier found much to condemn in British life. These ranged from trifles regarding food, pub hours, and the deadly boredom for young men in isolated villages, to more substantive issues.
The small, cramped, hierarchical nature of British society was quickly recognized, as was the poverty of villages and even of the British soldier himself, who was grossly underpaid by American standards. While G.I. Joe had several uniforms, the British Tommy wore a thick, itchy battle dress, and no necktie, which only officers were entitled to wear.
The British also had their complaints, particularly about the segregationism and often brutal treatment imposed on black American troops. The British authorities nevertheless generally went along, not least because the British themselves were hardly free from racism. Above all, Britain's very survival depended on good relations with the emerging American superpower.
It is Reynolds' achievement as a true international historian that he can define this relationship generously, accurately, and gracefully.