Alistair Cooke – Letter from America: Bringing two nations together

  • 31 October 2012
  • From the section Magazine

Alistair Cooke's first Letter from America - initially called American Letter - was broadcast in March1946. It was to be the first of 2,869 such broadcasts, spanning 58 years, making it by far the longest-running talk programme of any radio station in the world.

He had written to the BBC a month before, proposing "a weekly personal letter to a Briton by a fireside about American life and people and places in the American news".

"The stress will tend always to be on the springs of American life, whose bubbles are the headlines, rather than the bright headlines themselves," as he put it.

His first letter was true to this promise, as were all the others until the last, broadcast in 2004, only a month before his death at the age of 95. It was an account of a journey back from Southampton to New York aboard the liner Queen Mary, in the company of a couple of thousand "GI wives" - British girls who had married American soldiers while they were camped in Britain during the war.

There were moving descriptions of their tears as they departed from Britain and the warmth of their welcome in New York.

The letter then changed gear to talk about postwar shortages of goods in the United States, created not by the simple lack of them, as in Britain, but by hoarding and racketeering.

He never wanted the British to think that everything was much better in his adopted country. He wanted instead to bring the two countries closer together in understanding and affection.

It may sound strange now, but there was enormous ignorance in Britain at that time of American history and culture.

No serving British prime minister until Winston Churchill had ever visited the United States, and the American way of life was widely suspected in Britain of being crass and alien. Alistair Cooke made it his task to rectify this.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Cooke transformed the image of America for the ordinary, middle-class Briton.

From the beginning until the end of his series of talks he conveyed an inner certainty that America was the most interesting country on earth, and many Britons who had never thought so before were persuaded to agree with him. Cooke managed to dispel the widespread fear and distrust of America that was felt in Britain after World War II.

The cosy way he said "Good morning...", with a seductive upward lilt on the last syllable, was enough to reassure middle-class British people as they rubbed their eyes at 08:45 on a Sunday morning. They couldn't feel frightened of America after that.

Cooke did not peddle opinions. An instinctive liberal - he was for 25 years also the much-admired chief US correspondent of the Guardian newspaper - he may not have shown much sympathy towards the Reagan presidency, but his main purpose was to be interesting, enlightening and entertaining.

He extolled all the things he loved about America - its show business, its popular music, and its sports, as well as its politics and its higher culture - and he did so in talks carefully pre-written to sound as natural, discursive and conversational as possible, and delivered in comforting, mellifluous tones.

If his "letters" seemed to lack construction, this was deliberate. He liked to digress, as people do naturally in conversation, and he liked to surprise by initially concealing what the main theme of his talk was going to be.

For example, his letter following the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York began by casually implying that he was going to write about a tropical storm heading towards the city from the Caribbean.

But then came "the most startling, awful morning I can remember. Not because this was the most awful disaster ever, but because, for the first time in American experience, a first act of war aroused, and television pulverised, our senses in a way we had never known".

And as so often, he tried to bring home this experience to the British by comparing it to one of their own: "It's the same feeling of bewilderment and secret fear - what next? - that Londoners felt after the first night of the Blitz in September 1940."

One reason for the appeal of Cooke's broadcasts over here was the way he treated the United States and Britain with equal respect. We British were never made to feel that he was addressing us as an inferior nation.

Perhaps because of the unfortunate timing of his adoption of American citizenship - in 1941, Britain's darkest hour - he was troubled for many years by a problem of national identity. He did once say that he felt "totally at home in both countries", but this could equally well have meant that he didn't feel quite at home in either.

According to Leonard Miall, the BBC's first Washington correspondent after the war, he was chosen by American television to host a British drama series, Masterpiece Theater, "because he was regarded here as the quintessential Englishman. Yet for decades he had been broadcasting his Letter from America to a British radio audience which regarded him as a particularly sympathetic kind of American."

Cooke himself recognised the problem when he said: "Here [in America] they think I'm an old English gent, and in England they think I'm an enlightened American."

But he must have been uncomfortable in his "English gent" role, much as he had sought to cultivate it, for at Cambridge, when asked to list his pet abominations, he included among them "the English gentleman".

He also once said that he had gone to America to escape "the seediness and snobbery of English life". But no-one has ever done more to bring our two nations closer together.

Slideshow images courtesy: Cooke Americas LLP, Getty Images, AP, PA and Howard Gotlieb Archive. Music by KPM Music. Production by Paul Kerley.

More on this story