BOOK REVIEW / Fog in the Atlantic - America isolated: 'A Bundle from Britain' - Alistair Horne: Macmillan, 17.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the most skilful - and least celebrated - efforts undertaken by Britain in the desperate first years of the Second World War was the campaign to win support in America. Alistair Horne's exuberant memoir of his youth, most of it devoted to his teenage time as a British evacuee in the States, is among many other things a vivid new picture of how the arguments for and against intervention on the British side raged within America until Pearl Harbor virtually settled the issue.

The bitterness aroused in some prickly American quarters by British propaganda was a tribute to their impact. That doughty German-American, H L Mencken, complained of how the leader writers of his beloved Baltimore Sun had been seduced into 'Anglomania'. Later, Edmund Wilson grumbled about 'the obnoxious British propagandists, who, from the moment the English had realised that they needed us against the Germans, had been sent over to put pressure on us'.

The story has recently emerged of a best-selling war book brazenly fabricated in the British cause, while a map of Latin America, concocted by 'Perfidious Albion' to show Hitler's alleged designs on America's back yard, was actually cited by President Roosevelt in a 1941 speech denouncing German policy.

As one of the youthful host evcuated from Britain to America, Alistair Horne, who has since become the biographer of Macmillan and a distinguished historian, enjoyed a front-row seat for this subtle publicity blitz - indeed, he figured in it himself as a wholesome specimen of British boyhood.

He was lovingly adopted in 1940, aged 14, by a wonderful American clan long known to his own quirky segment of the Anglo-Scottish squirearchy. A Bundle From Britain tells how he found his foster-family was split between Interventionists and Isolationists.

The pro-British element was represented by a lady zealot of the 'Bundles for Britain' campaign and her sister, whose time was divided between merry attendance to family travails and eager hours spent monitoring radio accounts of Britain's fight for survival.

Both women, co-hosts to the displaced Horne, are warmly rendered here. But quite apart from its rich array of characters and period vignettes, the book will be of singular interest to future historians - or obituarists - of the Special Relationship for its first hand recounting of the pro- and anti-British struggle within the eastern seaboard's well-to-do, and for its baring of the fierce loyalties that proved so vital to Britain.

As Horne demonstrates, the intervention debate thundered away, not least among the gold- plated scholars of his American alma mater, Millbrook School. There, his room-mate William Buckley gave precocious indications, in extolling the Isolationist cause, of his future role as a suave - his enemies would say chilling - evangelist of ultra-conservatism in American politics.

Horne portrays all this, as well as the raucous charms of Forties America, in a spirit of total and elegiac recall. But the book also reaches back into his difficult pre-American time and earlier into the foibles of his eccentric forbears. The evacuee chapters, in particular, with their protagonist guiltily distracted from the joys of All- American adolescence by thoughts of the cataclysm besetting Britain, are advantageously cast in a solid historical context. Baseball buffs, however, will bristle at Horne's erroneous description of the legendary Pee Wee Reese as a pitcher, and Newfoundlanders (like this reviewer) at the sobriquet 'Neanderthals' bestowed on a group of their countrymen.

Still, the latter lapse is the sole token of upper-class swagger to mar A Bundle from Britain. The book is a grand human document, highlighting the way a British life was fired up by what another chronicler of the evacuee experience, Anthony Bailey, called the American itch to 'shoot for the moon'.