Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

In 1942 Alistair Cooke toured a US newly at war and found much that echoes down the years

Have you ever felt an urge to smash open one of those sealed time capsules you find embedded in a building put up, say, in March 1960, and carrying the instruction, "Not to be opened until March 2060"? If so, and if Americana is your poison, then buy the newly published book by Alistair Cooke.

Cooke, of course, was the marvellous chronicler of US life in his Letter from America, which ran on BBC radio for 58 years almost until his death in March 2004. A fortnight before he died, his secretary found a old manuscript entitled The Face of a Nation. It was the account of a year-long trip by the young reporter across the United States immediately after Pearl Harbor, to gauge the impact on ordinary people of America's entry into the Second World War.

But in 1945, with the war won, Cooke concluded his work would no longer be of interest. He stowed the manuscript away and forgot about it. Now it has been resurrected, and to read The American Home Front 1941-42 is to open a time capsule, or rather a bottle of the finest vintage wine, from that era, untouched, and containing the essence of a vanished America.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Cooke abandoned Washington for L'Amérique profonde. His 10,000-mile trip was from another age, when the US population was 130 million, not 290 million, before the great secular migration to the suburbs and the emergence of "Anywhere USA", before there were any interstates. In those days, cement roads were the best the motorist could hope for, and Cooke could start a chapter with the words, "I took the night boat from Detroit to Cleveland" - nine words that conjure up an entire era.

But in other ways, that era resembles our own. Then as now, it was a time of war, against the Japanese and Germans, of course, rather than terrorism. But Cooke writes of how, in the days after Pearl Harbor, an unidentified aircraft was sighted off Long Island, and every plane at La Guardia Field, then New York's sole airport, was grounded. Six decades ago, the real threat to the US mainland was far smaller than now; but the reaction to the Japanese attack in the Pacific eerily prefigures the days after 9/11.

Then as now, they interned people; not Islamists, but Americans of Japanese ancestry. The Manzanar camp, which Cooke visited in the High Sierras of California, was not exactly Guantanamo Bay, but equally hard to get out of. Cooke, by then a naturalised American, confessed to being "none too proud" of what had been done by his new country.

But, unlike the war that began on 7 December 1941, you scarcely notice the one that started on 11 September 2001. Passing through Salina in Kansas, the state plumb in the middle of the continental US, Cooke noted how "you learn that 'war' means all things to all men, but mostly ... the day-by-day effect on their crops and jobs". I was in central Kansas a few weeks ago on an assignment similar, but infinitely less ambitious, than his own. There, I found that unless you knew people who served in Iraq, the "war on terror" means next to nothing.

But in 1941-42, war's effects were omnipresent. At a hotel in Charleston, West Virginia, Cooke was asked to limit himself to just one cup of coffee "in the interests of national defence". In Tucson, Arizona, he found the deserts being combed by prospectors, looking for minerals to serve the war effort. In Eugene, Oregon, he encountered an orchid-grower complaining that his rich East Coast customers could no longer afford his plants, what with higher taxes, war bonds and the like. By contrast, what is today the Rust Belt was humming joyously as wartime demand for coal, steel and armaments banished the Great Depression from the industrial heartland.

But the moral for me is that some things never change. Cooke, like surely every sentient visitor today, is struck by the "never-never land" that is Florida. He writes of racial tensions in Detroit and of cheap immigrant labour in California. He says the car is "as necessary to the well-being of Americans as love or a place to keep things cold".

Finally, he notes the self-delusion to which the country was (and remains) so prone, how Americans "are less aware than other peoples that they are not taken everywhere at their own valuation".

Was this a time capsule of 1942, or 2006?