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Overture to an Alliance: British Propaganda at the New York World's Fair, 1939–1940

  • Nicholas J. Cull


On April 30, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the New York World's Fair open. Moments later a flood of eager humanity surged onto the one-and-a-quarter thousand acre former municipal dump in Flushing Meadow, Queens, now home to what the New York Herald Tribune termed “the mightiest exposition ever conceived and built by man.” While Europe shivered on the brink of a war, the United States focused its attention on the distinctive silhouette of a seven hundred foot spire and a globe two hundred feet wide: the “Trilon” and the “Perisphere,” centerpieces and emblems of the New York World's Fair. The fair stretched around their base in a teeming sprawl of concrete and electric lights. Its precincts embraced all manner of amusements, including a vast funfair with such thematic attractions as a Cuban village, an African jungle, and a Merrie England area. While most of the visitors seemed intent on enjoying themselves, the fair was intended by its organizers to serve a serious educative purpose. Its theme was “building the world of tomorrow,” with two-thirds of the fair ground given over to exhibitions by corporations, U.S. federal agencies, and foreign governments. The fair's corporate exhibitors vied with each other for the most spectacular vision of what this world might be. General Motors offered the “Futurama” exhibit designed by Norman Bel Geddes, in which 28,000 visitors a day traveled on a conveyor belt ride through a projection of the American landscape forward twenty-five years, to a Utopia liberated by the automobile. In a similar vein, inside the Perisphere visitors could view a diorama of a future metropolis, “Democracity.” But popular acclaim lay elsewhere.



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1 Heckscher, August, When LaGuardia Was Mayor: New York's Legendary Years (New York, 1978), pp. 244–48.

2 For a concise account of the fair, see Findling, John E., ed., Historical Dictionary of World's Fairs and Expositions, 1851–1988 (Westport, Conn., 1990), pp. 293303; and Manchester, William, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932–1972 (Boston, 1973), 1:240–41. On its cultural context, see Gelernter, David, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair (New York, 1995); Geddes, Norman Bel, Futurama (New York, 1939), and fair ephemera in my own collection. The Merrie England area was an entirely American-designed and -operated amusement area featuring pubs, a village green, and a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. It stands as a testament both to the reserve of American fascination with Britain on which the British Pavilion at the fair was able to build and the scale of the misconceptions of British life that the pavilion needed to correct. The Dominion of Canada was not represented at the British Empire pavilion but organized its own contribution.

3 For definitions and theoretical and historical surveys, see Jowett, Garth S. and O'Donnell, Victoria, Propaganda and Persuasion, 2d ed. (Newbury Park, Calif., 1992); and Taylor, Philip M., Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Day (Manchester, 1995). The acceptance of propaganda as a component of international relations is clear from the proliferation of organs such as the United States Information Agency, founded in 1953, though this agency prefers the term “public diplomacy” to propaganda.

4 For a survey of British Propaganda in the United States in the First World War, see Sanders, Michael and Taylor, Philip M., British Propaganda during the First World War (London, 1982), pp. 167207. The campaign first became known in Parker's, Gilbert article, “The United States and the War,” Harpers 136 (March 1918): 521–31. Subsequent accounts followed, including Gratton, C. Hartley, Why We Fought (New York, 1929), pp. 5052; Millis, Walter, Road to War (Boston, 1935), pp. 6364; Squires, J. D., British Propaganda at Home and in the United States from 1914 to 1917 (Cambridge, Mass., 1935); and Peterson, H. C., Propaganda for War: The Campaign for American Neutrality, 1914–1917 (Norman, Okla., 1939). References to this campaign became standard in isolationist rhetoric; see examples cited in Cull, Nicholas J., Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign against American “Neutrality” in World War II (New York, 1995), pp. 53, 202. An American Institute of Public Opinion poll of October 18, 1939, found that, when asked, “Why do you think we entered the last war?” a majority (34 percent) replied that “America was a victim of propaganda and other selfish interests.” Cantril, Hadley, ed., Public Opinion, 1935–46 (Princeton, N.J., 1951), p. 201.

5 For example, see Vansittart, Robert, Memorandum, December 31, 1936, in Documents on British Foreign Policy, 2d ser. (London, 1979), 17:775801.

6 For the policy statement on the United States, see Public Record Office (PRO), Kew, Foreign Office (FO) 395/616, P2967/1157/150, News Department to Lindsay, ca. October 1938. The policy of national projection was pioneered by Stephen Tallents; see his The Projection of England (London, 1932). For a history of this policy, see Taylor, Philip M., The Projection of Britain (Cambridge, 1981). On the British Council, see Donaldson, Frances, The British Council: The First Fifty Years (London, 1984); Mcleod, Enid, Living Twice: Memoirs (London, 1982); and Charmley, John, Lord Lloyd and the Decline of the British Empire (London, 1987), pp. 210–16.

7 PRO, FO 395/437, P732/732/150, Angus Fletcher (British Library of Information [BLI]) to Sir Arthur Willert (FO News Department), May 10, 1929. Fletcher concluded that the word “propaganda” had been “debauched by the late Lord Northcliffe,” the press baron who had directed much of the British propaganda campaign during the war and consequently had become a bogeyman for American commentators.

8 Andreason, Bethany, “Treason or Truth: The New York City Text Book Controversy, 1920–1923,” New York History 66 (1985): 396419.

9 Rhodes, Benjamin, “The British Royal Visit of 1939 and ‘Psychological Approach’ to the United States,” Diplomatic History 2 (1978): 197211.

10 National Archives (NA), Washington, D.C., RG 59, FP 841/20211/11–Microfilm 1455 reel 29: Capt. Logan (U.S. Naval Intelligence) to Passport Division Department of State, May 29, 1934, et seq.

11 PRO, FO 371/20651, A2378, Ronald Lindsay to Anthony Eden, No. 247. March 22, 1937, also reproduced as Hachey, Thomas E., ed., “Winning Friends and Influencing Policy,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 55 (19711972): 120–29.

12 Hachey, ed., p. 126.

13 For a survey of the British Empire at exhibitions, see MacKenzie, John, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880–1960 (Manchester, 1984), pp. 96120.

14 Sanders and Taylor (n. 4 above), pp. 194–95.

15 Greenhalgh, Paul, Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs, 1851–1939 (Manchester, 1988), pp. 5763.

16 Martin, Kingsley, Editor: A Volume of Autobiography, 1931–1945 (London, 1968), p. 210, cited in Taylor, , The Projection of Britain (n. 6 above), pp. 121–22.

17 PRO, FO 371/20651, A2378/38/45, Edward Crowe (Department of Overseas Trade) to Robert Vansittart, April 12, 1937.

18 PRO, Board of Trade (BT) 60/51/2, Memo by Owen Chalkey, September 16, 1937.

19 PRO, BT 60/51/2, undated memo from 1937 on the British Official Exhibit; PRO, BT 237/5, Gerald Campbell (Consul General, New York) to Edward Crowe (Department of Trade), May 6, 1937.

20 PRO, BT 60/5112, Memo of conversation between Ronald Lindsay and Robert Hudson as held October 14, 1937, dated October 18, 1937; PRO, BT 60/51/2, Memo by Hudson, November 5, 1937.

21 PRO, BT 60/52/2 minutes of London Advisory Committee on New York World's Fair; first meeting February 10, 1938. PRO, BT 60/51/2, minutes of Overseas Trade Development Council re World's Fair. PRO, BT 60/52/3, New York Advisory Committee. On the role of Sir William Wiseman in World War I, see Willert, Arthur, The Road to Safety (London, 1952); and Fowler, W. B., British American Relations, 1917–1918: The Role of Sir William Wiseman (Princeton, N.J., 1969). For Wiseman's subsequent input into the 1919 “No Propaganda” decision, see Taylor, , The Projection of Britain, pp. 7071.

22 PRO, BT 237/5, Gerald Campbell to Owen Chalkley (FO), June 25, 1937, re lunch with Bloom of same date. Bloom was Jewish and known to be anti-German. Campbell reported that he was also “America's number one showman” and that his advice on such matters was to be taken very seriously. Bloom, who was chairman of the Congressional Foreign Relations Committee, is chiefly remembered for his authorship of the popular song “The Honeysuckle and the Bee.”

23 PRO, BT 60/51/2, Gerald Campbell to Louis Beale, April 8, 1938.

24 PRO, FO 371/21538, A3831/421/45, Gerald Campbell to the embassy, May 2, 1938.

25 PRO, BT 60/52/1, Committee meeting of November 8, 1938, including Robert Hudson, Louis Beale, and Ronald Tree.

26 PRO, FO 371/21539, A7792/421/45, Fletcher to Rex Leeper, October 4, 1938, and A7732/421/45, Lindsay to Leeper, October 12, 1938.

27 PRO, FO 371/21548, A7769/7637/45, Roosevelt to George VI, September 17, 1938, et seq.

28 Cummings, A. J., News Chronicle, November 10, 1932, interviewed in August 1932. Roosevelt concluded: “That conception will not come in my time but I can see it coming and if I become president, as I think I shall, it will be my single-minded purpose to work towards that end.”

29 PRO, FO 371/21548, A7769/7637/45, Roosevelt to George VI, September 17, 1938, et seq. For further background, see Reynolds, David, “FDR's Foreign Policy and the British Royal Visit to the USA, 1939,” Historian 45 (1983): 461–72. Though initiated by Roosevelt, the royal visit fitted ideas long present within the Anglo-American elite. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., had discussed such a scheme with his friends the duke of Kent and Lord Tweedsmuir. In the wake of the visit of 1939, Tweedsmuir wrote to Fairbanks noting, You must have been pleased at the way your plan worked out” (interview with Fairbanks, Douglas Jr., March 9, 1990)

30 PRO, FO 371/21548, A7673/7673/45, Lindsay to FO, October 10, 1938, and A8782/7673/45, Lindsay to Alexander Cadogan, November 1, 1938.

31 PRO, FO 371/21548, A7673/7673/45, minute by John Beith, October 11, 1938, and A8061/7673/45, minute by David Scott, October 27, 1938. PRO, FO 371/21548, A8782/7673/45, Robert Wilberforce (BLI) to FO (News Department), November 12, 1938.

32 PRO, FO 371/22800, A3524/27/45, Lindsay to David Scott (FO American Division), May 9, 1939.

33 PRO, FO 371/22800, A3524/27/45, Foreign Office to Lindsay, No. 254, May 20, 1939. For notes prepared by the embassy to avoid any royal faux pas on such issues as neutrality or the war debt, see PRO, FO 115/3419/934, “Political Notes for the King” by F. R. Hoyer-Millar, as forwarded to Halifax in Hoyer-Millar to Halifax, May 23, 1939.

34 For early discussion on the importance of film and waiving the “No Propaganda” rule, see PRO, FO 395/613, P2140/687/150, minutes by Christopher Warner and Leeper, June 27, 1939.

35 PRO, FO 395/613, P2542/687/150, minute by Rowland Kenney (FO News Department), September 1, 1938, et seq.

36 For discussion, see PRO, FO/613, P2542/687/150 and P2964/687/150; PRO, FO 395/614, P2735/872/150, Joint Films Committee (JFC) minutes, September 18, 1938; PRO, FO 395/614, P3031/872/150, JFC minutes, October 10, 1938.

37 Grierson, John, “Propaganda for Democracy,” Spectator (November 11, 1938): 799800; for the draft, see the University of Stirling, John Grierson Archive, G.3/14/7, n.d., “A Democratic Basis for Propaganda.”

38 For a account of Grierson and the documentary film movement's reaction to the selection of films for the fair, see Swann, Paul, The British Documentary Film Movement, 1926–1946 (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 136–42.

39 “British Films for World's Fair,” New York Times (October 15, 1938), claimed prematurely that documentary filmmaker Paul Rotha had been commissioned to make films on British industrial life for both the British pavilion and the American Science and Education “School of Tomorrow"; also PRO, BT 60/52/2, minutes of London Advisory Committee for New York World's Fair, 4th meeting, December 1, 1938. For Guedalla's comments, see PRO, FO 395/614, P3215/872/150, November 17, 1938. To Guedalla's irritation, the English Speaking Union presumed that Grierson and Rotha were officially responsible for selecting the films and attempted to organize an official preview. For documentation, see PRO, British Council (BW), 2/35.

40 Daily Express (November 23, 1938), as cited in Swann, , p. 71.

41 PRO, FO 395/639, P31/31/150, Primrose (JFC) to Fletcher, March 2, 1939. Films included The Face of Scotland and Ships That Save Lives. A controversial documentary on air-raid precautions, The Warning, was felt unsuitable for the fair but was cleared for theatrical release elsewhere in New York. Other popular British offerings included Sheep Dog and New Horizons.

42 On the exhibition of documentary material at the Arts and Science pavilion, see Hardy, Forsyth, John Grierson: A Documentary Biography (London, 1979), p. 87; Swann, p. 142; and Littlefield, Joan, “British Films for the Fair,” New York Times (April 30, 1939). The films are available in the National Film Archive, London: Jennings, Humphrey (director), Spare Time (GPO, 1939); Pearson, George (director), British Made (Tida/British Council, 1939); for reviews, see the Monthly Film Bulletin 6, no. 67 (July 1939): 153, and 15, no. 178 (October 1948): 148.

43 For sample of responses, see PRO, FO 395/639, pp. 134–35, Turnbull (British Pavilion, New York World's Fair) to Primrose (JFC), June 17, 1939.

44 PRO, FO 395/640, P2908/31/150, report by Turnbull (British Pavilion), June 24, 1939; University of Stirling, John Grierson Archive, Grierson (producer), Wright, Basil and Watt, Harry (directors), Night Mail (GPO, 1936).

45 On Grierson's contribution to British wartime propaganda in the United States, see Cull (n. 4 above), pp. 140–41, and Did Mounties and the NFB Fake Nazi Atrocity Pictures?Toronto Globe and Mail (June 3, 1995): D1D3.

46 On the documentary film movement in war, see Swann, pp. 150–75; and Richards, Jeffrey and Aldgate, Anthony, Britain Can Take It: The British Cinema in the Second World War (Oxford, 1986).

47 PRO, FO 371/21538, A3831/421/45, Gerald Campbell (Consul General, New York) to the embassy, May 2, 1938.

48 For illustrations, see Wolfson, Mitchell Jr., The World's Fairs and Expositions (Miami, 1986), p. 65.

49 Greenhalgh (n. 15 above), p. 136.

50 Dominion of Canada, Department of Mines and Resources, Mines, and Geology Branch, A Glimpse of Canada's Mineral Industry, Prepared for the New York World's Fair, 1939 (Ottawa, 1939); Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour, Exhibition of Canadian Art Under the Direction of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (Ottawa, 1939).

51 New York Herald Tribune (April 24, 1939); PRO, FO 371/22787, A2941/18/45; BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham, E.2/430, 23 April 1939.

52 For text of the official British Pavilion guide, see PRO, BT 60/51/5; interview with Professor David Daiches, fair visitor, 31 January 1987. For photographs of the pavilion, see the Bettmann Photographic Archive, New York, N.Y., esp. pictures 20114893 and 20114974.

53 For background documentation, see file PRO, BW 63/12. The British Council planned the exhibition of fine art in conjunction with the New York Museum of Modern Art; for reactions, see New York Herald Tribune (June 18, 1939).

54 On planning of concerts and rehearsal, see PRO, FO 395/613, P687/687/150 and PRO, BW 63/9, esp. British Council to Ralph Vaughan Williams, April 27, 1939.

55 On reception of the concert, see PRO, BW 63/10, Arthur Judson to British Council, June 13, 1939; New York Times (June 11, 1939); and Brooklyn Eagle (June 10, 1939). The British program included Vaughan Williams's “Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus,” a piano concerto by Bliss, pieces by Bax and Eugene Goossens, and an American composition, “Prelude and Fugue” by Walter Piston. The presentation of the manuscripts of the World's Fair compositions was badly bungled: the New York Public Library mounted a reception only to learn that the manuscripts were intended for the Library of Congress. PRO, FO 395/639, P2531/31/150, Fletcher to Leeper, June 12, 1939, and PRO, FO 395/640, P2552/31/150.

56 National Archives, Washington, Sound and Motion Picture Branch, RG 200. War, Peace and Propaganda,” March of Time, vol. 5, no. 11 (June 1939).

57 PRO, FO 371/23558, A5096/421/45, Hudson to Halifax, June 24, 1938, Halifax to dean of Lincoln Cathedral, June 28, 1938, et seq.

58 PRO, FO 395/639, P148/31/150, and PRO, BT 60/53/3, note by Louis Beale, February 27, 1939.

59 New York Times (April 25, 1939); PRO, FO 395/639, P1865/31/150, Owen Chalkey (the embassy) to Department of Overseas Trade, April 28, 1939.

60 PRO, 395/639, P2134/31/150, Wilberforce to Leeper, May 22, 1939; New York Times Magazine (May 21, 1939).

61 PRO, FO 395/639, P1865/31/150, minute by Kenney (News Department) undated, ca. late April 1939. For an abortive attempt in 1941 by the British government to persuade Lincoln Cathedral to present Magna Carta to the Americans, see PRO, FO 371/26169, A42/42/45 et seq.

62 Hathaway, Henry (director), Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Paramount, 1934); Stevens, George (director), Gunga Din (RKO, 1939).

63 Scottish Record Office, Edinburgh (SRO), Lothian Papers, GD 40/17–347; Lothian to Malcolm Macdonald, November 2, 1938; PRO, Colonial Office (CO), 852/171/6; PRO, FO 371/22786, A472/18/45, Macdonald to Colonial Empire Marketing Board, Department of Trade (DoT), India Office, etc., January 14, 1939; also PRO, CO 852/188/1, 188/2, and 118/3.

64 PRO, CO 852/243/1; PRO, FO 395/639, P1673/31/150, Leeper to Wilberforce, May 1, 1939; P2072/31/150, Wilberforce to Leeper, May 11, 1939; P 2380/31/150, Fletcher to Leeper, May 21, 1939; New York Sun (May 27, 1939). McLean appeared on local radio stations and spoke over the NBC Red Network.

65 PRO, CO 852/244/1: Oakland Tribune (July 28, 1939); Seattle Sunday Times (August 6, 1939); and Providence Journal (June 5, 1939).

66 PRO, FO 395/640, A3472/31/150, interim reports by Sir William McLean and minute by John Balfour, August 30, 1939.

67 PRO, Cabinet Office (CAB), 24/288, CP.153 (39), Cabinet memorandum: “Foreign Publicity,” July 10, 1939. PRO, FO 395/640, P2908/31/150, report by T. G. G. Turnbull (British Pavilion), forwarded to the News Department, June 24, 1939.

68 PRO, FO 395/640, P340/31/150, Turnbull (British Pavilion) to A. F. Primrose (JFC) July 12, 1939; FO 371/24225, A383/8/45, embassy report on British Pavilion, December 1939.

69 See PRO, BT 60/52/4, for a complete run of weekly reports on the British Pavilion.

70 The first quote is from Wheeler-Bennett, John, Kinx George VI (London, 1958), p. 380; the second, from Rhodes (n. 9 above), p. 205.

71 Washington Post (May 18, 1939).

72 Fleeson, Doris in Washington Times Herald (May 16, 1939).

73 Reynolds (n. 29 above). For press cuttings on the royal visit, see Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Raymond Clapper Papers, Boxes 19 and 144. Leonard Miall, who covered subsequent royal visits to the United States for the BBC, recalled that the Foreign Office took careful note of the problems that came up over the invitation issue and took care to avoid such faux pas in the future (interview with Leonard Miall, 20 July 1987).

74 New York Herald Tribune (June 11, 1939); Wheeler-Bennett, p. 387.

75 PRO, FO 371/22801, A4323/27/45, Fletcher to Leeper, June 12, 1939.

76 Wheeler-Bennett, p. 38.

77 PRO, FO 414/276, A4443; on Stimson, see Rhodes, p. 211.

78 PRO, FO 371/22800, A7769/7637/45, Lindsay to FO, June 12, 1939.

79 PRO, FO 371/22801, A4435/27/25, Sir Godfrey Haggard (New York) to Lindsay, June 14, 1939; A4443/27/45, Lindsay to Halifax, June 20, 1939.

80 New York Times (June 13, 1939).

81 PRO, FO 371/22801, A4467/27/45, Fletcher to Central Department, FO, June 13, 1939.

82 PRO, FO 371/22800, A7769/7637/45, Lindsay to FO, June 12, 1939.

83 PRO, FO 371/22814, A4583/98/45, minute by Victor Perowne, July 3, 1939.

84 National Archives, Washington, D.C., Sound and Motion Picture Branch, RG 200, War, Peace and Propaganda,” March of Time 5, no. 11, (June 1939); PRO, FO 395/657, P2551/151/150, Fletcher to F. R. Hoyer-Millar, June 9, 1939; also Britain Woos America,” Propaganda Analysis 2, no. 10 (June 10, 1939): 7380.

85 March of Time 5, no. 11 (1939).

86 PRO, FO 115 3419/585, Lothian to Halifax, September 28, 1939.

87 SRO, Lothian Papers, GD40/17, Box 400, Alexander Faulkner to Lothian, February 23, 1940; PRO, FO 371/22788, A6404/18/45, esp. FO to Joseph Kennedy, September 30, 1939, and Lothian to Robert Hudson, November 15, 1939.

88 PRO, FO 371/24225, A456/8/45, minute by T. North Whitehead, January 30, 1940.

89 PRO, FO 371/22788, A6404/18/45.

90 New York Times (December 22, 1940).

91 PRO, Ministry of Information (INF), 1/4, divisional progress report, April 1940; PRO, FO 371/24228, A2603/26/45; PRO, FO 371/24229, A3154/26/45, meeting at Ministry of Information, May 2, 1940.

92 PRO, BW 63/13 to 20; PRO, BW 63/14; PRO, BW 63/23; PRO, BW 63/25.

93 Lothian, Lord, American Speeches (Oxford, 1941), p. 46. See also SRO, Lothian Papers, GD40/17, Box 398, Lothian to Leo Amery, January 9, 1940.

94 New York Times (May 22, 1940).

95 PRO, FO INF 1/5, divisional progress report, May 27, 1940.

96 PRO, FO 371/24225, A3356/8/45; PRO, FO 371/24232, A4877/26/45.

97 PRO, FO 371/24225, A3526/8/45, C. M. Pickthall to Lothian, July 13. 1940, and A4238/8/45; New York Times (July 5–16, 1940).

98 For the full story of this overt effort, see Cull (n. 4 above).

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Overture to an Alliance: British Propaganda at the New York World's Fair, 1939–1940

  • Nicholas J. Cull


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