A Little Happier: How Do I Live Up to the Highest Ideals of My Country?

A Little Happier: How, in my own life, do I live up to the highest ideals of the United States?

Reading Harold Nicolson’s reflection about what an Englishman would do reminds me of that question, in my own life — which is a question for us all.

Here’s the entire passage that I read from Harold Nicolson’s Diary of June 10, 1941, when he was working at the wartime Ministry of Information:

The Middle East have no sense of publicity. The Admiralty is even worse. We complain that there are no photographs of the sinking of the Bismarck. Tripp says that the official photographer was in the Suffolk and that the Suffolk was too far away. We say, ‘But why didn’t one of our reconnaissance machines fly over the ship and take photographs?’ He replies, ‘Well you see, you must see, well upon my word, well after all, an Englishman would not like to take snapshots of a fine vessel sinking.’ Is he right? I felt abashed when he said it. I think he is right.

I’ve read that story dozens of times, and I choke up every time I read it. “An Englishman would not like to take snapshots of a fine vessel sinking.” What does that tell us about the English at that time, and their view of themselves, and their ideals — and how they felt compelled by those ideals, even under the most extreme conditions?

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If you’d like to read my biography of Winston Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, you can learn more here. What a joy it as to write that book! What a subject.

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  • Serena

    Gretchen, this post is a bit tone deaf towards your readers of color. The English at that time had no scruples keeping dozens of populations in enslavement and subjecting them to utter brutality. Their ideals only extended to white people, so I wish we’d stop glamorising hypocrisy.

    • Gillian

      I am a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant (WASP) born in Britain to an English mother and Scottish father. Serena – I agree with your comment 100% and thank you for the reminder. The harm done by white people, especially the English, over the centuries is beyond despicable and the world is still paying the price. The sense of superiority of white people as they ran roughshod over the indigenous peoples in the rest of the world, purely for economic gain, is atrocious.

      Things are improving but I think we will have to wait at least another couple of generations before we achieve an equitable world in this respect.

      Gretchen’s quote dates from World War II, long after slavery had been abolished but while the attitudes were still ingrained. The English ideal prevailed here because the sinking of the Bismark was a victory over another white nation so certain rules and values applied.