American Journey 1952, Part Three – Washington

John Doe is Asking Awkward Questions

Jerry F, Going Postal
Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. Surely the most noble and moving monument ever dedicated to the memory of a single man.
Lincoln Memorial at dusk,
John Brighenti from Rockville, MD, United States
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

The last thing I expected to pick up in this capital city of a great Republic (“the greatest Republic on God’s Footstool,” as I heard a Senator from Illinois describe it) was a title — and an ancient Irish title at that.

But there it is, staring up at me in bold black print from Miss Marie NcNair’s society column in the “Washington Post”:

“A rotund, dimpled Irish Peer is Lord Kilbracken of Killegar. Actually his name is John Alldridge and when he writes for ‘Manchester Evening News’ he is known as John Godley.

“Yesterday Miss Marjorie Hendricks, owner of the Watergate and Normandy Farms, gave a small cocktail party for him in the Watergate’s new lounge, where a fire snapped and crackled in the double fireplace, and maple settees were drawn up around.

“Captain Alldridge, here to collect material, to discuss work with editors and publishers, and to meet some of his new reading audiences has definite ideas about ‘the ladies of the Press.’

“‘I must say,’ he said in clipped British tones, ‘your women are much more chic than ours.'”

“Nowadays, Lord Kilbracken says, no writer can afford not to have visited the United States. That’s why he’s here.”

The cream of the joke is that the real Earl of Kilbracken is actually here. And any man who can claim, as he can, to have dreamed up eight “classic” winners while an undergraduate at Oxford, to have flown 128 missions against the enemy as a Lieutenant Commander in the Fleet Air Arm, written a biography of Hans van Meegeren, the Dutchman who “painted” eight Vermeers, and dived for Nazi loot 10 fathoms deep off Corsica, ought to be the answer to a newspaper woman’s prayer.

I’m sorry the “Washington Post” went to the wrong party. And I hope His Lordship will forgive me for unconsciously borrowing his coronet for one night.

Having apologised for the title, I suppose I ought to explain the “Captain Alldridge,” too.

My hostess here is an old wartime friend—a Washingtonian who did valuable work with the American Red Cross in Italy and elsewhere. Like Manchester, Washington has always been lamentably short of hotel accommodation. And just now, with every service department recalling its officer reserves, civilian visitors have to take a very low priority.

My friend, wise in these things, booked me in under the temporary rank which I haven’t used for six years. So to everyone here in Washington I am Captain Alldridge. And so far it’s worked like a charm.

To describe Washington today as an armed camp means falling back on a well-worn cliche. But the fact remains that the general picture is almost startlingly reminiscent of London in the early months of the late war.

Uniforms of every sort and colour roam the streets. Naval captains and full colonels are ten a penny and queue patiently in the rain for a cab. Just across the river at the Pentagon, the largest office building in the world, the lights in a thousand offices burn all night.

The trains pouring into the capital are full of reservists earmarked for Korea. And civilian travellers who have to line up outside the dining car until all the military have been fed fret and chafe just as they used to do at home not so very long ago.

And just as we did in the dark, unhappy days of 1941, John Doe, the American man-in-the-street, who is paying heavily for a war economy he doesn’t properly understand, is beginning to ask awkward questions.

He wants to know why, for instance, if American fighters are the best in the world — as he’s been told repeatedly — Communist MIGs can knock 15 of them out of the air without loss to themselves, as happened one day last week.

He wants to know why what only a few months ago was still being referred to as a “police action” has now lasted longer than the whole American participation in World War I. Above all he is asking why 30 cents in every dollar is going towards defence.

He’ll gladly pay it if it’s really necessary. But defence against — what?

The dispute is being fanned by Washington newspaper columnists, an impish lot, who have been producing some interesting facts and figures relative to waste and red tape.

For instance:

The Navy now has enough anchors to last it for the next 50 years: the Army has enough of certain jeep parts to keep it happy for the next 10 years.

Last year the Armed Forces between them bought up nearly one whole year’s supply of coffee, thereby creating a civilian scarcity.

The Marine Corps pays 16.80 dollars a pair for its combat boots: the Army pays 24.65 dollars for the same boot.

All three Services insist on buying their own favourite coffee percolators.

The Army Medical Corps buys its blankets for 21.75 dollars each; the Air Force pays 14.15 dollars; and the Navy 19.57 dollars (when it’s afloat) and 20.17 dollars (when it’s ashore).

As one very worried businessman — he is the managing director of a firm which is now largely concerned in turning out shell fuses — complained to me: “The trouble is, this war isn’t moving fast enough.”

And he went on to explain at some length the chaos and confusion that would involve American industry generally if — as seems probable at the moment — the Government began to cut down and even cancel its long-term war contracts because existing stocks are not being used up quickly enough.

Of course, being personally involved, he may be prejudiced.

But from what I have seen and heard in the past few weeks President Truman has an unpopular war on his hands — unpopular because its aims and implications are not properly understood by the people who have largely to fight it and pay for it.

And the President is being made to feel it at an unfortunate time for him. I arrived in Washington on a day when the Truman Administration was under heavy fire. Newspaper headlines shrieked of “graft probes” and “police pay-offs” and “crime rackets.”

Of course, to an unbiased observer it would seem absurd to suggest even jokingly that the President of the United States could be held personally responsible for any of these things.

Even Mr. Bevan at his most vitriolic might hesitate to call Mr. Churchill a liar, a crook, and a criminal lunatic. Yet I have heard Mr. Truman called all these things — and much worse — by people who seemed otherwise quite well-balanced and responsible.

And I must confess it has been embarrassing to me to hear some Americans loudly insist that all America’s present ills and misfortunes can be traced directly back to the inept, megalomanic misrule of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I worried a little about this until it was pointed out to me by one who has lived here long enough to understand, that President-baiting is an old American custom.

If you would believe contemporary critics no American President has been all that he should be.

“This day ought to be a jubilee in the United States, for the man who is the source of all the misfortunes of our country is this day reduced to a level with his fellow citizens.”

That was the “Philadelphia Aurora’s” considered opinion of George Washington.

No wonder, then, that President Truman, as he potters about his newly-decorated White House (and a fresh coat of paint has made it very white indeed), preserves a smiling, unruffled exterior.

But for all that there is no denying that there are many here in Washington who are bothered and bewildered.

There arrived a few days ahead of me a young man named Billy Graham. Mr. Graham is a leather-lunged evangelist from Montreat, North Carolina, which is deep in the heart of what they call over here “the Bible Belt.”

The story he has to tell is as old as the hills. It is of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And while the story is not new young Mr. Graham, who is 33, tall, and Hollywood-handsome, makes it sound different. He is against sin and makes no bones about it. There’s no sugar-coating to his message.

Washington, he says, is the most sinful city he has ever preached in.

But Washingtonians, apparently, like this brash approach. And if reaction is anything this is no voice crying in the wilderness. All the signs indicate that he is ringing a very big bell.

Attendances at the nightly rallies in the National Guard Armoury, where accommodation is limited to 8,000, have been at capacity practically every night. His audiences are made up of men, women, and young children, many of them carrying Bibles. When Billy calls for a show of Bibles up they go in goodly numbers.

The other Sunday evening I stood shivering in the rain with a crowd estimated at 40,000 to listen to him — standing on the sacred steps of the Capitol itself — demanding from Congress a Day of Prayer “to spearhead a national return to God.”

Television cameras focused on him, a national radio network readied itself to wing his words across the country, as Mr. Graham, a Latter Day prophet in a neat lounge suit with a microphone in his lapel, lashed out at “mink coat influence,” at “moral termites eating at the insides of our country.”

And there was more than a touch of the real old honest Camp Meeting fervour in the way he wound up in fine frenzy: reminding his spell-bound audience that God spared not the angels when He cast them into Hell: that He spared not the people of Noah’s generation, nor the Children of Israel when they were overrun by the barbarians.

“So why, then,” asked Mr. Graham, “why, then, should He spare you, Mr. Jones, or you, Mr. Brown, Mr. Government Official, or you, Mr America? Are you any better than they?”

And the crowd roared in a sort of guilty ecstasy, “NO!”

Washington is the queen of capital cities. She has parks, bridges, public buildings in severe elegance are without equal anywhere in this world. Of that I am convinced: (She has some pretty depressing slums too, if you care to look for them. “Cracker-box” homes for coloured people, who return to them from work in shining, streamlined cars.)

In the Potomac she has a river front that would make an Athenian town-planner weep for joy. Her Lincoln Memorial — with its huge, seated figure staring with sad, understanding eyes out into Eternity — is the most noble and moving monument ever dedicated to the memory of a single man.

And so it seems strange to an Englishman that a nation which appears to set such store on formal occasions should treat the serious business of government so casually.

Through the good offices of my Washington friend I was given tickets to sit in on an early session of the 82nd Congress.

And here I have to rely on my memory, because no sooner had I opened my notebook than I was tapped on my shoulder by an eagle-eyed usher. “No writing in here, please,” he reproved me sternly.

A few minutes later when I brought out my guide-book to see whether this really was the House of Representatives he was down on me again. “No writing or reading in here,” he grated. It was all rather like that Bateman drawing concerning the Awful Affair of the Guardsman who Sneezed on Parade.

“What can I do, then,” I asked, a little put out.

“Like everybody else — you can listen.”

I looked down on the floor the chamber. A large stentorian-voiced Congressman from Tennessee was demanding — through a microphone — a reduction in the wicked tax on an animal he referred constantly to as “ground hawg.”

Apart from the curious, like myself, up in the public galleries, he appeared to have an audience of 12: a chairman, two clerks, four messenger boys who sat on the steps of the dais behind him with their backs to him, two Congressmen who were studying an order paper, one who was reading “Life” magazine, and one more who seemed to be asleep.

The only member of his audience who appeared to be actively listening was the Public Stenographer, who stood up beside him, taking down every word in shorthand.

As I left I said to the usher joking feebly: “They don’t seem to be listening very hard down there.”

“Why should they?” he snapped back. “They can read it all in tomorrow’s Congressional Record…”

This article first appeared in the Manchester Evening News on 27 February 1952

Reproduced with permission
© 2024

This article first appeared in the Manchester Evening News on 18 February, 1952.

Jerry F 2024