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NBC and Tom Brokaw’s Olympic Tribute to the Battle of Britain

We occasionally need to be reminded of the horrors of, and sometimes, the necessity for war.

by
Chuck Chalberg

Bio

August 14, 2012 - 3:30 pm

Thank you, NBC and Tom Brokaw. The 2012 Olympics are history, and near the end you provided an important amendment to the opening ceremonies. But questions remain. Did you long ago plan to devote half an hour of prime time to the Battle of Britain or did you scurry around for the footage and the interviews after sitting through the pageantry and politics of that first night? No matter the answer, you did the right thing.

There we were last Saturday evening, settling in for one last round of Olympic competition and what did NBC give us but a history lesson — and one that had nothing to do with Olympics past, not even the historic 1936 Berlin Games of Jesse Owens fame or the previous London Games of 1948. Well then, how about the games of 1940 and 1944? Oops, no games were held in either Olympic year. It seems as though something else of some importance was going on at the time. And that something else would certainly have eliminated London as the host city, unless dodging Hitler’s bombs would have suddenly qualified as an Olympic event.

So thanks, NBC and Mr. Brokaw. You reminded us that life — and death — sometimes do get in the way of fun and games. Had you not taken a good chunk of time away from this year’s Olympic fun and games we might have been left thinking that those opening night organizers were right. We might have walked away from it all thinking that the greatest accomplishments of the English people over the course of the last century really were their contributions to children’s literature and the creation of their National Health Service.

Now, who wants to downplay what any number of great English authors have given to the children — and adults — of the world? I certainly don’t. But the National Health Service? Of course, the organizers went to Olympian efforts to portray the employees of the NHS positively.  Sweet-faced nurses were everywhere in sight, tending tenderly to their patients. A few even had time to read bed time stories to children, thereby combining in one touching scene what those same organizers decided were England’s two great contributions to modern life.

Were those same Olympic organizers also going for a three-fer in one fell swoop? Were they trying to stick it to the Yanks, too? No doubt. The United States is in the midst of a national election and a great uproar over something called ObamaCare. And what are the Brits doing but telling us to calm down, look at us, and accept progress.

Of course, that same opening night extravaganza could have been portrayed a little differently.  Instead of efficient nurses kindly performing their duties, the massive tableau could have featured long lines and longer waiting lists, blizzards of paper work, rejectees for hip replacements and the like.  But that wouldn’t have played quite as well.  Nor would it have been consistent with sticking it to the country that is paying most of the freight for NBC to cover these games and the country that hasn’t been all that anxious to adopt a national health care system.

Quick now. If you were asked to come up with England’s two most significant accomplishments over the course of the 20th century, wouldn’t one of them have been England’s role in defeating Hitler? Not so, concluded the organizers. So once again, let’s thank NBC for its prime time history lesson. We occasionally need to be reminded of the horrors of, and sometimes, the necessity for war. And what better time for such a reminder as we celebrate well-conditioned athletes strutting their stuff on an international stage and in the name of international cooperation.

Then again, maybe NBC also decided to stick it to the Yanks. After all, the story of the Battle of Britain is the story of England holding out alone against Hitler. They did what had to be done when the Yanks weren’t coming and when there seemed to be little prospect that they ever would.

The most heart-warming moments in the NBC piece came when Mr. Brokaw interviewed Brits who had fought and/or persevered during the Battle of Britain. He was wonderful, and so were they. Of course, he also could have stuck it to the Yanks by asking his elderly interviewees how they liked their NHS and then edited out any criticisms. Nothing like that was done. Good for you, Mr. Brokaw. Of course, nothing like that belonged in the story. Then again, a politicized paean to England’s National Health Service didn’t belong in the opening ceremonies. And it was especially out of place when England’s heroic role in World War II couldn’t crack the organizers Top Two List of that country’s most important contributions during the whole of the bloody 20th century.

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See at the PJ Tatler from J. Christian Adams: NBC and Brokaw’s Finest Hour

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.
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