The Magazine

London Calling

The American contribution to the British war effort.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By JORDAN MICHAEL SMITH
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Citizens of London

London Calling

Ambassador John Gilbert Winant, 1945

Credit: Getty Images

The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour
by Lynne Olson
Random House, 496 pp., $28

 

At the outset of World War I, Woodrow Wilson told Americans that “we must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments.” Twenty-five years later, at the start of another world war, a different American president advised something else: “This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s intimation that Americans should privately be in solidarity with Britain against Hitler’s Germany was adopted literally by some Americans, a few of whom lived in London during the darkest days of World War II. The most prominent among them are the subjects of this book. 

Lynne Olson knows the subject well. A former journalist, she coauthored a volume on a Polish squadron in the Royal Air Force during the war; coauthored a book on Edward R. Murrow and his brothers, one of the subjects of this study; and, most recently, wrote Troublesome Young Men about the Tory rebels who supported Winston Churchill into power in 1940.

Like that work, Citizens of London is part biography, part history, part encomium. Beginning with the Battle of Britain, it follows three Americans who lived in London promoting the Atlantic alliance: Averell Harriman, administrator of Lend-Lease aid; Edward R. Murrow, head of CBS News in Europe; and John Gilbert Winant, the American ambassador who succeeded Joseph Kennedy. 

It is Olson’s belief that the Anglo-American Alliance, the “Special Relationship,” was established and solidified in no small part because of this Yankee trio, whose roles have been largely unexamined. “As the most important Americans in London during the war’s early years,” she writes, they “were key participants in America’s debate over whether Britain, the last European country holding out against Hitler, should be saved.” Winant, Harriman, and Murrow “la[id] the groundwork for the two leaders’ partnership, at a time when Roosevelt and Churchill not only were strangers but were suspicious and even hostile toward each other.”

Citizens of London is also something of a tribute to London itself. As Olson tells it, the British capital was the place to be during the war, the center of excitement, danger, and culture for all Westerners, as Paris was to the Lost Generation. Utilizing the memoirs and archives of the participants, Olson re-creates wartime London as a city of a hundred love affairs, a thousand dramatic moments, and an infinite number of sacrifices. The Atlantic Alliance and England’s lonely stand against Hitler are exhaustively analyzed topics, but Olson has found some fresh angles and little-known facts. Ambassador Winant, in particular, emerges as a hero: Largely lost to historythe only biography of him was written in 1968—he was eulogized at his death by the Daily Express as having “walked with Britain at her greatest,” and Olson performs a public service in reviving his reputation. Also well recalled are Murrow and Harriman’s contributions, both in encouraging the British and in swaying American opinion away from isolationism. Harriman is painted here as a devious but well-intentioned operator who managed to put himself in the right place at the right time; Murrow’s moral and physical courage in besieged London are shown in detail. 

Still, for all their importance, Olson never fully establishes that the trio’s advice was greatly influential with Roosevelt, who was always cagey both about his views and his sources of information. Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted to the effect that her husband “trusted” Winant and that “he helped us win the war”—but she wouldn’t necessarily know what FDR was really thinking. On Anglo-American affairs, the White House adviser Harry Hopkins might well have been more influential with Roosevelt than Ambassador Winant. And of the three, Murrow, with his groundbreaking broadcasts from the middle of the Blitz, was probably the most important in persuading Americans of the folly of isolation. 

The degree to which our trio became true citizens of London is remarkable—but also a bit disconcerting. Olson writes that Harriman and Winant “were, in effect, serving two governments: they were their country’s top representatives in Britain while acting as Churchill’s agents for conveying Britain’s needs to the United States.” She notes, of course, that their primary duty should always have been to their own president and country.

But political loyalties aside, Citizens of London is plain fun to read. Dishing about the Americans’ love affairs with some of the Churchill girls is particularly delicious, as Winston’s daughter-in-law Pamela slept with Murrow and Harriman (whom she married a quarter-century later) and his actress-daughter Sarah took up with Winant. The beleaguered prime minister’s diplomacy in overseeing these emotional complications makes for fascinating reading, and it is a testament to Olson’s talents that such gossipy details don’t cheapen the heroic acts described elsewhere, but humanize our heroes and deepen our admiration.

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington. 


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