Citizens of London by Lynn Olson
Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour, Lynn Olson (Random House, 2010, 471 pp.)
While the conventional start date of World War II is September 1939, the United States did not formally enter the fray until after Pearl Harbor in December 1941. During that period while the US hung back, Germany overran western Poland and most of Western Europe, pounded England with aerial bombing, threatened a cross-Channel invasion, then diverted to an initially successful attack on the USSR. Prime Minister Churchill desperately wanted America’s support for England’s survival and eventual victory. President Roosevelt’s hesitation was based partly on the American people’s reluctance to go to war and the possibility of an electoral defeat if he got too far out in front, as well as his suspicion of Churchill’s desire for American help to save England’s colonies.
A small group of Americans living in London played a crucial role in establishing closer ties between the American and British leaders, persuading the Americans to increase their active support, and, after much delay and difficulty, to form a firm alliance. This book focuses on three Americans who led this transformation: Ambassador John Gilbert Winant, Lend-Lease Coordinator W. Averell Harriman, and CBS radio broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.
Winant, a public servant and former governor of New Hampshire, became American ambassador to England in 1941, replacing Joseph Kennedy, who had considered England a lost cause that shouldn’t be helped and advocated appeasement of the Nazis. Winant understood the importance to the U.S. of England’s survival and its need of America’s help. He contributed most to forging the “special relationship” between the two nations, and maintaining it despite fractious disagreements throughout the war. After the war, the British press described him as “the personification of the finest part of America’s character. … Almost everyone in this country knows his name and respects him as a great American and one of the best friends this country has ever had.”
Murrow’s live broadcasts describing London’s experience of the German bombing ensured that Americans understood both the suffering and the courage of their British cousins, and helped build American popular support for becoming involved. Murrow and Winant were idealists who championed economic and social reform, as well as international cooperation. Winant received England’s rare “Order of Merit;” Murrow was named an “honorary Briton.”
Harriman, a wealthy businessman, was a dogged, hard-working administrator who enlarged and speeded up the flow of American material aid. A tough-minded pragmatist who was also interested in increasing his own power and influence, sometimes at the expense of his colleagues, he also advised Churchill on how to get along with FDR. Harriman went on to a prominent political career after the war.
One thing all three men had in common was love affairs with members of Churchill’s family. Winant was involved with Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, while Murrow and Harriman had liaisons with Pamela Churchill, wife of Winston’s son, Randolph. Pamela eventually divorced Randolph and married Harriman, after the latter divorced his first wife. The pressure of life-or-death excitement in wartime London extended into the most personal of relationships.
The author documents the decline of the relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill as the end of the war came into view and FDR saw the increasing influence of the USSR and the decreasing power of Britain. She assesses FDR rather harshly for misjudging Stalin, thinking he could work with “Uncle Joe,” and for doing little if any planning for the post-war period.
Citizens of London encompasses much more than just Americans in England. The wide range of topics include war strategy, Eisenhower’s insecurity over his lower-class upbringing and the lack of deprivations back home in the US compared with Britain. While the English tried to win rare onions in raffles, American women refused to give up their girdles during a rubber shortage.
The book review above was originally published in a feature titled “Book Notes”, published in the April, 2014 edition of Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies, Inc. This note was written by Walter Ford Carter, member of the Normandy Allies Board and the team that leads its history-study experience each summer. Walter, the son of Captain Elmer Norval Carter, a US Army battalion surgeon in the 29th Division who was killed in action on June 17 1944, is the author of No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love: A Son’s Journey to Normandy.