It’s always exciting when what I’m reading lines up with other areas of my life. Recently I have been inundated with World War II history from watching the excellent BBC Masterpiece Mystery series Foyle’s War from beginning to end and visiting the U-Boat exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry to reading Lynne Olson’s excellent account of the British-American relationship during the war, Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour. Olson’s book chronicles the forging of the alliance and relationship between the US and Britain through the perspective of three Americans in London: US ambassador to Britain John Gilbert Winant; CBS News London chief Edward R. Murrow; and Lend-Lease administrator and playboy millionaire Averill Harriman.
Though Olson’s book is ostensibly about these three men and their incalculable effects on US-British relations and the war, their stories really serve as a loose structure for a love letter to Britain, and specifically London, from those who lived, loved, and worked there during the war. Olson includes an impressive array of quotes and remembrances from Americans and Britons alike, ranging from the top US military brass, including Eisenhower, and Churchill family and friends to the lowest level airmen and everyday people. There was something about London during the war, a joyful abandon and headiness that infected people along with the exhaustion and fear that came along with the Blitz and other German bombing raids. It was both the place to be and not to be, and Olson captures both sides of the coin beautifully. It is striking to find that many who left London after the war longed to return to the city and people that had left such an indelible impression on them. A most interesting comparison was frequently made between post-war Paris and post-war London. Paris emerged from the war relatively physically unscathed, and after the liberation of Paris, and the restaurants that had, until recently, been serving German officers, simply switched to serving Allied officers. There was a gaiety and life to Paris, but it seemed thin, superficial, and unearned to many visitors who had spent time in London. London, other the other hand, emerged battered, almost destroyed, yet maintained a sense of dignity, determination, and perseverance, much like its inhabitants.
Olson does spend quite a bit time discussing her main characters. Initially, Murrow’s sections are the most exciting, focusing on his work with CBS and building a relationship with the BBC and his British listeners, and Olson’s extensive knowledge of Murrow and his work shine. (She previously wrote about Murrow and his legacy in The Murrow Boys.) Harriman reveals himself as a privileged and not terribly intelligent, though effective, bully, focused on his own personal and professional gain over international interests. However, his own ambition worked wonders in cultivating a personal relationship between Churchill and FDR, whose “famous” relationship was frequently less than warm and fuzzy, even while he purposefully undermined the real and great work Gil Winant was doing. Harriman drops out of the narrative for at least a third of the book after his appointment to US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. It is Winant, though, who stole my heart, along with the hearts of the British people, and who had the greatest effect on the role of the US in the war and its relationship with the British people.
It is a travesty that Winant is not more well-known in this country. He is a tragic figure, ambitious and universally admired for his human approach to solving problems, down to lending down and out American GI’s money and personally helping the working people of London remove rubble and search for the missing after each and every attack in the Blitz, yet trapped in a loveless marriage, hopelessly in love with the unavailable Sarah Churchill, and, for a great portion of the war, fearing that his missing son, a POW in Germany, was dead. His influence both in the US and Britain cannot be understated, and his suicide in 1947 shattered the entire British population. His contribution is so great that I cannot begin to describe it here, but I encourage you to read Olson’s book, simply to be introduced to this great American. Others, both American and British, do not come off well, particularly FDR and his foot dragging regarding anything relating to the war. And though she doesn’t shy away from revealing the real faces behind the public images, Olson maintains an objectivity to her narrative that prevents it from seeming like a personal attack and keeps it in the realm of (mostly) objective reporting and analysis.
There are a few issues with the book, but generally they seem to be editorial oversights rather than structural issues. (For example, at one point Olson refers to US Secretary of State Cordell Hull by his last name without yet having introduced him, creating a small bit of confusion.) Olson writes in an engaging and authoritative journalistic style, lending an ease to the read. It took me a while to read the book, more because of lack of time than difficulty of the read. Whenever I had time to sit down and actually read, I always read more than I was expecting to. Olson is thorough in her research and compelling in her narrative. What I particularly appreciated was the opportunity to learn more about the complexities of World War II and the nuances of the personalities involved. These are things that not even the most talented of teachers can adequately cover in today’s history classroom, and I was glad to have the opportunity to delve deeper into the realities of World War II. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II and the personal, human side of that time period.