Citizens of London
The Americans who made it to London post-World War II found a vibrant city fueled by courage and resolve.
(Page 2 of 2)
Winant was the public face of the US on the streets of London, a generous character who made points by popping up in local neighborhoods with offers of assistance after German bombings. Harriman, who’d go on to a long career in politics, served as a kind of top-level go-between. The superintense Murrow, meanwhile, embraced danger – he “repeatedly gambled his life” by tagging along on air raids – and went all-out to support the British cause.
(Times, and wars, have changed. Even amid all of today’s endless accusations of bias against the media, it’s hard to imagine Brian Williams or Katie Couric going rogue on the objectivity front.)
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
While it has some exciting moments when American visitors experience the Blitz firsthand, “Citizens of London” isn’t a barnburner of a book. This is mainly a story of political, personal, and military maneuvering.
But there’s still plenty to appreciate thanks to Olson’s storytelling skills, including recaps of romance that never seem too gossipy or out of place. All three men at the center of the book – Harriman, Morrow, and Winant – had affairs with members of Churchill’s family.
“The war was an irresistible catalyst,” wrote Dwight D. Eisenhower’s chauffeur, Kay Summersby, who’s thought to have engaged in a fling with the general herself. “It overwhelmed everything, forced relationships like a hothouse, so that in a matter of days, one would achieve a closeness with someone that would have taken months to develop in peacetime.”
“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 also tracks the experiences of black American soldiers, presidential adviser Harry Hopkins (a widely despised, power-behind-the-throne kind of character), and Churchill’s shy, idealistic wife, Clementine, who warned her husband against being influenced by his wastrel and wealthy friends who “can’t bear the idea of the lower classes being independent & free.”
Ultimately, many of the Americans who visited British soil believed they’d succeeded not only in saving the country but at seeing it at its best – “a magical place where courage, resolution, sacrifice, and a sense of unity and common purpose triumphed, if only for a few short years.”
Quite a few of the Americans, in fact, would never stop missing this most glorious of battlefields.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.