Few in England would have had any trouble naming the US envoy to the Court of St. James during and after World War II. His name was John G. Winant, and he served as a bridge and a beacon. As one Briton put it, he “convinced us that he was a link between ourselves and millions of his countrymen, who, by reason of his inspiration, spoke to our very hearts.”
Winant was only one of hordes of Americans who landed in Britain to help it survive the worst days of its existence. They found a bustling capital city that boasted more glory than misery, more excitement than tedium, more amour than armor.
Citizens of London tells the story of these Americans in an engaging history that says plenty about the Yankees who came to pull Britain’s teapots out of the fire. Or, as the book’s subtitle puts it more elegantly, “The Americans Who Stood With Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour.”
Lynne Olson, the author and a former White House correspondent, chooses to focus on three American men – Winant, W. Averell Harriman and journalist Edward R. Murrow – who cozied up (sometimes literally) to Britain’s power players.
The first two, as Olson writes, served as FDR’s eyes and ears. Murrow did the same thing for the entire United States, or at least anyone near a radio. But their value also came in their relationships with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who knew the United States held the key to his country’s survival and needed to find Americans to both trust and manipulate.
“Rarely – before or since – has diplomacy been so personal,” Olson writes of the relationships between Churchill and FDR’s two emissaries.
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.)
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.