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Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour

Lynne Olson

(Random House; US: Feb 2010)

Lynne Olson’s engaging story of Americans in London during WWII is an entertaining and informative volume that is unfortunately marred by the lack of a central narrative and a curious bias against one of the crucial participants in the war. It isn’t that the book isn’t a lot of fun. Olson has a nose for interesting facts and compelling personal stories. There are few pages in the book that are not thoroughly enjoyable, despite the fact that the book doesn’t really tell any kind of a focused story.


However, the book lacks a hard and coherent core where it ought to be. What narrative that exists is loosely structured around the affairs of three prominent and fascinating Americans who spent all or most of the war years in London: John Gilbert Winant, Edward R. Murrow, and Averell Harriman. 


Edward R. Murrow became the most renowned broadcast journalist in the history of journalism. In his reporting for CBS from London he created standards of broadcast journalism that few others have managed to achieve. His radio dispatches during the Battle of Britain helped make the war more real and vivid for millions of Americans.


Businessman Averell Harriman, who after the war became renowned as one of the famed Wise Men who influenced and crafted American foreign policy during the Cold War, served first as the administrator of the Lend-Lease program and later as ambassador to the Soviet Union. 


The third figure and the one most beloved by the British people was the American ambassador John Gilbert Winant. A dedicated New Dealer despite his New Hampshire Republican roots, Winant served in various capacities in the Roosevelt administration before replacing Joseph P. Kennedy as ambassador to Great Britain, a possession he held from before America’s entry into the war until 1946.


All three were crucial in aiding Great Britain during the war, either by establishing sympathy for the British cause in America or by serving as liaisons between Washington and the British government, and by aiding in the provision of goods and services for Great Britain. They became as much counselors for Churchill as representatives for the United States, identifying with the cause of the British in opposing the Nazis, both before and after the American entry into WWII. At the same time all three men became romantically involved with members of the Churchill family, Harriman and Murrow with Churchill’s daughter-in-law Pamela (who would three decades later marry Harriman) and Winant with Winston’s daughter, the actress Sarah Churchill.


These three also provided an important service to Great Britain through their conviction that not only did the British absolutely have to hold out against the Nazis in order to save the world from Nazi domination but that they in fact would hold out. Winant, for instance—in contrast to the fatalistic Kennedy, who felt that the defeat of the British was inevitable—was convinced that Great Britain could and would hold out if only they got needed help from the US.


All three strongly favored America entering the war and two of them were coincidentally with key world leaders on 7 December 1941, the day the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced the US entry into the conflict. Murrow, in Washington, DC on a rare stateside vacation, had dinner at the White House despite the events of the day. Winant was dining with Churchill when the radio brought the news of the attack. Knowing that this meant that the US would be forced to enter the war not just against the Japanese but Germany as well, Winant and Churchill danced a jig together about the room.


Many more Americans than the main trio appear in the story. Eisenhower, of course, makes many appearances, along with many major and minor participants. Other characters, like Tommy Hitchcock. The inspiration for two different characters in novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the most famous American polo player in America between the wars, Hitchcock was pivotal in promoting the means by which fighters like the P-51 could, through the use of drop tanks, escort American bombers deep inside Germany. Soldiers, diplomats, expatriates, and politicians all play their roles, illustrating the myriad ways that Americans and Britons impacted the lives of one another.


Olson similarly explores the many ways that Americans living in London or other parts of England interacted with the Britons. Although she covers the expected romantic interrelations between American G.I.s and British women, she also delves into the less anticipated but more moving stories of American troops who had to billet with British families due to housing shortages during the build up to D-Day.


In some cases more than friendships developed, with the guest families and soldiers developing genuine bonds with their surrogate families. After leaving for the invasion of Europe, many of the soldiers and families corresponded and remained a part of each other’s lives. One American convoy, on its way to the disembarkation point for the invasion of Normandy, stopped briefly so that one soldier could say goodbye to his host family.


No account of London during the war can ignore the Battle of Britain. Olson provides a vivid portrait of the city and nation under siege, as well as other ways in which the city was directly involved in the conflict. She documents not only the intense bombing of London in 1940, but the later terrifying assaults on London by the V-1 and V-2 rockets. She does not neglect other aspects of the effect of the combat on London, such as the rich influx of refugees from various nations that had been overrun by the Nazis such as Poland and France.


Where the book falters, apart from the lack of narrative and thematic focus, is Olson’s coverage of geopolitical affairs, whether involving the US, Great Britain, or the Soviet Union. Her account strives to delineate the nuances of the relations between the Allies, but it is made untenable by a lack of balanced judgment and objectivity.


Although her account often moves onto shaky ground, her lack of judgment is seen best in anything having to do with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By any standard FDR was a complex and exceptionally complicated man. In Olson’s account, however, the complexity is shoved aside and he emerges as a petty, obstructive person who doesn’t seem to be especially crucial in advancing the war effort. It’s not that the negative things that Olson includes in her book are not true or incorrect.


FDR had many quirks, such as his famous ability to give someone the impression that he was going to do something that he had no intention of doing, or bypassing individuals who should have been central in the decision-making process. He did indeed, as Olson recounts, engage in such imperial acts as setting aside the State Department and acting as his own Secretary of State. At best, though, Olson’s book is absurdly one-sided and incomplete in her depiction of FDR. 


Although Olson cites in her bibliography a variety of archives in the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York, she primarily quotes from and cites in her notes other books written on FDR. It isn’t clear how much, if any, original research she has done, but from her notes it appears that she primarily relies on previous scholarship on Roosevelt. In a very real sense, her understanding of FDR cannot transcend the content of those books upon which her own account relies. The problem is that she seems to have ignored almost all of the constructive things that these other scholars have written about FDR and created instead her own deconstructive one. The most problematic aspect of this is that she at no point acknowledges or attempts to justify her extreme selectivity.


Her portrait of FDR is so much more negative than any of her sources that it can only be considered revisionist. All of his major biographers and historians of his presidency—including Robert Dallek, Kenneth Davis, Jean Edward Smith, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Geoffrey Ward, James MacGregor Burns, Thomas Parrish, Joe Meachum, H. W. Brands, Frank Freidel, Roy Jenkins, Thomas Fleming, Gerhard Weinberg, and David Kennedy—acknowledge FDR’s negative quirks while also establishing his preeminence in leading the world in opposing the Nazis.  All of them detail his enormous contributions in supporting Great Britain before Pearl Harbor freed his hands in aiding the British and Soviets. 


Nor is Olson’s one-sided account endorsed by first-person memoirs by Joseph Lash, Robert Sherwood, Frances Perkins, Grace Tully, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. It is possible to cherry pick from these books to manufacture the negative picture that Olson paints, but one hasn’t given a truthful account if you leave out the depth of achievements that place FDR in a different light than that Olson places him in.


What kinds of things does she leave out? How about the aftermath of Dunkirk, a defeat in which British troops fleeing across the English Channel left behind most of their munitions, so that their armories were almost empty? Churchill requested aid from Roosevelt and in approximately six weeks the president managed—despite resistance from Congress and his own administration—to replenish completely the British armories, including but not limited to 130 million rounds of ammunition. 


Time and again in 1940 and 1941 Roosevelt shoved through arms shipments that members of Congress, the War Department (which wanted to retain all material for the US military), and isolationists passionately opposed. In contrast, Olson paints Roosevelt as something of an extortionist, obtaining greatly desired military bases for old, obsolete destroyers. This depiction of Roosevelt is only possible if you ignore almost everything he did for the British prior to the US entry into WWII. She omits the vast armaments sent in later shipments, leaving the reader with the idea that Lend-Lease never provided anything other than junk, which is blatantly untrue. 


Olson also leaves out the skill with which Roosevelt negotiated his situation at home, with a substantial number of Americans, including many members of Congress, opposed to providing any aid of any sort for Great Britain. American isolationism was one of the fatalities of the war, but prior to WWII it was a dominant tradition in American life. It took all of Roosevelt’s vast skills as a politician to get Land-Lease past Congress, just as he had to struggle to get America to engage in significant rearmament prior to World War II.


That America provided any help at all to Great Britain was an astonishing achievement given the strength of opposition at home. But Olson’s account reflects little of this. Although both Churchill and Stalin proclaimed Roosevelt the person most responsible for the victory of the Allies against the Axis, Olson leaves the reader with a very different impression.


Unfortunately political issues comprise a significant portion of the book. When her account focuses on the biographical and anecdotal it is exceptionally entertaining; when it moves to the political it does not compare favorably with more scholarly treatments of American and British foreign affairs during WWII.


Nonetheless, there is much that one can take from Olson’s book. It is rich in detail and stories concerning both famous and unknown individuals. She also makes and supports a frequently overlooked historical reality. Today we take for granted the very close relations between the US and Great Britain. Except perhaps for Canada, there is no country Americans feel closer to than Great Britain. However,as Olson notes, this has not always been the case. For most of the 19th century there was considerable antipathy between the two countries and not even fighting together in the First World War brought them closer.


It was during the Second World War that Great Britains came to know and accept America. Much of this came about because hundreds of thousands of Americans passed through their country, who in turn learned about England at first hand. While much of this was the result of Americans and Englishmen and women meeting and getting to know one another, a considerable amount of credit for the friendship enjoyed today between the two nations can be given to Edward R. Murrow’s making the war in Britain and Europe concrete for Americans while simultaneously educating the British about his country; to Averell Harriman providing hope for the British nation during their most desperate hour by administering the Lend-Lease Program; and to John Gilbert Winant’s passionate and inspirational leadership while serving as the public face of America during the entirety of the war.

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In the chaos-filled days of June 1940, with their future bordering on the calamitous, the British hoped the United States would pay more attention to them than they had to Europe.
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