Excerpted from Chapter One of Citizens of London by Lynne Olson Copyright © 2010 by Lynne Olson. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“There’s no place I’d rather be than in England.”
At the railway station in Windsor, a slight, slender man in the khaki uniform of a British field marshal waited patiently as a train pulled in and, with a screech of its brakes, shuddered to a stop. A moment later, the lacquered door of one of the coaches swung open, and the new American ambassador to Britain stepped out. With a broad smile, George VI extended his hand to John Gilbert Winant. “I am glad to welcome you here,” he said.
Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour
(Random House; US: Feb 2010)
With that simple gesture, the forty-five-year-old king made history. Never before had a British monarch abandoned royal protocol and ventured outside his palace to greet a newly arrived foreign envoy. Until the meeting at Windsor station, a new ambassador to Britain was expected to follow a minutely detailed ritual in presenting his credentials to the Court of St. James. Attired in elaborate court dress, he was taken in an ornate carriage, complete with coachman, footmen, and outriders, to Buckingham Palace in London. There he was received by the king in a private ceremony, usually held weeks after his arrival in the country.
But, on this blustery afternoon in March 1941, there was to be no such pomp or pageantry. As a throng of British and American reporters looked on, the king engaged the bareheaded Winant, wearing a rumpled navy blue overcoat and clutching a gray felt hat, in a brief, animated conversation. Then George VI led the ambassador to a waiting car for the drive to Windsor Castle and tea with the queen, followed by a ninety-minute meeting between the two men.
With the survival of Britain dangling by a thread, the king’s unprecedented gesture made clear that traditional court niceties were to be set aside, at least for the duration of the war. But more significantly, he was underscoring his country’s desperate need for U.S. assistance, along with its hope that Winant, unlike his defeatist-minded predecessor, Joseph P. Kennedy, would persuade his government that such aid was vital now.
Kennedy, a former Wall Street speculator and ex-chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, had closely aligned himself with the appeasement policies of the previous prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. During his three years in London, he had made no secret of his belief that “wars were bad for business, and what was worse, for his business,” as journalist James “Scotty” Reston put it. The U.S. ambassador believed this so firmly that he even used his official position to commandeer scarce cargo space on transatlantic ships for his own liquor export business. After Chamberlain and the French prime minister handed over much of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler at Munich in September 1938, Kennedy remarked happily to Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovak minister to Britain: “Isn’t it wonderful [that the crisis is over]? Now I can get to Palm Beach after all!”
In October 1940, at the height of German bombing raids on London and other parts of Britain, he returned home for good, declaring that “England is gone” and “I’m for appeasement one thousand per cent.” After meeting with President Roosevelt at the White House, he told reporters that he would “devote my efforts to what seems to me to be the greatest cause in the world today… to help the president keep the United States out of war.”
Kennedy’s outspoken desire to come to terms with Hitler had made his successor’s task all the more ticklish. Winant’s mission was, according to the New York Times, “one of the toughest and biggest jobs the President can give. He has to explain to a country that is daily being bombed why a country, safely 3,000 miles away… wants to help but will not fight. That is a difficult thing to tell a person whose home has just been wrecked by a bomb.”
On the morning of March 1, shortly after the Senate approved his nomination, the fifty-one-year-old Winant arrived at an airfield near the southern port of Bristol, which had suffered a severe battering by the Luftwaffe just a few weeks earlier. Before being whisked off to a special royal train for his journey to Windsor, the new ambassador wasted no time in demonstrating that he was not Joe Kennedy. Asked by a BBC reporter to say a few words to the British people, he paused a moment, then said quietly into the microphone, “I’m very glad to be here. There is no place I’d rather be at this time than in England.”
The following day, his remark was on the front pages of most British newspapers. The Times of London, evidently considering the remark a good omen, waxed uncharacteristically poetic when it reported that a “significant incident” had occurred just before the ambassador’s arrival. “As his aeroplane was circling to land,” the Times told its readers, “the sky was overcast and there came a sudden torrential downpour of rain. But as the aircraft came gently to earth, the storm ceased as suddenly as it had begun and the sun burst through the clouds, accompanied by a brilliant rainbow.”
Unfortunately for Britain, there were precious few rainbows on the horizon in early 1941. After nine months of standing alone against the mightiest military power in the world, the country—financially, emotionally, and physically exhausted—faced a predicament that was “not only extreme,” in the words of historian John Keegan, “but unprecedented in its extremity.”