- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2010



By Lynne Olson

Random House, $28

496 pages, illustrated


More than half a century has passed, and memories have faded, so it is the triumph of this book that the author has so poignantly re-created a time of grim grandeur when the world was shaken by a struggle that encompassed not only the powerful, but, to an extraordinary degree, the ordinary people who lived through it.

In all the austerity and gloom and disaster, there was a time in the Britain of World War II when, as writer Robert Arbib put it, it was still a place “where terror and trouble could not subjugate humor and wit, where gallantry and heroism was the man standing next to you at the ‘Rose and Crown.’ ”

World War II was a watershed in history in which the Allies won their battle against the evil of Hitler’s Germany, the United States was thrust into a war that turned it into a superpower confronting a new battle in the Cold War, and the British Empire sank into a decline that took with it men like legendary Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who saw his world crumble.

This book is a conscientiously researched and well-written accolade to the few farsighted Americans who became citizens of London at a time when their leaders were still beset by doubt about a faraway war. These Americans were men who saw isolationism as an ultimate menace to their own way of life, and they deeply believed that in helping save London, they were saving America.

They were a distinguished group that included New Englander John Gilbert Winant; W. Averell Harriman, a railroad baron; and Edward R. Murrow, a television reporter. They had access and influence at the highest levels of British and American government, and they also were advocates of economic and social reform. It was Winant’s philosophy that international relations “should concentrate on the things that unite humanity rather than on the things that divide it.”

Winant, a former governor of New Hampshire, became the American ambassador to London in 1941. So grateful were the British for his arrival that King George VI personally met Winant as he got off the train and took him to Buckingham Palace for talks and tea.

Of course, Winant was doubly welcome as the successor to the despised Joseph Kennedy, who announced he was “one thousand per cent” for the appeasement of Hitler and proclaimed that England was “gone” before he scuttled back to the United States. Winant proved to be a man with deep understanding of how desperate the situation was. It is told that when Pearl Harbor was bombed and America officially entered the war, Winant “danced a little jig” with Churchill.

Already in place, striving to convey the terror of the London Blitz to Americans virtually oblivious to it was Edward R. Murrow, the magnificent war reporter who went on the streets to broadcast what he saw and heard of a city in flames. “A virtuoso of words,” Lynne Olson calls him. He lived with the Blitz and through it, and many years later said his most prized possession was the microphone he used to tell an incredulous world, “This is London.”

Murrow went on to fight other battles in a venal television world when he came home, but the war was the opportunity of his life, and he rose to it with the kind of passionate eloquence that no longer exists in his field.

Harriman was a railroad magnate who became the czar of the crucial lend-lease program, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt fought to get through a reluctant Congress and which was a lifeline for the British. Enormously wealthy and socially on the same level as Roosevelt, Harriman nevertheless was the emotional opposite of the president, and it took the urging of Harry Hopkins, a White House adviser and legendary kingmaker, to persuade the president that Harriman was ideal for the job.

As Ms. Olson writes, Harriman sought the lend-lease job because of his strong belief that the United States was obliged to save Britain from defeat.

“Are we willing to face a world dominated by Hitler?” Harriman demanded of New York’s Yale Club shortly before he left to become a Roosevelt emissary to Britain. “If not, we still have time - the most fatal error would be halfhearted and insufficient help.”

Harriman became involved in one of the most famous social scandals of London when he engaged in a long-running affair with Pamela Churchill, the prime minister’s glamorous 21-year-old daughter-in-law, who appears to have been catnip for quite a few of the power players on the London war scene.

Ms. Olson acknowledges that wartime London was awash in scandals, noting extramarital affairs that involved Harriman, Winant and Murrow. Winant was linked to Churchill’s lively daughter Sarah. Yet the author shows admirable restraint and perception as she reminds that it was a world of drama and death, and personal reactions often reflected surreal circumstances.

She quotes the cynically accurate observation of the prime minister’s daughter-in-law, Pamela, who half a century later married Harriman: ” ‘It was a terrible war,’ she acknowledged. ‘But depending on who you were and where you were, it was spectacular.’ ” It undoubtedly was the epitome of excitement for a young woman who, in addition to her long-running affair with the then-married Harriman, fell deeply in love with the also-married Murrow, whom she called the love of her life.

That affair ended only when Murrow’s wife had a son named Casey and he sent Pamela a telegram saying simply, “Casey won.”

The Americans who became citizens of London lived at an exalted social level, from Roosevelt’s White House to Churchill’s country retreat, Chequers. Theirs was a life both grim and glamorous, but Ms. Olson emphasizes that what should be remembered is that the six-year conflict was a huge and almost unbearable test of survival for those who fought what came to be called “the people’s war.”

They had to cope with the terror of 57 nights of unremitting bombing followed by a firestorm that almost flattened central London, smashing into Westminster Abbey; leaving almost a million people without gas, water or electricity; and gutting the House of Commons chamber, where the wreckage reduced Churchill to tears.

The author makes a point of the importance of the volunteer movement in Britain, especially the emergence of women in a dominant role in the Women’s Voluntary Service, led by the Marchioness of Reading.

It was that wave of spontaneous response to the desperate need for rebuilding lives and places that helped Londoners survive and also heralded the coming of major social change in a country rigid with class distinction. Military success for the Allies erased many fears, but the mundane misery of life in Britain continued. When America entered its postwar boom of the 1950s, the British were still enduring rationing and privation that was acceptable when they were fighting for it, but cast a bitter shadow in the postwar era.

And the Americans who came to help rescue Britain were honored by their adopted country. Winant received the Order of Merit, viewed as the most coveted of British medals but went home to America to die a tragic death.

Murrow was named an “honorary Briton,” and when he died of lung cancer, the BBC interrupted its programming for a special half-hour on his work. Harriman remained a White House insider and a power in international politics and wound up marrying Pamela, the woman he first met in wartime London who became a political name in her own right.

Yet the most touching epitaph to those days of glory and drama perhaps came from Eric Sevareid, a CBS correspondent who said in his last broadcast before leaving London, “When this is all over in years to come, men will speak of the war and say, ‘I was a soldier’ or ‘I was a pilot.’ Others will say with equal pride, ‘I was a citizen of London.’ ”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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