CITIZENS OF LONDON – Review by Mark Barnes

Quite a few years ago I was working on a paper in London where one of the newer staff was an American lady who was bullish about the superiority of American culture over what we mere mortals had here in the OldeWorld. She would illustrate this with the sorry claim that there were “no songs about London” as opposed to many of the showstoppers about New York or Chicago everyone knew at a time when Frank Sinatra, especially, was still going strong. Now, maybe its because I’m a Londoner, but I found this immensely irritating and she was actually quite wrong. Fair to say much of the lyrical output relating to London came before radio in the golden age of music hall, but this was stuff that the times dictated would stay at home in a country with strong regional tastes and identities and in my youth the songs we knew were alive and kicking even if we younger people preferred pop, rock or whatever.  Family weddings were usually the epitome of the archetypal Cockney knees up and there was no dissent. Then, as now, the power and reach of American music was undisputed, but we knew our roots if nothing else.

In 1941 Noël Coward penned his love song to the city as it brushed off the Blitz and got on with life.  While London Pride is another one of those songs that hasn’t really sustained in the eyes and ears of a modern audience it will have resonated with the Americans who form the backbone of this convincing history by Lynne Olson.

I was born at the tail end of the 1950s when the war was still a very recent experience for many of the people around me and the scars of it were visible everywhere. I could walk anywhere with my parents and they would point out the new builds in our neighbourhood and my mum would recall the sisters from her school year who died in the house that stood there or the cobbler who wouldn’t leave his shop and who died where that place now stands. Some of the stories were colourful and others quite horrible. A shelter where bombs broke the water pipes and all the people drowned. A policeman decapitated after shoving my mum and my aunt into a safe place. A school hit by a V2 rocket, but, mercifully, on a weekend. My grandfather on his very last leave from the war at sea narrowly escaping a chunk of gravestone blown through the window from a bomb exploding in the local cemetery. (The lump of stone was kept for years as a reminder). A factory where my mother and grandmother worked was the subject of threats by the pro-Nazi propagandist William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’; and although the factory was still there the last time I looked, all around it was the post war housing from where the Heinkels had missed the target.

This was the London that entranced the fabled journalist Ed Murrow and US Ambassador John G Winant. The contribution they made to building understanding between Britain and America was immense and the relationship we have inherited today is as much a consequence of their belief as all the other elements we have grown used to since 1945.

Olson tells us what an important man Winant became across the strata of wartime British life. I have to be honest here, because I had never heard of him before and I feel a little ashamed by that. He seems to have had an almost evangelical approach to Anglo-American relations and his role in promoting the British position to the US establishment as the Nazi threat mushroomed is quite remarkable. Breaking down the often implacable perceptions of isolationism was no mean feat. Now, obviously we know it was the Day of Infamy followed up by the reckless brinkmanship of a chauvinistic and unworldly Fuhrer that actually brought the USA into the world war and not the clear as daylight reality Winant and Churchill had regularly espoused that the Nazis would have to be stopped before it really was too late.  But of course once they were in, the Americans would insure there could only be one result.

Winant built a strong bond with Churchill, for whom he was a direct link to the ear of the American establishment. I’ve not made my failure to buy into the enduring myth of Winston Churchill a secret. He has more minuses than pluses for me and his attitudes towards domestic issues in Britain and Ireland colour my overall opinion of him, although his record during the period of greatest threat in 1940-41 is immense.  A keen artist in her youth, my mother keeps two of her drawings from those years framed in her house – Churchill and Monty. Their place in the hearts and minds of Britons who lived through the war are secure but don’t always assume it is one of universal blind admiration. Monty we can leave aside, but Churchill is so important to 20th Century British history, even the fiftieth anniversary of his funeral has created a large slice of news in the UK.

For all his faults, Churchill could see that the Nazi threat to the United States was real, but he could never separate it from the precipitous state of affairs affecting Britain and it was easy forisolationists to trump this state of affairs in any argument for action by the United States before Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war. He was an undoubted Anglophile, but Winant could see the writing on the wall, too. It is no wonder he became so central to promoting the British argument but he never really won it because events more or less caught up by themselves. He was at times isolated by the attentions of politicians in Washington and by rivals fetching up in London and his hopes for a significant role in the post war world were stymied by Roosevelt and the changing face of world politics.

Ed Murrow is a towering figure in so many ways and his importance to the history of broadcast news and the way it can be used to influence hearts and minds is crucial. He really was a giant of his age. World War II was perhaps a series of episodes in his life and work,but his adherence to strong principles may well have been crowned by his deconstruction of McCarthyism at a time when America faced new threats. Murrow loved London and returned as often as he could to a city he very much saw as a home from home. Olson tells us he was quite uncomfortable returning to America during wartime to a land without air raids, the blackout or the privations of shortages of food, fuel and clothing. We learn about his strong bond with friends at the BBC who would really have liked to have stolen him from CBS. The book underlines how we must never underestimate the importance of people like Murrow.

The third arm of the book is Averell Harriman and I detect that of the three he is the one the author has the least empathy for. He was an opportunist who sort to advance himself by any means in pursuit of power, influence and business opportunities. Can we blame him? The short answer is no. He turns up in this book during important episodes of the war’s story or when he is making hay and I suppose from the British perspective he seems the least sincere with a kind of detachment I can’t admire. Harriman cultivated a relationship with Churchill and usurped Winant in his contacts with Washington at critical times. He was living the dream and promoted himself at every opportunity. I remember him as one of the talking heads in the ground breaking World At War documentary series of the 1970s when he was one of few survivors from the movers and shapers of the wartime period.

The author delves much further into the complicated impact Americans had on Britain during the war and does not avoid the overpaid, oversexed and over here legend that follows the story of US servicemen during their stay in Britain. The thorny issue of Roosevelt’s antipathy to the British Empire and his quest to undermine it is central to the man’s relationship with Churchill and his Cabinet. I do not defend empire. I was at the National Portrait Gallery recently looking at the great, the lucky and the brave who built the edifice looking down from the safety of their years. I don’t have a smug feeling of wonder that Britain could have dominated so many countries and peoples for good or ill for the best part of two centuries but am rather in awe that people from a small island could have achieved it.

It’s all pretty academic now. The British Empire was in decline after the ruinous Great War and the financial and political tsunami that devastated it from 1939-45 combined with a yearning for change within Britain itself gave all the nails the coffin needed for hammering in. Nothing lasts forever and all empires fall in the end. The thing that annoyed imperialists and modernising realists alike in Britain on the end of Roosevelt’s lectures was that his vision of American altruism in having takenterritories from Spain and lands from Mexico, quite apart from the stark truth of racial segregation within the United States did not put him in a position to be telling them what to do.

The author makes effort to point out that the relationship between Britain and America was far from a rosy one. I said I’d leave Monty aside, but he and others were bound to butt up against the people other writers readily describe as Anglophobes and it really comes down to how much the exposure to the class system and culture of particular Britons exacerbated the problem. Some of these Brits were steadfastly peeing off their own countrymen, quite apart from what they did to foreigners and we know it wasn’t all one-way traffic.

Britain went to war on the principle of Polish liberty and it remains the tragic irony that the victory achieved in 1945 came with it utterly blown away by the harsh reality of the real politik practiced by Stalin and Roosevelt. Churchill’s immense frustration at his powerlessness to intervene must have been a painful experience as the truth of the new world order washed over him. There is no comfort that he folded in the end and acquiesced to the absorption of Poland into the Soviet sphere. But worse was to come for him in the summer of 1945 when the first general election held in Britain for ten years swept him and his party away in an outpouring of rejection for his policies and prejudices.

My dad used to tell me his generation were never going to miss out on what the men of 1918 believed they had earned. He was patriotic, avowedly socialist in a way I would find difficult to define for an American audience with fixed views of what that means. But he was a monarchist, possessing a pragmatic view that having a king or queen saved us from the misery of watching the political class squabbling over who might be president of a British republic. Believe me, in a general election year such as this, that view makes a whole lot of sense.

I’ve had this argument with my mates over a few beers that Britain didn’t so much win World War II as survived it. What did she win other than years of debt and decline? But at least she was free and the much-needed changes in society were taking hold. Looking at things now with the recession still biting in our era of austerity when the latest in a periodic series of recoveries looks a little pale it is easy to identify with aspects of the post war world when the sun was well on the way to setting on the empire and the United States was in the ascendant position the Greatest Generation had earned for it. Winant, Murrow and even Harriman and others espoused the so-called special relationship between America and Britain that remains in the hearts of elements of the British political elite today, if no one else. I am not sure there really is one.Franklin Roosevelt really was a great man, but his vision of American power and greatness had no room for sentiment and why should it have? He was doing his job.

It all comes down to timing. The period when Britain stood alone against the Nazi menace has a rightful place in our history. But it marked the end of days as Churchill and the men of his political era knew it. Murrow may have been there to record it and perhaps John G Winant, in his own way, was there to make the pill easier to swallow even if he hadn’t recognised all the brutal realities himself.  But he never really escaped those times that were the high watermark of his days and he took his own life as his fortunes declined and I find that terribly sad because he is largely forgotten today as I have readily admitted.

Lynne Olson has her three main men entwined with Churchill politically and, even more so, romantically with women of his family. This book is full of opportunists! The connections between them have helped graft a genuinely fascinating history of Britain and America during those dramatic years. The place of London throughout it all is central and I take pride from that for obvious reasons.  My ancestors were building bits of the city in the century after the Great Fire and I lived with others who were there to seeswathes of it destroyed again. I don’t live in London anymore and I couldn’t afford it even if I wanted to, but the city beloved by Winant and Murrow will always mean as much to me as it did to them and their deep attachment to it is perhaps the strongest thing that resonates from this wonderful book.
The Americans Who Stood With Britain In Its Darkest, Finest Hour
By Lynne Olson
Random House
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7935-0

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.