Grit and Vision in War's Dark Days

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 19, 2010 | Go to article overview

Grit and Vision in War's Dark Days


Byline: Muriel Dobbin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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