Friends in Wartime Need

U.S. Observers Saw Urgency

Posted February 1, 2010 at 3:31pm

Not all Americans waited until Pearl Harbor was attacked to intervene in World War II. In her new book, “Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour,— author Lynne Olson focuses on those who made London their home even before 1941 and did their best to persuade their own country to intervene.

This isn’t Olson’s first look at London during World War II. A former White House reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Olson began writing books about 15 years ago. Among the four earlier books she authored are two about World War II, including one focusing on British parliamentarians. Likewise, her first book, co-authored with her husband, Stan Cloud, looked at the team of journalists working with broadcasting legend Edward R. Murrow, one of the main characters in “Citizens of London.—

The new book builds on her earlier work. It took two and a half years to research and write, relying on paperwork from her protagonists in American libraries as well as personal interviews and news reports. Olson centers her story on three characters: Murrow, who arrived in London to broadcast for CBS in 1937; Gil Winant, the former New Hampshire governor who became ambassador to England in January 1941; and businessman Averell Harriman, who came to London later in 1941 as representative for President Franklin Roosevelt’s lend-lease aid program, which brought American war material to the Allies. Though Murrow and Harriman went on to become well-known, Olson said Winant was her favorite character.

“I really like Winant because he really worked behind the scenes to, first of all, save England but also to make sure that the U.S. and Britain were as close as they could possibly be,— she said. Even as his own government stalled, Winant reassured the British people that the Americans would intervene.

The ambassador replaced isolationist Joseph Kennedy in London and soon became well-loved in Britain. He shunned the privileges normally afforded an American ambassador, including a home in upscale Grosvenor Square and exemption from food rationing, and he became intimately familiar with how the altered way of life affected everyone who lived in London. He earned close friendships not only with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the exiled representatives of other European governments, but he also gained the trust of common Britons, who often stopped him as he walked down the street. When he prepared to leave England after the war, he told those he left behind that he had never felt like a foreigner there.

“We’ve shared so much together. We have had our common ideals and hopes and reverses, and our victories have been yours and ours together,— he told a dinner crowd. “I shall always feel that I am a Londoner.—

With Murrow and Harriman, Winant did his best to bring his countrymen into the effort to protect England from the advancing German forces. Their persuasive work changed the course of the war, as she chronicles it, yet Olson also takes the Americans who came as part of the war effort into her story. American soldiers joined the risk-taking spirit of London, where civilians died in overnight bombings and fellow soldiers fell in airfights. They became entangled in affairs, drank too much and mixed with expatriates from European countries. Some of them became like sons to families near bases in the English countryside during their stay.

“London was an incredible place during World War II,— Olson said. “I think it was in many ways the most exciting city, the city that people wanted to go to. It was on the front lines, it was romantic, it was exhilarating.—