May 25, 2015

A Recommended Read on This Memorial Day

I was going to write today about my two weeks in Tuscany. I was also going to regard today as just another Monday holiday. But then I read this Facebook post from my BNA colleague and friend Tom Caso:
This Memorial Day has touched me deeply as I give thanks to those brave men and women who gave it all. Maybe it's because I live in the Washington DC area or maybe I am just getting old and reflective, but I have a greater sense of what this day is all about.

When the Monday holidays were proclaimed from Congress, I felt we had lost something of the importance of the day. As a kid we would decorate our bikes with red white and blue paper bunting and have a five-flag display on the the handle bars and ride down to see the Parade in Tenafly. It made a profound impression upon a young kid that has matured into respect and graditude.

So today, let's leave all our politics, all our passionate beliefs about wars and foreign policy, all our partisanship and just say stop and say THANK YOU AND GOD BLESS OUR SERVICE MEN AND WOMEN.
Reading Tom's FB post reminded me that I have a greater sense today of the sacrifices made during World War II by both the Yanks and the Brits, having just finished reading Citizens of London by Lynne Olson. In this spellbinding book, Olson gives us a fresh perspective on those times by focusing on the three Americans "who stood with Britain in its darkest, finest hour."

The three were Edward R Murrow, the handsome, chain-smoking head of CBS News in Europe; Averell Harriman, the hard-driving millionaire who ran FDR's Lend-Lease program in London; and John Gilbert Winant. Never heard of Winant? Neither had I. Olson's book restores him to the place in history that he really deserves. He comes across as the most admirable of the three Americans. Roosevelt appointed him as our ambassador to London in 1941.

For me, the heroes of this book are Winant and the citizens of London. By March 1941, after eight months of bombing, most Americans had abandoned London. Joseph Kennedy, who was the U.S. ambassador to England until 1940, was among those who departed, telling Roosevelt he felt that England would be defeated and that America shouldn't help them. Enter Winant.

This Could Never Happen Today
Winant was a liberal Republican and a former governor of New Hampshire. He was elected governor three times. He broke ties with his party to support social reform. Then he put his career on the line to participate in the Roosevelt Administration.

FDR appointed him the first head of the Social Security Board in 1935. It was rumored that Roosevelt did this to keep Winant from running for President in 1936. In 1939, he was elected to head the International Labor Organization. Then in 1941 came the appointment as ambassador to London.

In our hyper-partisan era, it's inconceivable that a Democratic president would appoint a leading Republican to a crucial job like this. But then we no longer see the liberal Republicans like Winant -- and Wilkie and Rockefeller and many others.

Upon his arrival in England, Winant announced to the British press that "there's no place I'd rather be at this time."  Winant, says Olson, "made very, very clear from the beginning that he, in fact, meant what he said when he arrived the first day. He wanted to be there for the British."

As soon as he arrived, when the bombing attacks began, he would go out on the streets and ask Londoners what he could do to help. "His warmth and  his compassion and his determination to stand with them and share their dangers were the first tangible sign for the British that America and its people really cared about what happened to them," Olson says. "So, he really became a symbol of the best side of America."

Winant, Harriman and Murrow all advocated for America to enter the war. Winant and Harriman, the diplomatic pair, told Roosevelt that England had to be saved.

Like Family But an Incestuos One
All three men were close to Churchill and his family, perhaps shockingly so. As Olson documents, Harriman had an open affair, encouraged by Churchill, with Churchill's own daughter-in-law, Pamela, while his son was off fighting in the war. Later, Pamela took up with Murrow. Winant had an affair with Sarah Churchill, the Prime Minister's married daughter.

"London was extraordinary that way," Olson says. "It really was a hot house . . . Being stuck in a war situation can be a real aphrodisiac. Everybody is thrown together, and things happen that normally don't happen."

A Sad Ending
After the war ended, Murrow and Harriman went on to greater fame -- Murrow for fighting Sen. Joseph McCarthy while at CBS, and Harriman for his political career. (He ended up married to Pamela and the couple played an influential role in Democratic politics from their home on N Street in Georgetown.)

Winant's life after the war was more tragic. "Winant was Roosevelt's man. His whole life was bound up with Franklin Roosevelt," Olson says. And when Roosevelt died in 1945, it was really the end for John Gilbert Winant. The Republicans no longer wanted him. He had hoped that he was going to become secretary-general of the new U.N. But that didn't happen when Roosevelt died. So there was really very little for him.

On top of that, his affair with Sarah Churchill ended badly. "He was an exhausted, sick man after the war," Olson continues. "Less than two years after the war, he killed himself."

Citizens of London
Olson's book is more than just a story of these three Americans and the world leaders they aided and influenced. It's a rich, panoramic tale of two cities: Washington, DC, a lazy southern town slowly growing into a hub of international power, and London, a class-conscious capital transformed by the blitz into a model of stoic grace under violent pressure and deprivation.

I was very moved by Olson's description of Londoners during the Nazi bombing blitz of 1940 and 1941. Here's her summary of those days:

Indeed, in the midst of the devastation, most Londoners demonstrated a dogged determination to live as normal a life as possible. It was their way of thumbing their nose at Hitler. Each morning, millions of people left their shelters or basements and, despite the constant disruption of the train and Underground systems, went to work as usual, which frequently involved long detours around collapsed buildings, impassable streets, and unexploded bombs, could take hours. Of the staff at Claridge's, Ben Robertson noted after a particularly violent raid: "everyone was red eyed and tired, but they were all there." The head waiter's house had been demolished during the night, but he had shown up, as had the woman who cleaned Robertson's room. "She was buried three hours in the basement of her house," another maid told Robertson. "Three hours! And she got to work this morning as usual." 
Eric Severeid, then a 27-year-old CBS correspondent, expressed in his last broadcast from London his sense of kinship with the city and the nation he had grown to admire and love. He compared his departure from London to his flight from Paris just days before its fall to the Germans four months earlier:

Paris died like a beautiful woman, in a coma, without struggle, without knowing or even asking why. One left Paris with a feeling almost of relief. London one leaves with regret. Of all the great cities of Europe, London alone behaves with pride, and battered but stubborn dignity.
At the end of his broadcast, in a voice choked with emotion,  Severaid  concluded:
When this is all over, in years to come, men will speak of this war and say, "I was a soldier," "I was a sailor," or "I was a pilot." Others will say with equal pride, "I was a citizen of London."
 This is how Olson ends her outstanding book.

No comments: