In 1941, before the United States had entered World War II, a trio of Americans were embedded in London and helped to steer the United States' course to war.
At this point, Britain's policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler had failed, and the old appeasers were out of power. Winston Churchill had taken over as prime minister, and Britain was at war with Nazi Germany. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was aiding the British, but faced a U.S. Congress skeptical of actually going to war. As London endured devastating German bombing raids, some Americans were there, assuring the British of support and agitating for American entry into the war.
Author Lynne Olson, whose new book, Citizens of London, looks at this era, tells Robert Siegel that by March of 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 had departed, telling Roosevelt he felt that England would be defeated and that America shouldn't help them.
Three who stayed disagreed with Kennedy's analysis. CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow told Americans what living through the blitz was like. The playboy industrialist turned diplomatic troubleshooter Averell Harriman was in London to expedite U.S. military aid. Both are still well-known, though the role played by John Gilbert Winant, Kennedy's successor, has largely been forgotten.
"There's no place I'd rather be at this time," Winant announced to the British press upon his arrival in England.
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."
Winant had put his career on the line to participate in Roosevelt's administration. The liberal Republican — a former governor of New Hampshire — had broken ties with his party to support social reform.
"He was a big advocate of FDR and the New Deal," Olson says. "He actually sacrificed his political career for Roosevelt and the New Deal."
Upon arriving in London, he put himself in danger to show the British that he was serious about helping them.
"As soon as he arrived, when the bombing attacks began," Olson says, 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 was the first tangible sign for the British that America and its people really cared about what happened to them. 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.
All three men were close to Churchill and his family, perhaps shockingly so. As Olson documents in Citizens of London, 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, the ambassador, had an affair with Sarah Churchill, the prime minister's married daughter.
"London was extraordinary that way," Olson laughs. "It really was a hothouse. ... Being stuck in a war situation can be a real aphrodisiac. Everybody is thrown together, and things happen that normally don't happen."
From Churchill's perspective, that closeness may have been by design.
"Churchill actually invested a lot in these three men. He courted them as relentlessly as he was going to court Roosevelt later in the war," Olson says. "And so he drew them into his official family. He gave them tremendous access to himself and to other members of his government. But he also made them part of his own family. Winant and Harriman, in particular, spent many, many weekends with the Churchills."
A Sad End
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. 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 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."
This downward spiral helps to explain why Winant's fortunes have fared less well in history's memory than that of Murrow or Harriman. Olson hopes her book can help to correct that oversight.
"He was really a major architect of the Anglo-American alliance," Olson says. "He played a huge role in keeping it together, in kind of helping the British and Americans get along during the war. And to have him disappear so completely is really wrong. And I think it's important to restore him to the place in history that he really deserves."