Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reading Journal: Citizens of London

Lynne Olson, Citizens of London (Random House 2010). Available February 2, 2010. I received my copy (the Canadian edition) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

In January 1945, my father-in-law, Pfc. John Shaw of the 84th Infantry Division, was in an Army hospital in Cirencester, England, recuperating from wounds received in the Battle of the Bulge. In a letter to his family back in Ohio, he wrote:
The village is about like all the rest of the English towns—a magnificent cathedral right in the center. It is very charming, I thin, although there’s no excitement—not that I’m seeking excitement. All the rest of the infantry guys stand around the corners, yelling, whistling, and making lewd remarks at the gals, and there’s plenty of them. The English must have a wonderful impression of the average American GI. Somehow, though, I can’t seem to have a good time, no matter what I do. I want to be in a quiet place; I love to listen and watch the civilians going about their business. I have all the respect and admiration in the world for them. They’re so sturdy and cheerful and friendly! So warm-hearted, and yet they seem to emotionless. They refuse to get excited or wrought up about anything.
My father-in-law was one of hundreds of thousands of Americans to pass through England during World War II. The Americans included GIs, military brass, journalists, and diplomats—all of them brought together with the British in a successful, and often tumultuous, alliance against Nazi Germany. The story of those Americans, and of that alliance, is brilliantly and beautifully told by Lynne Olson in her new book Citizens of London.

At the heart of the book are Edward R. Murrow, the American journalist who arrived to broadcast from London in 1939, and John Gilbert Winant, the United States ambassador. Both Murrow and Winant remained in London for the duration of the war, sharing in the danger and deprivation that Londoners faced during the Blitz, and becoming beloved figures in Britain who worked tirelessly to promote understanding and friendship between Britain and America. The book also follows the wartime career of Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease representative in Britain—a less admirable figure than Winant, but still a crucial player in the success of the Anglo-American alliance. The book is the story of that alliance—from its uncertain beginnings before America entered the war to the tensions that arose between the two countries over the shape of the post-war world—told through the stories of the people who lived it on the ground in London.

Olson is an engaging writer, who skillfully weaves together the diplomatic, military, and personal threads of her story to create a multidimensional picture of wartime London. She brings out the paradoxical character of the British people—stoic, undemonstrative, and suprisingly generous—that my father-in-law noticed on the streets of Cirencester:
Like other American reporters, Murrow was struck by the calmness, fortitude, and ironic humor exhibited by Londoners during these days and nights of terror. He enjoyed repeating to his friends the question that one city resident put to him at the height ot the Luftwaffe assault: “Do you think we’re really brave—or just lacking in imagination?” As Eric Sevareid observed, “This is what he loved about the British. They were steady. They didn’t panic, didn’t get emotional.”
Olson also brings out all the tensions that arose between the two proud and often mutually suspicous allies—especially between Roosevelt and Churchill, and between the top military brass from the two countries who shared the responsibility of running the war. The egos of men like Patton and Montgomery, British chief of staff Allan Brooke and U.S. air force chief “Hap” Arnold, were often massive obstacles to the success of the alliance. But as Olson shows, the supreme commander, General Eisenhower, was firmly committed to close cooperation between the allies, and like Murrow and Winant worked tirelessly to promote the special relationship between Britain and America.

Olson does a great service especially in resurrecting the reputation of Winant—a shy, soft-spoken idealist who emerges as one of the great forgotten men of history. Winant was a former history teacher, and a progressive Republican whose hero was Abraham Lincoln. In the spring of 1941, as London was being battered by German air raids and America was still reluctant to enter the war, Winant invoked Lincoln in a speech to the British people. Olson writes:
....Winant noted that, across the street from Parliament and Westminster Abbey, a statue of his hero, Abraham Lincoln, still stood. “As an American,” Winant said, “I am proud that Lincoln was there in all that wreckage as a friend and sentinel...and a reminder that in [his own] great battle for freedom, he waited quietly for support for those things for which he lived and died.”
Citizens of London is the best and most moving general audience history book I’ve read since Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Like Goodwin’s book, it’s a story of often bitter rivals who had to find a way to work together to achieve success in war. Like Goodwin’s book, it’s impeccably researched and beautifully written. Like Goodwin’s book, it should reach a wide and receptive audience.

1 comment:

An Muc Gorm said...

England and America? Surely Britain would be more accurate? England is a confusing figure of speech too much loved by North American writers.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .