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Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour Paperback – May 3, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010: Citizens of London is the story of the American firebrands who broke rank with popular opinion and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with England during the bleak infancy of World War II. Author Lynne Olson more than lives up to the critical acclaim of her last book, Troublesome Young Men, by exploring the origins of an Anglo-American alliance that helped turn the tide during the most widespread conflict in history. Although other "Yanks" rallied against the hesitancy of their isolationist government before Pearl Harbor, few matched the impact of U.S. ambassador John Gilbert Winant, businessman Averell Harriman, and broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Each recognized the insidious dangers of Nazi aggression, and with the help of meticulous research, Olson elucidates the challenges they endured to help bridge political and cultural gaps between the United States and Britain. At a time when the English capital was described as "swimming in the full tide of history," Citizens of London echoes Tennyson in its tribute to those who strove, sought, and refused to yield. --Dave Callanan
Exclusive Q&A with Lynne OlsonAmazon.com: Your last three books (Citizens of London, Troublesome Young Men, and A Question of Honor) have focused on England during the late 1930's/early 1940's. As a historian, what draws you to this period?
Olson: I’ve been fascinated with the place and the period ever since my husband, Stan Cloud, and I wrote our first book, The Murrow Boys, about Edward R. Murrow and the correspondents he hired to create CBS News before and during World War II. Several scenes in the book take place in London during the Battle of Britain and the 1940-41 Blitz. In doing research for The Murrow Boys, I got caught up in the story of Britain’s struggle for survival in those early years of the war – and the extraordinary leadership of Winston Churchill and courage of ordinary Britons in waging that fight. I discovered that there were still a number of stories about the period that remained largely unknown and untold, so I decided to tell them myself.
Amazon.com: Had Pearl Harbor not forced America's hand, how much longer could England have lasted against Germany?
Olson: That’s an excellent “what if” question. Churchill, for one, was desperately worried that Britain would be defeated by Germany in 1942 if the United States didn’t enter the war. In the days immediately before Pearl Harbor, he knew that the Japanese were also on the move, and he was afraid they were going to strike at British territory in Asia. If that had happened, his country would have been forced into a two-front war, with no lifeline from the United States – which almost assuredly would have meant the end for Britain. So it’s no wonder than when he heard the news of Pearl Harbor on the night of Dec. 7, 1941, he was euphoric. It meant, as he later wrote, that no matter how many military setbacks lay ahead, “England would live.”
Amazon.com: In contrast to Winant and Murrow, Harriman was a bit of a bourgeois playboy. What made you include him in this book?
Olson: There’s no question that Harriman’s social life was considerably more hectic in London than that of Winant and Murrow. At the same time, however, he was a dogged, extremely hard-working administrator of Lend Lease aid for Britain, who did what he could to speed up the flow of American help to the British and who pressed the Roosevelt administration hard for more vigorous action and more direct involvement in the war. He also carved out for himself quite an influential role as conduit and buffer between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill.
I also wanted to include Harriman for another reason – to point up the contrast between his tough-minded pragmatism and the idealism of Winant and Murrow. These three men, I think, reflected the complexity of America and its attitude to the rest of the world at that time. Winant and Murrow, who championed economic and social reform as well as international cooperation, reflected America’s idealistic side. Harriman, who was intent on broadening his own power and influence, as well as that of his country, became an exemplar of U.S. exceptionalism. In the postwar era, it was his world view that, for the most part, dominated American foreign policy.
Amazon.com: You note an almost apathetic Churchill response to American dalliances within his family. Was this a diplomatic necessity or was he simply too focused on the larger picture?
Olson: I’m not sure I would call him “apathetic.” I think that “pragmatic” would be a better word. I should also point out that it’s not an absolute certainty he knew about the affair that occurred between Averell Harriman and Pamela Churchill, the wife of his son, Randolph, which began in 1941. When Randolph later accused his father of condoning adultery under his own roof, Churchill denied any knowledge of what was going on. That being said, I do believe, as did Pamela, that he was aware of what she and Harriman were up to. Churchill loved Randolph, and while I’m sure he was not thrilled about the Pamela/Harriman affair, he knew how important Harriman and the other Americans were to the survival of Britain, and he had no intention of letting personal matters interfere with the national interest. Besides, Pamela proved to be a useful conduit for him and Harriman, passing on to each man information and insights she had found out from the other.
When Pamela took up with Edward R. Murrow later in the war, she was already separated from Randolph, and I doubt that Churchill cared one way or the other. As for the affair between his daughter, Sarah, and John Gilbert Winant, the couple kept their involvement exceptionally discreet. Sarah believed her father knew about it, but he never said anything, and I don’t think he would have minded.
Amazon.com: Talk about the lower-profile "Citizens of London" -- the brave Americans who violated their own country's laws to volunteer for the RAF.
Olson: In the late 1930s, as part of its desperate effort to keep the United States out of war, the American government did, as you note, make it illegal for any U.S. citizen to join the military service of a warring power. But, after Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, thousands of young Americans disregarded that law and traveled to England to join the British or Canadian armed forces. Unlike the hordes of Yanks who descended on Britain just prior to D-Day, the early U.S. volunteers became an integral part of Britain’s military and society.
The best-known volunteers were those who joined the Royal Air Force. Seven U.S. citizens were counted among “The Few” – the celebrated band of RAF pilots who, in their Hurricanes and Spitfires, successfully beat back the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in the summer and fall of 1940. Over the next several months, an additional 300-plus Americans enlisted in the RAF -- so many that they were soon given their own units, called the Eagle Squadrons. Churchill, who instantly saw what a powerful propaganda tool the American squadrons could be, enthusiastically endorsed the idea.
When the U.S. finally entered the conflict, virtually all the Americans serving in the RAF transferred to the U.S Army Air Forces. Of the 244 pilots who flew in the Eagle Squadrons, more than 40 per cent did not survive the war. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The Anglo-American alliance in WWII was not inevitable, writes former Baltimore Sun correspondent Olson (Troublesome Young Men). In this ingenious history, he emphasizes the role of three prominent Americans living in London who helped bring it about. Best known was Edward R. Murrow, head of CBS radio's European bureau after 1937. His pioneering live broadcasts during the blitz made him a celebrity, and Olson portrays a man who worked tirelessly to win American support for Britain. Most admirable of the three was John Winant, appointed American ambassador in 1941. A true humanitarian, he skillfully helped craft the British-American alliance. And most amusing was Averell Harriman, beginning a long public service career. In 1941, FDR sent the wealthy, ambitious playboy to London to oversee Lend-Lease aid. He loved the job, but made no personal sacrifices, living a luxurious life as he hobnobbed with world leaders and carried on an affair with Churchill's daughter-in-law. Olson, an insightful historian, contrasts the idealism of Winant and Murrow with the pragmatism of Harriman. But all three men were colorful, larger-than-life figures, and Olson's absorbing narrative does them justice. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Murrow, of course, was the CBS radio reporter wunderkind whose "This is London... " signature brought World War II into the homes of Americans on a regular basis, opening their minds and hearts to the plight of Great Britain and the danger of German aggression. His reports from the rooftops of London helped to pave the way for a lifting of isolationism as FDR cautiously prodded America to enter the fray.
John Gilbert Winant, Olson tells us, was a natural leader and the American ambassador who soothed British spirits and soul following former Ambassador Joe Kennedy's brash, appeasement-centered, diplomatic relations. And Averill Harriman, a rich businessman anxious to play power games at a global level, lived large romantically as he cut a wide social swath across London.
When you have a few hours to yourself, pick up this paperback and settle in. I promise you a fascinating read and a thoughtful study of the men who helped lay the foundation for the FDR/Churchill special relationship. They deserve more attention than other authors have given them.
Averell Harriman was the wealthiest. The son of railroad baron E. H. Harriman, he is characterized as having spent his early years growing his fortune and the war years using it to gain access to powerful people. It is difficult to believe that someone as shallow as the Harriman depicted here could grow into the statesman who later served with such distinction.
Born into a prosperous family, John G. Winant spent his entire life in public service. Harriman spent WW I building ships; Winant served as a fighter pilot. The consummate progressive, Winant left the Republican party to serve Roosevelt in 1935. While serving as Ambassador to England from 1941 to 1946, he eschewed the perquisites of his position and shared the hardships of the English people during the Battle of Britain. The author bestows no unkind word on Mr. Winant.
Edward R. Murrow fares almost as well, though his journalistic objectivity is often impugned and his affair with Pamela Churchill receives inordinate attention.
Churchill and Roosevelt are characterized as egotists more interested in dominating the conversation than in communicating. Churchill comes off a bit more positively, if only because he swallowed his pride to court Roosevelt - the leader of the only country capable of saving England from the Nazis. United States reluctance to enter the war is examined from the British perspective of desperately needing support, rather than from the American perspective of not wishing to enter yet another conflict arising from historical rivalries of which it was not a party. Roosevelt seems to be criticized both for wanting to meddle in European affairs (as in discussions of Belgian ethnic divisions) and not wanting to meddle (as in delaying discussions about Germany’s post-war future). Eisenhower is presented as a hayseed whose only positive virtue is his insistence on a unified command structure within the Allied Forces. Although the author eventually acknowledges the development of warm feelings between the British and the Americans who were staged there prior to Normandy, much more time is spent describing their efforts to keep apart from the local population and their relatively higher standard of living. Americans back home are also criticized for enjoying a higher standard of living than the populations of war-torn Europe.
This is an interesting book which reminds us that the people who lead us are, like the rest of us, neither whole heroic nor wholly ignoble. It also reminds us that important decisions are often made with incomplete information by people who are under considerable stress. For those who enjoy biography, Citizens of London is an interesting read. For those seeking a deeper understanding of history, I would recommend skepticism.
However, the story tells the whole story of the joint war effort, with the actions of Churchill, FDR, Stalin and DeGaul thrown in for good measure.
The story is very complete, filling us in on the most important American-British relationship.
However, although the authoress seems herself to be a liberal Democrat, the biggest take-away was that FDR, unlike Churchill, seemed to be very much in favor of Stalin and the Russians.
The biggest looser was Poland, and the effects of the Soviet Union in the cold war. Winant eventually committed suicide, but all three of the American actors went on to have successful and important lives.
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