Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson (2010)

This is my second Lynne Olsen book - my first being Those Angry Days about the isolationist sentiment in the United States in the first years of World War II. I noted in my Goodreads review of that book how easy it can be to mythologize and romanticize the Greatest Generation, and Olsen was adept at avoiding this.  Olsen was again successful in writing a more nuanced portrait of the characters of World War II.  What has been definitely mythologized over the years is the very special friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.   I think we've always been led to believe that Franklin Roosevelt was working behind the scenes to get the country into war on the side of the British.  Olsen's narrative pokes holes in these balloons; her pins are actually quite long and sharp too.  FDR and Churchill, although never adversaries, weren't bosom buddies, especially in the early years of the war (before the U.S. was attacked by Japan) and then again during the last years (when courting and outwitting Stalin was far more of an objective than appeasing Winston Churchill).

Olsen's writing is quite strong and good; unlike Those Angry Days (which I also noted was long and dry in various sections), Citizens of London never felt overly scholarly or heavy on details.  I don't think I ever felt quite "right there" in the thick of the Blitz; but more than occasionally, the gossip about various figures - Pamela Harriman and her various affairs, for example - was delicious and fun.  I knew nothing at all about John Winant, the ambassador to Great Britain after the Kennedys left town - you'd almost think once Joe and his family packed their bags, there was no ambassador to Great Britain.  The Murrows, too, were new to me, other than knowing bits and pieces about Edward R. Murrow's reporting from the bombing of London.

I have one quibble though, and I think it's a major one.  The first half of the book fits neatly into the title and subtitle of this book - the Murrows, Averell Harriman, Harry Hopkins, the American boys who joined the R.A.F., Lend-Lease.  But somewhere about half way through, for whatever reason, the book took a sharp turn away from the title.  For example, there was a whole chapter on the foreign exiles in London during the war.  There was much on Eisenhower and the various campaigns in North African, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge.  And while all very interesting, and very well written, and very well researched, I felt a little cheated by the promise of the title.

Interestingly, this is twice in six months or so I've read a book that has Pamela Harriman as a character; The Swans of Fifth Avenue had a much older, less attractive portrayal.

The word "reactionary" was mentioned in the book (twice actually, both in reference to Winston Churchill).  I never can remember what that word means; even though I look it up all the time.  In my mind, it always means exactly the opposite.

I actually bookmarked and took more notes on this book than on most - there was a lot here that struck me as interesting, or funny, or ponder-worthy.

"After Mrs. Roosevelt and her guests finished a light supper of scrambled eggs and pudding..." I've read elsewhere about the Franklin Roosevelts scrambled eggs suppers; I think I read elsewhere that Eleanor Roosevelt did the scrambling because that's all she knew how to cook.  The Franklin Roosevelts were indifferent to food; but I still think it shows how things have changed that they served scrambled eggs and pudding to Edward R. Murrow and other guests.  What kind of pudding?  I love scrambled eggs myself, particularly as a late night supper.  

“Yet, although he concealed it well, his humble roots also left him with a deep sense of insecurity, a fear of being perceived as a country bumpkin—a not uncommon unease felt by other Americans when mingling with upper-crust Britons."  That's one of my biggest insecurities too.  I completely ken you, Edward R. Murrow.  That whole "town mouse and country mouse" thing, which has been around for thousands of years (re:  Aesop).

"To thwart such Soviet dominance, Churchill “fought like a tiger” at the summit to make sure that France’s postwar role in Europe was as strong as possible. By doing that, he thought, both Britain and France could serve—to some extent, at least—as counterweights to Russia."  When you've read much about Franklin Roosevelt and company, each book contains a multitude of factoids and stories that you've read over and over.  But this was a new one to me.  I actually wondered several times in the book why the French ended up being so important at the end of World War II that they were given some military control over a portion of Germany, even though they had capitulated early in the war, and their government was essentially in a state of collapse and recovery. You would hvae thought another government, like Poland, would have been given as much or more power than France.  But Olson read my mind, and eventually answered my question.  Quite interesting.  

"Winant, meanwhile, came to the general’s rescue in a thorny situation related to his heavy smoking. For much of his life, Eisenhower had been a chain-smoker, a habit that intensified as the pressures on him grew more intense. The ambassador repeatedly reminded him that, at official British dinners, there was to be no smoking until near the end of the dinner and the offering of toasts, a ban that Eisenhower repeatedly forgot." I thought when I read this that the word "Forgot", if read aloud, should be in air quotes.  It was also little stories like this that made the book extra enjoyable.

"When a black GI, on the basis of extremely tenuous evidence, was found guilty of rape and sentenced to death, there was a huge public outcry in the country. Deluged with protesting letters and phone calls, Eisenhower ordered an investigation of the case, which found the evidence to be insufficient.  The serviceman was cleared of the charge and restored to duty."  Olson's writing about the treatment of black servicemen by the British public and government verses their disgraceful treatment by white American servicemen and officers was some of the most powerful in the book.  I don't know if you can exactly call reading about discrimination and unfair treatment "enjoyable" but as I love learning, I found this to be one of the most "enjoyable" parts of the book.  I thought the above story would make a great movie - but now I'm wondering "who was this guy" and "where is he now" and "what later happened."

"On the eve of the invasion of Europe, General Eisenhower assured his troops: “If you see fighting aircraft over you, they will be ours.” Thanks in no small part to an ex–polo star and the plane he championed, Eisenhower was absolutely right."  This mawkish story had a Paul Harvey ending.  Pure mush.

“The American people, who were so willing and proud to give whatever was required of them in blood and sweat, were loudly reluctant to cut down on their normal consumption of red meat and gasoline and their use of such essentials as electric toasters and elastic girdles,” Robert Sherwood observed. “More than any other people on earth, Americans were addicted to the principle that you can eat your cake and have it, which was entirely understandable, for Americans have been assured from the cradle that ‘there is always more cake from where that came from.’  Robert Sherwood, playwright and FDR speechwriter, said this 70 years ago, and it's even more true today, unfortunately.  American Exceptionalism will be the death of us all, I fear.  This is also one of the examples of Olson not viewing World War II with rose-colored glasses.

"In Washington, members of Congress fought Roosevelt’s call for higher taxes, tried to eviscerate the Office of Price Control, and insisted they were entitled to unlimited gasoline supplies because, they argued, their driving was essential for the war effort. “The very men to whom the whole country looks to set an example and to encourage the public to accept the personal inconvenience are doing exactly the reverse,” Raymond Clapper, a noted Washington newspaper columnist, wrote in disgust. “Instead of trying to cooperate, they are cackling like wet hens to hold their special privileges.”  We need a word in English that means "even more true today" because this is certainly something that still happens.  Our elected officials haven't changed all that much in 70 years!

“We must always remember,” he said, “that it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail. That caring counts. That where there is no vision, people perish. That hope and faith count, and that without charity there can be nothing good. That by daring to live dangerously, we are learning to live generously. And that by believing in the inherent goodness of man, we may meet the call of your great Prime Minister and "stride forward into the unknown with growing confidence."   Winant wasn't a great orator, but this speech he gave to striking miners in England during the war is incredibly moving and beautiful.  

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest HourCitizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Olson's book is quite strong and good; I dove into it from beginning to end. her writing never feels dry or scholarly, and she has a way with historical storytelling without coming across as overly pop. Though many of the stories Olson writes about are well known, there were also plenty of anecdotes and facts in the book that were completely new to me. For example, I knew next to nothing about Ambassador Winant before reading her book; he's a fascinating figure, almost as fascinating (or at least Olson made sure he was, the mark of a strong writer of history and biography) as his predecessor Joseph Kennedy (and with a son who had an equally fascinating World War II story as Joe Kennedy's son Jack). Her writing on how black soldiers were treated by British subjects of all races verses their treatment by their fellow (but white) Americans was also new and quite interesting . My only quibble is that the title and subtitle only really covered about half of the book; the latter half meandered a bit, although never into dull places. Something I like about Olson's research and writing (this is the second book I've read by her) is that she doesn't rest on mythology or wear rose-colored Greatest Generation glasses; the major and minor players in this book. including on occasion the American public (those white racist Southern generals, for example) are all "stark naked" when it comes to their good and bad points. If the blitzed British come off as romantic figures - well, perhaps they all were for a brief, but shining (and terrifying) moment.

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