25 September 2010
Citizens of London: The Americans who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson. New York: Random House, 2010. 496 pp., $28.00.
Most war novels naturally focus on the war. The generals, soldiers, and political leaders running the show play the prominent role as the chronicler emphasizes his version of history. The genius of this book is in its twist on well known subject matter. Instead of examining World War II more broadly, Lynne Olson concentrates on London's experience in the war, including the Blitz and the aftermath. Moving beyond FDR, Churchill, and Stalin, the author examines three men behind the well-known figures. In so doing, this novel provides a fresh perspective on a most trying time in world history and highlights the importance of good leaders who do not always grab the headlines.
America remained ambivalent about another war in Europe in 1939. Isolationist forces had carried the day, and while many decried the rapid spread of fascism and totalitarianism in Europe, few were willing to actually invest resources to help their allies. When England became the last remaining country resisting Hitler's army, the US still remained unwilling to enter the fray. Three men in particular worked very hard to change this. John Gilbert Winant, the ambassador to the United Kingdom, was adept at earning the respect of the Brits while also communicating to the US what was happening. Edward Murrow carried even more clout, speaking of the atrocities he witnessed behind his CBS microphone. And Averell Harriman used his considerable political and financial clout to gain a position in Europe to further increase cooperation across the Atlantic.
None of the three men were entirely successful in their campaign to rally US support behind the war effort, at least not until Pearl Harbor. Yet, their dedication to helping their compatriots in Europe was an important step in preparing America for the intense conflict in which they were about to engage. Winant and Harriman both provided valuable conduits between British and American governments, contributing to the strongest alliance in modern history. And Murrow helped everyday Americans understand the moral imperative in the war, providing further motivation for the Anglo-American alliance.
Olson tends to dwell too long on the salacious and quirky aspects of the principal characters, detracting from the broader narrative. And her personal biases towards the characters also shine through a little too brightly. Because of her past experience in writing about Murrow, he receives a disproportionate amount of attention. So too does Winant, who Olson clearly admires (and with good reason). As with other novels about this period, too little attention is given to their lives after the war as well.
Overall though, the book is an enjoyable and informative read. The narrative flows well, even as the author jumps from person to person and from place to place. The concept of Americans standing with their European peers in a time of great need is a refreshing reminder of the purpose and value of alliances at a time when American isolationism is again creeping into the political consciousness.