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Monday, August 02, 2010

Citizens of London by Lynne Olson

Olson, Lynne.  Citizens of London:  The Americans Who Stood With Britain In Its Darkest,   Finest Hour.

An extremely readable work about the U.S. citizens who joined Britain early in their battle and encouraged the involvement of the United States in the war against Germany.  Those who experienced the hardships along with the British-- the Blitz, the fear, the destruction, and the deprivation --saw the threat of Germany more clearly than anyone in Washington.

Most of us are familiar with the names of Edward R. Murrow and Averell Harriman even after all these years, but I was not familiar with John Gilbert Winant, and Winant, though almost forgotten in the course of history, deserves the most credit as a man and a diplomat.

In the early part of the war, as Britain stood alone and the U.S. stood aloof, the courage, resolution, and perseverance of the British people, particularly those in London who endured the Blitz, is inspiring.  The love of the British people for Winant, who made himself accessible to everyone, who wandered the streets during the bombing asking what he could do to help, whose word proved always trustworthy is well-documented.

Murrow's broadcasts giving first hand accounts of the situation in London were meant to encourage the U.S. to offer help to the British, the last bastion of freedom in Europe.  He was frequently frustrated with the lack of understanding that the American government exhibited about what would happen if Britain failed.

FDR does not come off particularly well; he seemed incapable of understanding the significance of the threat and unable to make a decision unless it was politically popular.  The help that was eventually offered had strings attached intended to weaken post-war Britain and strengthen the United States in the post-war period.

The book offers remarkable insight into the war, some of the essential players, and even into the efforts (or lack thereof) of post-war planning.  The United States was not the perfect ally I'd grown up believing--egos and politics and power plays, then as now, often defeat reasonable thinking.

There is no way for me to give a real overview of the book which covers so much in an interesting manner.  There are plenty of people to admire and plenty to castigate.  There are details that intrigue, details that inspire, and details that sadden.

Although I read it slowly, pausing at times to revert to my other reading, the book stayed in my thoughts.  It still gives me a lot to think about.   Focusing on the war in Britain, the wider range is presented more briefly.  After Pearl Harbor, the scope widens as the Allies try to agree on appropriate military response.

Anyone interested in WWII history should include Citizens of London; this history is absorbing, extremely well documented, and entirely readable.  I'd also like to read Olson's other books:  The Murrow Boys and Troublesome Young Men.

I'm most interested, however, in John Gilbert Winant and would love to read the biography He Walked Alone by Bernard Bellush, but it is out of print and the copies available are way to expensive for me.

Highly recommended.

Nonfiction.  History/WWII.  2010.  394 pages + extensive notes and bibliography.


  1. I didn't know the same writer had written this as The Murrow Boys! I'm a little mad at myself I didn't grab The Murrow Boys when I saw it at work yesterday, and at least flip through it during lunch. Citizens of London sounds wonderful, and you've piqued my interest about Winant as well. I'm going to see if I can get hold of that biography of him from my library.

  2. Jenny - Since you just finished the book by Gardiner about Britain during the war, you will probably really enjoy this one as well. And maybe be a little shamed by our slow response in coming to Britain's aid.

    Troublesome Young Men is about those who opposed Chamberlain's appeasement policy, and I'm looking forward to that as well.