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Citizens of London: How Britain Was Rescued in Its Darkest, Finest Hour

 by Lynne Olson, Bond Street Books, 2010, $34.95

The hero of this World War II history is not a cigar-chomping general or rhetorical prime minister but a New England diplomat who was so tongue-tied that the most common reaction to his speeches was sympathy. Certainly Lynne Olson’s pleasant new book Citizens of London features a cast of grand Americans who braved life in London between 1939 and 1945, but none is described in the Olympian proportions the author reserves for John Gilbert Winant.

Olson’s book—at least the best parts of it—relates the tale of the Americans who endured danger and deprivation in London throughout the war while their compatriots lived in relative comfort across the Atlantic. They withstood the blitz and tried to convince the U.S. government to declare war on Germany. They brought some consolation to the hard-pressed Londoners in their hour of need. And many remained in London through the buildup of U.S. troops in 1943–44 and even after the troops had shipped out to Normandy.

Some, such as General Dwight D. Eisenhower and former World War I flying ace Lt. Col. Tommy Hitchcock Jr., were gallant and soldierly. Others, like presidential adviser Harry Hopkins and ambassador W. Averell Harriman, were deft political operators. But none could match Winant for sheer human decency, which made him a hero to the Brits with whom he withstood the Nazi onslaught. His appointment as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain was a stroke of brilliance.

A former Republican governor of New Hampshire, Winant was as inarticulate as a politician could possibly be. But his concern for the poor was legendary, and he was at heart a New Dealer before the term was invented.

Winant would walk the streets after bombings and console despondent Londoners. His public comments were never flowery, but they struck a chord with the great and the masses in England, and he was viewed as the embodiment of American support for England—even when that support was lacking. (Olson wholly sympathizes with the British point of view that the United States was far too slow in aiding its cousin across the Atlantic.)

Winant’s seeming sole moral shortcoming centered on an affair he pursued with Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, while Mrs. Winant was in the United States. In fact, these bellicose Yanks spent a good deal of time making love as well as war while the bombs fell: Olson meticulously chronicles liaisons between Pamela Churchill (the PM’s daughter-in-law) and Harriman, then Edward R. Murrow, as well as between Janet Murrow and another journalist.

The author does a splendid job of bringing these courageous, suffering souls to light, and she supplements their tale with the story of other nations’ expats in London at the time. The Poles come across as particularly admirable lot, and the book includes a fascinating description of the invaluable intelligence they provided to the Allies.

Olson seemingly lacked enough material for an entire book on the expats in London, however, as her book often drifts into a recitation of the all-too-familiar tale of World War II. Drawing from secondary sources and quoting contemporary historians, Olson simply tries too hard to set her Londoners in the context of the broader conflict. Yet her prose sparkles when she focuses on the band of London-based Americans and their problematic, critical and often affectionate dealings with the Brits.

It is just those exchanges, especially the ones between stiff-upper-lip London commoners and the cat’s-got-his-tongue Winant, that will linger with readers.


Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.