I'll show some restraint and avoid a Best of 2010 discussion less than 90 days into the year, but Lynne Olson
's Citizens of London
still has me buzzing weeks after finishing it. Admittedly, the subject matter is right in my wheelhouse (I'm a big fan of World War II histories), but Olson's exploration of the toil and sacrifice faced by those who refused to capitulate to the Nazis will appeal to a wide range of readers outside the WWII genre (which is why I made it my Best of February
I was fortunate to catch up with Lynne recently to discuss the origins of Citizens of London, as well as the politicians and leaders who acted as beacons during England's darkest days.
Amazon.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?
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.
Had Pearl Harbor not forced America's hand, how much longer could England have lasted against Germany?
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.