On a chilly night in early 1947, a tall, lanky American with tousled dark hair emerged from a theater in London’s West End. Other playgoers, pouring into the street from nearby theaters, stopped and stared. They had seen the man’s angular face and slightly stooped frame in wartime newsreels and newspaper photographs, and most knew immediately who he was. As he and two companions headed down Shaftesbury Avenue, they were surrounded by a throng of people. “Good evening, Mr. Winant,” several in the crowd said. A couple of men doffed their hats. One woman reached out and shyly touched his coat.
For those gathered around him, the sight of John Gilbert Winant conjured up memories of smoke-filled nights in early 1941 when Winant, the American ambassador to Britain, walked the streets of London during the heaviest raids of the Blitz, Germany’s nine-month terror bombing of British cities. He asked everyone he met – firemen, dazed victims, air wardens pulling bodies out of the rubble – what he could do to help. In those perilous times, one Londoner remembered, Winant “convinced us that he was a link between ourselves and millions of his countrymen, who, by reason of his inspiration, spoke to our very hearts.”
Yet, while he was instantly recognizable in Britain, few Americans had ever heard of Winant. Even fewer were aware of the key role he had played in shaping and maintaining the alliance between the United States and Britain in World War II. In future decades, that extraordinary partnership – the closest and most successful wartime alliance in history — would come to be known as the “special relationship” that helped win the conflict, preserve democracy, and save the world. As the years passed and the legend surrounding the alliance took shape, the manner of its creation seemed almost preordained: first, Winston Churchill rousing his nation to stand alone against Hitler; then Franklin D. Roosevelt and America coming to the rescue of Churchill and the British.
But in March 1941, when Winant arrived in London to take up his post, such a happy ending was far from certain. In the previous six months, the Luftwaffe had killed tens of thousands of Britons in its attacks on London and other British cities. British armed forces, which lacked adequate arms and ammunition, were on the defensive everywhere. German submarines were operating at will in the Atlantic, sinking vast amounts of merchant shipping and slowly strangling British supply lines. Starvation for the civilian population loomed as a distinct possibility, as did a cross-Channel invasion by Germany. “We were hanging on by our eyelids,” recalled Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Britain’s top military leader during the war. Winant himself would later write: “There were many times when one felt the sands would run out and it all would be over.”
As the British well knew, their only hope for salvation lay in American help. Yet that aid had been miserly thus far, even as Britain’s future grew increasingly bleak. Many in Washington had already written the country off. How could this little island, no matter how glorious its military past, resist an invader that had toppled every country in its path like so many duckpins? Among those who believed in Britain’s inevitable defeat was Joseph P. Kennedy, Winant’s predecessor as U.S. ambassador, who, along with several thousand other American residents of Britain, fled to the United States at the height of the Blitz.
Winant, by contrast, made it clear from the beginning that he was in the country to stay. “There was one man who was with us, who never believed we would surrender, and that was John Gilbert Winant,” noted Ernest Bevin, a leading figure in Churchill’s government. Within days of the new ambassador’s arrival, an embassy subordinate remarked, he had “conveyed to the entire British nation the sure feeling that here was a friend.”
Winant, however, was not the only American in London to take a critical role in encouraging the British and pressing for an Anglo-American partnership. Two others – W. Averell Harriman and Edward R. Murrow – were prominent actors in the drama as well. Harriman, the aggressive, ambitious chairman of Union Pacific railroad, arrived in the British capital soon after Winant to become administrator of U.S. Lend-Lease aid to Britain. Murrow, the head of CBS News in Europe, had been stationed in the British capital since 1937.
As the most important Americans in London during the war’s early years, Winant, Harriman, and Murrow were key participants in America’s debate over whether Britain, the last bastion of freedom in Europe, should be saved. While Murrow championed the British cause in his broadcasts to the American people, Harriman and Winant mediated between a desperate prime minister and a cautious president, who was as wary of his isolationist opponents at home as he was initially skeptical of Britain’s chances. The famous friendship that developed between these dominating, egocentric leaders – “two prima donnas,” Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s chief aide, called them – was nowhere on the horizon at that point.
In the years since the war, most of the attention and much of the credit for the triumph of the Anglo-American alliance has been given to the intimate collaboration of Roosevelt and Churchill. Much less carefully examined has been the vital part played by men like Winant, Harriman, and Murrow in laying the groundwork for the two leaders’ partnership, at a time when Roosevelt and Churchill not only were strangers but were suspicious and even hostile toward each other.
Sent to London as Roosevelt’s eyes and ears, Winant and Harriman were to evaluate Britain’s capacity for resistance and survival. Both swiftly came to the conclusion that Britain would hold out, and they made clear to Washington they stood with her. The two envoys lobbied Roosevelt and his men to provide as much aid as possible and even to go to war. In more veiled language, Murrow did the same in his broadcasts.
Knowing how important the three men were to his country’s survival, Churchill courted them as relentlessly as he would later woo Roosevelt. The prime minister had an open-door policy where Murrow was concerned. Winant and Harriman became part of Churchill’s inner circle, with unprecedented access to the prime minister and members of his government. Rarely – before or since – has diplomacy been so personal. That intimacy also extended to the Americans’ relationship with members of the prime minister’s family. Indeed, so intense were their bonds with the Churchills that Harriman, Winant, and Murrow all engaged in wartime love affairs with Churchill family members.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States finally entered the war, the three Americans’ resolute support of an alliance between their homeland and Britain finally came to fruition. Their importance in the forging of that union can best be illustrated by their whereabouts on December 7, 1941. While Winant and Harriman were having dinner with Churchill at Chequers, Murrow was at the White House with Roosevelt.
By all accounts, the scene that wintry night at the prime minister’s country retreat was jubilant. As soon as they heard the news about Pearl Harbor, all those present knew that their long fight was over: America was now in the war. According to one observer, Churchill and Winant did a little dance together around the room. But the complex saga of the Anglo-American alliance had only just begun.
Despite the veneer of collegiality painted by Churchill in his memoirs, the partnership was fragile and fractious from the moment of its birth. The two countries may have shared a common language and heritage, but their political and military leaders, from Churchill and Roosevelt on down, possessed remarkably little understanding and knowledge of each other. Ignorant of the other’s history and culture, both allies tended to think of their cousins across the sea in stereotypes, with scant appreciation for their respective political and military difficulties.
Suspicions, strains, prejudices, and rivalries threatened to derail this new and unparalleled confederation before it took hold. Such problems were exacerbated by British condescension toward the Americans and U.S. resentment toward the British. As Sir Michael Howard, a British military historian, has noted, “The British approached the alliance from the point of view that the Americans had everything to learn and the British were there to teach them. The Americans took the approach that if anyone had anything to teach them, it was not the British who had been beaten over and over again and were not a very good army.”
In this fraught environment, the role of mediator took on new importance. While Roosevelt and Churchill took justifiable pride in their close and direct communications with each other, both Winant and Harriman continued to act as interpreters and peacemakers between the leaders, explaining the thoughts and actions of one to the other. In addition, Winant worked to alleviate tensions and promote cooperation among the two countries’ other top military and government figures. According to The Times of London, the American ambassador was the “adhesive” that helped to hold the wartime alliance together. “It was not Mr. Winant who turned the cooperation of the English-speaking peoples into the most intimate alliance recorded in history,” the newspaper remarked after the war. “But it was Mr. Winant who established and sustained the mutual understanding in the present – and identity of aim for the future – which made such intimacy possible.”
Joining forces with Murrow and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first commander of American forces in Britain, Winant also sought to educate the citizens of the two countries about each other, to smoothe away the misunderstandings and stresses that increasingly cropped up as the war approached its climax. Those strains were especially felt in war-straitened Britain, as Americans began arriving in massive numbers to prepare for the invasion of Europe. By mid-1943, the American presence in London – and the rest of Britain — was overwhelming. Everywhere one looked, it seemed, a new American air force base or army training camp was being built in a country the size of Georgia or Michigan. The streets and pubs of the British capital, meanwhile, were choked with thousands of brash, boisterous GIs on leave.
As the nerve center of Allied planning for the war in Europe, London was the place to be in the early 1940s. “Blacked out, bombed out, expensive and hard to get around in, it was still magnificent – the Paris of World War II,” observed one historian. Wealthy, well-connected American civilians, from New York investment bankers to Hollywood directors, vied to be assigned there on temporary government duty, rightly considering it the most exciting, vibrant city in the world during that tumultuous time.
Whether military or civilian, the Americans in London and the rest of the country were paid far more and lived considerably better than the great majority of the British, who struggled daily with scarcity. The vast difference in Anglo-American living standards reflected the profoundly different way in which the two allies experienced the war: one country on the front line, suffering deprivation and hardship; the other thousands of miles away from the battle, its citizens more prosperous than ever before.
Such disparities caused mounting tension, as did America’s flexing of its muscle as the larger and stronger partner of the alliance. Late in World War II, the United States came of age as the greatest economic, military, and political power in the world – and in so doing, revealed an array of complexities and contradictions. On the one hand, Roosevelt and his administration championed freedom, justice, and equality for all nations. On the other hand, the U.S. government left no doubt in the minds of the British — and the smaller European countries in the larger Western alliance — that America was now in charge of running the war and that it would dominate in the postwar world. “This is an American-made victory,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1944, “and the peace must be an American peace.”
While keenly aware that American intervention was rescuing them from Hitler, the British and other Europeans viewed their saviors as throwing their weight around without regard for the long-term international consequences of their actions. They saw an arrogance there, a misguided sense of destiny on the part of the Americans, who, having little knowledge of the globe beyond their borders and scant prior experience in dealing with it, nonetheless planned to take it over and single handedly set it to rights. A British woman who worked at U.S. naval headquarters in wartime London used to tell her American co-workers that “they needed to know more about the world before they could lead it.”
Throughout the war, Gil Winant and Ed Murrow, close friends who championed postwar economic and social reform as well as international cooperation, reflected America’s idealistic side. Averell Harriman, a tough-minded pragmatist 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 the world view of Harriman and others like him that dominated American foreign policy. Along with such longtime friends and associates as Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, and John McCloy (collectively known as the “Wise Men”), Harriman worked to create a Pax Americana throughout the globe.
In the decades that followed the war, Winant’s approach to international relations – “to concentrate on the things that unite humanity rather than on the things that divide it” – was regarded as simplistic and naïve. Toughness was now the mantra, as America, brandishing its military and economic might, set out to impose its own ideology and ways of doing things on the rest of the world.
It didn’t take long, however, for the world to rebel. Tired of being ordered about, other countries increasingly rejected American leadership and, by the dawn of the twenty-first century, many of them insisted on playing by their own rules. Facing a rapid decline in the influence and power to which it had laid claim only sixty-odd years before, the United States, with the advent of the administration of Barack Obama, began to acknowledge the need to promote global cooperation rather than solely American interests and to build true partnerships with other nations.
As it reaches out more to the world, America might do well to look back at the success of the U.S.-British alliance in World War II – and the yeoman work of Winant, Murrow, Eisenhower, and others in holding it together when nationalism and other forces threatened to tear it apart. Shortly after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Winant spoke at dedication ceremonies for a monument in southeast England to honor the American forces who landed in France on D-Day. In remarks broadcast by the BBC, the ambassador declared that if man was to survive in this perilous new period, he “must learn to live together in friendship,” to act “as if the welfare of a neighboring nation was almost as important as the welfare of your own.” Winant acknowledged that the accomplishment of such goals would be a supremely difficult task. “But,” he added, “so was D-Day. If that could be done, anything can be done – if we really care to do it.”
Copyright © Lynne Olson