Citizens of London Q&A

Q and A on writing Citizens of London

Citizens of LondonQ. Your book centers on three Americans in London during World War II — John Gilbert Winant, Edward R. Murrow, and Averell Harriman. What prompted you to write it and why did you focus on these men?

A. I’ve wanted to write a book about wartime London for years, ever since my husband, Stan Cloud, and I wrote The Murrow Boys, about Ed Murrow and the correspondents he hired to create CBS News before and during World War II. Some early scenes in that book are set in London during the Blitz and Battle of Britain, and I was struck by what a spectacular city it was during that time. I became interested in writing something that would evoke the excitement, romance, terror, and sheer exhilaration of the place.

So, with London as the backdrop, I set out to tell the behind-the-scenes story of America’s wartime alliance with Britain, as seen from the point of view of the three men you mentioned, all of whom played critical roles in forging the alliance and keeping it alive. Two of them — Murrow, who was probably the most influential American journalist of the war, and Averell Harriman, the millionaire businessman who headed the U.S. Lend-Lease program in London — are well-known figures today. Winant, the U.S ambassador to Britain during the war, is, by contrast, almost totally unknown in America. Yet he was arguably the most significant of the three.

Q. What made these men so important?

A. In very different ways, they were key participants in America’s debate in 1940 and 1941 over whether Britain, the last European nation to stand firm against Hitler, should be saved. Murrow championed the British cause in his broadcasts to the American people, while Harriman and Winant, who were sent to London by President Roosevelt as his eyes and ears, made clear they thought Britain would hold out and that America must do all it could to help the British and their prime minister, Winston Churchill. If it didn’t, then Britain would fall, and the U.S. would be left to face Germany alone.

It’s important to remember that isolationism was very strong in America then and that Roosevelt and Churchill were highly skeptical and suspicious of each other. The famous friendship that developed between them later in the war was nowhere on the horizon at that point. It’s common wisdom now that the success of the Anglo-American alliance was primarily due to the close collaboration of these two leaders. Of course, that relationship was vitally important, but just as important, in my opinion, was the work of others, prominently including Winant, Harriman, and Murrow, in laying the groundwork for the Anglo-American union and keeping it alive once it was born. That was not easy to do, to put it mildly. There were a lot of strains and rivalries between the two countries, as well as considerable ignorance of each other’s history and military situation.

Q. You write in the book that the three men’s relationship with Churchill was very close.

A. That’s true. Churchill knew how important these Americans were to his country’s survival, and he pursued them as relentlessly as he would later pursue Roosevelt. He had an open-door policy where Murrow was concerned, and would often invite him in for drinks at Downing Street. He made Winant and Harriman part of his inner circle, giving them unprecedented access not only to himself but to members of his government as well. He also pulled them into his personal family life. Winant and Harriman spent many if not most weekends with the Churchills at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house, and at Ditchley, another country estate that Churchill frequently visited during the war. In fact, these Americans’ ties with the Churchills were so strong that all three of them ended up having wartime love affairs with members of Churchill’s family. Harriman and Murrow both were involved with the prime minister’s daughter-in-law, Pamela, and Winant fell in love with Churchill’s daughter Sarah.

Q. You say that John Gilbert Winant is virtually unknown in this country today. Why is that, and why should he be remembered?

A. Unlike Murrow and Harriman, Gil Winant was a shy, unassuming man who was never very comfortable in the spotlight, although he was in public life for more than twenty years — first as an idealistic young governor of New Hampshire, then as the first head of America’s Social Security program, director of the International Labor Organization in Geneva, and finally U.S. ambassador to Britain during the war. Although he was highly ambitious, he hated publicity and preferred operating behind the scenes.

He was greatly beloved by the British people. During the heaviest raids of the Blitz, he would walk the streets of London and ask everyone he met what he could do to help. For many people in Britain, Winant’s warmth and compassion, his determination to stand with them and share their dangers, was the first tangible sign that Americans did indeed care about what happened to them and their country. Throughout the war, he worked to smooth away the many misunderstandings and stresses that cropped up and to promote cooperation among Britons and Americans, from ordinary citizens to top military and government leaders. When Winant left Britain after the war, there was great sadness throughout the country, and, when he died suddenly a year later, there was a really extraordinary outpouring of grief.

Q. These three men are the central focus of your book, but you tell the stories of many other Americans in London who played roles, both large and small, in the Anglo-American alliance.

A. That was one of the most enjoyable parts of my research — to find out about lesser-known Americans who worked hard to keep Britain afloat in the early days of the war and then later, to keep the U.S.-British alliance together. They ranged from a group of affluent American expatriates in London who formed a U.S. unit of the Home Guard, aimed at protecting Britain from a German invasion, to a former New York model who enlisted in the WAAFs, to a world-famous polo player who helped save D-Day.

Q. Does the story you tell in this book have any relevance for today?

A. Absolutely. It shows the vital importance of the hard slog of diplomacy, of international teamwork and cooperation. For decades after the war, this country has tried to impose its ways of doing things on much of the rest of the world. That hasn’t worked, as we’ve seen in Iraq and elsewhere, and we’re now realizing the need to build true partnerships with other nations. As we do that, it would behoove us, I think, to look back at the success of the U.S.-British alliance — and the yeoman work of Winant, Murrow, Gen. Eisenhower and others in holding it together when nationalism and other forces threatened to tear it apart. There’s a lot we can learn from these men.