Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Seventy years ago, Britain was at war with Nazi Germany. The policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler had failed, the old appeasers were out of power, and Winston Churchill was in. The U.S. was not in. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was aiding the British, but as for actually going to war, he faced a skeptical Congress. As London endured devastating German bombing raids, some Americans were there, assuring the Brits of American support and agitating for U.S. entry into World War II.

Lynne Olson has written a book about three of those Americans. "Citizens of London" is about two men I've read a lot about. There was the fabled CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow, who told Americans what living through the blitz was like.

(Soundbite of archive broadcasting)

Mr.�EDWARD R. MURROW (Reporter, CBS): Earlier this evening, we heard a number of bombs go sliding and slithering across, to fall several blocks away.

SIEGEL: And there was the playboy industrialist-turned-diplomatic-troubleshooter Averell Harriman, who was in London to expedite U.S. military aid.

Mr.�AVERELL HARRIMAN: And it was an extraordinary experience. I don't believe even in history have a nation been so united, men, women and children with only one purpose: to stand together under the inspired leadership of Winston Churchill.

SIEGEL: And then there is the forgotten member of Lynne Olson's trio.

(Soundbite of archival footage)

Unidentified Announcer: The newly appointed American ambassador to Britain, Mr.�John G. Winant, arrives at England by air from Lisbon and is met by the Duke of Kent. Here are his first words on arrival.

Mr. JOHN GILBERT WINANT (American Ambassador to Britain): I haven't much to say. I'm very glad to be here. There's no place I'd rather be at this time than in England.

SIEGEL: Lynne Olson, that was John Gilbert Winant, Gil Winant, arriving in England. And when he said there was no place he would rather be at that time, what was London like at that time?

Ms.�LYNNE OLSON (Author, "Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour"): London had been bombed for the previous eight months. It had gone through the blitz. Most Americans who had been there had already left. Gil Winant came to replace Joseph Kennedy as ambassador and made very, very clear from the beginning he wanted to be there with the British.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Kennedy, the father, of course, of President John F. Kennedy, he had not just left, he had left very flamboyantly and with no hope for the English.

Ms.�OLSON: Joseph Kennedy was not a favorite of the British people, to put it mildly. He was for appeasement. He went back to Washington to tell Roosevelt that he thought the British were going to be defeated and that America shouldn't help them.

SIEGEL: So FDR replaces him with Gil Winant. Who was Gil Winant?

Ms.�OLSON: Gil Winant was the former governor of New Hampshire. He was a liberal Republican. He supported social reform. In fact, he was a big advocate of FDR and the New Deal. He actually sacrificed his political career for Roosevelt and the New Deal.

SIEGEL: He comes to a city that is being bombed, the capital of a country that has already withdrawn from the continent. And like Murrow, he wanders the streets at night during the blitz. He talks to the Londoners as, in fact, they're under attack.

Ms.�OLSON: It was extraordinary, yes. As soon as he arrived, he would go out on the streets of London while bombs were falling, and he would ask people that he ran into, that he encountered, what he could do to help, which was amazing to the British people.

His warmth and his compassion and his determination to stand with them and share their dangers was the first tangible sign for a lot of the British that America and its people really cared about what happened to them. So, he really became a symbol of the best side of America.

SIEGEL: And indeed, he was an advocate, within the Roosevelt administration, for getting into the war.

Ms.�OLSON: Oh, very, very strongly. From the time he went over there, both he and Averell Harriman were badgering Roosevelt and other administration officials that England had to be saved and that America had to get in the war, absolutely.

SIEGEL: To say that these three Americans, Winant, Murrow and Harriman, were close to Churchill would be the understatement of all times. Harriman has an open affair, encouraged by Churchill, with Churchill's own daughter-in-law while his son is off fighting in the war.

Later, when Harriman is sent to Moscow as the U.S. ambassador, she later, Pamela Harriman, Pamela Churchill takes up with Edward R. Murrow for a while; and Winant, the ambassador, is having an affair with Sarah Churchill, the prime minister's married daughter.

Ms.�OLSON: London was extraordinary that way during the war. It was really a hothouse. You know, it's like covering a presidential campaign. I think being in a war situation can be a real aphrodisiac. It's - everybody is thrown together, and things happen that normally don't happen.

Churchill actually invested a lot in these three men. He courted them as relentlessly as he was going to court Roosevelt later on in the war, and so he drew them into his official family. He gave them tremendous access to himself and to other members of his government, but he also made them part of his own family. Winant and Harriman, in particular, spent many, many weekends with the Churchills. And so therefore, they really became close in every possible respect.

SIEGEL: After the war, Edward R. Murrow goes on to run CBS News, take on Senator Joseph McCarthy, join the Kennedy administration. Averell Harriman becomes a Cabinet secretary, governor of New York, very ill-starred presidential aspirant in the Democratic Party. Winant has a very sad end after the war.

Ms.�OLSON: Winant was Roosevelt's man. His whole life was bound up with Franklin Roosevelt. And when Roosevelt died in April, 1945, it was really the end in many ways for John Gilbert Winant. The Republicans no longer wanted him. He hoped that he was going to become secretary-general of the new U.N., but that didn't happen when Roosevelt died.

His affair with Sarah Churchill ended badly. He was an exhausted, sick man at the end of the war, and in fact, less than two years after the war, he killed himself.

SIEGEL: Killed himself. In a way, his story proves the flip side of the aphrodisiac, as you say, and the adrenaline high that living in a war is. At the end of the war, there's no more adrenaline, there's no more energy, there's no more excitement in life for him.

Ms.�OLSON: Absolutely. And, you know, for quite a number of people, that was true. The war was the most exciting, the biggest thing that happened in the lives of many, many people. As horrible as it was, it meant everything to many, many people, and Gil Winant was one of those.

There was a sense of exhaustion on the part of virtually everybody who had played a role, significant role in the war, military or civilian, and when it was over, the after-effect was very painful for a lot of people.

SIEGEL: While reading your book, I took an informal poll of politically smart people I know who are of my generation, that is born shortly after the war or maybe 10 years after the war, to ask if they'd heard of Winant, and nobody had heard of I didn't know about Winant. Maybe I'd seen his name here or there, but I had no sense of how important a character this was. He disappeared in history.

Ms.�OLSON: He really did, and that's a terrible thing, I think, because he was really a major architect of the Anglo-American alliance. He played a huge role in keeping it together, in kind of helping the British and Americans get along during the war. And to have him disappear so completely, I think, is really wrong. And I think it's important to restore him to the place in American history that he really deserves.

SIEGEL: Lynne Olson, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms.�OLSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Lynne Olson's book is called "Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour."

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.