Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yanking into war

Lynne Olson's Citizens of London: The Americans who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour documents efforts by three expatriate Americans to mobilize support for England before Pearl Harbor

By Pamelia Brown

It might be hard to remember in the context of the United States' current interventionist policies, but the nation took an isolationist stance toward the global conflict in the late 1930s that escalated into World War II, not joining the war until after the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. While England was being hammered by the Blitz -- the German bombing campaign that battered Britain from September 1940 to May 1941 -- the United States remained officially withdrawn from the fight. Lynne Olson's Citizens of London is a detailed, fascinating look at three men whose roles in England acted as a catalyst for the Anglo-American alliance that would help stem the flow of Hitler's Nazi troops.

The book profiles the work of three American citizens whose presence in the British capital would join to change the force of public opinion about the war. There's Edward R. Murrow, head of CBS Radio's European Bureau and the broadcaster who'd covered the Blitz for listeners back home; John Winant, the American ambassador who held that office from 1941 to 1946; and Averell Harriman, a businessman who served as President Roosevelt's special envoy to Europe and oversaw aspects there of the lend-lease program. Olson's volume observes three men working at very different levels of public service and traces how they used their influence with the president and their closeness with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to accelerate the United States' involvement in the war.

Olson explains the roles these men took through the lens of diplomacy, measuring the impact of their individual contributions and charting the process by which two great nations were united by a common goal to thwart a global evil. They each worked from different angles, as well. Murrow was the voice of the conflict that narrated the story for American citizens, and whose work would bring the costs of the conflict into American homes. (At a dinner honoring Murrow in 1941, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish said that Murrow "destroyed the superstition that what is done beyond 3,000 miles of water is not really done at all.") Conversely, the work of Harriman and Winant was a little below the radar of most Americans, but no less important for the political and financial roles they performed as liaisons to the United Kingdom.

Olson's book is a fascinating look at the hidden actions of public men in a time that decided the fate of the 20th century. Fans of history or compelling stories in general should find a lot to enjoy in this fresh look at familiar ground.

Pamelia Brown, who writes on the topics of online associate degree programs. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: