Citizens Of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain In Its Darkest, Finest Hour, by Lynne Olson
I have mixed feelings about this book. The author clearly did a good job at discussing the complex lives of a group of elite Americans who remained in London through the dark days of the Blitz and who provided emotional and moral support to the British government, and occasionally were involved in various affairs of several different kinds, but my appreciation of their bravery and their good deeds is tempered by several factors. For one, these people are elites, and their moral behavior as well as their status are not the sorts of things that I greatly sympathize or empathize with. Likewise, even the title of the book presents difficulties. Were these elites really citizens of London, or were they just temporary guests there, friends and lovers perhaps, but not really citizens? As much as I might respect the bravery of the people discussed in this book, I cannot really give them praise as being decent human beings of the sort that I would wish to be, and that limited my enjoyment of the book somewhat, as the author seemed to think these people more glamorous than I did.
This particular book is a sizable one at about 400 pages and it focuses on the World War 2 lives of three Americans in Great Britain: Averell Harriman, who ran lend-lease in London and slept with Pamela Churchill before getting sent to be the Ambassador to the Soviet Union, regretting his own attempts to undermine America’s ambassador to the UK, Edward R. Murrow, dour and unhappily married American journalist who when he wasn’t defending the Confederacy or American racial politics was also sleeping with Pamela Churchill, and John Gilbert Winant, unhappily married American ambassador to the UK after Joe Kennedy who instead chose to sleep with Sarah Churchill instead of Pamela, for some reason. The book focuses on these three men and their actions and their work in Britain as well as for the US government and how their various actions cemented ties between the Anglo-American elite. Occasionally the book also looks at the on-going problems of London as a city at war, the glamour of Paris once it was liberated, and the issues that American hypocrisy over racism and imperialism created in the Anglo-American partnership. Suffice it to say that this is not a book about people on their best behavior.
Even if my interest in corrupt elites is rather limited, there are a few insights that this book nevertheless provides that are worth paying attention to. One is that the elites of the West are fairly inbred, in that they travel well together and hang out together sometimes at least and sleep and occasionally marry among each other as well. Another insight from this book is that the press was as corrupt and as problematic in the 1940’s as it is today, something the author doesn’t appear to fully want to recognize or acknowledge. In addition to this, and perhaps the most positive insight that I gained from this book, was that it seemed to take many Americans a direct personal experience with the troubles that people in Britain were going through in order for them to fully understand and appreciate the bravery under fire shown by the limeys. A great deal of bad blood often exists between people from other countries, and a great many misunderstandings make it hard to know how others are really doing unless and until we have walked a mile in their shoes. For all of their faults, these Americans walked in the shoes of the Brits and likely became at least a little better as a result of their experiences.