Out-Lincolning Lincoln

My father and I spent this year’s Beach Week on each other’s history turf, he reading Doris Kearns Gooodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and I reading (or rather listening to – I’m a recent convert to Audible.com‘s unabridged readings) Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour. Each had read the other’s book, so we had a couple of good conversations, one based on each book.

Pop has read at least a hundred books on World War II, I’m sure, but I usually don’t take to them except for biographies. But the Founders and Lincoln – I love that stuff. And Citizens of London, though set in World War II, features a fellow Lincoln lover, a boarding-school teacher who has the lads over evenings to discuss Lincoln and Jefferson. Despite his shy ways – his audiences are always embarrassed for him because of his long, awkward pauses during speeches – Gil Winant also becomes a World War I fighter pilot, New Hampshire’s all-time favorite governor, the first head of the Social Security board under Roosevelt, and the head of the International Labor Office until 1941, when Roosevelt appoints him as Ambassador to Great Britain, a post he holds until 1946.

Winant, whom I had never heard of until this book, is Lincoln without the guile. Like his hero, Winant is a Republican who does as much as he can for labor, introducing legislation to limit factory workers’ hours and winning passage of a state welfare program that prefigures the New Deal. He even has Lincoln’s honest, keen face, his disheveled dress and hair, and his piercing gray eyes. Winant’s speechifying has the same effect as Lincoln’s at the end as well as the beginning, too: his audiences’ embarrassment usually turns to wild cheers after hearing out his honest and well-reasoned idealism. But, while Lincoln’s ambition is “a little engine that knew no rest,” according to Lincoln’s law partner Billy Herndon, Winant gives up his political ambitions by turning his support for Roosevelt’s Social Security program into a national crusade, to the consternation of his fellow Republicans. His unqualified support for Roosevelt’s New Deal ends the nascent movement to nominate him for president in 1936.

Winant becomes Britain’s all-time favorite American ambassador for the same reason he’s New Hampshire’s all-time favorite governor: he’s humble, hard working, and connects with common people. He sometimes puts off meetings with dignitaries in London so he can finish talking with the lowest classes of people there. When Britain’s war effort is threatened by a miners’ strike, its government calls on Winant, who convinces the miners to return to work. But he’s loved principally because he does not doubt Britain’s ability to fend off Hitler, he does nothing to avoid the hardships and danger associated with the bombing that London is subjected to for much of the war, and he does what he can to relieve their plight. He even goes broke giving his money away to the British poor. Along the way, he does what he can to support Churchill despite Roosevelt’s frequent coolness to the prime minister, and he champions the Mustang P-51B bomber, which turns the tide of the air war in Europe enough to help ensure a successful D-Day invasion.

I enjoy biographies of three or four people like Citizens of London and Team of Rivals (and two of my other favorites, Merton & Friends: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice and The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun). The author of such works usually contrasts her subjects to understand them better. Olson contrasts Winant (implicitly until the book’s end) with fellow Americans Ed Morrow, the CBS broadcaster who revolutionizes radio news during his nightly broadcasts from London and elsewhere in the European theater, and Averell Harriman, the son of a railroad robber baron who serves as America’s Lend-Lease administrator in Britain during the war. Murrow is almost as idealistic, almost as beloved in London, and just as uncaring about his personal safety as Winant. Harriman comes across as just has hardworking as Winant and Murrow, but he is more ambitious and cunning, marginalizing Winant before Roosevelt and doing what he can to look out for his own future.

Harriman blossoms in the tough, non-idealistic nationalism that takes hold of postwar America, emerging as a top-level negotiator and diplomat under Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. For Harriman, World War II is only a stepping-stone to a future in which he can finally escape the shadow of his father’s success and reputation. Neither Winant nor Murrow transition well to prosperity- and Cold-War obsessed America, though. Winant suffers aimlessness and depression, and he commits suicide in 1947. Murrow gets rich and eventually leaves CBS after it treats its news division as something like a hobby in the 1950’s, but he feels acutely the incongruity between the ideals and suffering he lived through in wartime London and the riches and insouciance of postwar America.

Citizens of London goes beyond its three principal protagonists, taking in many of the events and policies that define Anglo-American relations before, during, and after the war. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I understood the book’s entire scope, which should have been obvious to me from the title. The book is principally about London’s citizens: a people who make sense of class distinctions even as they fight hand-in-hand for six years to repel and defeat Hitler, and a people whose suffering serves as a kind of chorus to sort out not only the book’s protagonists but also Churchill, Roosevelt, and other actors in Europe’s wartime theater.

Posted August 9, 2010.