Pros: Excellent prose and proving that history does not need to be dry or bland.
Cons: Not a one for me.
About a year ago, I came across a very good review, and knew right away that it was a book that I wanted to read. And much to my surprise, I found that it was one of the best books on the topic that I've come across.
Using the lives of three Americans, author Lynne Olson looks at the tumultuous years of World War II, and gives a sensitive, heartfelt of how this war affected not just these three, but also both America and Great Britain. On a lesser standpoint, the relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill is also explored, and given a very new and interesting spin.
When the 1930's opened, the United States, and indeed the world, were wrestling with massive unemployment and financial meltdown. By 1933, Germany had elected Adolf Hitler, and Roosevelt had been sworn in as President. In England, Churchill was a political nonentity, and everyone was expecting him to fade into obscurity. But five years later, Europe was teetering on the edge of another world war, as Germany rebuilt its army and armed forces, and made incursions into neighboring countries. The British government at the time decided that appeasement was the best way to handle Germany, and the United States kept itself firmly out of the fray adhering to their policy of isolationism.
No one was really surprised at what happened after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Great Britain and France declared war, but as the Blitzkrieg got underway, Great Britain was soon the only country that was free of the Germans, and undergoing brutal bombings by the Germans to break their spirit and bring about an early surrender.
At this point three remarkable men stepped in and would each shape the outcome of the war, and the eventual Allied victory. The first was Edward R. Murrow, an American radio broadcaster with CBS who had already started to make a name for himself. He was erudite, honest and dapper, able to meet and talk with nearly anyone, and his broadcasts from London would be the high point of his career and give the American public a taste of what the British were suffering and struggling against.
Averell Harriman was a playboy, and chairman of the Union Pacific railroad. No one really expected him to amount to anything and it was some surprise that Roosevelt tapped him to head the Lend-Lease program with first the British, and then the Russians. The Lend-Lease program was to provide supplies and material to keep the British and later the Russians able to keep fighting the Germans.
And finally, there was Gil Winant. This person turned out to be the greatest surprise of the story. A rather reluctant politician, he was chosen to replace Joseph P. Kennedy as Ambassador to Great Britain; Kennedy was very much in sympathy with the Germans, and felt that giving any sort of help to the British was a waste and doomed to failure. Winant, on the other hand, felt that Germany needed to be stopped, whatever it took, and turned his considerable intellect and ability to persuade to keep the British going. I had heard of the previous two gentlemen before, but not about Winant, and I found him fascinating.
Others are more briefly encountered, but their stories are no less enthralling. There were the Americans who risked their citizenships and lives to fight with the RAF during the Battle of Britain. There were ordinary Americans who had family or business ties in England and London, who decided to stay and do what they could to be with the British and help them.
And another facet of the story is that of Winston Churchill and his family, and the ties that they had with Murrow, Harriman, and Winant. I had never heard of any of this before, and the stories are a mix of scandal sheet and deeply personal involvement.
The stories are told with plenty of verve by Lynne Olson, with hardly any wasted or puffed up passages. I read this one over the course of several nights, and was caught up in the entire story and how it revealed new things that I had never known before. Most of all, it is the courage of these three men, their families, and the people that they knew and met against the backdrop of war that make it interesting. I suspect that we will never really see their like again, and what they did has been pretty much dismissed and forgotten, which is a shame.
I recommend this one for anyone interested in World War II and the people who stood up to the Germans. It's a very well written book, with hardly any dull spots, and gives plenty of inspiration and direction for further research. As well as the narrative, there are extensive notes, an excellent bibliography and index as well as an insert of black and white pictures.
Very much recommended. Five stars.
Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour
2010; Random House, Inc. New York