Citizens of London : the Americans who stood with Britain in its darkest, finest hour /
Lynne Olson.
Anchor Canada ed.
[Toronto] : Anchor Canada, 2011, c2010.
xix, 471 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., ports. ; 21 cm.
More Details
[Toronto] : Anchor Canada, 2011, c2010.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

At the railway station in windsor, a slight, slender man in the khaki uniform of a British field marshal waited patiently as a train pulled in and, with a screech of its brakes, shuddered to a stop. A moment later, the lacquered door of one of the coaches swung open, and the new American ambassador to Britain stepped out. With a broad smile, George VI extended his hand to John Gilbert Winant. “I am glad to welcome you here,” he said.
With that simple gesture, the forty-five-year-old king made history. Never before had a British monarch abandoned royal protocol and ventured outside his palace to greet a newly arrived foreign envoy. Until the meeting at Windsor station, a new ambassador to Britain was expected to follow a minutely detailed ritual in presenting his credentials to the Court of St. James. Attired in elaborate court dress, he was taken in an ornate carriage, complete with coachman, footmen, and outriders, to Buckingham Palace in London. There he was received by the king in a private ceremony, usually held weeks after his arrival in the country.
But, on this blustery afternoon in March 1941, there was to be no such pomp or pageantry. As a throng of British and American reporters looked on, the king engaged the bareheaded Winant, wearing a rumpled navy blue overcoat and clutching a gray felt hat, in a brief, animated conversation. Then George VI led the ambassador to a waiting car for the drive to Windsor Castle and tea with the queen, followed by a ninety-minute meeting between the two men.
With the survival of Britain dangling by a thread, the king’s unprecedented gesture made clear that traditional court niceties were to be set aside, at least for the duration of the war. But more significantly, he was underscoring his country’s desperate need for U.S. assistance, along with its hope that Winant, unlike his defeatist-minded predecessor, Joseph P. Kennedy, would persuade his government that such aid was vital now.
Kennedy, a former Wall Street speculator and ex-chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, had closely aligned himself with the appeasement policies of the previous prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. During his three years in London, he had made no secret of his belief that “wars were bad for business, and what was worse, for his business,” as journalist James “Scotty” Reston put it. The U.S. ambassador believed this so firmly that he even used his official position to commandeer scarce cargo space on transatlantic ships for his own liquor export business. After Chamberlain and the French prime minister handed over much of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler at Munich in September 1938, Kennedy remarked happily to Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovak minister to Britain: “Isn’t it wonderful [that the crisis is over]? Now I can get to Palm Beach after all!”
In October 1940, at the height of German bombing raids on London and other parts of Britain, he returned home for good, declaring that “England is gone” and “I’m for appeasement one thousand per cent.” After meeting with President Roosevelt at the White House, he told reporters that he would “devote my efforts to what seems to me to be the greatest cause in the world today . . . to help the president keep the United States out of war.”
Kennedy’s outspoken desire to come to terms with Hitler had made his successor’s task all the more ticklish. Winant’s mission was, according to the New York Times, “one of the toughest and biggest jobs the President can give. He has to explain to a country that is daily being bombed why a country, safely 3,000 miles away . . . wants to help but will not fight. That is a difficult thing to tell a person whose home has just been wrecked by a bomb.”
On the morning of March 1, shortly after the Senate approved his nomination, the fifty-one-year-old Winant arrived at an airfield near the southern port of Bristol, which had suffered a severe battering by the Luftwaffe just a few weeks earlier. Before being whisked off to a special royal train for his journey to Windsor, the new ambassador wasted no time in demonstrating that he was not Joe Kennedy. Asked by a BBC reporter to say a few words to the British people, he paused a moment, then said quietly into the microphone, “I’m very glad to be here. There is no place I’d rather be at this time than in England.”
The following day, his remark was on the front pages of most British newspapers. The Times of London, evidently considering the remark a good omen, waxed uncharacteristically poetic when it reported that a “significant incident” had occurred just before the ambassador’s arrival. “As his aeroplane was circling to land,” the Times told its readers, “the sky was overcast and there came a sudden torrential  downpour of rain. But as the aircraft came gently to earth, the storm ceased as suddenly as it had begun and the sun burst through the clouds, accompanied by a brilliant rainbow.”
Unfortunately for Britain, there were precious few rainbows on the horizon in early 1941. After nine months of standing alone against the mightiest military power in the world, the country— financially, emotionally, and physically exhausted—faced a predicament that was “not only extreme,” in the words of historian John Keegan, “but unprecedented in its extremity.”
Although Germany had failed to subdue the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940, the Luftwaffe continued to ravage London, Bristol, and other British cities. An invasion by sea was a possibility in the near future. The greatest immediate peril, however, was the U-boat threat to British supply lines. German submarines in the Atlantic were sinking hundreds of thousands of tons of merchant shipping each month, with losses that more than doubled in less than four months.
At the end of one of the coldest winters in recorded history, the British were barely hanging on, with little food, scarce heat, and dwindling hope. Imports of food and raw materials had fallen to just over half their prewar levels, prices were skyrocketing, and there were severe shortages of everything from meat to timber.
The week before Winant’s arrival in Britain, one of Winston Churchill’s private secretaries passed on to the prime minister the latest in a series of reports of merchant ship sinkings. When the secretary remarked how “very distressing” the news was, Churchill glared at him. “Distressing?” he exclaimed. “It is terrifying! If it goes on, it will be the end of us.” Top German officials agreed. That same month, Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop told the Japanese ambassador in Berlin that “even now England was experiencing serious trouble in keeping up her food supply. . . . The important thing now [is] to sink enough ships to reduce England’s imports to below the absolute minimum necessary for existence.”
Surrounded by a gauntlet of enemy submarines, warships, and aircraft, Britain could survive, Churchill believed, only if a very reluctant America could somehow be persuaded to enter the war. He continued to nurture that hope, even as President Roosevelt said repeatedly that the United States was, and would remain, neutral. “The expert politician in the President is always trying to find a way of winning the war for the Allies— and, if he fails to do that, of ensuring the security of the United States— without the U.S. itself having to take the plunge into the war,” the British ambassador to Washington confided to the Foreign Office, which, like the U.S. State Department, was responsible for promoting its country’s interests abroad.
Yet it was hard to blame Roosevelt for his caution. After all, the British themselves had done their best to stay out of war in the 1930s, standing quietly by as Hitler rose to power and began his conquest of Europe. For the sake of peace— Britain’s peace— the Chamberlain government had done little or nothing in the late 1930s to prevent country after country from being swallowed up by Germany. In the case of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, Britain, at the Munich conference, had been complicit in its seizure. Then, in the chaos-filled days of June 1940, the British, to their shock, found themselves facing Germany alone. With their future bordering on the calamitous, they hoped the United States would pay more attention to them than they had paid to Europe.
Churchill, the country’s combative new prime minister, was relentless in wheedling, pleading, and coaxing Roosevelt for more support. In his speeches, FDR responded magnificently. He promised all aid short of war, and, after Germany conquered France and launched the Battle of Britain, he declared: “If Britain is to survive, we must act.” But, as the British saw it, America’s actions did not match its president’s words: the help it sent was invariably too little and too late. Even more disturbing, it always came with a cat’s cradle of strings attached.
In exchange for the fifty aging U.S. destroyers that Churchill sought in the summer of 1940, the Roosevelt administration demanded that it be awarded ninety-nine-year leases for the use of military bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, and six British possessions in the Caribbean. The deal was, as everyone knew, far more advantageous for the United States than for Britain, and it was deeply resented by the British government. Nonetheless, the British had little choice but to accept what they considered grossly unfair terms. “This rather smacks of Russia’s demands on Finland,” John Colville, a private secretary to Churchill, wrote sourly in his diary.
The British felt even more aggrieved when the World War I–era destroyers finally arrived. Dilapidated and obsolete, they could not be used without expensive alteration. “I thought they were the worst destroyers I had ever seen,” fumed one British admiral. “Poor seaboats with appalling armament and accommodation.” Equally irritated, Churchill was nonetheless persuaded by his advisers to couch his concerns in more diplomatic language. In a cable sent to Roosevelt in late 1940, the prime minister said: “We have so far only been able to bring a very few of your fifty destroyers into action on account of the many defects which they naturally develop when exposed to Atlantic weather after having been laid up so long.”
As Britain’s situation grew ever more dire, the price of American aid grew ever more onerous. Since November 1939, when Roosevelt persuaded a reluctant Congress to amend the Neutrality Act banning U.S. arms sales to countries at war, Britain had been permitted to purchase American weapons and equipment. But, according to the amendment’s terms, the matériel had to be paid for with dollars at the time of purchase, and buyers had to transport the supplies in their own ships.
In the year that followed, heavy armament purchases had drained Britain of most of its dollar and gold reserves. To continue arms shipments, the British Treasury was forced to borrow from the gold reserves of the Belgian government-in-exile in London. So serious was the gold situation that the chancellor of the exchequer advised the cabinet to consider requisitioning from the British people their wedding rings and other gold jewelry. Churchill counseled delay. Such a radical idea, he said, should be adopted only “if we wished to make some striking gesture for the purpose of shaming the Americans.”
The prime minister and other British officials repeatedly warned the Roosevelt administration that they were running out of dollars, but the U.S. government refused to believe them. The president, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull were convinced that the riches of the British empire were virtually limitless. If the British needed more cash, they could simply liquidate some of their investments in North and South America. Morgenthau, in particular, pressed the British to sell to American investors such blue-chip companies as Shell Oil, American Viscose, Lever Brothers, and Dunlop Tires. When the British government protested that such sales (presumably at fire-sale prices) would be a serious blow to the country’s postwar economy, Morgenthau snapped that this was no time to be concerned about such matters.
Having had many allies in its long and colorful history, Britain was skilled at using them to further its own goals and interests. Now, however, this proud imperial power was forced to grovel before a former colony that had become its most formidable trade rival. The humiliation was made worse by what the British saw as America’s determination to take economic advantage of their misfortune.
The U.S. government offered no apologies. For the British to receive any aid at all, Roosevelt and his men believed, the American people must be persuaded that their own country was getting the better of the deal. “We seek to avoid all risks, all danger, but we make certain to get the profit,” said the isolationist senator William Borah.
The administration felt obliged to assure the American public that the scheming, tricky British would not be allowed to lure the United States into another European war. Indeed, Roosevelt shared that common view of the British, once declaring to an aide, “When you sit around a table with a Britisher, he usually gets 80 per cent out of the deal and you get what is left.” The government’s image of itself as a shrewd Yankee trader did succeed in striking a chord with a large segment of the population. When Herbert Agar, the Pulitzer Prize–winning editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and a staunch interventionist, told fellow newspaper editors that America was getting from England “far more than we deserved,” he was dismayed to find his colleagues “happy rather than thoughtful.”
Thus, as the world faced the greatest crisis in its history, its two most powerful democracies, bound by a common heritage, language, and allegiance to personal liberty, were divided by a prejudice and lack of understanding that had widened into a chasm since their World War I quasi-alliance. Their famously egocentric leaders, meanwhile, were suspicious of each other to the point of antagonism.
Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had first met at an official dinner in London during the waning days of the Great War. Then an assistant secretary of the navy, the thirty-six-year-old Roosevelt had come to the British capital as part of a European fact-finding tour. Although charming and good-humored, he did not cut a particularly impressive figure at this early stage of his government career. To one of his colleagues in Washington, he was “likable and attractive but not a heavyweight.” According to former secretary of war Henry Stimson (who more than thirty years later would be appointed to the same post in Roosevelt’s cabinet), he was “an untried, rather flippant young man.” Unabashed by such criticism, Roosevelt always sought to be “the life of the party” and “never happily surrendered the limelight to anyone.”
But on the evening of July 29, 1918, the limelight at the dinner at Gray’s Inn had been commandeered by a man who was also accustomed to being the center of attention and whose ego was, if anything, even larger than Roosevelt’s. At the age of forty-three, Winston Churchill had already held five top positions in the British cabinet in the course of his tumultuous eighteen-year parliamentary career. Now minister of munitions, he was preoccupied that night by a series of arms factory strikes that threatened to disrupt Britain’s war effort. He had no interest in, or time for, a cocky young American official named Franklin Roosevelt— and apparently made that fact abundantly clear.
More than twenty years after the evening, FDR still seethed over what he viewed as Churchill’s discourtesy. “I have always disliked him since the time I went to England in 1918,” the president told Joseph Kennedy in 1939. “He acted like a stinker at a dinner I attended, lording it over all of us.” In later years, Churchill could not remember meeting Roosevelt at the dinner, which irritated Roosevelt all the more.
When Churchill tried to arrange a meeting with FDR during a trip to America in 1929, the newly elected governor of New York snubbed him. Throughout the 1930s, Roosevelt, like many in Churchill’s homeland, considered him an elderly Victorian has-been. When World War II broke out and the president began a correpondence with Churchill, who had risen from the political dead as first lord of the admiralty, FDR told Kennedy he had done it only because “there is a strong possibility that he will become prime minister, and I want to get my hand in now.”
Once Churchill assumed the premiership, Kennedy, who detested him, reinforced Roosevelt’s already unfavorable impression with repeated assertions that Churchill was anti-American and anti-FDR. Another of Kennedy’s claims— that the prime minister was trying to lure the United States into the war solely to preserve the British empire— reinforced the president’s long-held suspicions of British imperialism. To Roosevelt, the ambassador characterized Churchill as a man “always sucking on a whisky bottle,” a view also held by undersecretary of state Sumner Welles, who called Churchill “a drunken sot” and a “third or fourth-rate man.” Roosevelt apparently accepted the view of Churchill as a serious tippler; when informed of his accession to 10 Downing Street, the president quipped that he “supposed Churchill was the best man that England had, even if he was drunk half of the time.”
For his part, Churchill had run out of patience over what he viewed as repeated attempts by Roosevelt and America to take advantage of Britain’s dire plight by appropriating its financial and military resources. “We have not had anything from the United States we have not paid for,” he indignantly told his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, in December 1940, “and what we have had has not played an essential part in our resistance.”
He was still smarting from an earlier suggestion by FDR that Britain should agree to send its navy to Canada in the event of a German invasion of Britain. Shortly after the prime minister received this proposition, an aide found him “hunched in an attitude of tense anger, like a wild beast ready to spring.” In his response to “those bloody Yankees,” Churchill insisted that “we could never agree to the slightest compromising of our liberty of action nor tolerate any such defeatist announcement.”
As he had done many times before and would do frequently in the future, Lord Halifax persuaded Churchill to soften the cable’s language. According to Halifax and the Foreign Office, Britain had no other recourse but to be generous to America in the ongoing negotiations for aid. Churchill, who strongly disagreed, favored hard bargaining. He wanted to pare down the number of British bases exchanged for U.S. destroyers, and he opposed a proposal to share advanced military and industrial technology with America, declaring: “I am not in a hurry to give our secrets until the U.S. is much nearer to the war than she is now.” In both cases, however, he capitulated. In addition to the bases, Britain handed over to the U.S. military its blueprints for rockets, gun sights, and new Merlin engines; early-stage plans for the jet engine and atomic bomb; and prototypes for a radar system small enough to use in aircraft. Several of these advances would play a key role in the Allied effort to come.
In late December 1940, Roosevelt, with considerable fanfare, announced a new plan to aid Britain. Caught up in fears for his country’s survival, Churchill had no way of knowing the enormous impact that the proposal would ultimately have on Britain and the war. All he knew was that the president had made vast, vague promises before and that nothing much had resulted from them.
He was correct in thinking that, until then, FDR’s approach to Britain’s plight had been cautious and vacillating. But by the end of December, the president had come to realize that Britain was indeed running out of money and that America must do considerably more to prevent the defeat of the last country still holding out against Hitler. In response to a long, eloquent, and desperate letter from Churchill, he unveiled a groundbreaking new plan that would allow the government to lend or lease war matériel to any nation the president considered vital to the defense of the United States. The Lend-Lease program, he declared, would transform America into the “arsenal of democracy.”
In the House of Commons, Churchill called Lend-Lease “the most unsordid action in the history of any nation,” but, privately, he was not that impressed. Instead of expressing his appreciation to Roosevelt, he wrote a sharp note, questioning details of the plan and noting that it would not go into effect for several months, even if passed by Congress. In the meantime, how could his financially pressed country pay for the weapons it urgently needed now? Appalled by the hostility of Churchill’s draft, the British embassy in Washington urged him to tone it down and to offer unequivocal thanks to Roosevelt for the new offer of aid. The prime minister reluctantly agreed to an expression of gratitude but retained his skepticism and anxiety. “Remember, Mr. President,” he wrote, “we do not know what you have in mind, or exactly what the United States is going to do, and we are fighting for our lives.”
As 1941 dawned, Churchill’s apprehension over his country’s precarious future and his resentment at the United States for not doing more to help were shared by a growing number of his countrymen. When Britons were asked in a public opinion poll which non-Axis countries they rated most highly, the United States came in last. “The percentage of unfavorable criticism of America— our friend— equals that of Italy— our enemy,” noted the poll takers.
It was during this increasingly poisonous period that Joseph Kennedy finally submitted his resignation as U.S. ambassador to Britain. Kennedy had contributed greatly to the widening gulf between the two countries and their leaders. His successor would now have the monumentally difficult task of trying to heal the breach.
To take on that problematic assignment, the president turned to a shy, tongue-tied former New England governor, a man once touted as a likely successor to Roosevelt himself.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, John Gilbert Winant had won national attention as the youngest and most progressive governor in the country. But in 1936, this rising Republican star with presidential dreams forfeited his political future by attacking the GOP for its slashing assaults on the New Deal. Bemused by Winant’s self-sacrificing idealism, Roosevelt, whose own devotion to ideals never got the better of his instincts for political survival, dubbed him “Utopian John.”
Like the president, Winant came from an old, well-connected New York family with Dutch antecedents. The son of a real estate broker, he grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a poor student but avid reader who lost himself in the novels of Charles Dickens and biographies of his lifelong hero, Abraham Lincoln. His parents, who had an “extremely unhappy” marriage and were later divorced, were miserly in showing any love or affection to him and his three brothers, he once told his secretary. Winant’s father, a friend reported, “always told him to be seen and not heard.”
At the age of twelve, the bookish, sensitive boy was sent to St. Paul’s, the exclusive prep school nestled below the foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, on the outskirts of the state capital of Concord. It was the defining moment of Winant’s life. He loved the school, but even more, he loved the woods and rolling hills of New Hampshire; as a student, he would walk for hours in the Bow Hills overlooking St. Paul’s. Many years later he would tell a reporter that they “came to mean more to him than any other place on earth. He felt at home there.”
Modeled after English public schools like Eton, St. Paul’s tried to impress upon its pupils, most of whom came from affluent New York, Boston, and Philadelphia families, the importance of public service. “Our function is not to conform to the rich and prosperous world which surrounds us but rather, through its children, to convert it,” Dr. Samuel Drury, St. Paul’s rector, declared. While most St. Paul’s students had no intention of turning their backs on that “rich and prosperous world,” Winant developed an enthusiasm for social reform that would last the rest of his life.
During his years at St. Paul’s, he became one of its top student leaders, demonstrating a newfound talent to persuade and galvanize others. A few years later, after withdrawing from Princeton because of poor grades, he returned to the school to teach American history. Determined to instill a social conscience in his students, Winant was, in the words of Tom Matthews, one of his pupils, “an incredibly inspiring teacher, conveying the burning conviction that the United States was a wonderful country, the most gloriously hopeful experiment man had ever made.” In the evenings, his students would cram into his small, book-filled room to continue the discussions begun in the classroom about Lincoln, Jefferson, and others in Winant’s pantheon of heroes. “Like most of the St. Paul’s boys of my generation, I admired John Gilbert Winant to the point of idolatry,” said Matthews, who thirty years later would become managing editor of Time magazine.
The day after the United States entered World War I, Winant quit his teaching job and paid his way to France, where he became a pilot in the fledgling U.S. flying corps. His aviation skills were somewhat shaky, as he later acknowledged to his friends Ed and Janet Murrow; while he was “all right” in the air, he needed “the greatest luck” to take off and land. “He appears to have cracked up innumerable planes,” Janet Murrow wrote to her parents. “It’s really a wonder he’s still alive.”
It was a wonder, since Winant also possessed a reckless courage that prompted him to volunteer for observation missions over enemy lines that others considered suicidal. When he landed after one such mission, one of his plane’s wings had been ripped by a piece of shrapnel, the engine cowling was pierced, and part of the propeller was missing. Having enlisted as a private, he ended the war as a captain, in charge of an observation squadron near Verdun.
Shortly after returning home, Winant married Constance Russell, a wealthy young socialite whose grandfather had been president of the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank). Many of the couple’s friends and acquaintances considered it a misguided match: she had no interest in politics, history, or social reform— the main preoccupations of her husband— and much preferred shopping, party giving, theater going, and spending time in places like Southampton and Bar Harbor. “It was one of those high-society marriages where I don’t think they were together very much,” recalled Abbie Rollins Caverly, whose father had been one of Winant’s closest friends and political associates. “They had very little in common. He would sit up all night, brooding over how to make things better. She loved to throw parties.”
Following the war, Winant made some money of his own from investments in Texas oil wells. He and Constance settled down to a life of affluence, with an apartment on Park Avenue, chauffeur-driven limousine, butler and maids, yacht, and a stable of Arabian horses. At the same time, however, he had not given up his love for New Hampshire or his burgeoning interest in public service, which had led to a brief stint in the New Hampshire House of Representatives before he went off to France.
In 1919, the Winants bought a house, a roomy white colonial, in Concord, about a quarter of a mile from St. Paul’s. From his booklined library, with its Gilbert Stuart portrait of Thomas Jefferson and first editions of Dickens and John Ruskin, Winant could gaze out on his favorite spot in the world, the pine-covered Bow Hills. While his wife continued to spend most of her time in New York, he made the Concord house his base and in 1920 was elected to the New Hampshire Senate.
The gradual transformation of this diffident, stammering young idealist into a successful politician was surprising in itself. The fact that the transformation took place in a rural, highly conservative state like New Hampshire was nothing short of remarkable. In the Senate, Winant became leader of the minuscule liberal wing of the GOP, introducing legislation to limit the workweek for women and children to forty-eight hours, regulate wage standards, and abolish capital punishment. Most of his fellow legislators came from farming areas, with little understanding of, or interest in, the lamentable living and working conditions of the laborers in New Hampshire’s textile mills and other factories. Although they rejected Winant’s legislative agenda, he refused to give up what most people considered his quixotic quest for reform.
In 1924, at the age of thirty-five, Winant announced his decision to run for governor, dropping off a copy of his announcement at the office of the state’s leading newspaper, the Manchester Union-Leader. Frank Knox, who owned the Union-Leader and was widely regarded as a shoe-in for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, buried the story deep in the paper, giving it only four lines. Winant’s candidacy, in the view of the Republican old guard, was laughable. Who did this liberal New Yorker think he was? New Hampshire voters would never accept him— a rich outsider, an intellectual, and a terrible speaker to boot.
They were certainly right about his speaking ability. Tall and brooding, his profile suggesting a refined Abraham Lincoln, he stood tensely before campaign audiences, his lean face set, his hair as rumpled as his Brooks Brothers suit, his shaggy eyebrows arched over deep-set, piercing gray eyes. His hands clenching and unclenching, he groped for the right word or phrase to express what he wanted to say. Sometimes it would take him minutes to find it, resulting in pauses as agonizing for the people straining to hear him as for Winant himself. “People in the audience wanted to help him, to shout out the word he was searching for,” said one New Hampshire resident. After one of Winant’s speeches, a woman murmured to an acquaintance: “It’s too bad. Such a nice boy— and so badly shell-shocked during the war.”
Curiously enough, however, his halting way of speaking helped win him support in his travels throughout the state. Reserved and taciturn themselves, New Hampshire voters found him a welcome contrast to the glib politicians they usually encountered. As awkward as his speeches were, they conveyed warmth and sincerity— and gave his listeners the sense of being taken into his confidence. His audiences “begin by feeling sorry for him,” the New York Times reported. “They end by standing in the aisle and cheering him.”
In the primary, he was opposed by the state’s GOP machine, as well as by most of New Hampshire’s newspapers and business interests. Nonetheless, he handily defeated Knox and then trounced the Democratic incumbent in the general election.*
* After losing to Winant, Frank Knox went on to become owner and publisher of the Chicago Daily News and secretary of the navy under Franklin Roosevelt.
As New Hampshire’s chief executive, Winant was a man well ahead of his time, showing a zeal for economic justice and social change that equaled or bettered the reforming instincts of New York’s Franklin Roosevelt and far surpassed those of most of his other gubernatorial colleagues around the country. He liked to say that he learned his Republicanism from his hero, Abraham Lincoln, who,Winant declared, valued human rights over property rights. During the Depression, the governor pressed successfully for the creation of radical new state welfare programs that prefigured the New Deal, including an expansion of public works, aid for the elderly, emergency help for dependent mothers and children, and a minimum wage act. He smuggled a young reporter from the Concord Daily Monitor into a meeting of the Executive Council, a powerful state government body that acted as a check on the governor and whose meetings had always been closed. The next day, the reporter wrote a front-page story on the council’s de liberations, and, from then on, its meetings have been open to the public.
Winant also reorganized and modernized his state’s administrative machinery and won passage of laws to reform banking, restrain the influence of the railroads, and expand the power of the state’s Public Service Commission to regulate utility companies. “Railroads and power combinations alike must be subservient to the public interest,” he told the state legislature. The New York Herald Tribune would later write that Winant “put through more progressive legislation than New Hampshire had ever known.”
Not surprisingly, the railroads, utilities, textile mills, and other special interests in the state were hostile to virtually everything Winant did. So, too, were the conservative diehards in his own party. But he was enormously popular with the voters, who elected him to an unprecedented three terms as governor. “I don’t understand Winant and never did,” one New Hampshire politician remarked. “But I take my hat off to him. He knows how to win.” (Ironically, Winant’s landslide reelection in 1932 provided Herbert Hoover, his ideological opposite, a coattail long enough to hand the president a narrow victory in New Hampshire, one of only five states not carried by Hoover’s Democratic challenger, Franklin Roosevelt.)
It was clear that much of Winant’s popularity as governor stemmed from his deep empathy and compassion for others. Years later, Dean Dexter, a former New Hampshire state legislator, would compare him to the idealistic characters that actor James Stewart played in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and other movies. For Winant, “every public policy was personal,” observed one historian. “It was about people, sometimes specific individuals, and the effect of the policy on them.” The door to his capitol office was open to anybody who wanted to see him; on most days, the corridors of the statehouse were crowded with people waiting for a few minutes of the governor’s time. Not infrequently, Winant would use his own money to pay a medical bill, cover an educational expense, or help start a business for an impoverished state resident or fellow World War I veteran who had asked for his help. During the Depression, he instructed the Concord police to allow transients to spend the night in the city jail, then feed them in the morning and send the bill to him. Walking to work, he would hand out all the money in his wallet to jobless men sunning themselves against the granite walls of the state capitol. Winant, said one friend, “carried the Christian injunction, ‘Give all thy goods to feed the poor,’ further than any person I have ever known.”
When he left office in January 1935, Winant’s ideals and principles had won the endorsement of most of the state’s legislators, regardless of party. Some three decades later, Robert Bingham, Winant’s legislative counsel in Concord, would remark: “Whenever people want to measure the effectiveness of a governorship, they compare it with Winant’s three terms.” In 2008, William Gardner, New Hampshire’s longtime secretary of state, recalled how impressed he had been, after taking office, by how much state residents “revered and loved” Winant. “People still talked about him when I got here. He was special. Of all the governors we’ve had, he actually meant something to the people in a very personal way.”
From Washington, President Roosevelt monitored Winant’s success in New Hampshire with considerable interest. Strikingly similar in their devotion to social reform, the two men had worked closely together as governors. Winant strongly supported FDR’s New Deal from the beginning, and New Hampshire was usually the first state to enroll in the many new relief programs that Roosevelt introduced in the first years of his administration. By autumn 1933, Winant had used New Deal funds to launch twelve major public-work projects and distribute tons of food to New Hampshire’s needy.
The president, who “loved to pick off bright and promising young Republicans and make them his,” had already enlisted Winant’s help as an unofficial adviser on labor and other issues. In 1934 he had appointed the governor to head a special board of inquiry that helped end a crippling strike by the United Textile Workers union.
As Roosevelt well knew, Winant increasingly was being touted as the man who might head the 1936 Republican ticket. After the GOP debacle in 1932, it was clear the Republicans needed a “transfusion of new and youthful blood”; as one of the party’s few shining stars, Winant was seen by many as a possible presidential nominee.
One of his boosters was the famed Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White, who praised him as the leading Republican on the horizon. The radio commentator Walter Winchell declared in a broadcast that Winant was being groomed by the New York Herald Tribune, an influential pro-Republican newspaper, as the next GOP candidate. Time and Collier’s reported that he had a good shot at the nomination, and the Boston Evening Transcript ran a headline declaring: “Winant Moves Higher on List for Presidency.” According to American magazine, the New Hampshire governor “has caught the imagination of the country. . . . He’s rich. He can’t make a speech. But he wants to do something for the people. And he does it.” Letters poured in to Concord from all over the country, urging Winant to run. “You personally carry the esteem and appreciation of this department to a greater degree than any other public official, either in the Democratic party or out of it,” wrote an employee of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Washington. Even Raymond Moley, a key member of Roosevelt’s New Deal brain trust, jumped on the Winant bandwagon, observing that he “would trade fifty Representatives, twenty Senators, six ambassadors and a couple of cabinet members for one Governor Winant.”
The Winant boomlet, however, was bound to collapse. Even if he had made a bid in 1936, it’s probable that his speech-making problems would have greatly hindered his candidacy. But the point was moot because Winant, as a New Deal supporter, would never have challenged Roosevelt. He decided to put his presidential ambitions on hold, at least until the current incumbent left office.
Roosevelt, apparently, was not entirely sure of that. In late 1934, he nominated Winant as the first American representative to the International Labor Organization, an agency sponsored by the League of Nations and based in Geneva. Some saw the nomination as a Machiavellian ploy to get Winant off the political stage. Among them was Frances Perkins, the president’s plainspoken labor secretary, who was a Winant admirer. One day in the Oval Office, Perkins asked FDR point-blank if that was what he had in mind. “No, no, that is not my intent,” he protested. “Winant is a good man for the part.” As Perkins remembered it, Roosevelt then lowered his eyes and stared down at his desk.
Whatever the president’s rationale for offering him the post, Winant, who believed that the United States must break out of its isolationist shell, had no misgivings about taking it. Despite its emergence as the world’s leading economic power after World War I, America had been unwilling to accept any of the inherent responsibilities that came with its newly dominant international position. “Most Americans,” Time magazine remarked, “still thought of international diplomacy with all the repugnance of a Victorian lady contemplating sex.” The country refused to join the League of Nations and, when the world depression struck in the early 1930s, insisted that its wartime allies must repay their debts to the United States in full. At the same time it raised its tariffs, making repayment of the debts impossible and helping to push Europe into an even greater economic decline. “Since the war, our attitude is that we do not need friends, and that the public opinion of the world is of no importance,” Franklin Roosevelt, soon to be elected governor of New York, wrote in a 1928 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. According to historian Warren Kimball, “Americans dipped in and out of the European scene seemingly at whim,” wanting “to lead by distant example instead of active commitment.”
In America, the belief took hold that the country had been tricked into World War I by British propaganda and by U.S. bankers and arms buyers who had acted on Britain’s behalf. As another war loomed in Europe, an increasingly isolationist Congress, in an attempt to protect the United States from future conflicts, passed the Neutrality Acts and prohibited loans and investments to countries at war. Giving voice to the national mood, Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1935: “Of the hell broth that is brewing in Europe we have no need to drink. . . . We were fools to be sucked in once in a European war, and we shall never be sucked in again.”
The International Labor Organization was the only offshoot of the League of Nations that the United States would join. A longtime supporter of the agency’s mission to improve the pay and working conditions of laborers throughout the world, Winant moved to Geneva to take up his job. His stay at ILO headquarters, however, was brief. After only five months, on the recommendation of Frances Perkins, Roosevelt summoned him back to Washington to assume one of the most important posts in the government: chairman of the new Social Security Board.
In August 1935, despite bitter Republican opposition, Congress passed the Social Security Act, the most sweeping piece of social legislation ever enacted in the United States and the New Deal’s most strik ing achievement. In making unemployment compensation and old-age benefits available to all qualified Americans, it redefined and broadly expanded the government’s responsibility to its citizens. It was so revolutionary that the administration feared it would be sabotaged by its many critics before it could take effect. Because of the ferocity of the GOP opposition, Roosevelt insisted that a prominent liberal Republican— Winant— head the three-man Social Security board that would administer the new law.
For the next year and a half, Winant and his fellow board members worked tirelessly to set up and promote the unprecedented new program. With a Senate filibuster holding up their funds, they functioned on a minimal budget for the first several months, borrowing offices in the new Labor Department building and operating with a skeleton staff, much of it lent by other government agencies. During the New Deal, many government agencies were hotbeds of energy and experimentation, but none hovered on the brink of bedlam as much as the makeshift Social Security offices, where “men rush in and out and fume at the slowness of the elevators.”
In the middle of the frenzy was Winant, who drove himself as relentlessly in Washington as he had in Concord, snatching only a few hours of sleep each night in his rented Georgetown mansion. “He had no sense of time, or meals, or sleep, or anything to do with the conservation of his own strength,” recalled one associate. “He would work right through the meal hour and not know he had missed a meal.”
By all accounts, he was a terrible administrator, the despair of his staff and the other board members for his inefficiency and lateness. His desk was piled high with letters awaiting his signature, the room outside his office crammed with people waiting to see him; his filing system consisted of stuffing important papers in his pockets. But even Winant’s severest critics acknowledged that he was an extraordinary leader, a visionary with the ability to inspire. “He was, beyond any shadow of a doubt, one of the great characters in American public life during the past twenty years,” Frank Bane, Social Security’s first executive director, declared. “Few people have made as significant an impression upon government as it should be, as did Governor Winant.”
As the public face of Social Security, Winant became a familiar figure on Capitol Hill and throughout the country, making repeated trips to the hinterlands to educate his fellow Americans about the new program. Under his leadership, the Social Security board, despite its lack of funds and minuscule staff, created in little more than a year a far-flung national organization, with 12 regional offices and 108 field offices, and, during that period, disbursed more than $215 million in old-age benefits to thirty-six states. All the important work of creating the Social Security program as it exists today was carried out under Winant’s chairmanship.
Nonetheless, the GOP and much of the nation’s business community were intent on killing Social Security. Hoping to convince Alf Landon, the progressive governor of Kansas and the Republicans’ 1936 presidential nominee, to support it, Winant provided him with confidential information about the program. But Landon had lost control of his campaign to the party’s conservative diehards, and in late September 1936, he made a slashing attack on Social Security, promising to repeal it if elected.
Feeling betrayed, Winant decided he could not remain silent; he would resign from the Social Security board and speak out against Landon. His colleagues on the board and other close advisers did their best to talk him out of committing what they saw as political suicide. Repudiating the GOP, they argued, would mean the end of his political career and any hope of his winning higher office. Even the president tried to dissuade him. ButWinant was adamant. After submitting his resignation, he crisscrossed the country giving speeches and making broadcasts in support of Social Security.
In the final week of the campaign, the Republican National Committee supplied employers with millions of flyers, designed to look like official government notices, to stuff into workers’ pay envelopes. The flyers warned that a future Congress would divert Social Security funds to other purposes and intimated that workers could look forward to a one percent reduction in pay— the cost of their Social Security contribution— unless they took action against Roosevelt on election day. Winant was so offended by the last-ditch smear that he made a nationwide radio address two days before the election, attacking the Republican move as “shoddy politics” and endorsing Roosevelt for reelection.
His support of the president was the last straw for the GOP and did indeed end any chance of his running for president as a Republican. But it also proved, according to one friend who wrote to him, that “at least one man in high office possesses genuine convictions and the courage to stand by them come what might. . . . I realize that many will call what you did a hopelessly idealistic move, and call it that with a sneer. But idealism is one quality this disordered world needs desperately.”
The president apparently agreed. After his landslide victory, he sent Winant back to the ILO in Geneva; in 1939, the former New Hampshire governor became the organization’s director. With war looming, Winant also served as an emissary for FDR on the Continent, dispatching frequent reports to the White House about his travels and meetings with European leaders. “More than any other American in public life whom I know, he understands the social forces and changes that have been at work in the last decade, both at home and in Europe,” William Shirer, CBS’s Berlin correspondent, wrote in his diary after a lunch with Winant. Shirer added: “I think he would make a good president to succeed Roosevelt in 1944 if the latter gets his third term.”
When the Nazis occupied all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Winant went to Prague as a gesture of solidarity and sympathy with the Czechs. He was in France during Hitler’s 1940 blitzkrieg, leaving Paris just a few hours before the Germans marched in. After France’s fall, Roosevelt asked him to test the mood of England, the one country still standing against Germany. After a quick tour during the Battle of Britain, he replied that public morale was unbroken: “They will take all the bombing that comes.” Ernest Bevin, the British labor minister, would later say that Winant was the only American he met during that period who “gave me the feeling that some people in the world still had faith in Great Britain.” Noting Britain’s critical shortage of arms and supplies, Winant urged the president to send help as soon as possible: Britain’s war, he said, was America’s war. It was advice that directly contradicted the cables and letters that Roosevelt had received from Joseph Kennedy.
Following Kennedy’s resignation as ambassador, Roosevelt took his time (too much time, in the opinion of many of his associates) to appoint his successor. He wanted someone who was sympathetic to Britain, who could win the trust of Churchill and other government figures and persuade them to be patient while the president did what he could to further their cause. At the same time, FDR, with an eye to the future, wanted the new envoy to establish strong ties with the Labour Party, which he believed would take over leadership of the country during or after the war. Felix Frankfurter, Frances Perkins, and other prominent New Dealers told Roosevelt there was only one man with the necessary qualifications for such a varied, complex portfolio: John Gilbert Winant.
In late January 1941, a few days after his third inaugural, Roosevelt brought Winant to Washington. During their meeting in the Oval Office, the president questioned the ILO director about the European leaders he had met and conditions in Britain and the Nazi-occupied countries. But there was no mention of the ambassadorship. With Winant, as with other officials, Roosevelt’s boyish love of secrecy and prankish sense of fun prompted him to withhold news of the appointment. He would let Winant learn about his new job, as others had learned about theirs, from the press.
A few days later, the nation’s leading newspapers reported that FDR was sending Winant’s name to the Senate for confirmation as ambassador to the Court of Saint James. Within three weeks, he was on his way to London.
In Britain, news of Winant’s appointment was greeted with elation. Anyone who was not Joseph Kennedy undoubtedly would have received an enthusiastic reception, but the reaction to Winant was particularly jubilant. “There is no name that could have been more welcome,” wrote the News Chronicle. The Manchester Guardian declared: “He is an American for whom an Englishman feels an immediate liking, and few Americans have a warmer admiration and regard than he for this country and its people.” The Times of London noted:  “There is something of the knight errant about him. He believes in his principles with almost romantic passion.”
As a result ofWinant’s ILO work, British newspapers pointed out, he was already well acquainted with several leading members of Churchill’s government, including Bevin and the new foreign secretary, Anthony Eden. The papers went on to underline the dramatic differences between Winant and Kennedy in personality and outlook. “One has often felt in the past that . . . American Ambassadors, while enjoying the freedom of the best country houses, have seen too little of the real Britain,” the Star pointedly noted. “But the sterling metal of John Winant’s character will make him reach out to wider fields. . . .Today he will see plain people on the march, and his heart will be with them.”
When Winant’s train pulled into London’s Paddington station after his visit with George VI, he could take satisfaction in the warm welcome he had received both from the king and the British press. But his first encounter with Britain’s most daunting figure was yet to come. How would Winston Churchill, still upset over America’s footdragging, respond to the new U.S. envoy?
Two days later, when Churchill invited him for dinner at his reinforced war rooms in Whitehall, Winant had his answer. Showing no trace of the bulldog belligerence for which he was famed, the prime minister was obviously in a conciliatory mood. Throughout the dinner, he andWinant discussed the latest problem bedeviling Anglo-American relations: Britain’s reluctance to complete its part of the destroyers-for-bases deal, announced almost six months before. Although Britain had received the destroyers, its government had not yet formally agreed to one provision of the quid pro quo— the lease of bases in British colonies in the Caribbean. Resentment of the deal in Whitehall, the House of Commons, and the colonies themselves had been too overwhelming.
Churchill assured Winant he would resolve the impasse. The following day, he called a meeting of several cabinet ministers at Downing Street, with Winant present as an observer. As the others debated the issue, Winant watched Churchill—“this stocky figure with a slight stoop”—pace up and down the room, “completely unconscious of any presence beyond his own thoughts.” Suddenly, just minutes into the discussion, the prime minister swept aside all objections as immaterial and overruled the concerns voiced by his military advisers. In Churchill’s view, it was far more important to stretch America’s neutrality policy to the breaking point than to “maintain our pride and to preserve the dignity of a few small islands.” Not long afterward, a British-U.S. negotiating commission gave final approval to the deal.
Two weeks after his arrival in Britain, Winant, his head slightly bowed, threaded his way through the packed ballroom of London’s Savoy Hotel, following Churchill and the Earl of Derby to the head table. The occasion was a gala luncheon in Winant’s honor, sponsored by the Pilgrim Society, an organization aimed at promoting closer Anglo-American relations. Seated before the ambassador, Churchill, and Lord Derby, who was president of the group, was the elite of the British government and business worlds— virtually all the cabinet, as well as the country’s leading military figures, industrialists, and newspaper editors and publishers.
Near the end of the luncheon, Churchill rose to his feet and, turning to the ambassador, left no doubt in anyone’s mind that he meant to make Winant an ally in his wooing of America. “Mr. Winant,” he rumbled, his words carried to the nation over the BBC, “you come to us at a grand turning point in the world’s history. We rejoice to have you with us in these days of storm and trial because, in you, we have a friend and a faithful comrade who ‘will report us and our cause aright.’ ”
At the conclusion of his speech, the prime minister declared: “You, Mr. Ambassador, share our purpose. You’ll share our dangers. You’ll share our interests. You shall share our secrets. And the day will come when the British Empire and the United States will share together . . . the crown of victory.” The audience erupted in cheers, and as he sat down, the “lord of language,” as one newspaper called Churchill, knew he had done it again. “Every word was alive with meaning, every phrase was an expression of faith and courage,” the Sunday Times wrote. “On this occasion, he could not have been better.”
Now it was time for Winant to respond. He rose, tightly clutching the pages of his speech, and looked out over the audience, moving his weight from foot to foot, “rather like a small boy saying a piece at his first party,” according to one onlooker. There was a long pause. Then, quietly, hesitantly, he began to speak. Unlike Churchill, he was “not an orator,” the Daily Herald noted the following day. “He read, and not too well, every word, looking down at his script. But his words were more than oratory. They were a declaration of faith.”
America, Winant said, had finally shaken off its lethargy and “gone into action. With its labor and resources, it will provide the tools— the ships, the planes, the guns, the ammunition and the food— for all those here and everywhere who defend with their lives freedom’s frontiers.” Yet, although he pledged America’s support to Britain, he made clear he had not come to praise his own country for its laggard help. He was there to pay tribute to the resoluteness and courage of Britain and its citizens. “Today it is the honor and destiny of the British people to man the bridgehead of humanity’s hopes. It is your privilege to stand against ruthless and powerful dictators who would destroy the lessons of two thousand years of history. It is your destiny to say to them: ‘Here you shall not pass.’ ”
At that point, Winant paused, his eyes sweeping the room. His voice growing stronger, he declared: “The lost years are gone. The road ahead is hard. A new spirit is abroad. Free peoples are again cooperating to win a free world, and no tyranny can frustrate their hopes.” The Allies, he said, “with the help of God shall build a citadel of freedom so strong that force may never again seek its destruction.”
The audience’s reaction to the ambassador’s halting yet passionate address mirrored that of the crowds in New Hampshire during his first campaign for governor: they began by feeling sorry for him and ended by giving him a standing ovation. Like the citizens of his state, the Britons attending the luncheon seemed to find in the reserved, awkward Winant a kindred spirit, and they demonstrated that sense of kinship with loud cheers and applause.
The following day, British newspapers were equally outspoken in their enthusiasm. Using “language of simple grandeur,” the Evening Standard wrote, Winant had “achieved a feat which few orators can equal. He spoke after Mr. Churchill with complete success.” In a large front-page headline, the Daily Mirror exclaimed: “U.S. ENVOY SPEAKS TO YOU—THE BRITISH PEOPLE!” A columnist for the Star wrote: “Nearly everyone I spoke to this morning was asking, ‘Did you listen to the Winant broadcast?’ I did— and was moved.”
It was, proclaimed the Sunday Times, “an extraordinary triumph.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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