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Citizens of LondonCitizens of London by Lynne Olson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am not much of a student of the second World War. Perhaps because my parents lived through it, though my father did so with shrapnel scars and PTSD so bad my parents had to sleep in separate beds because in his dreams he re-fought the hand-to-hand encounters he had in Belgium and Germany. Perhaps because I saw so many World War II films (though we weren't allowed to watch European Theatre films when Daddy was around, just War in the Pacific). I grew up thinking Eisenhower was an idiot, Omar Bradley a god, Patton an egomaniac. Averill Harriman a legend. FDR, depending on the parent, a savior or the destroyer of everything good in the world. Churchill a bulldog too stubborn to live.

Once I became an adult, I came to think that Eisenhower was an empty prop for the Republican Party, that Patton was an megalomaniac who looked like George C. Scott, that FDR was amazing, and that Churchill (thanks to Robert Hardy and Masterpiece Theatre) was a complex, brilliant, damaged soul who was both undervalued by his nation and a victim of his own ego.

And I thought of "The Blitz" and living in England during "The War" very much in "Mrs. Miniver" terms. Which, of course, was very complimentary to the Brits, but at the same time, devastatingly naive.

In the same way that Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory made me totally change how I thought about "The War to End All Wars," this book has totally upended how I see World War II. It focuses primarily on three Americans, Edward R. Murrow, Averill Harriman, and John Gilbert Winant. The subtitle of the book, "The Americans Who Stood With Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour" does telegraph much of the book's theme. It valorizes those who endured in that country through the devastation it suffered at the hands of the Third Reich, and those Americans who strove, in varying degrees, to help Britain survive, but it does much more than that. For the first time, I begin to understand.

I never understood why Murrow was so revered. Oh, I knew about his role in helping end the abuses of Joe McCarthy and his ilk, but not why all my journalist friends, and my mother, said his name with such awe and respect. I do now. I never understood why my father so hated Field Marshal Montgomery. I do now. I never understood so much.

After reading this book, I can't look at FDR the same way as I did before--while he did great good, he also made the world after the war a much more dangerous place than it needed to be. He was the epitome of privileged arrogance, both the type that comes from money, and the type that comes from our insulated geography--something I'm seeing more and more in our present. I respect Eisenhower more than I did before. Harriman had gifts, but after reading this book I can never think of his service without remembering his utter selfishness and power jockeying at the expense of what is "right."

Bradley, Patton, and various other figures all get a bright light cast on them, and it has totally changed my opinion of some of them. Okay--not with Patton: he still comes across as a marginally sane megalomaniac, just like everything else I've ever seen or read about him. One of the most startling revelations was of the role of Polish nationals before and throughout the war. Perhaps because all the time I was learning history Poland was part of the Soviet Union, we were never taught about what those people gave to the Allied cause, nor how unforgivably we let them down after.

If this book has unabashed heroes, it is Winant and the people of Great Britain, particularly London. I'd never heard of Winant before (despite being 3 time governor of New Hampshire, first head of the Social Security Administration, and Ambassador to London after Joe Kennedy). As I was reading the first chapters, I suddenly wondered if, in part, he was the model for The West Wing's Josiah Bartlett. So much of Winant seems to be embodied in the best of that character, not to mention the personal history.

Bearing in mind that all books have an idea they are trying to advance, I still found this book a revelation. Too much is grounded in documented events (notes, diaries, meeting minutes) to dismiss, and though the focus is occasionally diffused as the author gets caught up in a larger discussion of the war, this is a book any student of history would benefit from reading.

Citizens of London hasn't made me a devotee of recounts of that war. I'm not likely to run out and read biographies of all the major players. But this book goes down on that very short list of "Books That Changed My Life."

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 4th, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
I'm not much of a student of book reviews. . . ;-P . . . mostly because I don't have the mental focus to read books these days. Too ADD'd. But this is a great review. Almost makes me wanna read a book I'd never have any interest in in the first place. Just saying. :-)
Jul. 4th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC)
I shall read it.

if you have not seen Good Night, and Good Luck you might lke it

Jul. 4th, 2011 04:27 pm (UTC)
Have, do, and now I understand it so much better.
Jul. 5th, 2011 05:41 am (UTC)
I studied that war a lot, and heard so much about it from relatives and family friends, but it sounds like you found a good book, and I'll try to find it.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )