Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nuremburg: a regime on trial

One of the perks of being editor of the Concord Monitor through eight New Hampshire presidential primaries was the chance to feed my interest in American history. There was the history in the making before my eyes, but there was also history history -- encounters with people who had held power or been close to it.

Sen. Chris Dodd in 2007, during his run for president.
It took little prodding to persuade Ted Sorensen, who came to Concord on behalf of Gary Hart in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2008, to tell Kennedy stories. Al Haig's presidential hopes were nil in 1988, but he had been Richard Nixon's chief of staff and Ronald Reagan's secretary of state. When he came to the paper for an interview, he gladly expounded on the last days of the Nixon White House and on the day Reagan was shot.

In 2007, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut made a forgettable run for the Democratic presidential nomination. I was working as a reporter that year, my 30th and last at the paper. When I learned that Dodd was about to bring out a book of his father's letters from Nuremberg, I began agitating for a manuscript copy or the galleys.

After they arrived, I wrote a story about them that ran in the July 15 Monitor. Tom Dodd had been a prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials. As the story recounts, his son had a personal as well as a political aim in bringing them out.

Chris Dodd camped out in Iowa in 2007 in an effort to win the caucuses and raise his chances in the New Hampshire primary. After finishing seventh in Iowa, he pulled out of the race.

Here is the story I wrote about his dad's Nuremburg letters.

Nuremburg: a model of postwar justice that the Bush administration ignored

A white sheet covered an object at the front of the courtroom in Nuremberg. On cue from the prosecutor, Thomas J. Dodd, a guard lifted the sheet and revealed a shrunken human head.
Thomas J. Dodd with shrunken head
The Nazis, Dodd told the shocked courtroom, had created this ornament. They had hanged a Polish man for fraternizing with a German woman, removed his skull and shrunk, stuffed and preserved his head.

It was December 1945. Adolf Hitler's regime had killed millions of innocents. The Nuremberg trials convened in the rubble of Hitler's defeat. Their purpose was to impose the order of civilized society on the chaos of war, to show that the Nazis had not just waged war but also committed crimes. Using a single stolen life, Dodd's dramatic gesture crystallized the issues before the court.

Dodd's son, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Often on the campaign trail he brings up his late father's service as the No. 2 American prosecutor at Nuremberg.

At Nuremberg, the younger Dodd says, the United States and its allies in World War II insisted on the rule of law. They wanted to show the world in a court of law what the Nazis had done and how they had done it. They wanted to make surviving Nazi leaders pay. In a still-raw world, they sought to elevate justice over revenge.

On the campaign trail, Chris Dodd cites Nuremberg as a shining example but also as an example the Bush administration has ignored in the struggle against terrorism.

Now Dodd is compiling his father's letters home from Nuremberg for publication. Thomas Dodd wrote more than 300 of them, and they give a detailed account of his encounters with Hermann Goering, Wilhelm Keitel and other high-ranking Nazis.

Dodd's letters also provide a window into the future – his and the country's. He disliked and distrusted the Russians, America's allies in World War II. “They are no different from the Nazis,” he wrote in March 1946. His highest hope was that the coming conflict with the Soviet Union would not be an actual war. In later life, as a two-term U.S. senator, Dodd became a leading cold warrior.

Two other important themes emerge in the letters. One is in Dodd's insightful observations from his work as a prosecutor. The other is the longing of a husband and father to return to his wife Grace and their children in Connecticut. It is to Grace that he addressed these letters, which he wrote with energy and style, often just after the events he had witnessed and participated in.

Dodd at the prosecution table at Nuremburg
Chris Dodd was an infant when his father left the States to take the job at Nuremberg. Later, as he writes in the prologue to Letters from Nuremberg: My Father's Narrative of a Quest for Justice, which will be published in September, he and his five siblings were forbidden to go up to the attic to look at the papers and relics his father had collected during his 14 months as a prosecutor of Nazis. Being children, they were too curious to obey such an admonition.

In the attic they found pictures of emaciated bodies piled high, comic books demonizing Jews and even a news photograph of their father holding up the shrunken head. As Chris Dodd puts it now, long before knowledge of the Holocaust permeated the public consciousness, he and his siblings knew a great deal about it.

Dodd encountered his father's letters much later, after his siblings found them in his sister's basement. He first read them in 1990, beginning on July 28, by coincidence the 45th anniversary of the first letter.

Nuremburg after bombing raid in January 1945
Dodd and his siblings only recently decided to make the letters public. Current events impelled them to do so, Dodd wrote in the prologue. Thomas Dodd accused the Nazis of “the apprehension of victims and their confinement without trial, often without charges, generally with no indication of the length of their detention.” Chris Dodd saw parallels at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the secret prisons authorized by the Bush administration.

“The rule of law that my father addressed at Nuremberg and the standards so eloquently expressed at the trial can seem lost in an array of abuses, some of them committed by our own country,” Dodd wrote.

Interrogating Nazis

In 1945, Thomas Dodd was a 38-year-old lawyer who, as a federal prosecutor in Minnesota, had been involved in the hunt for John Dillinger, the notorious bank robber. He went to Nuremberg to help a large U.S. legal contingent prepare the case against 21 Nazi leaders. Among them were Goering, Adolf Hitler's heir apparent; Keitel, the Third Reich's top military commander; Franz von Papen, Hitler's first vice chancellor; and Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson headed the American legal team. Dodd initially served as an interrogator, interviewing Keitel, von Papen and others before the trial began in November 1945. Unhappy with the “military caste system,” staff infighting and other aspects of the work, he intended to head home once the case was prepared. But he was appointed to the prosecution team for the trial and served as Jackson's executive trial counsel.

Even from his own letters, it is easy to see why Dodd rose amid the jealousies and squabbling of the lawyers. A hard worker, he was sharp and seasoned at cross-examination. Although Telford Taylor, a leading historian of Nuremberg, has questioned Dodd's pretrial interrogation work, he excelled at sizing up the defendants he interviewed.

During a Sept. 3, 1945, interview, Dodd caught von Papen, a former chancellor, lying about his role in Hitler's rise to power. “His face colored ever so slightly, but years of diplomatic deceit have given him excellent self control,” Dodd wrote to Grace.

Rudolf Hess, Hitler's private secretary, had fled Germany for England during the war. When he appeared for trial, Dodd pronounced him “completely balmy,” writing to Grace that Hess's loss of memory was genuine: “He has suffered a complete mental collapse.”

Dodd's relationship with Keitel, whom he interviewed many times, was complex.

He described Keitel as “a stupid opportunist with enough cunning to hold a job.” Keitel doomed himself in one interview, acknowledging that he had ordered German troops to carry out “the most brutal measures” against Russian women and children.

But Dodd developed a warm relationship with Keitel, once agreeing to a request to send a message to his wife. “Keitel gets under my skin,” he wrote. “I know he is terribly guilty. I know better than most men. Yet now I know him. He is so weak. . . . He is a human being.”

The courtroom at Nuremburg (Dodd is at front left) 

Gruesome discoveries

Once the trial began, one of Dodd's jobs was to establish that the Nazi regime had committed atrocities. He had plenty of evidence, but he chose not to rely solely on the Germans' detailed documentation of their own crimes.

The day he unveiled the shrunken head in court, he read from a document from Buchenwald in which all prisoners with tattoos were ordered to report to the dispensary. The Nazis gave lethal injections to the men with the best tattoos. Dodd illustrated what happened next by showing the court lampshades made from the tattooed skin.

Dodd's travels in Europe included trips on which he saw more evidence of Nazi cruelty. In Prague, he examined the guillotine and meat hooks used to kill enemies of the Third Reich and move their bodies about. “Thousands were beheaded in that terrible place which still smells of blood and death, some for the offense of ‘giving bread to a Russian prisoner of war,’ ” he wrote.

Nearby, he went to what was left of Lidice, a Czechoslovakian village that Hitler had ordered destroyed as retribution for the assassination of a Nazi official.

“The Nazis killed every male in town, sent every woman to a concentration camp, and scattered the children all over central Europe,” Dodd wrote Grace. “Then they actually obliterated the place – they built a special railroad into it to carry off every bit of rubble after they had burned and blasted everything and then they graded the whole area and planted grass and crops so there is no sign of any kind to show that there was any such place as Lidice. . . .

“The children are mostly all missing. . . .The women of Lidice are searching Europe for their little ones.”

When Dodd visited Czechoslovakia, it was not yet under the Soviet thumb, but its time would soon come.

In his letters, he was relentless in warning of the perfidy of the Russians. “The sight of them raises my blood pressure,” he wrote to Grace the day the Russian advance party arrived in Nuremberg. “You have no idea what goes on. They are beasts and worse. . . . They are looting Germany of everything.”

As the Soviets occupied German territory, he wrote, they first took all machinery and tools and then all furniture. “The third week all men between 16 and 40 are shipped to Russia – and all the time rape and violence are the order of the day.”

In March 1946, Dodd wrote home about “a certain tenseness” in the air over the prospect of another war. “Some think the Russians will attack us here and elsewhere in Europe suddenly and with great strength,” he wrote. His own view was a wary optimism: “I think we need not be at war. None of us can stand another one. The world will be a total wreck after another – every city will be a Nuremberg.”

‘Desolate ruin’

Dodd's time in Europe was not all business. He met heads of state and had an audience with the pope, who approved of his and Grace's large family. He spent time with actor Mickey Rooney and journalism luminaries Walter Lippmann and Henry Luce and broke bread with a young reporter named Walter Cronkite. He went to the film festival at Cannes.

He collected souvenirs – a Nazi flag, bayonets, SS helmets for his boys. He visited Hitler's Munich apartment, remarking to Grace that the Fuehrer had been there just the previous Christmas. “All of Hitler's furniture and furnishings are there intact,” he wrote.

Dodd was also a witness to the devastation of wartime bombing, Axis and Allied.

He arrived in England between VE day and VJ day. He wrote Grace that he had seen miles of “desolate ruin” in the East End, where the poor lived. “Many are still there in partly demolished areas. . . . They stared at the cab from eyes I could not meet.”

Nuremberg – “the dead city of Nuremberg,” he called it – was even harder on the eyes. Other than the court complex where the trial was held, nearly everything was destroyed or broken.
Dodd checked into the best hotel in town.

“The main part of the hotel is not habitable,” he wrote. “My room is quite comfortable. The walls are all ripped out – bullet holes in them – no glass in the windows. The ceiling is half gone. . . . It is awesome to walk along the corridors and walk on a plank over an opening three stories up, or to walk down a bit further and pass a whole section of the building that is one gaping hole – no walls, just space. There is no hot water, no heat, no nothing.”

Once the trial ended after more than a year later, Dodd traveled from Nuremberg in style. He was chauffeured across western Europe in the 16-cylinder Mercedes Benz convertible that had once belonged to Joachim Von Ribbentrop, the foreign minister. “It has everything but a bath,” Dodd wrote Grace.

By then, the verdicts and sentences had been rendered: death for 12 defendants, life in prison for three, lesser sentences for three and acquittal for three. Dodd had left Nuremberg by the time the sentences were carried out.

Goering cheated the hangman, taking poison in his cell the night the executions were scheduled. Martin Bormann, one of the condemned, had been tried in absentia.

Early on the morning of Oct. 16, 1946, Von Ribbentrop was the first man hanged. The others soon followed. They were photographed in plain wooden coffins with ropes around their necks. Goering's body was also photographed. Two trucks carried the 11 coffins to the crematories at Dachau. The ashes were dumped in the Isar River.

'A great landmark'

Doubt about the Nuremberg trials occasionally crept into Thomas Dodd's mind. Near the end of the proceedings, tired and homesick, he poured out his frustration to Grace.

“Sometimes I get so discouraged I wonder if any of this is worthwhile,” he wrote. “Was I a fool to take on this long and difficult task while others remain at home and criticize us because we try to make the waging of war not worth the risk? Is the world so cynical, so deeply cynical as it sometimes seems to be?”

In other letters – and even in this one – he answered his own questions. He stood up for the principles that had taken him away from his family and envisioned a bright future.

“I'm doing the right thing and I feel sure we will not regret it,” he wrote Grace. “Some day it will be a great landmark in the struggle of mankind for peace. I will never do anything as worthwhile.”

Postscript: A search of the web indicates that in my story I missed a controversial quotation from these letters. Although the comments should be viewed in the context of their time, they shed light on how even some liberal Americans thought about Jews. They were  written just over 70 years ago, on Sept, 25, 1945.

"You know how I have despisted anti-Semitism. You know how strongly I feel toward those who preach intolerance of any kind. With that knowledge -- you will understand when I tell you that this staff is about seventy-five percent Jewish. Now my point is that hte Jews should stay away from this trial -- for their own sake.

"For -- mark this well -- the charge 'a war for the Jews' is still being made and in the post-war years will be made again and again.

"The too large percentage of Jewish men and women here will be cited as proof of this charge. Sometimes it seems that the Jews will never learn about these things. They seem intent on bringing new difficulties down on their own heads. They are pushing and crowding and competing with each other and everyone else."

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A walk in the city: Trinity Church & the 9/11 neighborhood

The winglike World Trade Tower Transportation Hub and the Freedom Tower 
Our 28th floor apartment window faces south. In the distance we see a shimmering presence in the night, alight but often ghostly, the Freedom Tower. It stands on the site of the World Trade Center and bears the address of one of the original towers, now fallen, World Trade Center 1.

Eliza Hamilton's vault, Alexander's obelisk
Last Sunday we took the train downtown to visit the graveyard of Trinity Church, which is in the same neighborhood. I’ve been reading and occasionally blogging from the diaries of George Templeton Strong, who saw the Episcopal cathedral being built (its third incarnation) between 1839 and 1846. He recorded its rise in the diary.

Strong is apparently in a vault with someone else’s name on it, but where? We couldn’t find it. Nor could we find the grave of John Peter Zenger, champion of a free press in the 18th century, learning only through a deeper Google search that his grave is unmarked.

We did find the graves of Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza. These have become a minor tourist attraction since the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, a brilliant Broadway musical based on an innovative but relatively faithful historical interpretation. Fortunately Hamilton’s grave has not been overrun like Jim Morrison’s in Pere Lachaise in Paris, but flowers, stones and notes had been left there.

The cemetery is worth visiting even without the celebrity factor. It is well kept, and some of the stones have withstood the elements for centuries. The words on them hint at such human stories. 

The graves of Hannah Welsh and her 9-year-old daughter Elisabeth Rose
The oldest grave belongs to Richard Churcher, son of William, who died at 5 years old in 1681. Side-by-side stones mark the graves of Hannah Welsh, died at 40 years, 10 months, 12 days, on Oct. 15, 1795, and Elisabeth Rose Welsh, her 9-year-old daughter, gone 23 days later. How did James Welsh, the husband and father, cope with such a loss?

Steve Tobin's Sycamore sculpture
Beside the cathedral near the entrance to the south side of the cemetery stands a symbol of another kind. During the 9/11 attacks, the blast from the collapsing towers felled a sycamore tree in the yard of St. Paul’s Chapel, several blocks from Trinity. The tree helped protect the chapel from damage.

Steve Tobin, of Bucks County, Pa., created a bronze sculpture of the sycamore’s stump and roots. In 2005, while making it, he told The New York Times that he intended it not as a memorial but as a work of art “to show the power of the unseen.” People now walk between the roots and have their pictures taken before the sculpture.

It is in some ways a jarring experience to walk around the neighborhood of the church. This is the site of the great catastrophe of 9/11. It is still being transformed into a grand cityscape of memorial, resilience and resolve. It has also become a tourist attraction.

On this bright sunny Sunday, hawkers sold booklets to help visitors orient themselves to what used to be and to see how the damaged buildings in the neighborhood looked right after the attack Excited people in open-topped double-deck buses gazed and pointed upward.

This is the beginning of the inevitable transition from memory to history. Some people walking the streets were not even born when the towers fell, and many were young children. They are the first wave of visitors with no memory of 9/11. Many decades hence, every tourist will see the World Trade Center neighborhood as they now look upon a Civil War battlefield. It will be a place where terrible slaughter occurred, but the tragedy will be folded into history.

And yet after having spent the last two anniversaries of the attacks in the city, I found it disorienting to be in that neighborhood on a bright, pleasant fall Sunday. From close by, the Freedom Tower looks majestic. So does the great white birdlike World Trade Center Transportation Hub. The streets are alive. But the place also seemed removed from the way 9/11 touched – and still touches – so many people who live in and around the city.

New York City Hall
Freedom Tower rises above neighboring buildings.
From Robert Fulton grave, Trinity cemetery

Gravestones, Trinity cemetery

Alexander Hamilton's epitaph, Trinity Church Cemetery
The Woolworth Building, built in 1913, now a luxury condominium building.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Fire! George T. Strong describes 'an igneous night'

New York's Great Fire of 1835, as seen from Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
George Templeton Strong, the 19th century New York City diarist, loved to chase fires. He lived in a place and time place rich in fire hazard. Many a night the alarm bells, the smell of smoke or the lurid flame-painted sky called him to some ravaging conflagration.

Strong began keeping his diary at the age of 15 in 1835. That December, the Great New York Fire destroyed 17 blocks and an estimate 600 buildings. Strong made only passing mention of this fire in his diary. He missed another famous fire in 1865 when Phineas T. Barnum’s American Museum at Broadway and Ann Street burned.

The P.T. Barnum museum fire in 1865
On many another day or night, Strong rushed to the scene of a fire. Here is a typically vivid account of a busy night:

Jan. 27, 1840 – This has been an igneous evening. When I left the office at half-past seven, there was a fire in Broad Street, or rather in Water near Broad. . . . I didn’t stay to see the end of the combustion, for there were so many “soap locks” and “round rimmers” and other amiable persons there congregated, and so much hustling and swearing and rowdying going on, that I concluded to clear out – and walked out for a ramble uptown.

Got a little way up when I saw that another fire which had broken out an hour or so before in South Street was making quite a show and the temptation was irresistible so I made for the scene of action, the corner of Dover Street. I couldn’t get in front of the fire and was unable to make out whether two or three stores were burning, but it was quite a showy affair: the fire reflected on the snow and lighted up the masts and rigging of the ships, the groups of firemen on the docks with their engine and lamps, the crowd and bustle in front of the buildings, the raging fire, and just above it the cupola of Thomas H. Smith’s big store blazing away and half-hidden by the eddying smoke – altogether made quite a  display. Thomas H.’s store I think must have been saved; I didn’t stay to see the finale, being rather tired of wet feet and obstreperous rowdies. . . .

At three o’clock [this morning] I was waked by a furious alarm of fire which seemed so near and so terrible that I roused the old gentleman and we bundled on our clothes and made streaks. On reaching Wall Street we saw it wasn’t there, but the cinders were showering down like a snow-storm in Pandemonium or a “sulphur shower” in Padalon, and the fire shown as brightly on top of the Exchange and other elevated buildings as if it were only one block off.

It was the Thomas H. Smith store, probably the finest and largest, twice over, in the city, and I never saw such a scene as Peck Slip presented: the store extending from South to Front Streets was burning like a volcano, one body of fire from top to bottom. It was crammed with hemp, cotton, and tea, and the fire was so intense it was impossible to come near it.

There were only two engines and perhaps a couple of hundred men. Several other stores had caught and were burning fiercely; in fact the whole block was on fire from Smith’s store to Dover Street, but everything else sank into insignificance before the big store. It seemed as if the whole area, where the roof had been, 50 feet by 200, wasn’t wide enough for the flames to get out.

Jan. 28, 1840 – The loss last night is estimated at $1,500,000. Everything from Smith’s store to Dover Street on South and Front Streets has gone in fumo. Went down to the scene of action with George Anthon; they were demolishing walls, etc., and I noticed in pulling down a five-story brick front, entirely supported by side-walls, that a rope passed in at the fourth story window and out at the third so as to form a noose, when pulled through the wall shook and tottered and cracked in every direction, actually tore through the wall intermediate the windows, as if it had been made of wet paper, bringing out just bricks enough to come through – a pretty specimen certainly of modern masonry.

Smith’s store still burning fiercely. Two whole cargoes of tea in it just in from Canton, and I noticed the melted lead of the chests streaming down from the piles of ignited matter that are piled within the ruins. It is most fortunate that there was no wind when the fire took place. Had there been any, half the city might have been used up, as the firemen were exhausted and totally inefficient. As it is, the shipping seems to have escaped by miracle; they were mostly frozen in and couldn’t be hauled out of the docks.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Winant's war, FDR's choice, a sad demise

This is the second of a two-part post on John G. Winant, U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during World War II. Part one is here. The series was written at the time of the publication of Lynne Olson’s book Citizens of London, which tells Winant’s wartime history. A campaign is underway now to erect a statue of Winant on the lawn of the State Library in Concord, N.H., his hometown.

John G. Winant gave his all for the war effort, raising is profile in the eyes of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

‘One of the great what-ifs of American history’

Never was more demanded of the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain than during World War II. And no one could have defined the job more broadly than John Winant, the Concord man who held it throughout his country’s nearly four years at war.

Anything Winant might do to hasten victory, he did. He served as Franklin Roosevelt's chief liaison with Winston Churchill. He presented the caring face of the United States to the people of England. When Americans crowded into Britain to bomb and invade the continent, he became Dwight Eisenhower’s unofficial deputy in seeing to the needs of the GIs. As the war neared its end, his thoughts turned to the future of Europe.

Roosevelt came to appreciate Winant so much that he wanted him for a running mate in 1944. If Roosevelt had had his way, Winant would have been president.

Winant is seated left, talking with FDR before the Yalta conference in 1944.
Lynne Olson tells Winant’s story in Citizens of London, her book about the architects of the U.S.-British World War II alliance.

One measure of the lengths Winant went to as ambassador began with his reunion with Tommy Hitchcock, who had studied American history under Winant at St. Paul’s School during the teens. Their joint campaign saved the lives of many American fliers.

Hitchcock was an investment banker who had been known during the 1920s as the Babe Ruth of polo. Although polo was not exactly America’s game, Hitchcock became such a celebrity that F. Scott Fitzgerald based characters on him in two novels.

At St. Paul’s, Hitchcock admired his history teacher for his stories about Abraham Lincoln and other great Americans and for his progressive social views. Just 17, Hitchcock, like Winant, left school to join the military as an aviator during World War I.

During World War II, the Germans shot down American bombers with stunning frequency. By war’s end, 26,000 bomber crew members would be killed and many more captured or wounded.

Winant and Hitchcock shared a conviction about reducing this carnage. Once the bombers crossed the English Channel, they headed inland without fighter escorts. Winant and Hitchcock believed they needed them, and Hitchcock identified just the plane for the job. He even flew it.

The plane was the P-51 Mustang, built in California for the Royal Air Force. In speed and maneuverability, it more than matched the German fighters. All it needed was more power. A Rolls Royce Merlin engine produced in Britain could remedy that. If ever a military alliance seemed suited to fix a problem, this was it.

Tommy Hitchcock, Winant's former student and
fellow World War I aviator.
The only obstacle was official obstinacy. The Air Force brass opposed the idea, and Winant and Hitchcock lobbied for months to change minds. By one account, Winant “pushed the very daylights” out of those he thought could help.

Eventually the two men won the debate, but the brass failed to make production of the Mustangs a priority. It wasn't until early 1944, just before D-Day, that the fighters arrived in sufficient quantity to protect the bombers and, eventually, give the Allies control of the skies.

By then, a personal nightmare had compounded Winant’s many official worries. On Oct. 10, 1943, 22-year-old John Winant Jr.’s B-17 was shot down on a raid to Munster.

The fate of the ambassador’s son was unknown for weeks. Even when Winant learned that John Jr. was alive, his concern did not end. As a VIP prisoner of war, John Jr. might become a bargaining chip for the Germans or even be executed in revenge.

“For the rest of the war, Winant worried that because he was the ambassador, his son might be killed,” Olson said in a recent telephone interview.

The alliance

Winant could not allow this personal blow to slow the pace of his work.

He now had to deal with friction between the hordes of brash young Americans quartered in Britain and the Britons they had come to save. To bridge the cultural gap, Winant traveled widely to teach the British about American ways. He started a BBC radio program called Let's Get Acquainted. When he spoke with Americans, which was often, he always gave the same advice: Get to know the British.

Frequently Winant took to the streets of London to ask GIs how things were going. He lent them money, asked them to write him if they ran into problems and sometimes allowed those who couldn’t find rooms to sleep on the floor of his flat.

Ike with the Winants. John G. had married Constant Rivington Russell in
1919. Her father, a New York financier and philanthropist, died shortly before
 the wedding, leaving her a large inheritance.
Although their personalities differed, Eisenhower and Winant worked closely together. For both men, “the holy grail was that this alliance succeed,” Olson said.

Among the issues on which Eisenhower welcomed the ambassador's help was race. Generally reserved and polite, African-American soldiers tended to be more like their English hosts than like white GIs, Olson writes. The English were relatively color-blind, the Americans mired in the Jim Crow era. Racial strife among the soldiers was rampant.

Winant recruited both Janet Murrow, the wife of radio newsman Edward R. Murrow, and Roland Hayes, a famed black tenor, to travel around England and gather information about the treatment of African-American soldiers. Although Winant could not solve the race problem, he made certain a detailed report on racism in the ranks reached Eleanor Roosevelt and higher-ups in the administration.

Second fiddle

Along with the soldiers, scores of officials from U.S. government agencies invaded London. Coordinating their work fell to Winant. He seemed ill-equipped to succeed at this task. For years, observers rolled their eyes over his absent-minded blundering as an administrator. He once forgot Churchill was coming for dinner, and when the prime minister arrived, there was no food in the house.

But by one contemporary account, Winant brought harmony to the diverse work of the federal agencies in London. A reporter who wrote about the U.S. government operation was surprised at how favorably “the Winant system” compared with the bureaucratic “feuding grounds” in Washington.

As the U.S. buildup accelerated, Winant also tended to Churchill’s bruised pride. Although the prime minister had long for U.S. entry into the war, it lowered his status. Once the last great symbol of Western Europe’s defiance of German aggression, he was now the junior partner in a vast military alliance. Winant was present at the Tehran conference in 1943, where Roosevelt snubbed and even mocked Churchill while trying in vain to woo Stalin.

About this time Winant was appointed to an Allied commission to plan for the occupation of Germany. His prewar experience in Geneva and his posting in London, where several European leaders waited in exile, gave him a good grasp of the players and the possibilities. He was keenly interested in postwar planning – far more so than the Roosevelt administration, which ignored and even undermined his mission.

For these and other slights Winant blamed Roosevelt's advisers, not Roosevelt himself. “He was loyal to FDR no matter what,” Olson said.

Running mate?

Roosevelt respected Winant, too. Although the president was more pragmatic than Winant and sometimes poked fun at Winant's idealism, he also knew that Winant, a Republican, had sacrificed his political career for the New Deal at home and served the country faithfully abroad. When FDR decided to seek a fourth term as president, he floated Winant’s name as a possible running mate.

In an interview, Olson speculated that the idea occurred to Roosevelt simply because he believed Winant would make a good president. He had been loyal, hard-working, inspirational and effective. In New Hampshire, he had been popular with voters and had succeeded in several initiatives that cut against his state’s conservative grain.

The historian Allan Nevins
Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College, also shed light on the matter. Years ago, in the papers of the historian Allan Nevins at Columbia, Birkner found Nevins’s notes from a 1957 interview with Ed Pauley, the California oilman who ran the 1944 Democratic convention.

Pauley told Nevins he and other leading Democrats believed Roosevelt would die in office and found Vice President Henry Wallace too flaky to be president. Several alternatives were considered, but Pauley identified Winant as Roosevelt's first choice.

Because Winant was not a Democrat, Pauley found this “preposterous.” When Roosevelt brought Winant’s name up, Pauley attacked, saying Winant had shown no organizational skills in London and had “no ability to speak.”

Roosevelt backed down, and Pauley pushed through his crony, Sen. Harry Truman.

It is interesting to consider how different history might have been had Winant been chosen. With Truman as his running mate, FDR won a comfortable victory over Thomas Dewey. When Roosevelt died three months after the inauguration, Truman became president.

“Quite fascinating, isn’t it, that America’s greatest vote-getter of the 20th century wasn’t allowed to choose his own running mate in 1944?” Birkner said. “As for Winant, one of the great what-ifs of American history without a doubt.”
A little more than a month before FDR's death, Winant sent him this letter about a belated Christmas
gift he had found for the president.

Winant’s dream

Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, hit Winant hard.

“He had devoted his whole political life to Roosevelt,” Olson said. “He loved him. He thought FDR had saved the world.”

The loss also threatened Winant's future. Without Roosevelt, he was suddenly cast adrift. “Once FDR was gone, there was nothing left for him,” Olson said. “It was like something of himself died when Roosevelt died.”

Winant’s postwar dream was to become the first leader of the United Nations. Olson found evidence that Roosevelt considered this possibility, but the choice of the United States as the U.N.’s home base ended any chance that its leader would be an American.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1946 photo
Winant left England in March 1946, five years after he had arrived. He was a beloved figure, and the sendoff was huge. “I shall always feel that I am a Londoner,” he said.

Later that year, he was chosen as the lone eulogist when the U.S. House of Representatives paid formal tribute to Roosevelt. The president’s widow, Eleanor, who adored Winant, wrote him: “No one could do it better.”

Before an audience that included President Truman, Winant summed up Roosevelt's life in simple, ringing phrases. “There was never a time in the dark years of the Depression, or the black years of the war, when he lost hope,” Winant said.

A desperate man

It was Winant who was losing hope now. “He desperately wanted to help restructure the world after the war,” Olson said, “and nobody had a role for him.” He did not know Truman. His Washington contacts dried up. As the cold war replaced the hot one, his ideals about building a peaceful, cooperative world seemed na├»ve.

Winant’s personal life was a shambles. He was drained, depressed and desperate. He returned to London to renew his relationship with Sarah Churchill, who was now divorced. “He wanted to be with her, but she didn’t want to be with him,” Olson said.

A one-time prohibitionist, Winant had become a heavy drinker, according to a 1969 column by longtime Concord Monitor political editor Andy Anderson. To reduce his personal debt, which his first biographer estimated at a staggering $750,000, Winant signed a contract for a three-volume memoir. He found writing a tedious chore.

“He apparently had nothing in his life to make him want to live,” Olson said.

In 1947, Winant returned to his home on the site of the current Unitarian Church in Concord. His loneliness and fatigue shocked those who saw him. On Nov. 3, in an upstairs room, he knelt on the floor and shot himself in the head. He died half an hour later. He was 58 years old.

Winant was mourned on both sides of the Atlantic. “It is a terrible thing to consider about our postwar world that John Gilbert Winant could not bear to live in it,” wrote the Manchester Guardian in England. A New York Herald Tribune editorialist summed up Winant's legacy with these words: “He did more than people will ever know to maintain the solidarity of the two great democracies in their hour of desperate need.”

Sixty-three years after the Herald Tribune expressed this concern, Lynne Olson has at last given Winant his due.

John G. Winant's grave in St. Paul's School cemetery in Concord, NH. The reverse bears this inscription
from a speech by Winant:

"Doing the day's work day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases, wanting not only for ourselves but for others also a fairer chance for all people everywhere. Forever moving forward, always remembering that it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail. That caring counts and that where there is no vision the people perish. That hope and faith count and that without charity, there can be nothing good. That having dared to live dangerously, and in believing in the inherent goodness of man, we can stride forward into the unknown with growing confidence."

Monday, September 28, 2015

FDR's man in London: an idealist at war

J. Brett Grill's statue of John G. Winant. Cold? Winant would give you his overcoat.
Next spring J. Brett Grill’s statue of John G. Winant is scheduled to be installed on the lawn of the New Hampshire State Library. Winant’s perch will be a stone’s throw from the corner office where he served as the state’s governor in the 1920s and ’30s. He was the ideal governor to help New Hampshire people through the Great Depression.

As a way of honoring a man or woman who set a good example in this world, a statue is a throwback. But Winant himself was a throwback: an idealist and humanitarian whose actions followed his hopes for mankind. A cynical world dismissed him as a dreamer but could not change him.

Winant devoted himself to serving others. He was a teacher, a flier in World War I, a governor, the first director of Social Security and the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James during World War II. To him, service was not about the offices he gained. As governor, he gave away his pocket change on his way to work. Once he even gave away his overcoat. He picked up hitchhikers and found jobs for the needy. As ambassador, he did as much as anyone could to bridge the gap between Great Britain and the United States, to reassure a suffering nation and to win the war.

Five years ago, I had the opportunity to delve into Winant’s life, and I took it. Lynne Olson, a fine historian and writer, had just brought out Citizens of London, her book about three men who shaped the British-American alliance in World War II. I read the book, interviewed Olson, did further research and wrote a two-part series about Winant for the Concord Monitor.

This firing-squad photo, as we journalists used to call them, was taken at a reception for Lynne Olson at the New Hampshire
State House in 2010. From left are Secretary of State Bill Gardner, yours truly, Abigail Dexter, then-Gov. John Lynch, Olson,
Peter Thomson (son of a former governor), Rivington Winant (Winant's son) and Dean Dexter. Winant's portrait is behind us. 
No other history story I’ve written, and there have been many, received as much response from readers as the Winant series. Credit for that goes to Olson. She had shown people for the first time what a great man Winant was. She had given a hero back to New Hampshire.

Winant had not been totally forgotten, but until her book came out, the story of his service as ambassador and his deep and crucial friendships with Churchill and FDR had never been part of the public lore about him. The stigma of his suicide in 1947 had blotted out his wartime achievements.

So, bravo for the campaign to build the statue. It’s a fine likeness and a deserved tribute. It is also a reminder that politics and public life are about service, not self-interest.

Here is part one of my 2010 series on Winant. Part two is coming soon.

FDR finds his man

From the day John G. Winant, of Concord, N.H., arrived in London as U.S. ambassador in early 1941, the White House resisted his pleas for stronger U.S. action against Germany’s war machine.
When the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor finally forced his country’s hand, Winant was so excited that he and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill danced around the room together.

Churchill is front and center, Winant right of him, hat under arm.
Winant’s three terms as governor of New Hampshire made him a revered figure in the state’s lore. He has been less celebrated for his service as ambassador.

That should change this week with the release of Citizens of London, Lynne Olson’s new book about the Americans who played critical roles in the wartime relationship between Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Olson is a former journalist with two other World War II histories to her credit.

In Citizens of London, she portrays Winant as an extraordinary man whose principles, compassion and hard work helped win the war. In her view, he lived close to power without having power himself, using the ambassadorship to strengthen the bonds between Churchill in London and Roosevelt in Washington, D.C.

For Olson, the discovery of Gil Winant, as he was known, was a pleasant but unsettling surprise.

“I had never heard of him before my research, and that is a crying shame,” she said during a recent telephone interview. “When you consider how important that alliance was, it seems incredible that one of the architects who made it happen is unknown to the American people.”

The story of Winant in London has remained incomplete for decades. When he committed suicide at his Concord home in 1947, he had signed a contract to write his wartime memoirs in three volumes, but finished only one. “He Walked Alone,” a 1968 political biography, covered the war years, but didn’t gain wide general readership.

John G. Winant in 1919, at age 30.
Even when Winant is remembered in his home state, as he was when Winant Park opened in Concord last year, his years as ambassador are usually reduced to a few lines.

Olson’s Winant is an idealist and a workaholic, a man who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the British people as the Luftwaffe’s bombs and rockets fell on London and other cities. The British adored him for it, especially in contrast to his predecessor, Joseph P. Kennedy – who, upon arriving back home in the States in 1940, declared: “England is gone. . . . I’m for appeasement 1,000 percent.”

Olson’s book examines Winant’s love affair with Sarah Churchill, a daughter of the prime minister. It recounts his devotion to Roosevelt, his effort to build the alliance and his campaign to improve understanding between the two peoples. It ends with a thorough account of Winant’s suicide.

In the book, Winant shares the limelight with Averell Harriman, Edward R. Murrow and others, but Olson returns to his story again and again.

“It is astonishing to me that virtually the entire British public knew Winant and could identify him on the street if they saw him,” Olson said. “He became a symbol to most British people of our country standing with them – even before we were really standing with them.”

Before the war

Roosevelt and Winant had a history before Winant’s appointment as ambassador. Winant was a Republican, Roosevelt a Democrat, but after Winant embraced the New Deal during the 1930s, Roosevelt made him the first chairman of the board that oversaw Social Security.

John G. Winant
Winant traveled the country promoting the new program. During the 1936 presidential campaign, when Republicans tried to derail Social Security, Winant quit the program’s board to campaign against Alf Landon, the Republican nominee.

Roosevelt then sent Winant to Geneva, where he headed the International Labor Organization, an agency founded after World War I under the auspices of the League of Nations. Its chief function was to promote fair conditions for workers.

In Europe, Winant witnessed Hitler’s aggression firsthand. He went to Prague to commiserate with the Czechoslovaks after Germany took over the country. He was in Paris the day before Hitler’s forces captured it. He traveled to England at Roosevelt’s request to report on British resolve under attack.

In Olson’s view, Roosevelt had wanted to replace the defeatist Kennedy as ambassador to Great Britain for some time. Although Roosevelt’s goal was a stronger alliance, he probably gave Winant no specific instructions. Roosevelt seemed “intentionally vague” during their Oval Office meeting, Olson said – so much so that Winant learned of his appointment only when the press told him about it afterward.

In Winant, Roosevelt knew he had found a man who could connect with the British and let them know they weren’t alone. He also understood the character of Winant, who he called “Utopian John.”

A royal welcome

Winant’s welcome in England underscored how desperate the British were for American help. In a departure from protocol for receiving new ambassadors, King George VI met him at the railroad station in Windsor and spoke with him at length.

Winant (right) with King George VI (saluting) and his wife Queen Elizabeth.
From the day Winant arrived, Churchill took him into his confidence. He did the same with Murrow, Harriman and others. “Churchill was so desperate to get the United States into the war that he tried to woo these guys just like he did FDR later on,” Olson said.

Winant didn’t need convincing. He counseled Churchill on how best to deal with Roosevelt. Determined to bring America into the war, he threw himself at his task.

“There’s no place I’d rather be than in England,” he said, and he meant it.

Winant lived modestly in London despite his station and traveled widely despite the Blitz. He became a familiar figure at bombed buildings, helping where he could. He preferred conversing with janitors and waiters to rubbing elbows with the high-born.

Though a lackluster orator, he expressed clear principles with a human touch. His message was simple: We’re with you. After one speech prevented a coal miners’ strike, a leading British newspaper compared it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

In May 1941, two months after he came to London, Winant made it clear to the British public where he stood and where he wished his country to stand.

“We have all slept while the wicked, evil men plotted destruction,” he said. “We have all tried to make ourselves believe we are not our brother’s keeper. But we are now beginning to realize we need our brothers as much as our brothers need us.”

In 1940 and ’41, however, the government Winant represented failed to deliver on Roosevelt’s glib promises of aid to Great Britain. For the ships and other materiel and supplies it did send, the United States charged a high price.

Chequers, the prime minister's retreat, 40 miles west of  London.
Winant soon became a regular visitor at Chequers, the prime minister’s country mansion, where he was treated almost as family. Until the United States entered the war, this hospitality had a serious downside. Churchill harangued Winant mercilessly about U.S. intervention.

It wasn’t Winant who needed convincing, and Churchill came to see this. Roosevelt had promised during the 1940 election not to go to war, but Winant knew a U.S.-British military alliance was essential to stop Hitler.

Churchill told his cabinet Winant was “apparently longing for Germany to commit some overt act that would relieve the president of his . . . declaration regarding keeping out of war.”

As documented in Citizens of London, Winant was in the unusual position of representing his country while also making Churchill’s arguments to the Roosevelt administration. His allegiance to Britain’s cause raises the question of whether he ever put his own country second. Although Olson sees Winant’s relationship with Churchill as unprecedented, her answer is a resounding no.

“The interests of the United States were paramount with Winant,” she said. “There was no sign of his stepping over the line. He always had it in mind that he was representing the president.”


In response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress declared war on both Japan and Germany, the two chief Axis partners. Winant was with Churchill and others at Chequers when the radio brought news of the attack. All were jubilant. One of Churchill’s private secretaries wrote in his diary that the two men “sort of danced around the room together.”

Olson stressed during the interview that Churchill and Winant weren’t reacting to the horrific details of the Pearl Harbor attack.

“They didn’t know those,” she said. “All they knew was that the United States was in the war.”

This fact made Winant’s job even more challenging. He was now a catalyst in the often caustic compound of two giant egos joined as wartime leaders. He had to prepare England for the arrival of a U.S. military force that, by late 1943, grew to more than 1.6 million men.

Lt. John G. Winant Jr. is second from right in life jacket. He is pictured with
the flight crew of  his B17 Flying Fortress. Photo was taken in August  1943.
In a city filled with exiled leaders from countries overrun by Hitler’s armies and fearful of Josef Stalin’s, he felt compelled to ponder how the world might look after the war.

As he assumed these responsibilities, Winant also faced two personal issues. One was a perennial problem: his loneliness. The other was news that, like Winant during World War I, his son, John Jr., had decided to join the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Winant was prone to depression and beset by debt. He and his wife, who occasionally visited him in London, had long been emotionally distant.

Olson quotes a woman who knew them both as saying: “He would sit up all night brooding over how to make things better. She loved to throw parties.”

In Sarah Churchill, Winston’s favorite daughter, Winant sought solace. Twenty-five years younger than Winant, who was in his early 50s, she was rebounding from a broken marriage. He fell in love with her.

Sarah Churchill
“I think both were looking for someone to talk to,” Olson said. “She was vibrant, warm, outgoing, caring, interested in others. He took comfort in just being with her.”

Especially by London standards during the war, their affair was discreet. Having forgone the ambassador’s residence, Winant lived near the embassy in a modest three-bedroom flat in Grosvenor Square. Sarah Churchill’s smaller flat was a short walk from the embassy.

They spent as much time together as possible, but few people knew of the liaison. Sarah Churchill suspected the prime minister might be one of them, later referring to it as a “love affair which my father suspected but about which we did not speak.”

When the U.S. buildup in England began in earnest, John Winant Jr.’s decision to become a bomber pilot added to the pressure on his father. At the height of World War I, Gil Winant had left his teaching job at St. Paul’s School to fly in France, an experience he was lucky to survive. Now, John Jr. began training to fly a B-17 during a period when German fighter planes and antiaircraft guns were shooting down Flying Fortresses with alarming ease.

The Air Force had no long-range fighter planes to protect the bombers from German Messerschmitts. Ignoring evidence to the contrary, the brass clung to the idea that B-17s and B-24s were so powerful and plentiful that they would prevail without fighter escorts.

From London, Winant joined the campaign to overcome this hubris, but by the time he and others finally won the argument, it was too late to help his son.