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.

No comments:

Post a Comment