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.
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.
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.
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.
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 naïve.
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.