Power and fame, like youth and beauty, are perishable assets — not able always to withstand the test of time.
The point was driven home by a book I have just finished reading — an excellent account of the Anglo-American effort to create a World War II alliance that could thwart Hitler’s savage ambition to conquer and rule much of the civilized world.
The title of this splendid history is “Citizens of London.” Its author, Lynne Olson, former foreign and Washington correspondent for The Associated Press and The Baltimore Sun, has created a meticulously documented work that sheds new light on that critical moment in the early years of the last century.
It happened to be my wife’s current book club selection, so I came to it by luck — an accident for which I’m extremely grateful.
Set in London during the Blitz — when German bombing raids had killed tens of thousands of civilians and done horrific damage to major British towns and cities — the outlook was bleak.
France had fallen to the Wehrmacht, and fear was growing that an invasion of England could be next on the Nazi agenda.
The British were in critical need of everything — from weapons and medical supplies to food and even clothing. “Wolf packs” of German submarines prowling the Atlantic had taken a horrific toll on relief shipping, and U.S. aid had been paltry in any case.
Isolationist sentiment was a strong and growing political force, and in the face of public opposition to U.S. involvement in the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not so much lead as equivocate. It was mainly London-based American broadcasters and correspondents who pressed the urgent case for greater support for the beleaguered Brits — but with scant success.
Politics, not principle, ruled in Washington.
That reality was in glaring contradiction to the image of FDR as an impassioned and engaged wartime leader. And some of those in the administration to whom he was closest — among them Joseph Kennedy, his hopeless ambassador to England — were even worse.
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, a Churchill favorite, was particularly dismissive of Dwight Eisenhower, considering the senior American general and the troops he commanded untested by combat.
The Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor dramatically changed the chemistry between the principal allies. It became clear both to Churchill and to Roosevelt that if Hitler were to be stopped and the captive countries of Europe freed, it would require more than promises. Genuine collaboration was essential.
Friction between the senior commanders eased. British generals came to respect Eisenhower for his fairness in assigning responsibilities and distributing credit, and above all for his prodigious organizational skills — a talent that would be of immense value in preparations for the greatest amphibious assault in military history — the June 1944 D-Day landings on the coast of France that heralded Europe’s impending liberation and the crushing of Hitler’s attempt at world domination.
The “Citizens” referenced in Olson’s book title were, in fact, the legion of foreigners, Americans and Europeans who shared with Londoners the terrible pain and losses their city had endured and who sought to persuade U.S. readers and listeners of the gravity of the Nazi threat and the urgency of England’s need for help.
Among those citizens, also, were idealistic young U.S. military pilots who — at risk of prosecution by their own government — went to participate with their RAF counterparts in combat missions against German bombers.
In those perilous times, powerful relationships were made.
Many years ago, stopping briefly in London on my way home from a foreign assignment, I took a walking tour in the neighborhood of London Bridge and came across, by pure accident, a small reminder of the war years. It was a little museum, mostly underground, entered through a doorway off a public sidewalk.
The Museum of the Blitz.
Constructed of timbers and raw planks, it had the feel of an improvised shelter.
The sound effects of a bombing attack made the walls tremble slightly. In a cubicle there was a desk and a microphone for communicating with the world overhead.
Barely heard above the thunder of bombs was the voice of a young woman singing, “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover …”
I found that humble memorial extremely moving. And on a later London visit I wanted to share it with my wife. I found the neighborhood all right. The London Bridge is hard to miss. But after walking several streets, I couldn’t locate the entrance.
Stopping a man we met on the walk — a distinguished-looking gentleman in hat and overcoat — I asked if he might help us with directions.
“Why would you want to go there?” he inquired, a bit haughtily.
“Why? Because it’s a reminder of a time when your country stood alone to save freedom.”
He grasped my arm.
“I’ll lead you there,” he said.
The bonds forged on the anvil of an awful war endure more than a half century later.