Your book, Citizens of London, focuses particularly on three Americans in London at the time of the Second World War. What attracted you to writing about these men specifically?
Actually, my initial impetus was to write a book about wartime London. I’ve wanted to do so for years, ever since my husband, Stan Cloud, and I wrote our first book, The Murrow Boys, about Edward R. Murrow and the correspondents he hired to create CBS News before and during World War II. Some early scenes in that book are set in London during the Blitz and Battle of Britain, and I was struck by what a spectacular city it was during that time. I became interested in writing something that would evoke the excitement, romance, terror, and sheer exhilaration of the place.
So, with London as the backdrop, I set out to tell the behind-the-scenes story of America’s wartime alliance with Britain, as seen from the point of view of these three Americans — Murrow, Averell Harriman, and John Gilbert Winant — all of whom played critical roles in forging the alliance and keeping it alive. Two of them — Murrow, who was probably the most influential American journalist of the war, and Harriman, the millionaire businessman who headed the U.S. Lend-Lease program in London — are well-known figures today, at least in the United States. Winant, the U.S ambassador to Britain during the war, is, by contrast, almost totally unknown. Yet he was arguably the most significant of the three.
All of them were key participants in America’s debate in 1940 and 1941 over whether Britain, the last European nation to stand firm against Hitler, should be saved. Murrow championed the British cause in his broadcasts to the American people, while Harriman and Winant, who were sent to London by President Roosevelt as his eyes and ears, made clear they thought Britain would hold out and that America must do all it could to help the British and their prime minister, Winston Churchill. If it didn’t, then Britain would fall, and the U.S. would be left to face Germany alone.
Murrow, Winant and Harriman were all involved personally, as well as professionally, with Winston Churchill and his family. How did you discover this?
Their relationships with the Churchills are well documented in their private papers, as well as in Churchill’s papers and in other primary research material that I examined.
What’s so interesting is that Churchill was the one responsible for encouraging this close involvement. He knew how important the three Americans were to his country’s survival, and he pursued them as relentlessly as he would later pursue Franklin Roosevelt. He had an open-door policy where Murrow was concerned, and would often invite him in for drinks at Downing Street. He made Winant and Harriman part of his inner circle, giving them unprecedented access not only to himself but to members of his government as well.
As you note, he also pulled them into his personal family life. Winant and Harriman spent many if not most weekends with the Churchills at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house, and at Ditchley, another country estate that Churchill frequently visited during the war. In fact, these Americans’ ties with the Churchills were so strong that all three of them ended up having wartime love affairs with members of Churchill’s family. Harriman and Murrow both were involved with the prime minister’s daughter-in-law, Pamela, and Winant fell in love with Churchill’s daughter Sarah.
The partnership formed by Britain and America during the Second World War is ongoing today. Do you think that the key figures instrumental in forming it realised it would have such longevity?
I think that back then, they were focusing more on the matter at hand — saving Britain from defeat and then winning the war against Germany. But it’s also true that British and American policymakers realized that their two countries had much more in common with each other than with any other ally and that it was important to keep that relationship strong. Even today, with all the tensions and strains in the “special relationship,” each is still the other’s closest partner.
What research did you undertake to write the book?
The main focus of most of my books has been on Britain in World War II, so, in writing Citizens of London, I drew on the huge amount of research I had already done about the UK and the war, including material from the Churchill archives at Cambridge, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the University of Birmingham, and a number of other important British research centers.
But I also did quite a lot of work in the private papers of the three men I write most about — Murrow’s papers at Tufts University and Mount Holyoke College; Winant’s papers at the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY; and Averell Harriman’s papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Also really important were the papers of Pamela Churchill Harriman, held as well at the Library of Congress.