A radio programme I always enjoy is Great Lives presented by Matthew Parris. The format is someone advocates a person as a great life and an expert adds to the background. This week the great life was the US war time ambassador Gil Winant. He is less remembered than his predecessor Joe Kennedy which shows that a notorious life can be more well known that a distinguished one. Kennedy, after a criticised stint as Commissioner for the Stock Exchange ,was appointed Ambassador in London. His pro Nazi sympathies did little to assist the intervention of the USA into the war.
It is now largely forgotten that the Roosevelt administration was far from enthusiastic about being involved. The German lobby was well mobilised, American mothers fearful of the level of casualties suffered in the Great War demonstrated outside the White House and the pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindbergh all meant that in those dark days of 1941 Churchill and the United Kingdom stood alone. Various factors tipped the sympathies the other way: the film Mrs Miniver typifying the fortitude of a British wartime village was immensely popular in the States starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon; Ed Murrow broadcast from the rooftops during the Blitz. Churchill was admired but also considered an empire-loving drunk. At a dinner in 1917, when he was Sea Lord and Roosevelt Secretary to the Navy, the latter felt Churchill pulled rank.
The appointment of Republican Gil Winant by the democrat Roosevelt and the reports of his envoy Harry Hopkins did to some extent redress the balance. Winant was very much hands-on: he went as far as to address striking miners in Durham of their responsibilities to the war effort. He rather reminded me of another great US ambassador Raymond Seitz who countered American sympathy for Irish republicanism and Noraid fund-raising in the eighties. The present Ambassdor Mathew Burzon, who clearly had done his research, presented the case for Winant well.
Not every politician makes the transition to broadcaster but Matthew Parris is not every politician. He came out as gay long before the climate was so tolerant and his reference to two Labour cabinet gays resulted in his sacking from the Sun for which he blamed Peter Mandelson. He adopts a light touch as presenter but when he does intervene his comments are anything but superficial. I have heard on previous programmes, for example, question whether the life was great at all.
Although it was Pearl Harbour that took America to war, the efforts of Winant – and Ed Murrow- should not be underestimated. Not only did both have access to Churchill and the establishment, Murrow was involved with Pamela Harriman, the wife of Randolph Churchill, whilst he was serving in the Middle East, and Winant with Churchill’s daughter Sarah, married to the philandering bandleader Vic Oliver.
Sadly Winant died by his own hand. He suffered from depression. Despite a formidable contribution to the “special relationship “he felt he had contributed his life time work and there was nothing more to do and nothing for which to live. By the end of 1942 the disastrous invasion of Russia and the involvement of the USA had tipped the war the Allies’ way. Nonetheless the delayed input as in the First World War, the considerable exactions Roosevelt made Britain pay and Eisenhower interrupting his golf game to make a phone call to scupper the Suez campaign does beg the question whether the relationship is quite so special as its reputation.