"I'm very glad to be here. There is no place I'd rather be at this time than in England." – Ambassador John Gilbert Winant, upon landing at the Bristol, England, airport March, 1941.
In September of 1940, London, England was most definitely not a vacation destination. The reason people from across the globe weren’t rushing to get there was a simple one. Bombs, and lots of them. The Third Reich had begun the Blitzkrieg, or “Blitz” as it’s more commonly known, and they kept on bombing until May of 1941. As anyone who has paid attention in history class knows, the Blitz was devastating. Fully one third of the homes in London were demolished by the bombings, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 civilians were killed over the nine months of that terrible campaign (you can find the article some of that information came out of here).
So of all the things I tend to write about, why would I write about something as serious as the London Blitz? Let’s revisit the first two quotes. Notice anything about them? If you don’t, please find a remedial reading class and get back to me. Otherwise, let’s continue. A little reading will shed a bit of light on who Joseph P. Kennedy was. Yes, he was from those Kennedys. In fact, he was the father of John F. Kennedy, the founder of the political legacy that to this day is still considered one of the most influential in American History. But that legacy doesn’t seem to have had a very auspicious start, does it? Joe Kennedy was first and foremost a businessman, and he tended to see the bottom line in pretty much everything he looked at. When he saw the situation in Europe compounded by the bombing of London, he figured England had had it. He didn’t keep this attitude to himself, either. He wanted the U.S. to stay out of the war and made it clear to all around him. He made it a point to leave the city when the shelling started, as well. Not surprisingly, he was not a welcome guest in London for long.
John Gilbert Winant was a former Governor of New Hampshire who had also served under FDR on the Social Security Board and later as head of the International Labor Office (source). So while he was no stranger to politics, he was pretty much an unknown in England. Upon arriving in London, Winant immediately set about trying to repair and strengthen the U.S. connection to Great Britain (even going so far, according to reports, as carrying on an affair with Winston Churchill’s daughter. How’s that for Anglo-American relations?). Reports* state that Winant began to venture out into the city during the nightly bombings, offering assistance to anyone who needed it. This man- who, before arriving in England, was a stranger and who began with the disadvantage of distrust left by his predecessor- this man left the comfort and safety of his enclave to lend a hand to whomever needed it. As you can imagine, his esteem in the eyes of the British people grew. This contributed to a gradual rebuilding of diplomatic trust which, in turn, led to the US being more favorably disposed toward coming to the aid of the British people.
I could go on and on about the war, about U.S./British relations, but what I want to focus on really doesn’t have to do with all of that. I want to take a look at what set Winant apart from Kennedy. Here were both men, in the same boat politically, and, ostensibly, with the same things to lose or gain. Kennedy took the path that he assumed would gain him political power and favor with potential voters. Winant, apparently, thought that people were more important than votes. When the chips were down-and boy, were they ever- Winant took the high road of human compassion. He still had political hopes and dreams, that much is clear from later actions- his eventual suicide was thought to be in part attributed to a political loss- but in that moment, at the time when he was most needed, he put the needs of others above his own agenda and simply did what was right.
Sir Winston Churchill is one of my personal heroes, both because of his brilliant mind and indomitable spirit. We’ve all heard clips or seen motivational posters based on his “never, ever, ever give up” speech. Since learning about John Gilbert Winant, however, I can see and appreciate how "unknowns" can pave the way for great men to win the hearts of people. Think about it: there was Churchill on the BBC, talking about the Lion Heart of the British people while an unassuming American walks around the city and lends even more courage to that very heart with his simple acts.
I would like to be that man who doesn't cry "game over," but who works behind the scenes doing what needs to be done just because it's right. I like to think that I don’t necessarily want to be famous. What I’d really like to know about myself is this: when the bombs start dropping, will I be able to think about how other people are doing? Will I be able to keep my eye on the long-term goals that I’m here to promote? I really, really hope so. I also like to think that when all is said and done, God is going to shake hands with the great leaders of the world and say thanks. Next, He's going to find all of the un-thanked unknowns who paved the way for the leaders and world-changers, and He's going to give them great big hugs. Then he's going to hand them the keys to their palaces.
*FYI: This post was inspired by a story I heard on NPR about a new book by Lynne Olson called Citizens of London. I’m not usually a fan of nonfiction, but this one is definitely on my short list of must-reads!