Monday, August 23, 2010

Olson on Winant

Lynne Olson has built herself an impressive franchise writing about the people who lived through World War II as "a good war"--diplomats, foreign correspondents, and some politicians who could enjoy the thrill and satisfaction of being on the right side of a good cause without really putting themselves seriously in harm's way. Her latest, Citizens of London, concentrates on the careers of three Americans who played important roles in the Anglo-American relations-- Edward R. Murrow, Averell Harriman and John Gilbert Winant.

Ah--John Gilbert who? A lot of people, I suspect have heard of Murrow, who did so much to define broadcast news, and perhaps also Harriman, a wealthy amateur in politics who had a way of showing up at every important juncture of his time.

Winant, I suspect, is pretty much forgotten. But he's worth remembering even if no more than a footnote for his place in the events not merely of the War but of the turbulent time just after War, when we found ourselves rearranging all the pieces on the international chess board.

Or at least, for a short time after the war. Winant came to public notice as a liberal Republican governor of New Hampshire, then as an ally of Franklin Roosevelt's and specifically as Roosevelt's ambassador to the Court of St. James during the critical war years.  On November 3, 1947,  Winant put a bullet through his brain.

Off and on over the years, I've heard from right-wing fanatics who will assure you that Winant's suicide was an act of remorseful atonement for his role in creating the New World Order.  So it is said, once he understood what he had helped to create--a new Communist Empire, dominated by Joseph Stalin--he recognized his tragic error and paid with his life.

Olson does a fine job of giving that theory the decent burial it so richly deserves.  As she makes clear,  Winant was always a lonely and  troubled man, and one who found life increasingly more untenable as the world refashioned itself.  He was hopelessly in debt; his love life wasn't going well, and the people in Washington seemed to have no interest in finding a place for him in the emerging peace settlement.

Winant was human with human failings.  But to politicize his suicide because he can't talk back has always seemed to me to be an act of the grossest uncharity.  Kudos to Olson for helping to set the record straight.

No comments: