Finest Hour 153, Winter 2011-12
Foriegn Aid: John Gilbert Winant
He became a familier figure, walking the bombed-out streets. Amidst the smoking rubble of their homes, londoners heard his quite American voice, felt his warmth, and realized they were not alone.
By Gary Garrison
Mr. Garrison founded the Winston Churchill Society of Georgia and has served on the Churchill Centre’s Board of Governors.
Some people have made history—or made it happen—only to be largely forgotten, overshadowed by the more prominent. One of these was the U.S. Ambassador to Britain during World War II, John Gilbert Winant.
Appointed by Roosevelt in early 1941 to replace Joseph Kennedy, Winant, a Republican, arrived during dark hours. Debarking at Bristol Airport, he declared: “There is no place I would rather be at this time than in England!” The next morning his words were spread across British front pages. He became an almost instant symbol of American fellowship and support.
When his train arrived in Windsor from Bristol he was officially greeted by the King, a rare occurrence. Ambassadors are normally presented to the sovereign at Buckingham Palace a few days after their arrival. But this was no ordinary time. George VI ignored protocol to emphasize the importance Britain placed on its relationship with “the Great Republic.”
“Gil,” as he preferred to be called, was a lack- luster speaker, but had warmth and principle. His message was always succinct: “We are with you.”
Two months after arriving, he forthrightly said where he wished his country to stand: “We have all slept while the wicked, evil men plotted destruction. We have all tried to make ourselves believe we are not our brother’s keeper. But we are now beginning to realize we need our brothers as much as our brothers need us.”
He became a favorite of the laboring classes. In a speech that helped settle a coal strike, he articulated his philosophy: “The unity of purpose of our people in the common social effort that must follow this war….to crush fascism at its roots, we must crush depression democracy….we will not tolerate the economic evils which breed poverty and war. This is not something we shelve for the duration: it is part of the war.” One British newspaper compared his remarks to Lincoln’s at Gettysburg, because to some Britons, including Mary Churchill, he looked like Lincoln!
A close relationship developed quickly. Of course, Churchill was desperate that America join the war. In agreement, Winant counseled the PM on how to convince Roosevelt. His communiqués to FDR emphasized the necessity for support to the only country then in arms against Hitler.
Winant chose not to live in the official residence but in a modest flat, on the same rations as Londoners, joining them in shelters during air raids. He became a familiar figure, walking the bombed-out streets, helping where he could. He preferred talking to commoners than the elite. Amidst the smoking rubble of their homes, they heard this quiet American voice, felt his warmth, and realized they were not alone.
Given neither to small talk nor speeches, Winant believed earnestly in his mission, with an almost religious conviction, of public service. His son Rivington wrote that his father’s social conscience was developed during his school years. Born in New York City in 1899, Winant had an indifferent education. He enrolled in St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1904, but his scholastic career suffered setbacks; he needed an extra year at St. Paul’s, and left Princeton University before graduation.
Biographer John Bellushi wrote that the “tall, sensitive youth with piercing eyes had a unique quality of leadership.” He was deeply influenced by Dickens’ tales of Victorian poverty.
Gaining the confidence of the Rector of St. Paul’s, Winant was given a small job which led ultimately to his becoming a Vice Rector. He won a seat in the legislature in 1916. Theodore Roosevelt, with his moral righteousness and idealism, was Winant’s inspiration.
After the U.S. entered World War I, Winant flew scouting planes in France. Returning to St. Paul’s in 1919, he met and married Constance Russell; among their three children, Rivington is still alive. Attracted to New Hampshire Governor Robert Bass, a progressive who preached social reform and justice, Winant in 1920 was elected to the state senate. Finally in 1924 he was elected governor, serving three terms.
With creativity, compassion and generosity, Winant went to work. The state was in bad shape: many factory workers were out of jobs and those still employed had their wages slashed. Winant created emergency relief, enacted old-age assistance and a minimum wage. He protected workers from foreclosure and assisted dairy farmers in marketing their milk. He also used work relief programs to add ski trails, parks and bathing houses.
In another major step, Winant shifted the cost of highway construction from communities to the state, encouraging public works projects and relieving taxpayers. He called on industry to stop cutting wages, and used state money to help keep a factory open. Once he ordered Concord police to provide breakfasts to the homeless, and to bill him personally for the food. He was seen doling out spare change to lines of unemployed workers outside the State House, his pockets empty by the time he reached the door. His personal touch was remarkable.
His reelection campaign in 1930 was Rooseveltian: “There is a want in this land today and men who know the dignity of labor are idle….We must plan to meet these great cycles of depression and manfully provide against them so that poverty may be no part of modern civilization.”
After Roosevelt was elected in 1932, Winant increasingly supported the New Deal. In 1934 the President named him to the national board that wrote the Social Security law. After he settled a tough textile strike in New Hampshire, Roosevelt asked him to end a national strike of 500,000. He did, and praise for Winant swept the country.
After a stint with the International Labor Organization in Geneva, he returned home to chair the Social Security Administration. During his tenure thirty million Americans enrolled. Resigning in 1936, he returned to the ILO. In mid-1940, he left Geneva by auto for Lisbon and a flight home. A few months later he was Ambassador to Britain.
In Gil Winant, Roosevelt had a person who could connect with the British, and he understood Winant’s character, calling him “Utopian John.” Partisan Democrat though he was, FDR could overlook party politics with Winant (and Wendell Willkie, his opponent in the 1940 presidential election who also visited Britain)—in the same way as Churchill with Labour leaders like Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee.
The Prime Minister, almost from the first day of Winant’s arrival, took him into his confidence. In the months before Pearl Harbor Winant was Roosevelt’s eyes and ears in Europe, and the American Embassy became a vital source of news and military information. He briefed Washington on British war tactics, helping to improve U.S. readiness. Winant did not need Churchill’s haranguing to be reminded of the need for the U.S. to enter the war. He was, like Churchill, a symbol of strength to the British people.
Winant was among the party at Chequers when the radio brought news of the Pearl Harbor attack. Churchill started to race out of the room to declare war on Japan when Winant cautioned him not to do so without formal confirmation. But all felt renewed confidence that night. It was reported by one observer that Churchill and Winant “sort of danced around the room together.”
After the war and retirement, Winant was summoned to London in 1947 to receive the Order of Merit from George VI. Before he left for the last time, Churchill feted him at the Mansion House. Winant, said WSC, “had been with us always, ready to smooth away difficulties and always giving us that feeling, impossible to resist, how gladly he would give up his life to see the good cause triumph. He is a friend of Britain, but he is more than a friend of Britain. He is a friend of justice, freedom and truth.”
Exhausted and ill in 1947, he committed suicide; Churchill sent four dozen yellow roses to his funeral.
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