When American Expats Sounded the Alarm

History tells us that victory in war isn't inevitable. And ostriches need their heads out of the sand.

John Winant, who became US Ambassador to Britain in 1941.

This is not normal.

That phrase has been a mantra repeated over and over by many Americans alarmed by the political turn of the last two or three years. That some of us can acclimate quickly to broken laws, easily disproven lies and a push toward authoritarianism has prompted a collective shudder among the rest of us, not all of whom are especially far to the left. Can we go on shuddering forever? Just how long can we endure being perpetually outraged, when our outrage doesn’t seem to take us to a better place?

Reading British historian Robert Lyman’s engaging new study, Under a Darkening Sky: The American Experience in Nazi Europe: 1939-1941, I thought of the predicament Americans currently face — even while minding the cultural prohibition against comparing anyone or anything to the savagery of Adolf Hitler. But maybe it’s permissible, at least, to observe that Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s was made possible, in part, because of what Lyman calks “ostrichitis” — a desire to keep our heads buried neck-deep in sand. Sadly, no Jonas Salk of political science has managed, since World War II, to develop a vaccine to wipe out that stubborn affliction.

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Historian Richard Lyman previously served as an officer in the British Army.

It’s no great wonder that Europeans and Americans in the ’30s were in no mood for tough engagement, let alone raging battles. When the French fought in the “Great War” a few decades earlier, they buried over a million of their sons. Germans didn’t want another war either, but continued to feel stung by the humiliation of their defeat. (Younger Germans, who had no memory of the battles of two decades earlier, were some of Hitler’s most fervent adherents.) As Nazism flared, Americans grew isolationist, passing a number of neutrality acts to keep us out of seething international conflicts.

Lyman’s book isn’t a conventional history of the period, but rather a look at the attitudes and behavior of Americans then living in Europe — primarily in and around Berlin, Paris and London. Despite being noted for military histories, he tracks the attitudes and experiences of civilian expatriates, including journalists, diplomats, doctors, businessfolk — and artists.

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Most prevalent in Darkening Sky are the journalists, including such well-known names as Janet Flanner (of The New Yorker) and Dorothy Thompson (former wife of It Can’t Happen Here author Sinclair Lewis). Lyman also devotes much attention to two journalists who, in the decades following the war, would become iconic names in TV journalism: Eric Sevareid and Howard K. Smith.

Claire Booth Luce also wrote the play “The Women.”

Many of these people tried to sound the alarm to Americans back home of the ballooning danger, but to no great success, even as Czechoslovakia, Poland and France were swallowed by Germany and the Blitz terrorized Britain. Lyman notes that American writer Claire Booth (later Claire Booth Luce), a correspondent for Life magazine, was a “passionate interventionist” who bemoaned American indifference to the fate of France:

She observed that the few Americans in Paris at the end of May  [1940] were journalists, destined to write nothing more than ‘Baedekers to Armageddon’ because there was no longer any point in attempting to persuade the American public — or politicians — that there was any significant principle at stake by supporting France in its hour of need.

Some Americans in Europe, however, found ways to do more than wring their hands and hope for the best while expecting the worst. They took direct action, putting themselves squarely in harm’s way.

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Lyman devotes an entire chapter to the story of young American flyer Art Donahue, who pretended to be Canadian in order to join the Royal Air Force and fight in Europe. In August 1940, Donahue became the first American with a combat role in the war. During his eighth mission, he was shot down near the English Channel. He lived to write a book about his experiences in battle but was killed later in the war.

Intrepid rescuer of British servicemen Etta Shiber.

American women were among those who showed marked courage in the early years of the war. African-American entertainer Josephine Baker was devoted to France, which, Lyman notes, “had given her fame, and had embraced her to its egalitarian bosom in a manner that would have been impossible in the land of her birth.” She wound up working as a spy for her adopted homeland, in part at a Red Cross relief center. Even more impressive was Etta Shiber, a sexagenarian widow living in Paris who, with her friend (British-born Kitty Bonnefous) helped some 150 British servicemen escape from occupied France. Lyman describes in detail Shiber and Bonnefous’ first successful rescue, in the summer of 1940, when they delivered to safety a lanky young soldier hidden in the luggage compartment of their car.

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If Darkening Sky seems unwieldy early on, it’s largely due to the wide range of Americans whose stories are related by the author. Things come into a sharper focus during the last pages, when Lyman shows us Franklin Delano Roosevelt winning a third presidential term and then appointing a new British ambassador to replace the pessimistic isolationist Joseph P. Kennedy. The 1940 election gave FDR a mandate to take America in a much more interventionist direction, despite his hands being tied by provisions in neutrality laws.

FDR’s new ambassador, John Gilbert Winant, helped convince Britons that America gave a good damn about their plight. Lyman’s estimation of Winant’s effectiveness seems to veer toward the hyperbolic: Was he “probably the most important person in Anglo-American relations since they had broken down so irrevocably in 1776”?

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Of course, it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 to bring America directly into the war, eventually turning the tide toward an Allied victory. But what gnawed so viciously on my reader’s mind while reading this book is the hard truth that the Nazis might well have succeeded in conquering Britain and then perhaps subdued America as well. Looking back, we can assume that it was written in the stars that tyranny would eventually be squelched, one way or another. Lyman reminds us that the war came close to taking a much different course.

In terms of our own current national crisis, was the Blue Wave last month as decisive and as sharp a turn as the one that America took, according to Lyman, with the reelection of FDR in November 1940? Will having a majority of Democrats in Congress make a difference in straightening out the fat mess we have on our hands?

We can hope so. We can take heart. But it’s a smart thing to remember that nothing’s ever fully inevitable. Heads up, ostriches.