Very little mattered more to the British government during the Second World War than the American relationship. On that relationship hung survival, the outcome of the war, and, to a considerable degree, the future of peace. Whitehall worried more furiously about American opinion in these years than at any point since about 1783. The observation post was the Washington Embassy, and the Embassy’s Weekly Political Summaries became indispensable reading for the highest officials of the British government, from Mr. Churchill down.
With the British weakness for the amateur tradition, the preparation of the weekly summaries fell to an Oxford philosopher, thirty-two years old at the time of Pearl Harbor. Isaiah Berlin was far from being an American specialist. His expertise, after analytic philosophy, included Marx and Russia; and he happened to be in the United States in the summer of 1940—his first visit—only because he was en route to Moscow to serve as press attaché in the British Embassy. When a cable from Sir Stafford Cripps, the ambassador to Moscow, countermanded the assignment and left Berlin stranded in Washington, the understaffed British Embassy promptly set him to work.
Though without particular knowledge of the United States, Berlin had a warm sympathy for Franklin Roosevelt’s America. He had already made many American friends at Oxford, among them Felix Frankfurter, who had been Eastman Professor in 1933-1934. Once in the United States, Berlin effortlessly extended his circle. He joined an extraordinary gift for friendship to inexhaustible curiosity, swift and penetrating intelligence, instinctive generosity, exceptional sensitivity to political and intellectual nuance, and a sparkling torrent of language, whether in conversation or on paper. He went back to Oxford for the autumn term; but his superiors, without bothering to inform him, had appointed him to the British Information Services in New York and now demanded his return. After Pearl Harbor he was transferred to Washington to take charge of political surveys.
His weekly summaries drew largely on consular reports, on the press, and, most profitably, on conversations with American officials, politicians, and journalists. The work, as Sir Isaiah writes in a modest but informative introduction, resembled that of any foreign correspondent. Few secret sources were involved. British diplomatic and intelligence reports went separately to London and did not figure in the weekly cables.
Berlin drafted most of the dispatches himself. During his infrequent absences from Washington, his team carried on the work. But, as Herbert Nicholas, the editor of this volume, writes in his foreword, Berlin’s “powerfully persuasive personality” so impressed itself on his associates that “even skilled contemporary form-watchers could not always distinguish between what fell from the master’s own hand and what should more properly be labelled ‘School of Berlin”‘ (p. xv). Higher authority, of course, retained, and occasionally exercised, the right to amend or modify the drafts. In form, they are dispatches from the ambassador, Lord Halifax, to the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden. Occasional references to “my” conversations with Cordell Hull or Wendell Willkie mean Halifax, not Berlin. The weekly summaries totaled about 600,000 words over three and a half years. Professor Nicholas uses about half in this volume.
Professor Nicholas’s editing is generally impeccable. The dispatch about Aubrey Williams on pages 339-340 is, however, misdated by a calendar year. The Texan on page 64 is James V. Allred, not Aldred; it is Robert Morss, not Morse, Lovett on page 195; and the description of Andrew Johnson in the footnote on page 381 as the “president who imposed on the South after the Civil War the punitive regime known as Reconstruction” is hardly adequate. For the rest, Professor Nicholas handles a cast of hundreds with commendable aplomb.
Several themes stand out in this tapestry of wartime Washington. The most poignant is the shift in the Anglo-American relationship itself. The dispatches chart with anxious concern the fluctuations of American opinion toward Britain. After Pearl Harbor Berlin notes the new American tendency “to seek our advice and the fruits of our experience…owing perhaps to new-found doubts about their own efficiency” (p. 7). But soon “the wave of anti-British feeling is running strongly” (p. 27). The empire remains a perennial irritant. Even the strong internationalist Wendell Willkie, it is reported in November 1942, might be tempted to rally support “by an anti-imperialism campaign which would very easily become anti-British” (p. 108). Churchill’s visits always buoy the cause; but the American conviction that they are being daily outwitted by “smart, hard-headed but patriotic British officials and businessmen (in Senator Brewster’s words ‘a bunch of cunning and scheming brutes’)” (p. 257) continues to rise. By the end of 1943 a pro-British speech by Frank Knox, the secretary of the navy, produces a sad reflection, “It is all too rarely that we get such warmth in public statements about us” (p. 285).
Disagreement with British policies in Spain, in Italy, in Greece soon widens American apprehension. December 1944: “The most melancholy aspect of situation is that this time the main burden of blame comes not from our traditional enemies but from our disillusioned friends” (p. 481). By August 1945 a new balance emerges: “The Administration seemed genuinely disposed to keep us informed of developments, whilst allowing us little enough opportunity to shape policy” (p. 603).
So the reports record the dying fall of British influence, from relative American dependence on British military, political, and intelligence skills to reluctant British acquiescence in junior partnership. As early as February 1942 Berlin mentions the “continuing anxiety to keep the hands of the United States Government free to deal with international problems…untrammelled by consideration of the views of other governments” (p. 17). At first he distinguishes the Henry Wallace-Milo Perkins group “of self-confident, country-bred liberal reformers” with their “blueprints to reorganize the world” from the Wendell Willkie-Henry R. Luce view of the world “as a vast market for the American producer, industrialist and trader” (p. 38). Later he wonders how different the two groups really are; the gap between Wallace and Willkie “is fast growing narrower” (p. 133).
By February 1943 “dreams of world domination are widespread, and while they may yield to Mr. Hull’s or the President’s wiser counsels, their strength must not be discounted” (p. 157). Aviation and oil are especially tense issues. In 1944 there is gloomy comment about “the far more definite and at times almost aggressive attitude towards foreign affairs which has for some time characterized the Administration” (p. 372). By Labor Day 1945 the national mood is described as one of “nationalistic, even imperialistic, pride in what the President called ‘the strongest nation on earth.’… It was indeed precisely on account of the idealistic urge to ‘make the world over’ that this revived spirit of manifest destiny has such vitality” (p. 614).
As for the Soviet Union, Berlin reports “fear and suspicion of Russian post-war purposes” (p. 157) as early as February 1943, though Washington at that point seemed more concerned by what it saw as the British desire to serve as the mediator among the Big Three, a role the United States intended to reserve for itself. By August 1943 “Russophobia is more than balanced by a nervous longing to achieve agreement with a power that appears…formidable and frightening” (p. 238). The retrospective right-wing notion that wartime America was consumed by an infatuation with the Soviet Union finds no support here. Nor does the retrospective left-wing view that the United States could not wait to start the cold war. “There is no violent criticism of Russia’s behaviour, demands and intentions,” Berlin reports in April 1945, “so much as disappointment, nervous perplexity, a search for motives, an attempt to put fairest interpretation upon her behaviour” (p. 536). His conclusion in August 1945 is that “America sees Soviet Russia as its only rival for world supremacy and at the same time has no desire to become unnecessarily embroiled with her” (p. 603).
Berlin’s account of the bureaucratic battles in Washington, of the feuds between New Dealers and businessmen, of the vicissitudes of liberalism in the midst of the passions of war, of who is up and who is down, is unfailingly shrewd and entertaining. Though he tells us that the Foreign Office discouraged character sketches, he sneaked a good many in anyway: Arthur Krock of The New York Times, “who veers between the extremes of vindictive spite and sycophantic flattery” (p. 232); Governor Bricker of Ohio, after a visit to Washington: “His reputation, which had sunk to zero, rose somewhat: he is now definitely known to exist” (p. 319); William O. Douglas: “an exceptionally vigorous young New Dealer with a sharp tongue and the air and convictions of a hard-hitting frontier radical…a kind of left-wing American nationalist in outlook and a great favourite with Mrs. Roosevelt” (p. 369); Senator Bushfield of South Dakota, “an unregenerate isolationist dinosaur of the 1918-19 type” (p. 413); Secretary of State Stettinius, “young, jovial, energetic, the exemplar of glad-handing, backslapping, vigorous American executive” (p. 465); Ruth Shipley of the State Department’s passport division, “a veritable ogre of formality and rectitude, who is not only above reproach but beyond intimidation” (p. 359); and, on Henry Wallace’s once famous “Free World Victory” speech of 1942—“an apocalyptic version of America as ‘the chosen of the Lord’ in whom the culture of Palestine, Rome and Britain are to be brought to a final fruition. America has accepted a divine mission to save the world and Roosevelt is to be its instrument…the most unbridled expression to date of the view of the New Deal as the New Islam” (pp. 46-47).
Dominating the dispatches is the presence of FDR himself, about whom Berlin wrote so marvelously in Personal Impressions. Roosevelt is reported unsentimentally—“The only solid guidepost to White House politics is still the President’s permanent tendency not to allow any one of his advisers overweening power, and as a corollary a tendency to placate whichever wing of his party…has been neglected too long” (p. 496)—but with discriminating appreciation. In 1944, when FDR decided to run for a fourth term, Berlin greatly admires his skill “in turning the jealousies, the ambitions and interests of politicians and the curiosity of the press and public away from his own candidature…towards fundamentally less important question—Wallace or no Wallace?” (p. 386). At the end of that year after a press conference: “His light touch, so often a method of getting out of a tight corner, sometimes seems to put too great a strain upon the earnestness of his own followers” (p. 486). Still what counted most was the peace arrangements: “Is it likely that tragedy of 1919 will repeat itself?… We can assume that Mr. Roosevelt will lead his forces with infinitely greater political skill, though less compelling moral force, than Mr. Wilson” (p. 116).
This book, of course, is a Washington report. The violent sounds of the greatest war in history are well offstage; the spotlight is on politicians and bureaucrats in a vital but local arena. Inside those strict limits, Washington Despatches revives past memories with a coruscating vividness that will entertain survivors and enlighten posterity. In serving his country with notable brilliance, Sir Isaiah has served history notably as well.
December 17, 1981