Washington at War

Washington Despatches 1941-1945: Weekly Political Reports from the British Embassy

edited by H. G. Nicholas, introduction by Isaiah Berlin
University of Chicago Press, 700 pp., $40.00

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…

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