Washington Goes To War
By David Brinkley
New York: Alfred A. Knopf
FROM a historical perspective, one can view the United States's entry into World War II either as the rather routine story of a government and an economy gearing up for war or as a crucial turning point in American history, in which a city and a nation were forever changed, and new relations between the president, Congress, the federal bureaucracy and the press were permanently formed.
David Brinkley's Washington Goes To War takes the latter view. And Brinklev's description of the transformation of a sleepy, provincial Southern town into an energetic, thriving capital of action and power is more than your typical tale of war-time rationing and wage and price-controls. It is a fascinating portrait of the institutions, issues and individuals that dominated Washington from September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland and America began its belated preparations to enter the war, up to mid-1945, when the Japanese surrendered.
In detailing the transformation of the city during a few short years, Brinkley, one of the nation's most respected broadcast journalists, not only reminds Washingtonians of their history, but also, indirectly, highlights the racial divisions that still polarize the city and the sycophancy and influence-peddling that continue in its corridors of power and at its cocktail parties.
Brinkley, who based much of the book on his own memories of wartime Washington as well as on research done by his son, Alan, a former Harvard history professor, lays out his central thesis early on in the book, namely that Washington stumbled into World War II woefully unprepared to manage it and somehow improvised its way through the war.
"The preparations for war succeeded only because the country had manpower, skills, resources, and industrial capacity enormous enough to succeed in spite of itself," Brinkley writes. "And because a nation coming out of 10 years of deep depression had a great pool of men and women who had been unemployed for so long that they were hungry for jobs and eager to work anywhere, anytime, doing anything."
Throughout the book, Brinkley reveals with his typical biting wit, keen insight and damning criticism many of the not-so-heroic aspects of Washington during these years: a rapidly expanding bureaucracy and its petty infighting over exceedingly short supplies and space; a rigidly circumscribed, deeply impoverished and grossly ignored Black community; a non-existent municipal government that was in effect run by one of the nation's most outspoken racists, Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo, chairman of the obscure Senate District Committee beginning in 1944; a financial elite far more intent on improving their social status by flattering their fellow hob-nobbers than on making a productive contribution to the war effort.
Congress, Brinkley contends, was at this time an archaic, old-fashioned body more concerned with preserving its own privileges and patronage system than with effectively overseeing the war. While the wartime agencies and bureaus were loaded with economists, professors and specialists in even the most arcane fields, congressional committees had staffs comprised mainly of hacks appointed for reasons of patronage. Thus, Congress was "reduced to waiting for ideas and suggestions from the president and, while bewailing their ineffectuality, rubber stamping their approval."
This was also the age of the "press lords", when publishers such as The Chicago Tribune's Colonel Robert R. McCormick, and Cissy Patterson of the Washington Times-Herald used their newspapers and their reporters to promote their personal political biases, particularly their profound hatred of Roosevelt, their opposition to the Lend-Lease program and their pro-Nazi sympathies.
Despite this portrait of a city remarkably unprepared and unwilling to coordinate the war effort, Washington Goes to War is also a celebration of and a tribute to the men and women whose contributions to the war effort in Washington were invaluable. Chief among these, Brinkley implies, was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt '04 himself.
Brinkley shows FDR at his best, outmaneuvering the isolationists in Congress, stirring the American public to support the war, attacking his opponents in the press and in industry and luring the brilliant dollar-a-year men from business and academe to run the new wartime industries.
Brinkley also pays tribute to the lesser-known heroes of the Allied effort, such as Amy Thorpe, a British intelligence agent who used her "bedroom skills" with officials of the Polish government not only to steal a highly sophisticated machine developed by the Germans but also to figure out how to use it. Considered the greatest and most spectacular espionage achievement of the war, her action enabled the British to read Hitler's most secret messages and orders to Nazi generals before even they had seen them.
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