December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
You may think they are inclined to make too much of New York, the lights of Manhattan, the extent of the prairies and the beauty of Niagara.” “They” are Americans, and I am in London’s Imperial War Museum, reading a pamphlet telling Britons how to cope with meeting one of us. “If you allow yourself to be irritated by their talk it will mean that you cannot find things to equal them in Britain. True, we have not got a Woolworth Building, but then neither has America got a thousand-year-old Tower of London.…” The flyer offers a few more cautionary notes—“Don’t talk about Chicago gangsters as if they represented 90% of the population of America”—and then concludes, “Most important of all, remember that every time you lose your temper with an American or refuse to understand him, you are fighting Hitler’s battles for him.”
Forty-five years have passed since the Yanks dispensed their final boasts about Niagara and the Woolworth Building and headed home, but the city they left behind is still eloquent of why they were there. London has little of the operatic feel of antiquity that, say, Rome imparts, but the past there has a way of hanging like fog in commonplace corners. In the 1930s F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that London’s railroad stations were still sad from the Great War, and today the most mundane sights can suddenly resonate with a sense of the wounded, defiant city of half a century ago: the long descent into Marylebone Road Underground station, for instance, or steam rising from the counter of a sandwich shop early in the morning.
Moreover, Londoners seem uncommonly at home with the past. One night my wife and I ate in the north of the city in a room so obviously venerable that at the meal’s end I mentioned it to the waiter. “Oh, yes, sir,” he said, “this is a very old building.” How old? I asked. “It was built in 1929.” I was so surprised that he went off to seek confirmation. He was back in a minute. “I’m sorry, sir. It was 1629.”
The past is the past, and there’s been so much of it that the odd three centuries don’t signify for a great deal. Still, amid all the calamities and splendors that have been visited on this city, the Second World War is particularly evident. You can see it in the drab new buildings around St. Paul’s Cathedral; and in its simple refusal to dissolve under the Luftwaffe’s hammering, St. Paul’s itself has become as much a symbol of Winston Churchill’s day as of Christopher Wren’s. One night, dashing for cover across a little park under a black and apocalyptic deluge, I caught a teasingly familiar shape out of the corner of my eye and turned to find a bronze Franklin Roosevelt beaming superbly down at me.
But of course, not every one of London’s World War II associations is fortuitous. The Imperial War Museum, on Lambeth Road, commemorates the military history of this century. In fact, says the museum’s director, Alan Borg, the “diversity of interest and the all-embracing nature of modern war make us perhaps the most comprehensive museum of the twentieth century in existence.” It is certainly among the most imaginative. The hardware is here—tanks, planes, a pair of naval guns big as factory chimneys—but so, too, are eerie evocations of just what war has meant to this age. You enter the galleries given over to the First and Second World Wars through a corridor dominated by a stark white disk with a single sweep hand traveling faster than the second hand on a normal clock. Every revolution marks five of the lives claimed by war in this century, and at midnight on December 31, 1991, the tally will be complete: one hundred million. Flanking the clock, screens flash images of particular deaths: a young Briton killed at Ypres in 1915, a couple of smiling ghosts from the German divisions that disappeared into the terrible white immensity of the Eastern Front in 1943.
The World War II galleries are off to the right. A mixture of big photographic panels, movies, paintings, and cases of souvenirs offers at once a sense of the magnitude of the proceedings and the myriad elements…meatless recipes, recruiting posters, a concentration-camp soup bowl made out of a Zyklon B canister, a child’s gas mask, the be-nice-to-Americans pamphlet—that go into the building of that magnitude.
What is perhaps the Imperial War Museum’s most extraordinary exhibit isn’t under its broad roof at all, however, but across the Thames in Whitehall. Here, beneath the dignified classical loom of the Government Offices are the Cabinet War Rooms, the warren of passageways in which Winston Churchill presided over his war cabinet.
The rooms were improvised from the start. In 1938, with Hitler’s intentions toward Czechoslovakia becoming clear, the chiefs of staff settled on a suitable basement where they could continue to coordinate their efforts if it came to a siege. Then Neville Chamberlain went to Munich. “England had a choice between shame and war,” said Churchill, a couple of blocks away in Parliament. “She chose shame. She’ll get the war, too.”
She did. In May 1940 Churchill, newly made prime minister, entered the sturdy cellar suite. “This is the room from which I’ll direct the war,” he said. With great care and skill the Imperial War Museum has made it possible to visit these chambers and to get a sense of the tremendous business that was conducted there. A tape-recorded tour lets you go at the pace you choose through the cabinet room (where you hear the proceedings of October 15, 1940, a day no better or worse than any other that appalling year: shortages everywhere, dire choices, business as usual), the radio room whence Churchill broadcast the speeches that, along with radar and the Spitfire, were about the only advantages Britain had just then, and the converted broom closet where Churchill spoke to his transatlantic counterpart over the world’s first hot line. This last was done in the greatest secrecy; a small brass washroom register on the door read “engaged” when he was inside, and while he patiently drew Roosevelt closer to the conflict, many of his aides thought the prime minister was suffering severe gastric difficulties.
Most impressive, perhaps, is the map room, where wall-size charts of the Atlantic are peppered nearly black with the million pinpricks that marked the convoys’ progress. On the map of Europe a blue wool thread runs a zigzag line down through the suburbs of Moscow—as far east as the Germans ever got. While these pins and their threads moved back and forth by inches and fractions of inches, men fought their way up the spine of Italy and across France and Belgium, Hitler’s great corpse factories started up and ran full blast, and fifty million people died.
Nobody died in the Cabinet War Rooms (although the stands of rifles in the corridors remind us that in 1940 the occupants were prepared to have the war end here), and yet they are as haunting as the Normandy beaches.
A very different echo of those times can be found half an hour outside London at Cliveden, the glorious country house that was home to Frederick, Prince of Wales, three dukes—and the Astors. Now a hotel, it is magnificently restored, and one can stay where Churchill and Mountbatten and Charlie Chaplin once visited. It’s ruinously expensive and worth every penny—the only way I know to get some idea of what it was like to be a guest in a grand stately home. A marvelously informative tape takes you on a two-hour tour of gardens splendid enough to touch even my mulishly nonagrarian soul. There is much history offered (you can swim in the pool where John Profumo met Christine Keeler), but what is interesting is that the thing the place is best remembered for is nowhere mentioned. The Cliveden Set, who gathered about Nancy Astor in the 1930s, despised Churchill as a reactionary. They all loved Britain, to be sure, but in Hitler’s dynamism and efficiency they saw a force that needed to be understood and accommodated.
You can feel the incalculable distance between 1935 and 1940 in the dark magnificence of Cliveden’s main hall. Go have a glass of whisky in the pleasant little library beyond it. The room seems to have been the repository for books left behind by weekend guests. There they are on the shelves, novels from the thirties, in moss-colored bindings with titles like Mist Be My Mantle. Then the decade turns, and on the next shelf is Squadrons Up with its frontispiece showing “The Hawker Hurricane, Miracle Fighter.” Inside, a fragile clipping from the Daily Express of December 4, 1940, carries the American publisher Ralph Ingersoll’s account of Pilot Officer Hart, a twenty-two-year-old flier who had been shot down six times (the last one wasn’t worth talking about, Hart said, because “absolutely nothing happened”).
Hart kept going up; they all kept going up, rising from the green folds of country beyond Cliveden’s wide windows, climbing through the beautiful weather of the long-ago summer of 1940 to meet the Heinkels and Messerschmitts so high up that no sound reached the ground below, where the watchers could only try to read their fate in the momentous white scribble of contrails. They kept going up while Churchill followed the progress from his War Rooms, and Roosevelt from across the ocean, until at last Hitler, frustrated, turned against Russia instead, and the Yanks came from the prairies, and from Niagara, and from gangster-ridden Chicago to add their weight to the balance.