An Unsung Hero-A Tragic End

June 12, 2012

Do You Know John Gilbert Winant? I Doubt It. Seventy Years Ago, Thousands of Londoners Did

How many of you have heard of John Gilbert Winant?  Probably very few of you.  I hadn’t – until I read the book “Citizens of London,” by Lynne Olson. 

Winant was a Republican, a three-term Governor of New Hampshire, who was brought into the Franklin Roosevelt administration as head of the Social Security Board shortly after the Social Security Act had passed in August of 1935, despite bitter Republican opposition.

Approaching the 1936 election, Al Landon, the Republican presidential nominee, fell in line with the party’s conservative diehards and made a slashing attack on Social Security, promising to repeal it if elected.

Paraphrasing Lynne Olson, “Feeling betrayed, Winant decided he could not remain silent; he resigned from the Social Security Board to speak out against Landon.  His colleagues on the Board, even the President,  did their best to talk him out of committing what they saw as political suicide.   But Winant was adamant.  He was doing what he thought was right. After submitting his resignation, he criss-crossed the country giving speeches and making broadcasts in support of Social Security.

Winant’s support of the President was the last straw for the GOP and it ended any chance of his running for President as a Republican. But it also proved, according to one friend who wrote to him, that, “At least one man in high office possesses genuine convictions and the courage to stand by them come what might…I realize that many will call what you did a hopeless, idealistic move, and call it that with a sneer.  But idealism is one quality this disordered world needs desperately.” 

How true that remains today!


Roll the clock forward to fall 1940.  Joseph Kennedy, soon to be replaced as Ambassador to Great Britain, returns to the United States at the height of German bombing raids on London declaring, “England is gone,” and, “I’m for appeasement 1,000%.” 

That was not to be the path John Gilbert Winant would follow.  Shortly after being approved as Ambassador, Winant arrived in London on March 1, 1941, declaring,  “I’m very glad to be here.  There is no place I would rather be at this time than in England.”  He had arrived paying tribute to the resolutions and courage of Britain and its citizens.  “Today it is the honor and destiny of the British people to man the bridgehead of humanity’s hopes.  It is your privilege to stand against ruthless and powerful dictators who would destroy the lessons of 2,000 years of history.  It is your destiny to say no to them:  here you shall not pass.” 

He continued:  “The lost years are gone.  The road ahead is hard.  A new spirit is abroad.  Free people are again cooperating to win a free world, and no tyranny can frustrate their hopes.”  The Allies, he said, “with the help of God shall build a citadel of freedom so strong that force may never again seek its destruction.”

Over the coming years, Winant went on to play a vital role in bringing Churchill and Roosevelt together.  There is no better way to capture the significance of the role he played than to cite the outpouring of love and gratitude for Winant, when he announced his return home.

Winston Churchill declared:  “I would say without a moment of hesitation there was none who ever had a more momentous mission than Mr. Winant.  There was none who came closer to the heart of Britain.  There was none who, while upholding in the strictest manner the interest and rights of his own country, made us feel he was a true, faithful and unyielding friend.”  Turning to Winant, Churchill said:  “He is a friend of Britain.  He is more:  he is a friend of justice, freedom, and truth.  He has been an inspiration.”

Anthony Eden, the former Foreign Secretary, said this:  “Neither you nor I nor the historian of the future will be able to estimate the true value which Mr. Winant made to Allied unity and to Allied victory.”  Olson writes, “tears glinting in his eyes, he raised his glass to the man he counted as one of his closest friends, saying ‘there is no man with whom I would rather have worked on such an ordeal, in so searching and testing a time, as John Gilbert Winant.  No fairer, straighter man ever walked the earth.’”

Winant responded saying that while the five years he spent in London were “hard years…I would wish to have spent them nowhere else…it’s not easy for me to say goodbye.  I’ve never thought of myself as a foreigner in this land.  We have shared so much together…I shall always feel that I am a Londoner.”
He concluded with several lines from a Rudyard Kipling poem:
“I have eaten your bread and salt, I drank your water and wine, that death ye have died I have watched beside, the lives ye lent me were mine.”
And then, the tragic end:  Not long after returning to the United States, perhaps distraught by a failed relationship with Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, at his home in Concord, New Hampshire, Winant took a pistol from the pocket of his dressing gown, pointed the gun to his head and fired.  The former U.S. Ambassador to Britain died half an hour later.

There is for me an enormous sadness to this story.  An unsung hero, a courageous and heroic man who made a singular difference at a singular moment in history, yet a deeply troubled man, the source of which no one will ever perhaps truly understand.

A forgotten hero but one brought back to life in Olson’s magnificent book.

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