US WWII Ambassador John Winant Gets His Memorial at Last
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

NH Gov. John G. Winant01HISTORY MATTERS

 

He was a teacher, a fighter pilot, and the hugely popular ambassador to Britain in World War II. More than any individual, according to England's King George VI, he forged the alliance between the United States and Britain that led to an Allied victory against Hitler's Nazi aggression. Both Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt trusted him implicitly. (Click title to read more)

 

John Gilbert Winant (1889-1947) was movie-star-handsome, charming, wealthy, unpretentious, irrepressibly optimistic, brilliant, and hard-working. The Times of London dubbed him a "knight errant" who "believes in his principles with almost romantic passion." Imagine Cary Grant playing the Jimmy Stewart role in the film  "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and you'll get the idea. 

 

Winant was also the father of the modern Social Security system, and a three-term New Hampshire governor (the youngest in state history). He served in the NH House and Senate, was vice-president of St. Paul's School, and founded the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen.

 

 

And now he's back. A humble "man of the people," Winant is the key character in a bestselling new book. In 2008, his son, the late Rivington Winant, donated 85- acres of family land in Concord as a public park with walking trails. John G. Winant is also the subject of a seven-foot standing bronze statue. His memorial will soon stand in Concord, not far from the likes of Daniel Webster and John Stark. In fact, the more one learns about Winant, the more he appears to be a candidate for sainthood.

Prime Minister Churchil with US Ambassador John Winant (second from left) in 1942

 

 

Persona non grata

 

But saints do not commit suicide. So when in 1947, at age 58, Winant knelt on the floor of his Concord home and placed a revolver to his head, his celebrity ended with his life. The self-sacrificing ambassador beloved by Britons of every class became a tragic figure, while in America, his life dissolved into the shadows.

 

The war effort had totally exhausted Winart, who insisted on living in the heart of London during the bombings, and eating the meager war rations provided to average citizens. Once wealthy, by the end of the conflict Winart had given away his fortune to the needy and was deeply in debt. 

 

NH Governor John Winant campaign buttonDistant from his socialite wife, Winant had entered into an affair with Sarah Churchill, an actress and daughter of the Prime Minister. Her rejection, at the end of the war, may have been the final straw. "It seems I must always hurt the person who loves me," Sarah wrote to her father before Winant's death.  

 

Historians also theorize that as a "liberal Republican," Winant had burned his political bridges by enthusiastically supporting Roosevelt's "New Deal" policies and spearheading the controversial Social Security Administration. Once considered an ideal presidential candidate, the end of the war and the death of FDR in 1945 left the former ambassador out of the Washington in-crowd.

 

A hoped-for postwar political appointment did not materialize.

It was quickly evident that Winant's dream of a peaceful, united, post-war world, with freedom and equality for all, was not in the cards. While the American economy boomed during the war, Britain was bombed to near extinction. The future of Germany, divided East and West, looked bleak. The war concluded with the U.S. Deploying two atomic bombs over Japan. Roosevelt and Churchill had been forced to ally themselves with Russia's Joseph Stalin, and the chill of the coming Cold War was already in the air. 

CONTINUE JOHN G WINANT


President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston CHurchill 

Winant who?

 

But times change, and history changes with the times. Winant looks today like the hero we need once more. His humility, his polite and dogged diplomacy, his candor, and his efforts to lift up the working class are missing in our age of political glibness, griping, and gridlock. His death appears more desperate than cowardly. His accomplishments rise to the level of heroism when taken in context--and that context is only now unfolding. 

 

We forget, as historian Lynne Olson points out in her bestselling book, Citizens of London, that America and England were not the best of friends as World War II loomed. The United States, fresh from a Depression, wanted to stay out of another European war. The German invasion of Britain, the last holdout against Hitler, seemed inevitable. 

 

"We were hanging on by our eyelids," Britain's top military leader admitted. 

 

The isolationist U.S. was scarcely England's friend at the time. John Winant's predecessor as US Ambassador was Joseph P. Kennedy, the millionaire father of a future president and a Nazi apologist. Winant, to the relief of the British, were total opposites. While Kennedy saw the German defeat of Britain as inevitable, Wihant promised to convince his president and his countrymen to support the British cause and win the war. 

 

"There was one man who was with us, who never believed we would surrender," a Churchill official recalled, "and that was John Gilbert Winant."

 

Although he was a poor public speaker, he was unbeatable one-on-one. Winant threw himself into the task of giving hope to the beleaguered citizens of Britain. Scores of vintage newspaper photos and newsreels show him mixing, not just with the powerful, but with the working class. In an era when anyone might find himself homeless after a midnight bombing raid, Winant took to the streets to spread his message of hope.  

 

Winant was dining with Winston Churchill when they received the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. With America suddenly in the war, the ambassador's job was to broker a new relationship between two brilliant, egotistical, and entitled men. Roosevelt and Churchill had not been friendly at that point, and were , in fact, distrustful of one another. Winant helped develop the brief, but world-altering friendship that followed.

 

Ambassador John Winant statue by artist J Brett Grill

 

An unsung hero

 

It was Lynne Olson's research in 2008 and her book in 2010, plus the efforts of Rivington Winant and friends, that finally inspired a Winant Memorial. The former Granite State governor had, until then, been forgotten except by scholars, friends, and those whose lives he influenced.  Forgotten here, perhaps, but not in England. That perspective, dramatically told in Olson's book, has been the driving force in resurrecting the Winant legacy.

 

Although born in New York, John G. Winant made New Hampshire his home after attending the elite St. Paul's prep school in Concord as a boy. He later taught school at St. Paul's and bought a home nearby. But due to his self-inflicted death, his burial on the Episcopalian school grounds was initially denied. His casket was exhumed and moved to St. Paul's two decades later. 

 

Capturing the essence of a complex character like Winant in a book could be no easy task. Depicting that essence in a bronze sculpture was no less daunting, according to sculptor J. Brett Grill. An associate professor at the University of Missouri,, Grill's earlier assignment was a life-sized image of President Gerald R. Ford, now added to the National Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC. 

 

From his studio in  Columbia, Missouri this week, J Brett Grill summed up his experience this way: "I’ve especially enjoyed working on the Gov. Winant project because of all that I’ve learned through the process. I try to study the life of the person as much as possible throughout the creation process so I can embody some of their complexities in the sculpture. This process has taught me what a pivotal figure he was in the state, national, and international history, but moreover how history can conveniently forget people whose stories might make us uncomfortable. The more I’ve learned about Ambassador Winant, the more I’m convinced that he’s the type of figure that politicians – and frankly the rest of us as well – should aspire to be. His story deserves to be told and remembered."

 

KEY SOURCE: For more information on the John Winant bronze statue see www.WinantMemorial.org

 

Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of 12 books.  His latest, Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, closes the controversial Smuttynose ax murder case of 1873. (See SmuttynoseMurders.com) It is available in local stores and in narrated form by Audible.com.