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Gilbert: John Gilbert Winant

11/15/10 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST)  The recent election decided who'll be governor of New Hampshire for the next two years.  And that reminds commentator Peter Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council, of a former New Hampshire governor who deserves to be better known.

(GILBERT) John Gilbert Winant was a young, Republican progressive who served as governor of New Hampshire from 1925 to 1927 and from 1931 to 1935.  After Winant criticized his own party for its vicious attacks on Social Security (which effectively ended his promising future in his party), President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him the first head of the Social Security Board.  In 1941 Roosevelt named him ambassador to Great Britain.

Ambassador Winant's predecessor, Joseph Kennedy, thought Britain's defeat by Germany was inevitable and favored appeasement.  But Winant was with Britain to his core, and Britain was thrilled at his appointment:  "There is something of the knight errant about him," The Times wrote.  "He believes in his principles with almost romantic passion.

Winant and two other men - Edward R. Murrow, head of CBS News in Europe; and Averell Harriman, head of Roosevelt's Lend-Lease program - are the focus of Lynne Olson's superb new book entitled, Citizens of London:  The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour.  With Germany strangling its supply lines across the Atlantic and the Luftwaffe attacking from the air in anticipation of invasion, Great Britain was really on the ropes.  Winant and Murrow worked to help Britain get all the support America could provide, even before we entered the war.  While Murrow spoke directly to the American people, Winant mediated between a desperate Prime Minister and a politically cautious American President.

Winant and Harriman became part of Churchill's inner circle.  Indeed they were with Churchill when news came of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Winant walked the streets of London during the heaviest bombing raids, asking how he could help - and his deep caring moved the British people profoundly.

Shy and soft-spoken, Winant was a halting and awkward speaker, but once he got going, he could be incredibly eloquent; and he was so full of idealism, sincerity, and compassion that audiences absolutely loved him.  When a coal miners' strike threatened British war production and the country's fragile economy, it was the American ambassador, of all people - whom the government asked to go speak with the miners.  Speaking from the heart, he persuaded his audience, and the strike ended.  One paper compared his speech to the Gettysburg Address, and argued that it should "be committed to memory, recited in all the schools, preached about in all the churches."

In 1944 Roosevelt floated with close advisers the idea of making Winant his running mate.  But they didn't share his enthusiasm for the idea, and Roosevelt chose Harry Truman instead.  But sixteen months after Roosevelt's death, it was Winant who had the honor of giving the keynote address at FDR's memorial service in the Capitol.

He was brilliant and accomplished, deeply loved and admired.  But Winant's inspiring story has a sad ending, because he committed suicide at his home in Concord, New Hampshire in November 1947 - on the day that his autobiography was published.  Exhausted and depressed, he too, it seems, was a casualty of the war.
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