Blogs > HNN > Lee Ruddin: Review of David McCullogh's "In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story" (Shadow Mountain, 2010)

Feb 24, 2011 2:15 pm

Lee Ruddin: Review of David McCullogh's "In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story" (Shadow Mountain, 2010)

[Lee Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN.]

Much was written about the state of Anglo-American relations last fall.  The leaked diplomatic cables—dating from January 2009 to June 2010 and including commentaries sent to Washington from American diplomats overseas—caused a mixture of personal offense and political humiliation in the UK after Wikileaks laid bare what U.S. officials truly thought about the so-called special relationship.

Although predicted to have been a “bombshell” leak, an American assessment of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s personality and his prospects of winning the general election is as unimportant as the secret discussions on the return of the Lockerbie bomber to Libya are.  The same can be said for the diplomatic wrangling pertaining to Gary McKinnon.  Rejecting an appeal by Brown to try the computer hacker in London puts little strain on transatlantic relations; criticism of British operations in Afghanistan—rightly described as “devastating” —clearly does, however.

The same even goes for President Obama’s criticism of David Cameron.  Describing the then-leader of the opposition as a “lightweight” pales into insignificance when compared with the damaging cable that reveals Obama has “no feelings for Europe” and prefers to “look East rather than West” to build relationships.  Richard LeBaron, in a dispatch dated February 2009, commented that Britain’s paranoia about America not being that into it “would often be humorous, if it were not so corrosive.”  (Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw used similar language in a speech at Chatham House last December, attacking the “ridiculous neurosis” surrounding the phrase “special relationship.”)  Yet the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in London overlooks the fact that some of us remain sentimental about a time when, say, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was very much into Britain.

It was just as well, then, that David McCullough published his delightful book, In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story, a year before the seventieth anniversary of the crucial meeting between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.  The brief account of their Christmas Eve addresses to the nation from the White House and short history of two Xmas carols warms the heart and makes for a page-turning affair.  The accompanying DVD (an excerpt of a 2009 PBS program) makes it a winning combination. McCullough’s telling of the story behind “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with the backing of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir only adds to the reader experience.

The images, too, are fantastic which makes this forty-page book and ten-minute DVD an extraordinary visual and audio history of the spirit of the Atlantic alliance.  “History can be a great source of strength and affirmation in difficult, dangerous times,” McCullough remarks.  How right the bestselling author is.  In the Dark Streets Shineth, to be sure, provides light in what some would argue is a dark time for Anglo-American affairs today.

It must be said, however, that the popular historian does not go far enough in underlining the significance of Churchill’s steaming across U-boat-infested waters after the Japanese attack to be at FDR’s side.  For those interested in the genesis of Second World War strategy, you need look no further than OneChristmas in Washington: The Secret Meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill that Changed the World.  Authors David Bercuson and Holger Herwig illuminate just how monumental the series of discussions were in establishing the Grand Alliance and chronicle the critical weeks that ultimately led to Anglo-Saxon democracy triumphing over the totalitarian Axis powers.  “Had Churchill not seized the moment—before American war plans had solidified,” the Canadian military historians posit, “it is more than likely that such a degree of integration would never have been achieved.”

The results of the First Washington Conference, also known as the Arcadia Conference (December 22, 1941–January 14, 1942), set the pattern not only for cooperation between London and Washington throughout the rest of World War II but international diplomacy in the postwar world more generally.  As Robin Edmonds writes in The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Peace and War, “the one result of this conference which did prove to be of high significance for the later direction of the war was the choice of Washington as the seat of a combined Chiefs of Staff.”  “As a unified body the Combined Chiefs of Staff would determine the military, naval and air requirements of Anglo-American strategy,” says Martin Gilbert, author of Churchill and America.  The combined landing in North Africa—including some 180,000 British Tommies and American GIs—was just one operational decision, Churchill’s official biographer reminds readers.  Another “grand” moment of the Arcadia summit, according to Jonathan Fenby, author of Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another, was “the signing of what was known as the United Nations Pact by twenty-six nations.”  To reiterate, however, you do not read about any of these details in McCullough’s latest work.

After returning to Blighty on board the battleship Duke of York, the prime minister gave an account of the conference to his king.  During one of their famous tête-à-têtes, Churchill told George VI that Britain and the U.S. “were now ‘married’ after many months of ‘walking out.’”  Seven decades on, though, it seems that after a trial separation—what British academic David Hastings Dunn refers to as “the double interregnum” —divorce would appear to be all but inevitable and possibly less painful.

I say this since 2011 has started where 2010 finished:  with Barack Obama again undermining Anglo-American relations. Declaring that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is a “stronger friend” than Cameron only reinforces the commonly-held view, says Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover, that the Commander in Chief “does not cherish the special relationship so dear to the hearts” of Foreign Office mandarins.  As a consequence, those wanting to read about the close cooperation between and high regard among president and prime minister are best to turn, alas, to the history books.  It is for this reason that I will be reading David McCullough's In The Dark Streets Shineth next Christmas. 

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Alonzo L Hamby - 3/14/2011

Fine piece!

I'm particularly pleased that it mentioned the Bercuson-Holweg book, which I reviewed for HNN shortly after it appeared. Like so many works by professional historians, it got thrown out on the trade market with little fanfare and promptly, or so it seemed, sank beneath the surface. It is a perceptive, well-written book.

The comments about the Anglo-American relationship today are well-taken. It has waxed and waned over the centuries, but always seems to come back from its low points. I suspect that in the end a common language, widespread blood ties, and similar cultures will prevail.

In the meantime, we might all reflect on the consequences of having three presidents in a row with almost no foreign policy credentials.