Experiencing War Far From the Battlefield

Historians in the News
tags: Manhattan Project, medical ethics, civilians, World War 2, primary sources

It has been a long time since I enjoyed a book as much as I did LOVE IN THE BLITZ (Harper/HarperCollins, 496 pp., $28.99). Of the hundreds of books about World War II that I’ve read, this is one of the best. I would welcome the author, Eileen Alexander, as a fresh new voice, but for the fact that she has been dead for nearly 50 years.

This volume is a selection of letters Alexander wrote to her lover during the course of the war. They were not discovered until a few years ago and are being published only now. Her letters tell a rich, multilayered story — a wealthy and bright young woman’s day-by-day experience in London during the war, the growth of her love for a young man and her insider’s view of a fascinating slice of upper-class Jewish life in mid-20th-century England. One of her closest friends is Aubrey Eban, who would later become Abba Eban, the influential foreign minister of Israel. Simply “everybody” she knows from Cambridge University, where she took a first in English just before the war, has gone to work at Bletchley Park, famous nowadays as the headquarters for British code breaking during the war. She lunches with Anthony Eden, dines with Orde Wingate, chats with Bernard Lewis and argues about politics with Michael Foot. One of her friends is court-martialed and tossed out of the Royal Air Force after losing his copy of some top secret war plans because he was distracted by a letter he was writing to Yehudi Menuhin about the proper way to play the third movement of a certain violin concerto.

To top it off, Alexander is a lovely writer, reflecting her readings of great English literature, especially Shakespeare and Donne, but also Samuel Johnson, Daniel Defoe, C. S. Lewis and Jane Austen. Imagine how that last novelist might have witnessed the Blitz, and you have a sense of this wonderful book. Of her lawyer father, she acidly notes that “he has an extraordinary power of making other people unhappy from the best motives in the world.” And yes, reader, she went on to marry her beloved, bear a child and translate some of the detective novels of Georges Simenon.

Alexander’s book is about intense personal love. ATOMIC DOCTORS: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 304 pp., $29.95) is about the opposite: the decline into depersonalization by doctors involved in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.

Usually histories of the nuclear project at Los Alamos, N.M., during World War II dwell on tensions between the military officers overseeing the project and the physicists doing the necessary research. In this striking study, James L. Nolan Jr. looks at the disquieting participation of members of a third profession, medicine.

Read entire article at New York Times