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From Southern backwater to free world's capital-- DC grows up


By David Brinkley.

Alfred A. Knopf.


IN 1939, AS GERMAN TROOPS crossed the Polish border at the onset of World War II, Washington, DC, was a sleepy, somewhat backward town where the Daughters of the American Revolution refused a black opera singer performance space in Constitution Hall, where a US Senator could seriously declare that China deserved American aid so Shanghai could become "just like Kansas City," and where the poor huddled in shacks in alleys behind Georgetown mansions and made use of the city's 15,000 outdoor privies.

It was a city completely unprepared for the coming burden of world leadership. In taking up the theme of how Washington was transformed from Southern backwater to capital of the free world, David Brinkley's Washington Goes to War attempts to capture the spirit and often undirected energy of the chaotic years between 1939 and 1945.

Brinkley, a senior news commentator at ABC News, makes no pretense at scholarly analysis. "I am a journalist, not a historian," he writes in the preface. He's right: Washington Goes to War is hopelessly fragmented, incomplete, and in many ways as chaotic as the events it describes. But Brinkley's gentle charm and eloquent prose makes it possible to overlook these otherwise serious flaws and settle into a tale rich with irony and colorful historical figures.

The Washington of those years was a paradox in many ways. Lacking a city government and home to a large minority population, it was governed by the House and Senate District Committees, whose membership included Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, one of the nation's most outspoken racists. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal had redefined the business of government, but federal officials were more concerned with farm prices and jobs programs than the gathering storm in Europe. A city whose largest employer was the federal government, Washington also possessed one of the nation's most virulent anti-Roosevelt publishers, socialite Cissy Patterson.

It was a city whose many contradictions could not help but produce engaging stories, and Brinkley manages to capture many of them with an appreciation bordering on delight. Chief among his cast of characters is the mercurial Roosevelt, who could be clever, charming, disingenuous, and calculating by turns, whether defusing a meeting of angry businessmen and labor representatives or selling his Lend-Lease program to a hostile Congress.

Despite his personal magnetism, however, Roosevelt was something of a failure as an administrator. In setting up the wartime bureaus for resource allocation, for instance, he created one office after another, each marginally more successful than the last at bringing order to the process of procuring military supplies. When an intense rivalry developed between the heads of the Office of Production Management, two gentlemen known in the papers as "Mr. Knudsenhillman," Roosevelt simply introduced another agency to work alongside -- but not above -- the OPM.

Elsewhere in the federal government, Congress began to chafe at its inability to influence national policy. Prior to Pearl Harbor, isolationist Republicans took every opportunity to attack the "warmongering" Roosevelt, and once the war had begun and the first glow of bipartisan unity wore off they accused the president of "usurping" congressional power in order to set up a totalitarian government.

Essentially a nineteenth-century institution, Congress was unsuited to the task of running a centrally-planned war, leading Roosevelt to cheerfully suggest that Congress adjourn so that its members might find work more productive to the war effort. Angry at the president's seeming disrespect, the representatives of the people busied themselves upholding the poll tax and defeating Roosevelt's 1944 plan for absentee balloting in the armed forces. Rep. Martin Dies, Joseph McCarthy's forerunner and "one of the great buffoons of his time," even led several investigations into communist infiltration of the federal government.

But government only makes up a part of Brinkley's story. He devotes an entire chapter to the frenzied social life of a city where self-proclaimed "parties for a purpose" provided a competitive outlet for rich hostesses barred from outside work by tradition. Social climbing was "raised -- or lowered -- to the level of trench warfare" in Washington, fueled by the availability of stranded diplomats, government officials, and celebrities.

In the rush to obtain the most prestigious guests for cocktail or dinner parties, everyday niceties such as manners were often cast to the winds. Brinkley recounts one hostess asking Dean Acheson, whose appointment as assistant secretary of state was to be voted on by the Senate that day: "If you're confirmed, will you come for dinner? If not, will you come after dinner for dancing?"

Overall, Brinkley succeeds nicely in capturing the atmosphere of a city maturing despite itself, and his disjointed style seldom detracts from his efforts. At times, however, the gaps in his account can be irritating.

For instance, Brinkley tells us that as the end of his second term approached in 1939, Roosevelt foresaw the coming of war and despaired of electing a successor who would carry on the New Deal while standing up to German and Japanese aggression. Bucking the tradition which limited presidents to two terms, Roosevelt declared his candidacy for a third term in 1940.

Historically, we know Roosevelt beat the Republican Wendell Willkie by nearly 5 million votes. Unfortunately, Brinkley passes up a golden opportunity to bring his unique insight to the 1940 election, and omits any mention of the campaign itself with the exception of a passing reference to one of Roosevelt's campaign speeches. With France fallen and the Battle of Britain raging, the 1940 election was particularly momentous, and it's disappointing that Brinkley chooses not even to mention it.

Such faults hardly cripple the work, however. Brinkley provides an articulate and good-natured tour through the vicissitudes of wartime Washington, making Washington Goes to War an enjoyable, if not historically compelling, diversion for a lazy Sunday afternoon.