Writing in June, 1942, Malcolm Cowley observed that “Washington in wartime is a combination of Moscow (for overcrowding), Paris (for its trees), Wichita (for its way of thinking), Nome (in the gold-rush days) and Hell (for its livability).” With that jaundiced view of America’s capital city, David Brinkley introduces his witty, acerbic memoir of the city where he first found fame as a White House correspondent. The sixty-eight-year-old native of Wilmington, North Carolina, claims that Washington Goes to War is more personal reminiscence than political history. The claim is both modest and misleading. In the first place, the book is an excellent portrait of a city in transition, encompassing economic and social trends as well as political and diplomatic developments. Brinkley’s work covers not only the rich “Cave Dwellers”—so named because they were seldom seen—and black “Alley Dwellers” who lived among a total of fifteen thousand privies, but also the legions of middle-class newcomers who flocked to the nation’s wartime nerve center and helped win the battle of the home front. On the other hand, while folksy and erudite, the author never speaks in the first person, never intrudes himself into the fabric of the story.
Three themes interweave throughout the text: how the District of Columbia was pathetically unprepared for World War II; how President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after some false starts, dealt successfully with wartime mobilization by assembling a new bureaucratic structure on top of the inadequate existing one; and how permanent was so much of the wartime growth. Washington never returned to its languid prewar days, and Hedrick Smith’s best-selling book The Power Game: How Washington Works (1988; reviewed in this volume) underlines some of the transformations that have taken place since the 1950’s. As Brinkley concludes, the “placid, comfortable town was becoming a noisy, crowded, expensive city—a place that newcomers liked to joke combined the charm of the North with the efficiency of the South.”
The most important feature of Washington Goes to War is its focus on the urbanization and bureaucratization processes at work in a time of great crisis. Other historians have dealt in more depth with national political and social trends during the period from 1940 to 1945. Richard Polenberg’s War and Society: The United States, 1941-1945 (1972) and John Morton Blum’s V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II (1976) include material on racial tensions and relations between Roosevelt and Congress. Excellent works on popular culture include Richard R. Lingeman’s Don’t You Know There’s a War On? The American Home Front, 1941-1945 (1971) and Geoffrey Perrett’s Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People, 1939-1945 (1973). The best assessment of Roosevelt’s wartime leadership is James MacGregor Burns’s Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (1970). None of these books, however, has the vividness of Brinkley’s account of the personalities and social forces that transformed Washington into a modern metropolis.
The author’s shrewd insights into the motivations and machinations of Southern politicians may have been influenced by his son Alan Brinkley’s prizewinning Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (1983). Acknowledging his son’s aid in directing the research and organizing the chapters, Brinkley also reveals that he read through old newspapers and magazines to sharpen his memories and that his work was enhanced by the oral testimony of friends, acquaintances, and other personages. As he wryly notes, the World War II generation is aging fast, and several people died before they could be interviewed.
The book’s best chapters—“Bureaucracies at War,” “Boom Town,” “Press Lords and Reporters,” and “The Strains of the New”—deal with subjects familiar to one who lived in Washington when it was nearly impossible to get around, get much done, or get at the truth. Then there is a delicious parenthetical chapter entitled “Parties for a Purpose,” featuring social dowagers Cissy Patterson, Evalyn Walsh McLean, and other Roosevelt-haters (the president thought them traitorous “parasites”) who blamed the First Family for every imaginable ill, including the new assertiveness of their servants. The opening chapters on the coming of the war and the closing material on the last days of Roosevelt are gracefully written but offer little not found in traditional histories of the period.
Brinkley admires Roosevelt as an inspirational leader whose cause was just, but he portrays him as somewhat petulant and devious. The author reserves his greatest scorn for such Southern congressional demagogues as Martin Dies and Theodore Bilbo, who by virtue of the seniority system occupied positions of power in the Capitol. Bilbo, an archenemy of blacks, was chairman of the Senate committee for the District of Columbia at a time when Washingtonians enjoyed virtually no self-government. While Brinkley has little nostalgia for the...