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Washington Goes to War.

Washington Goes to War. David Brinkley. Knopf, $18.95. This is the story of a slow southern town that "grew almost overnight into a crowded, harried, almost frantic metropolis struggling desperately to assume the mantle of global power." Its author is the David Brinkley we have all come to know for his Sunday morning television show and, before that, as one-half of the most famous news team in broadcasting history. You can almost hear him talking as he writes this reminiscence and reflection. He sees the interesting, the remarkable, the ironic, the outrageous, the decent, the nasty--and the humor of it all.

He evokes the snobbish, self-satisfied, and segregated town that Washington was, despite the arrival of such New Deal mavericks as Leon Henderson, the brilliant price administrator, who was dimly regarded both by the social establishment and by Congress.

He takes us through the years of denial--the total unwillingness to get involved in a European war--to the political fight over neutrality. He recalls the frightening unpreparedness and, indeed, unwillingness of industry and even the armed forces to get ready for war.

He recreates the frenetic chaos of people piled on people--living anywhere and everywhere and commuting from as far away as Philadelphia--and contrasts that with people sitting on their hands with nothing to do because planning was so poor.

He paints a mesmerizing portrait of Franklin Roosevelt as he maneuvered to help the Allies, invented Lend Lease, and yet refused to put an individual in charge and tried to resolve hopeless problems by layering one unworkable organization on top of another.

He captures the electricity of the outbreak of war. The armed forces seized anything they wanted--including Mount Vernon College while the girls were home for Christmas. The manager of the new Statler Hotel avoided their grasp by never announcing its opening and filling its rooms with important guests who couldn't be moved.

Brinkley drops in stunning stories along the way. My favorite is the one of Amy Thorpe, a 1929 debutante who was recruited by the British as a spy. She extracted from the Poles the drawings, documents, and other information that helped the British steal a code machine and read the German code for the rest of the war. This latter-day Mata Hari also stole the Vichy French navy's code, handing it out a window of the French embassy to be copied. It greatly eased our North Africa landings.

Besides Miss Thorpe, the only other woman in this male chauvinistic world who was not a hostess, wife, or maid was the brilliant, erratic, tyrannical and Roosevelt-hating Cissy Patterson, owner of the Washington Times Herald. She is treated at great length, and deservedly so. Brinkley's criteria for what to serve up are ruthless. Only the interesting and the readable make his cut. He doesn't feel he has to tell you everything. Washington Goes to War has a point of view; it selects certain events and certain people. And yet it is--as Brinkley typically is--absolutely and completely impersonal. He never appears or intrudes between reader and story. You sort of wonder where he was and what he was doing.

Of course, all of us who were in Washington during this time will have some aspect of the story that we wish Brinkley had devoted more attention to. But that doesn't mean that his book isn't a wonderful read for those of us who lived through it. It should be even better for those who are too young to remember.
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Author:Graham, Katharine
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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