By David Brinkley; Alfred A. Knopf; 286 pages.
Of the world’s major capitals, Washington, D.C., was long considered an incongruity —a provincial Southern town wrapped in the sleepy embrace of its single client, the U.S. government. In David Brinkley’s Washington Goes to War , we are given the city in World War Il at the moment of its sudden and dramatic transformation into a world center.
Brinkley’s voice and eye inform his book, although the first person is never used. Still, when he describes an event as seen by “a young reporter,” we know who he means. His tone is in turn funny, ironic, and once in a while angry, and his words march in a cadence that has become familiar to television viewers. It is an engaging, not intrusive, sense of the author that we find here.
As gently as a Frank Capra film, Washington Goes to War summons up life in a small city in the last days of peace: “It was still possible in 1941 to walk through the White House gate and into the grounds without showing a pass or answering any questions, since the White House was not yet considered much different from any other public building in the city. Until a few years before there had been no gates at all, and on summer days government employees had lounged on the White House lawns eating picnic lunches out of paper sacks.”
Brinkley also evokes the nighttime noise of insects slamming against a screen porch and the “iron moan” of a trolley turning a curve out on Wisconsin Avenue. Later, as war dominates the city, we find Eleanor Roosevelt showing up to boost morale at the drab, inadequate housing hastily thrown up for the Waves. She invited the young women to climb in the President’s car one at a time and instructed them to “write home and tell your mothers you’ve sat in President Roosevelt’s limousine.”
Less warmly, Brinkley depicts the frenzied social quadrille of Washington’s “best” families and the way Axis representatives, held in classy West Virginia resorts right after Pearl Harbor, squabbled among themselves to the point where “the State Department feared the diplomats would soon be stabbing each other in their beds with sharpened knives stolen from the dining room.”
Among his hundreds of interviews are those with blacks, both resident and newly arrived, who watched their own circumstances deteriorate at worst or barely improve at best in the war’s booming economy. He recounts their struggle for housing in the nation’s capital and for the right to eat at a lunch counter there. With brisk disdain Brinkley observes the antics of senators from Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi during a filibuster aimed - successfully —at retaining the poll tax. Eventually a motion to cl’f4ture was imposed, “and, as the script called for, it was duly voted down. Curtain. Applause. The poll tax lived.”
Presumably this Senate testimony was taken from the Congressional Record , but one can only guess because the book lacks specific notes to the chapters (three pages of general acknowledgments appear at the end). Brinkley’s account is so richly anecdotal that one wants to pin down some facts, and find out more about others. Moreover, this solid history of the war years doesn’t even have an index. It deserves better. That aside, Washington Goes to War tackles a vast subject with grace and humor.