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General Dwight D. Eisenhower in an undated photograph taken during World War II. He and American Ambassador to Great Britain Gil Winant had a close working relationship. (Courtesy of the Signal Corps, U.S. Army)

Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Gil Winant a champion of the people in wartime Britain

When New Hampshire’s former Governor John G. “Gil” Winant arrived in London as the American Ambassador to Great Britain in March 1941, the U.S. was a neutral country in the war in Europe — though Britain had been benefitting from limited American military assistance and humanitarian aid.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, changed everything. Within days both the U.S. and Britain were at war with Japan, and the U.S. had joined Britain in its ongoing war with Germany and Italy.

With the two countries now bound together as full military partners, America’s seemingly limitless resources would now be fully deployed in an all-out effort to win the war on both the European and Pacific fronts. For the remainder of World War II Gil Winant would carry out his complex and often wearisome duties under extremely difficult circumstances.

Winant depended on his moral compass to guide him in doing what he felt was best for the war effort, and for the people of Great Britain and the members of the American military serving in Europe. One notable incident that demonstrated his devotion to helping ordinary people took place in June 1942 when coal miners in northern England illegally went on strike to protest long hours, heavy taxation and low wages. This was a serious situation as coal was desperately needed for the war effort.

Winant traveled to the mining town of Durham along with British officials, where he met with representatives of the striking miners. As historian Bernard Bellush described, Ambassador Winant “was warmly greeted by union leaders and a hall-full of delegates representing thousands of striking workers. To these hard-working miners, who had spent much of their lives in the depths of the earth, Winant spoke movingly of the fight against fascism. … At the same time he insisted that this was a war … which had to be won on the economic as well as the military fronts, and laborers everywhere had to fight and work, had to man and arm the forces of democracy.”

Looking to the future, Winant went on to make an essential point that resonated deeply with the miners who, having suffered through the Great Depression, were now burdened by the war. He said, “We must solemnly resolve that in our future order we will not tolerate the economic evils which breed poverty and war.”

The assembled miners reacted enthusiastically to Winant’s words, as these indicated that he understood their plight, and they were further enthralled when he remained in the hall for 90 minutes to answer their questions. Winant hadn’t mentioned the strike in his remarks, but within days all of the striking miners had returned to work.

Reports of Winant’s handling of this volatile situation made headlines not only in Britain, but around the world. His skill in communicating with the miners reflected his experience in helping to settle the violent strike at the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, N.H., in 1933, his work to resolve a national textile workers strike in 1934, and his more recent leadership of the International Labor Organization.

With the arrival of thousands of American military personnel in Britain beginning in early 1942, Winant became concerned that potential culture clashes could undermine efforts to establish cooperation and camaraderie between the Americans and the war-weary British.

After General Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived in Britain in June 1942 to take command of U.S. troops in Europe, he and Winant began working closely together to find ways to assure that the “friendly invasion” of American troops would proceed as smoothly as possible. This led to an educational effort that included well-produced movies and printed materials that were distributed to the troops to provide them with information about British customs, as well as tips on how to interact with the British people.

Both Winant and Eisenhower were also worried that American servicemen who were accused of committing crimes in Britain could be mistreated if subject to the British criminal justice system. The two men worked together to encourage the British Parliament to pass the United States of America (Visiting Forces) Act, which went into effect in August 1942. This law gave the American military exclusive jurisdiction over American servicemen in criminal matters.

Next week: Gil Winant’s son is captured by the Germans.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at or at


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