To London, with Love: For the Fashionably Late

Ivan Lett—

It has been observed many times, many ways, how late the United States entered World War II, much to the chagrin of its European friends fighting the Axis Powers. My favorite recap comes from Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill, where he imitates the arrival of a US cavalryman, remarking “I love the smell of Europe in the morning.” His British counterparts are less than amused: “…hell, where’ve you been!?”

Although textbooks date the start of the war with the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, by December 16, 1941, en route to talks in Washington, Winston Churchill proclaimed “This is a new war.” With Britain confined to its island, the lines of Soviet Russia backed up to Moscow, the rest of Europe in the hands of Nazi Germany and its supporters, and Japan’s official decision to go to war with the United States and Britain as its forces dominated the Pacific Rim, the tides of war began to turn. This is the opening of Evan Mawdsley’s December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War.

What I appreciate most about Mawdsley’s narrative is that the action and—I daresay excitement—has less to do with the events themselves and more with his writing. Unlike some focused studies of World War II that have become even more difficult to enjoy as the books multiply and room for interesting observation shrinks, December 1941 covers a brief but critical period of the war, seamlessly showing that the start of this “new war” is responsible for the new world that followed. (I should add that this brilliant structure is similarly employed in P.M.H. Bell’s Twelve Turning Points of World War II; more on this to come next week.) Mawdsley’s writing is fast and animated, packed with detail—the good kind. But as this reader noticed along the way, he blends military and political history so well that it borders on a cultural history, a living culture of international war, specific to these days alone.Through his retelling, the tensions and stakes felt by all sides, and a precise positioning of politicians and soldiers alike during this micro-moment, create a world easy for us to imagine, difficult to conceive in scope of importance without this book.

But why am I going on about this when you can read Mawdsley’s countdown articles on the London office’s Yale Books Blog? Fashionably late, or simply long-worded, as always.

Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.

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