Some weeks ago Sir Isaiah Berlin gave a broadcast in which he described his first visit to the legendary Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in Moscow in 1945 - a visit cut short in its prime by the bellowing of Randolph Churchill in the courtyard outside, hotly pursued by the Russian Secret Police. Alas, such humorous anecdotes will not be found by Berlin devotees in his latest book, Washington Despatches. Berlin was actually on his way to Moscow as Press Attaché when he was dismissed by the British Ambassador, Sir Stafford Cripps, then greedily snapped up by our men in New York: by 1942 he had become a member of the Survey Section of the Embassy in Washington. Each week he drew up a political commentary for despatch to London, but any hopes of witnessing the formidable Berlin intellect at war in the corridors of US power will be disappointed. Although - a trifle immodestly - he claims in his Introduction that his material was considered by Denis Brogan in London to be 'the Ariadne's thread through the labyrinths of American politics', it is hard to see Berlin as Theseus in these reports, which veer from matters of local American concern (labour troubles etc) to generalities so general one can only yawn one's way through. The burning issues of America's entry into the war, the loss of the Philippines, the disastrous first eight months of 1942, the whole question of the Second Front, the great conferences at Yalta and Tehran, the agonising questions of post-war Europe, of Palestine and - still so agonising today - of Poland, are dealt with summarily, drily, in no way memorably. Why should this gifted man have failed to deliver something more rewarding?
LRB 5 November 1981 | PDF Download