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Churchill and the Presidents: Franklin Roosevelt
Churchill interacted with eleven U.S. presidents—as many as the Queen. He did not meet all of them, as she has; but you can trace their influence on his thought and principles as you read.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (4 March 1933—12 April 1945)
Note: To cover this long and complex relationship would take far more space than the summary format of our “Churchill and the Presidents” series allows. We focus accordingly on the circumstances that brought Churchill and Roosevelt together, their key points of agreement and disagreement, and a list of the best current works for students and readers to consider.
There has been no greater threat to civilization in the 20th century than Nazi Germany. The immediate danger—military, economic, cultural—was to European civilization, but a Nazi-controlled Europe would have threatened much more than just the West. As the conqueror and owner of Europe, Hitler’s Germany would have had the resources to dominate the Mediterranean, to control the Middle East, and threaten the Western Hemisphere. Perhaps that empire would have collapsed from the pressures of over-expansion, but even a relatively brief Nazi rule would have been horrible. The Second World War was the sine qua non for saving much of the world from another descent into dystopian barbarism.1
A unique feature of that war was the first significant historical connection between a British prime minister and an American president. The Great Depression, and Roosevelt’s response to it, fixed his place in history. Yet before the war, Churchill, despite his huge public persona, seemed destined to be remembered as just another of minor ministers who populated British governments, though his writings would have raised him above the pack.
Public greatness is an enormous challenge. A personal challenge can be large, but it is essentially private. World War II provided that public challenge for Churchill, and offered Roosevelt an additional opportunity for historical prominence.
Absent the war, neither Churchill nor Roosevelt would have led their countries in the 1940s. Churchill, who had come to support rearming and a tougher line toward Hitler, was rescued from the back-benches of Parliament after Germany ignored the agreements made at Munich, occupied Czechoslovakia, and attacked Poland in September 1939. However much Americans may have credited FDR for his New Deal policies, the two-term “tradition” and voter fatigue would likely have prevented him from running for third term in office—had the world remained at peace.
They had met briefly in 1917 and Churchill had entertained the President’s son at Chartwell and had sent FDR his Marlborough volumes. But their personal exchanges really began when Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty (roughly equivalent to the U.S. Secretary of the Navy) on 3 September 1939.2 A week later, the president suggested that Churchill and the prime minister (Chamberlain) “keep me in touch personally” using the diplomatic (i.e. secret) “pouch.” While agreeing that Churchill might keep in touch, Chamberlain himself did not open a correspondence. His own relationship with FDR was ambiguous, having bottomed in early 1938, when Roosevelt had offered to mediate a European settlement and was pointedly rejected. Churchill enthusiastically took up the task, writing from the Admiralty, and adroitly signing his messages, “Naval Person.”
Roosevelt followed up with a telephone call to Churchill about a rumored threat to an American merchant ship, USS Iroquois. (Intelligence warned that a bomb might have been placed aboard during her stop at Queenstown, Ireland; but no explosion occurred.) The President’s motive was straightforward: thinking that Churchill might become prime minister, FDR wanted to “keep my hand in.” By the time the war’s end approached, in mid-1945, he and Churchill had exchanged nearly 2000 messages and letters.3
“Former Naval Person”
Whole books have been written of their relationship, which reflected and refracted all stages of the war. Their “getting to know you” phase shifted into high gear when Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, now signing his messages, “Former Naval Person.” By June 14th, the Germans had taken Paris, which the French had declared an open city. Eight days later, France signed an armistice that left Germany in possession most of France, along with the bulk of Western Europe.
Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Churchill consistently sought to bring the United States into the war. Churchill himself spoke of “courting” the President. Speaking of their relationship after the war he said: “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.”4 While Roosevelt condemned Hitler’s excesses, entering what seemed to Americans to be just another European conflict was not on the table. By autumn 1941, after his hopeful meeting with FDR in Newfoundland in August, Churchill’s deepest fear was that the Americans would not come to Britain’s aid in time to avert Britain’s slow strangulation, what with Hitler’s U-boats taking a deadly toll on British shipping, and the Wehrmacht rolling back Soviet forces in Russia.
Hoping to prod Roosevelt into action, the Prime Minister had repeatedly hinted that a future British government—not under him, he hastened to note—might be forced to negotiate with Hitler. The pattern of prod and veiled threat had recurred time and again for the past eighteen months. As he put it in his very first message to FDR as prime minister: “I trust you realize that the voice and force of the United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long.”5
No wonder Churchill was worried. If Roosevelt had a master plan for entering the war against Nazi Germany, he hid it well.6 His words, private and public, and his actions, demonstrated persistent reluctance to become a belligerent, particularly with ground forces in Europe. For all of 1940 and into 1941, he seems to have thought (defensively and wishfully) that Germany could be contained within Europe, and that American involvement could be limited to naval and air actions—all done without declaring war.
The destroyers-for-bases arrangement (August 1940), by which Britain got some outmoded World War I ships in return for leases to British bases in the Western Hemisphere, was more important symbolically than militarily. Even then, it became possible only after Churchill reluctantly (lest it seem defeatist) agreed to send the British Fleet to North America (presumably Halifax, Nova Scotia) if defeat or negotiations with Hitler were imminent. Even Lend-Lease (March 1941) was, initially, as much about U.S. industrial and military rearming as it was about helping Britain fight the war. It would be at least a year before Lend-Lease aid showed up in large amounts.
In hindsight, it is clear that Britain and its Dominions survived the first eighteen months of the war largely alone, Canada, New Zealand and Australia contributing more than their share. What the United States contributed, at Roosevelt’s behest, was hope—the possibility that the Americans would one day enter full-fledged and turn the tide.
That all changed when, on 22 June 1941, Hitler broke the Nazi-Soviet pact and attacked Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). The war-long effect of Stalin, the ghost in the attic rattling the chains, is for another essay; suffice to say that concern about the Soviet Union as an ally, and a possible adversary in the postwar era, never left Churchill or Roosevelt. From the outset, they understood that the full defeat of Hitler required the Red Army, a reality that gave Stalin bargaining leverage. Moreover, they recognized that victory would make the Soviet Union a major player in the postwar world.
With the start of the Nazi-Soviet war in the East, Great Britain won its most crucial wartime battle—the struggle for survival. The Battle of Britain had shown that the Germans could not control the skies over England and, therefore, could not launch an attack across the Channel. The struggle against German U-boats (the Battle of the Atlantic) to keep the ocean supply line would continue difficult in 1942, but despite heavy losses, supplies kept flowing to Britain—and Russia via the Arctic route to Murmansk. The steady diversion of German resources to the Eastern Front ensured that Britain could longer be threatened, unless Hitler make quick work of the Red Army—which did not happen. Then came Pearl Harbor, when Churchill knew America was now “up to the neck and in to the death.”
From 1941 through 1942, with the United States still gearing up, Britain fighting Rommel in North Africa, and the Russians awaiting a renewed German offensive after defending Moscow, the Anglo-American and hence the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship remained one of hopes and promises. With Britain doing the bulk of the fighting in the west, Churchill’s preference for attacks on the peripheries of German-held territory made sense, leading to the successful invasions of French Northwest Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy. FDR, overriding his military advisers, bought into Churchill’s proposals, but not his ultimate strategy.
The Churchill-Roosevelt relationship shifted in late 1942 and 1943, as the American contribution to the struggle grew—initially in the form of military supplies, then, with the invasion of northwest Africa, military forces. Eventually, Churchill would refer to himself, unenthusiastically, I suspect, as the President’s “loyal lieutenant.”
A Proper Understanding
To understand Franklin Roosevelt, you need a crystal ball. That lacking, we should analyze his policies by results rather than some overriding ideology or theory. Yet there was a certain consistency. Roosevelt’s public statements were routinely opaque, probably because he was guessing, “flying by the seat of his pants.” He quipped that his left hand didn’t know what his right was doing—an obvious piece of misdirection.7 What he meant was that practical politics, the search for good solutions, called for compromise in one place and high principle in another. The Atlantic Charter’s promise of self-determination applied in his view to Britain and its empire, but not to Stalin and the Baltic States. But his instincts, like Churchill’s, were superb.
To understand modern perceptions of Churchill, we need to remember that he had something to say about nearly everything. I know of no person more quoted—and misquoted. Facile interpretations of his intentions, of his true goals, based upon a single impolitic statement, are silly. As he himself commented, he relied on his staff to act as filters for rash, spontaneous comments. To understand Churchill, study his actions, not just his words. He feared and despised what he called Bolshevism. Yet despite the impression given in his war memoirs of insisting on wartime military campaigns that would limit Soviet expansion, he followed FDR’s ideas of turning the wartime alliance into postwar cooperation, and worked honestly and effectively with Stalin and the Russians until after the Yalta Conference in January 1945.
Were Churchill and Roosevelt friends? Leaders of nation-states do not have the luxury of making true friendships. They obviously made an effort to promote a personal relationship. Cook-outs, so-called fishing trips, friendly and complimentary official messages and personal letters, all helped smooth over the inevitable tensions of alliance politics. They seem to have enjoyed each other’s company. Churchill was wedded to personal meetings at the “summit”; he and Roosevelt met nine times. Usually those meetings included get-togethers, both before and after the formal conference, gatherings that both social and convivial, lubricated by dry and not-so-dry martinis. They sent each other gifts and birthday and Christmas greetings, and exchanged personal messages, even family news. That camaraderie could not settle their differences, but it did grease the wheels of cooperation. Without doubt they came to admire each other. Roosevelt quickly got past stories that Churchill was a drunk; Churchill soon realized that sea stories offered a common interest.
Both were optimists who assumed that winning the war would give them time to work out the awkward wartime and postwar compromises. But leaders rarely have the luxury of enough time. And there were conflicts tangential to the Second World War that would pose postwar challenges. Franklin Roosevelt died on the 12 April 1945. Winston Churchill resigned as prime minister on 26 July 1945, after his Conservative Party suffered an overwhelming defeat in a Parliamentary election. Two of the three men (Stalin being the third) who led what Churchill christened the Grand Alliance could not lead the establishment of the same kind of practical, cooperative alliance that had won the war—and without that victory, all else is irrelevant.
A Summary of Their Views
What follows is a series of interpretive comments about Churchill, Roosevelt and where they agreed and disagreed. Each of these points is worthy of an essay all by itself, and I hope we will see some by enterprising students.
Key points of agreement:
- That the Soviet Union had to be kept active in the war.
- That the USSR would be a major player in the postwar world (but see disagreements).
- That an extensive bombing campaign was essential to the war effort.
- That their personal relationship, which they both consciously cultivated (whatever their wives’ misgivings), was crucial to the alliance and thus to winning the war.
- That Hitler and Japan would inevitably be defeated.
- That an invasion of Western Europe was necessary, in good part to ensure that the Anglo-Americans liberated Western Europe.
- That their primary loyalty was to their nation and its interests, and that another world war would be disastrous for their country.
- That the long-term value of the United Nations organization was doubtful.
Major Points of disagreement:
- Over whether Britain should commit to sending her fleet to the Western Hemisphere if the Germans launched a successful invasion of the British Isles.
- Over the fate of Russia. Initially, Churchill and his military advisors predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse before the German onslaught. Roosevelt concluded otherwise, particularly after his closest advisor, Harry Hopkins, visited Moscow and spoke to Stalin.
- Over the invasion of France as the key to defeating Germany. Roosevelt, following his military advice, insisted on an invasion of France in force. Churchill, also with military advice, advocated a series of attacks around the periphery of German-held territory.
- Over Russia after the war. FDR, ever the optimist, believed (or wanted to believe) that Stalin could be convinced that the West was not committed to destruction of the Soviet regime, though the President occasionally hedged his bets (e.g., keeping the atomic bomb secret). Churchill agreed with the hedging, and looked for practical ways to create military and political security for Western and, to some degree, East-central Europe. For both of them it was a Hobson’s Choice, since the two-front war and the Red Army were essential.
- Over colonialism. Roosevelt firmly believed European colonialism had been a major cause of World War I, and that it had continued to be a source of international disputes and tensions before World War II. Churchill had sworn defend the realm, which when he took office included the British Empire (although there were several instances when Churchill admitted that the empire’s days were likely numbered). In 2015, this disagreement may seem relatively unimportant, but in the 1940s it was a serious question.
1 Germany attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. Two days later France and Great Britain quickly declared war on Germany. That formal declaration of war (not the vogue in today’s world) came after nearly a decade of German demands for territory in central Europe. In the conquered territories the Nazi regime began its campaign against Jews and others that Hitler and his coterie considered “inferior races”; a campaign that would culminate in the horrific death camps where Jews were, in a favorite Nazi word, “exterminated.”
2 They had a long-forgotten and meaningless introduction in 1917 (when Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the navy), and some similarly impersonal contacts in the 1930s: James Roosevelt visited Chartwell shortly after his father’s election, and Churchill sent FDR inscribed copies of his life of Marlborough.
3 1951 exchanges to be precise: 1161 from Churchill and 790 from Roosevelt. That does not include a handful of telephone conversation transcripts or indirect/third-party exchanges. FDR’s telephone call is in Warren F. Kimball, ed., Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, 3 vols. (Princeton University Press, 1984), I 25.
4 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 8, Never Despair 1945-1965 (Hillsdale College Press, 2013), 415.
5 Churchill to Roosevelt [C-9x], 15 May 1940, in Kimball, Correspondence, I 50.
6 There are historians who believe that FDR plotted (in the conspiratorial sense) to enter the war even before it actually began. More recently, there are some historians who aver that Roosevelt did plan for the United States to enter the war, and followed his plan brilliantly; e.g., Conrad Black, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003).
7 Memo of conversation between Roosevelt and Morgenthau, 15 May 1942, Presidential Diary, 1093, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Papers, FDR Library.
Warren F. Kimball is author of Forged in War, The Juggler, and books on the Morgenthau Plan and the origins of Lend-Lease, and edited with commentary the Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence. He has published over fifty essays on Churchill, Roosevelt and the era of the Second World War. He is the Robert Treat Professor (emeritus) at Rutgers University, and was Pitt Professor at Cambridge, 1987-88. His institutional history of the U.S. Tennis Association will be published in 2017.
Books on Churchill and Roosevelt
This list is limited to broad studies specifically about Churchill and Roosevelt, though there are many on the “Big Three” and wartime diplomacy. We omit several on Churchill and Roosevelt that are dated by the opening of previously restricted wartime documents. Notes are based on our annotated Bibliography of Works about Churchill. Many have been reissued as paperbacks and e-books.
Keith Alldritt, The Greatest of Friends: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill 1941-1945. New York: St. Martin’s Press; London: Robert Hale, 1995. The author focuses on their personalities, wit, poignancy and hubris, their successes and failures, their arguments and jealousies, tiffs and snubs. Some readers found it light, with little that was new.
Warren F. Kimball, ed. Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, 3 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984. This seminal three-volume achievement collects all the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence, carefully arranged and footnoted, together with scholarly connecting tissue, to reveal the background. A major resource to the two figures.
Warren F. Kimball, Forged in War: Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Second World War. New York: Morrow, 1997. The author blends a comprehensive view of the war with a barrage of sources and his own views, presenting a thoughtful book that furthers understanding, or at least debate, on the wartime partnership.
Jon Meacham, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship. New York: Random House, 2003: Granta paperback and Kindle, 2005. At the time senior editor of Newsweek, Meacham gets down to the personalities and style of the two leaders, with insight and thoughtful reflection. With photos, source notes, index, and a very useful appendix summarizing all the wartime meetings: who, what, when, where, and topics discussed.
Keith Sainsbury, Churchill and Roosevelt at War. New York: NYU Press, 1994. A scholarly collection of essays which aims to reexamine and reinterpret the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship, particularly over the issues of France, China, Poland and the World War II Second Front, to show how Churchill presided over the decline of British greatness.
- More limited in scope than the above are David Stafford, Roosevelt and Churchill: Men of Secrets (New York: Overlook Press, 2003) and Theodore A. Wilson, The First Summit: Roosevelt and Churchill at Placentia Bay 1941 (revised edition, Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1991). Warren Kimball’s study of Roosevelt’s statesmanship in the 1944-45 period is The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (Princeton University Press, 1991). For valuable insights from the early postwar period, see Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, (revised edition, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1950).
Numerous titles have been published with a wider scope than the above, particularly wartime diplomacy involving Stalin, Truman and Attlee as well as Churchill and Roosevelt. A forthcoming collection of Stalin’s Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt, edited by Vladimir Petchatnov and David Reynolds, will provide valuable new insights, based on Soviet era documents, into the policies and thinking of Joseph Stalin—the greatest single concern of Roosevelt and Churchill once Nazi Germany was in retreat.
The Official Biography, Winston S. Churchill, is replete with narrative on the relationship (volumes 6 and 7), with supporting material in The Churchill Documents (volumes 14-19).