A Question of Confidence

Roosevelt and Churchill 1939-1941: The Partnership That Saved the West

by Joseph P. Lash
Norton, 528 pp., $12.95

Roosevelt and Churchill: Their Secret Wartime Correspondence

edited by Francis L. Loewenheim, edited by Harold D. Langley, edited by Manfred Jonas
Saturday Review Press/Dutton, 805 pp., $17.50

Two books with nearly identical titles—one is a recent Book-of-the-Month Club selection, the other was scarcely noticed when it appeared a year and a half ago. Yet the latter is not only the more important but also the more readable. This conclusion, which crept up on me by surprise, besides betraying the vagaries of publishing, prompts certain reflections about styles in writing the history of the Second World War, now that a full generation has gone by since its close.

On September 11, 1939—ten days after the outbreak of war—Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Winston Churchill the first of the messages that were to continue to shuttle back and forth across the Atlantic for precisely five years and seven months, until the eve of the American president’s death on April 12, 1945. Such a correspondence was without precedent. Initiated by Roosevelt on the tenuous pretext of a shared interest in naval affairs—Churchill having just returned to his First World War post of First Lord of the Admiralty—it began as a highly irregular way of circumventing the man who remained in office as Churchill’s nominal chief, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

It also started as a correspondence between two leaders who did not know each other. Although they had in fact met two decades earlier, the encounter had left with neither one a strong or lasting impression. Not until their meeting at Argentia Bay off Newfoundland in August 1941 did they achieve a face-to-face understanding to match the tone of friendship that was already suffusing their written exchanges. And by that time Churchill had been prime minister for a year and a quarter and Pearl Harbor was only four months away. Their semi-illicit correspondence was on the verge of transmuting itself into what was to become the sturdiest chain in the Anglo-American wartime partnership.

No wonder, then, that this relationship and these messages—sometimes coming as thickly as more than one a day—have fascinated historians. Never before had an alliance been conducted in so personal a fashion: two aristocrats, both gifted amateurs exuding a sense of having been born to rule, shared their thoughts and actions, pleasures and worries, badinage and anger, with the sovereign self-confidence which came naturally to both as they juggled with the fates of a score of nations. The overwhelming importance of their exchanges does not need to be argued. What is at issue is two contrasting methods of handling them.

Lash’s book ends with America’s entry into the war: the volume edited by Loewenheim, Langley, and Jonas covers the whole story. But since Lash presumably intends to publish further books until he has the record complete, this is not the major distinction between them. The real difference is that while Lash surrounds the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence with a dense connective tissue taken from an enormous variety of other sources, Loewenheim, Langley, and Jonas let the messages speak for themselves.

There is one great advantage to Lash’s method: it permits him to trace the dovetailing of domestic and foreign…

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