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The Big Two

Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence Vol. I, Alliance Emerging Vol. II, Alliance Forged Vol. III, Alliance Declining

edited with commentary by Warren F. Kimball
Vol. I, 674 pp.

Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence Vol. II, Alliance Forged

edited with commentary by Warren F. Kimball
773 pp.

Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence Vol. III, Alliance Declining

edited with commentary by Warren F. Kimball
Princeton University Press, Vol. III, 742 pp., $150.00 (the set)

If the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States has meaning, then it is nowhere more real than in the wartime relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Yet serious problems exist in the recounting of it. Roosevelt died during the last months of the European war, before he could write his memoirs and without having kept a diary. Churchill also kept no diary, and in his memoirs, written immediately after the Allied victory, he was determined, in the interests of smooth postwar Anglo-American relations, to put his dealings with Roosevelt in the best possible light. Although Churchill published in his memoirs the full text of hundreds of his letters to Roosevelt, their complete correspondence is set out for the first time in these three volumes, expertly compiled by Professor Warren Kimball.

During the interwar years, Roosevelt had read Churchill’s biography of that early Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, in which Churchill had written about the need for firm alliances in defeating a predominant and aggressive European power. For his part, although Churchill had forgotten his brief meeting with Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, in London in 1918, he described himself in 1933, in an article widely circulated in the United States, as “an ardent admirer of the main drift and impulse which President Roosevelt has given to the economic and financial policy of the United States.” Also in 1933, he had praised Roosevelt’s “wise action” in seeking to settle the outstanding and divisive Anglo-American war debts. In 1934, in his first radio broadcast to the United States, Churchill had told his listeners, “I don’t say President Roosevelt is right in all his experiments, but one does admire the spirit in which he grapples with difficulties.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, Professor Kimball does not mention these details. Nor does he mention how Roosevelt had responded to Churchill’s distant enthusiasm, sending a message through an intermediary that he was “delighted to have good news of you,” and that he was “particularly pleased” to learn that Churchill was “so definitely in favour of closer Anglo American co operation in the monetary field.”

On his desk in 1937, Roosevelt had a drawing by Churchill: the “currency of the future” as Churchill described it, the pound and dollar signs intertwined. It had been a personal gift. In one of several prewar gestures of friendship, Churchill had entertained Roosevelt’s son James at Chartwell, his country home in Kent. After dinner, Churchill had asked each guest in turn to tell the assembled company his or her “fondest wish.” When the question was put to him, Churchill answered without a moment’s hesitation: “I wish to be Prime Minister and in close and daily communication by telephone with the President of the United States. There is nothing we could not do if we were together.”

This “fondest wish” to be in “close and daily communication” with the President not only came to pass, but is now exposed to public scrutiny in the three volumes under review: not telephone conversations, of which there were relatively few, but a vast number of letters and telegrams, 788 from Roosevelt to Churchill, and 1,161 from Churchill to Roosevelt, surely the most substantial exchange of messages between two national leaders in this or any era.

The idea of starting the correspondence came from Roosevelt in September 1939, eight days after Churchill had become First Lord of the Admiralty, when Roosevelt was anxious to have a direct link with British naval policy and prospects. But from the first days of Churchill’s premiership in May 1940, the chief initiative came from Churchill, who sought to persuade Roosevelt that Britain could survive, despite Hitler’s bombs and Ambassador Kennedy’s pessimistic forecasts, and that a neutral United States should make increasing commitments to Britain’s war effort. After America entered the war, Churchill used his correspondence with Roosevelt to ensure that Britain’s European war requirements were not lost sight of in face of America’s Pacific needs, which were strongly pressed by Admiral King. In both cases Churchill was largely successful. American aid was substantial during the neutral years between 1939 and 1942, and “Europe first” became the American strategic policy once the US entered the war.

It is clear, however, from the exchanges between the two men in June 1940, that Churchill began the relationship with a major miscalculation. As German troops drove toward Paris, he became convinced that Roosevelt was about to commit America to war. Misreading a message from Roosevelt to the French prime minister, Paul Reynaud, Churchill saw an American commitment as imminent. With it, he believed, French morale would soar, and France would rally. But the American commitment was a mirage. France fell, and, as Britain stood alone, Churchill felt cheated. “If we go down,” he warned Roosevelt, “you may have a United States of Europe under the Nazi command far more numerous, far stronger, far better armed than the new world.”

A few days later, however, Churchill became alarmed at the prospect of pressing Roosevelt too hard. There was, he confided in the secrecy of the War Cabinet, as German troops entered Paris, a “danger” in calling too loudly upon Roosevelt: “He might, for example, issue an appeal to all belligerent countries to call the war off.” Such an appeal, Churchill feared, “might, to some extent, shake some sections of British public opinion.” Here was a possible contest that never took place: Churchill’s call to fight on the beaches, set against Roosevelt’s call for a negotiated peace. It was a nightmare that was not to occur again, but it indicated Churchill’s early recognition of Roosevelt’s power, and independence. Kimball, strangely, does not refer to it.

After this false start, Churchill’s requests and Roosevelt’s responses soon went beyond the established lines of Anglo-American policy, as the two men forged closer links, and made greater commitments, than their advisers and Parliaments (or Congress) were aware of, or might have accepted. This was particularly true once Britain stood alone, when Roosevelt allowed Churchill’s emissaries to acquire weapons and munitions from United States Army stocks, against the prevailing and rigid rule.

Churchill, reading each day the most secret details of Britain’s military and financial weakness, was to reject the anti-American sentiment of those Cabinet ministers in London who were unwilling to make the economic sacrifices demanded by the United States as a precondition to Lend-Lease. These sacrifices included the sale of all British company assets in the United States. Roosevelt drove a hard bargain here, but when the British Treasury representative in Washington begged Churchill to realize just how serious Roosevelt was in his demands, Churchill, after initial anger recognized the reality, and deferred to it.

During the long period of American neutrality, there were two particular matters on which Churchill’s requests were successful. The first was the gradual extension of America’s naval vigilance and involvement in the Atlantic, as far east as Iceland, together with American pilots and American staging facilities for the air ferry service from Brazil to West Africa. The second was Roosevelt’s agreement, immediately after the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, to allow munitions being manufactured in the United States exclusively for British war needs to be transferred directly to the Soviet Union. At their first wartime meeting, off the Newfoundland port of Argentia, in August 1941, these and other decisions were confirmed and widened. “I am sure,” Churchill reported to his deputy, Clement Attlee, “I have established warm and deep personal relations with our great friend.”

As well as his personal links and correspondence with Roosevelt, Churchill created two other avenues of conciliation, through Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman. It was to Hopkins (whom he appreciatively called “Lord Root of the Matter”) that Churchill frequently turned when he wanted to get the President’s ear, first on Lend-Lease, then on the exchange of atomic secrets. Again and again Hopkins was the third man of the Roosevelt–Churchill axis, with Harriman a close fourth, especially in explaining to Roosevelt the reasons for Britain’s concentration on the North African theater of war, a decision not initially understood by Roosevelt, but eventually accepted by him. Churchill turned repeatedly to Hopkins and Harriman for effective representation at the White House. He also drew upon Field Marshal Dill, the head of the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington, and even upon Marshall and Eisenhower, to get Britain’s position across when it seemed that the direct messages to Roosevelt were failing to do so. Not for nothing was one of Churchill’s favorite exhortations “Neglect no means.”

As American neutrality persisted, first Yugoslavia, then Greece and Crete, fell to German forces, with considerable British losses in men and morale. “People must have hope,” Churchill warned Roosevelt, “to face the long haul that lies ahead.” For Churchill personally, that hope derived from his conviction that the United States would eventually be a partner in the war against Germany. But he did not underrate in 1941, as he had done in 1940, the obstacles facing Roosevelt in committing America to war, telling his War Cabinet colleagues as late as November 1941 of “the difficulties which faced President Roosevelt as a result of the slow development of American opinion and the peculiarities of the American Constitution.” Churchill added, as the War Cabinet’s records show:

President Roosevelt was a great leader. In the last twelve months American opinion had moved under his leadership to an extent which nobody could have anticipated. They had made immense credits available to us; they had made immense resources available to us under the Lease-Lend Act; their Navy was escorting the Atlantic convoys; and finally they were taking a firm line with the Japanese.

It would, however, Churchill warned, “be a great error” on his part to press President Roosevelt “to act in advance of American opinion.”

Two weeks before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt pressed Churchill for a conciliatory policy toward Japan. Informing Churchill of proposals for a modus vivendi put forward by the Japanese ambassador in Washington, he proposed a possible modification of the Anglo-American economic embargo on Japan, permitting the renewal of certain exports from the United States to Japan. He suggested to Churchill that Britain do the same for a trial period of three months. But Roosevelt ended his telegram: “I am not very hopeful and we must all be prepared for real trouble, possibly soon.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by Hitler’s declaration of war against the United States a few days later, gave Churchill the American participation in the war for which he had waited so long. “I have never felt so sure about the final victory,” he telegraphed to Roosevelt forty-eight hours after Pearl Harbor, “but only concerted action will achieve it.” It was Churchill’s fear that lack of “concerted action” might lead to the eclipse of Britain’s interests, which led him to make his second wartime journey across the Atlantic. “May God keep you,” Clementine Churchill wrote as her husband set off for Washington, “and inspire you to make good plans with the President.”

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