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 policy in Roosevelt’s complex maneuvers. The American president, after all, was obliged to face re-election twice during the years of his correspondence with Churchill, and “crass” political considerations—as in the case of the “Polish vote”—were never far from his thoughts. (Churchill suffered from no such limitations, aside from an occasional vote of confidence in the House of Commons, which he always won handily.) But Lash pays a grievous price for his narrative density. It produces a curiously hybrid work, heavily freighted with anecdote and uncertain in focus—a work neither of considered analysis nor with the illuminating passion of a participant bearing witness to his own experience.
Yet since this book gives every evidence of thorough research and includes the customary paraphernalia of scholarship, professional historians would be unfair to dismiss it as a mere popularization. By the same token they have a right to put to its author the kind of questions they would ask one of themselves: why did he write the book at all (since the story had already been told so often)? What, besides a mass of detail, does he tell us that we did not know before? What major historical problem is he trying to resolve? These three questions in effect boil down to the last; since his book contains no startling revelations, it has to be the author’s statement of his problem that is new.
We find the key—if such it be—in Lash’s introduction. His purpose, he tells us, is to assess in the new light of the Vietnam and Watergate experiences how Roosevelt edged our country into the Second World War. Lash used to think that his protagonist had tricked Congress and the public just as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were to do—the difference being that “history had justified” Roosevelt’s actions. But as he “examined Roosevelt’s conduct before Pearl Harbor more closely,” he realized that he had done the wartime president “an injustice—that at no point did he move without having public opinion with him and that a central feature of his greatness was his ability to mobilize public opinion to get from Congress the action that he deemed necessary.” In brief, we should not hold Roosevelt responsible, except to a very limited extent, for “the abuses of power that almost subverted the Republic in recent years.”
Toward the close of his account, however, Lash shifts ground, returning, apparently, to his earlier view. In discussing the German submarine attack on the destroyer Greer three months before Pearl Harbor, he grants that Roosevelt’s broadcast account of the incident was not fully candid; it omitted the crucial detail that the American ship had been trailing the German: “After a generation of presidential wars it is possible to see that, in the hands of Roosevelt’s successors, the powers that he wielded as commander in chief to deploy the army, navy, and air force as he deemed necessary in the national interest and to portray clashes in distant waters and skies as enemy-initiated [emphasis mine] led the nation into the Vietnamese quagmire.”
What are we to think of this contradiction? It may be a sign of Lash’s honesty in displaying his doubts about his own argument, or perhaps of an inadequate rereading of his book before publication (the two statements are more than 400 pages apart). I should venture that a deeper reason lies in his having introduced the Vietnam parallel in the first place; his grasping for topical interest—what the jacket blurb calls “an almost eerie timeliness”—wrenches his book out of focus and suggests a desperate effort to reach a mass audience.
Yet of whom does this wider audience consist? I cannot imagine anyone but a dedicated enthusiast reading the book straight through. The author’s frequent resort to mixed metaphor and cliché (Poland’s “blitzkrieg destruction bolstered a popular image of Hitler’s Wehrmacht as an unstoppable, fire-breathing juggernaut”) scarcely offers relief from some heavy slogging through personalities and incidents. Even his footnoting method is calculated to drive historians to distraction; multiple source references—sometimes numbering more than ten—are crammed into the same note, so that the careful reader is reduced to a game of hide and seek in tracking down the quotation that concerns him. In view of all the obstacles Lash throws in the path of his public, I can only conclude that his audience largely consists of Second World War veterans like myself.
Only his generation (and mine) will remember as human beings we once read about in the newspapers the enormous cast of characters he introduces with scarcely a word of explanation. Only those who still live under Roosevelt’s spell will be sufficiently indulgent toward the self-importance of a “prologue” that recounts the author’s own meeting with Churchill in the intimacy of the president’s home. (I too as a young man once talked with Roosevelt at a small family dinner in the White House and came away bewitched.) And if a reader such as myself is put off by Lash’s “in-group” manner, there must indeed be something wrong with his approach. People like him and me need to view the personal drama of the Second World War with stereo vision—to reflect on both how it looked to us at the time and how the passage of three decades has tempered our youthful convictions. In this task the eyes of the younger generation to which the editors of the Correspondence belong can provide precious assistance.
Loewenheim, Langley, and Jonas give precisely what we want to know and no more. In a lucid, crisply written general introduction less than a hundred pages long, they summarize the present state of knowledge about the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship and list their own conclusions. Then in presenting the correspondence itself, they meticulously identify each character mentioned; the reader is never at a loss—he is even told just what went on at the Munich gathering that became the symbol of appeasement. Moreover, although the editors of the Correspondence evidently admire their protagonists, they are not dazzled by them; they do not share the attitude—common to my generation—that Harry Hopkins ascribed to Churchill when he was on his way to encounter in the flesh the president who had become his transoceanic friend: “You’d have thought he was being carried up into the heavens to meet God.” Too young to have known such ecstasies, the editors remain cool and judicious. Self-effacing to a fault, they offer the unvarnished original.
Perhaps it should not surprise us that despite the inevitably miscellaneous character of these messages, they come through more clearly when exposed without adornment than when accompanied by Lash’s elaborate gloss. It was also in the nature of the correspondents themselves that Churchill should have written more often, at greater length, and more frequently in his own voice—as opposed to that of a ghost-writer or draftsman—than the American president. We hear an angry or a hurt prime minister as though he were speaking; a truly Rooseveltian turn of phrase seldom appears. This unevenness of the record is accentuated by the fact that there are crucial gaps—which the editors do their best to fill in—when an international conference, whether official or private, is in progress. Yet even the lacunae are eloquent: what I for one learned to my amazement (never having tried to add things up) was that Roosevelt and Churchill spent an again unprecedented total of 120 days in each other’s company.
Besides documenting differing temperaments the correspondence bears witness to the gigantic scale on which red tape was cut. Faced with the informality of the Roosevelt-Churchill exchanges, we are led to wonder how the alliance could have been conducted at all without some such device for getting around the cumbersome procedures of the British and American staffs. For, as the editors emphasize repeatedly, the top military men in each country distrusted each other; every major strategic decision was a source of bitter strife. In these circumstances, Churchill and Roosevelt alone could arbitrate. In the earlier phases of their combined effort, the prime minister got his way more often. As the war went on and the American armed contribution counted ever more heavily, the balance began to tip toward the president. The turning point apparently came in the summer of 1944, when Roosevelt imposed the plan of a southern French landing over the “solemn protest” of Churchill, who pleaded to the very end for an advance through northeast Italy toward Vienna.
In this, as throughout the last year of the war in Europe, the British prime minister was constantly striving to ensure that at the close of hostilities the line dividing the Red Army from the Anglo-Americans—which he foresaw would settle into a de facto ideological frontier—should run considerably to the east of where it was eventually drawn. The American president, echoing the arguments of Generals Marshall and Eisenhower (and perhaps conscious also of his own approaching death), was more concerned about winning the war as quickly as possible by mounting a direct, concerted assault on the German heartland. The debate over these two views has long been a staple of Second World War history, and the publication of the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence adds little to what is already general knowledge. It gives further substance, however, to the consensus reached long ago by the specialists that there was nothing sinister about the fact that the American military leaders in effect helped Stalin to achieve his long-range goals; the coincidence of the two strategies was fortuitous.
If further proof were needed, the correspondence provides it in documenting Roosevelt’s abiding anxieties over Poland. Here, although the case was probably hopeless from the start, the American president and his British friend never gave up trying. There is more in their exchanges about securing the freedom of the Polish people than about any other single question. Indeed, after their sharp disagreements of 1944, by March of the following year their shared worry over Soviet high-handedness in East Central Europe seems to have drawn them closer to each other. “In his last days,” the editors conclude, “Roosevelt stood together with Churchill as rarely before.”
This is an electrifying hypothesis, which clamors for elucidation. Unfortunately the evidence is scanty and cryptic. The locus classicus is Roosevelt’s final message, dated April 11, 1945, with its famous concluding words: “We must be firm, however, and our course thus far is correct.” Which course did he mean?—this is the nub of the problem—the Yalta policy of trying to “get along” with Stalin or the new policy, whose outlines were just beginning to unfold, of speaking more sternly? The editors of the Correspondence suggest the latter. In particular they point to another message, sent less than a week earlier, which has perhaps not received the attention it deserves: “Our armies will in a very few days be in a position that will permit us to become ‘tougher’ than has heretofore appeared advantageous to the war effort.” Exhausted though he was—hence the brevity of his communications—at the time of his death Roosevelt seems to have been girding himself for a harder line toward the Russians. I find this interpretation convincing. It underlines once more the need for viewing the shift from Roosevelt to Truman as less clearcut than the mythology of both right and left would have it.
What is more disturbing is the occasional pettiness and shortsightedness that the Correspondence documents. Churchill and Roosevelt each cherished a particular bête noire: for the British prime minister, it was the Italian anti-Fascists, for the American president, de Gaulle’s Free French. Churchill, wedded to the notion of a “tame and helpful” monarchical Italy, kept dismissing as “aged and hungry politicians” the staunch (if, admittedly, veteran) democrats, including a certain “dwarf professor” Benedetto Croce, who had opposed Mussolini for two decades. Roosevelt would similarly announce that he was “fed up” with de Gaulle, that he wanted to “divorce” himself from de Gaulle, and finally—when a visit to Washington by the French leader was impending—that he, Roosevelt, would do his “best to attract” de Gaulle’s “interest to the Allied war effort”—one of the rare examples of authentic Rooseveltian humor that the Correspondence provides. Both he and his British friend eventually had to back down: even in Western Europe they could not call the political tune—let alone in the East. Churchill found himself obliged to swallow Italy’s anti-Fascist politicians; Roosevelt with somewhat better grace accepted de Gaulle as the ruler of liberated France.
If these were merely isolated examples of myopia, they could be dismissed as the inevitable foibles of the great. Unfortunately for their long-term historical reputations, both “Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s conduct of the war as a political process was distinguished by a remarkable lack of foresight.” This verdict, which comes toward the close of the editors’ general introduction, may strike American readers as unduly harsh. We are familiar with Churchill’s illusions about preserving “his majesty’s empire” and about his country’s playing a predominant postwar role in the Mediterranean; we know less about Roosevelt’s blind spots. But the Correspondence suggests that aside from needling his British friend over India, and some indiscreet, off-hand remarks to the Sultan of Morocco, the American president gave little attention to the colonial world. He was nearly as unimaginative as Churchill in whatever vision he entertained of a future constellation in which the Western powers might no longer rank as the unquestioned center. “The President and the Prime Minister,” the editors conclude, “were not reflective men”; even if they had not been caught up in the day-to-day imperatives of rapid decision, they would have been disinclined by temperament to speculate on what lay decades ahead.
Such, it seems to me, is the most valid charge that can be lodged against them. The real count is not that they trusted Stalin or signed at Yalta an agreement which proved worthless; it is that they both incarnated a certain arrogance which led them to overestimate their personal powers of persuasion and the weight in world affairs of the nations they led.
That is the sort of long-range judgment which finds no place in an anecdotal, laudatory book like Lash’s. His belongs to a genre which we have been reading now for more than a quarter century, ever since Robert E. Sherwood’s Roosevelt and Hopkins first gave us a peep into the “secret history” of the Second World War. Authors of the close-to-events type of narrative, unable to stand back from their protagonists’ mental universe, have difficulty sorting out reality from illusion. For the war’s central phase, from 1942 to 1944, when the “Grand Alliance” was going full blast and the chief points of contention were strategic rather than political, such a limitation of view is acceptable. But it becomes a major source of trouble in dealing with the ambiguous close of the conflict and its equally ambiguous opening years.
And so we return to Lash and the matter of a stealthy “bobbing and weaving” toward intervention. The editors of the Correspondence agree with him that “Roosevelt never had any secret plans to take the United States into war in 1940-1941, nor did he make secret commitments to that effect.” But they also agree that the president’s relative candor derived from an illusion even grosser than those familiar to us from the controversy over how the cold war began. This self-deception—apparently shared by Churchill—was simply that the Second World War could be won by the Western allies without the active participation of American ground troops, that “no…American expeditionary force would be required.”
Hence in his Boston campaign speech of October 1940, Roosevelt thought he was telling the truth when he assured “you mothers and fathers” that their “boys” were “not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” He was not consciously deceiving the American public. And even in the following year, as he maneuvered the navy toward an undeclared “shooting war,” he was still not thinking of an unlimited military commitment. He was merely “looking for an incident” at sea—which, ironically enough, he eventually got in the Pacific rather than in the main area of confrontation off Iceland—that would free him from the need of proceeding warily and in frequent consultation with Congress.
The curious thing about this illusion is that it vanished immediately after Pearl Harbor. The United States was scarcely at war before the planners began to devise strategies which entailed the commitment of American ground forces. Doubtless the military men, both British and American, knew all along that their civilian chiefs were mistaken. Perhaps Roosevelt and Churchill, as “former naval persons” with the same pet arm of the service, entertained exaggerated notions of what sea and air power could accomplish unaided. In any case, the self-deception that the president and the prime minister shared with the American public helped mightily in easing the nation into a conflict whose terrifying potentialities remained veiled.
As a quotation from Lash’s introduction has already suggested, he lays great stress on the fact that Roosevelt kept “public opinion with him” and knew how to “mobilize” it. But what precisely does this term mean? “Public opinion” is so vague an expression that it deserves to be banished from the historian’s vocabulary. It is not the same thing as counting noses—nor is it simply what the editorialists and commentators say. Presumably it bears some relation to the views of a miscellany of opinion-formers which by subterranean channels seep down to broader strata of society. Lash may be technically correct when he claims that by June 1940—as France was falling—a “commitment of all-out aid to the Allies…was…supported by public opinion.” But this was not the same thing as an agreement by the majority of American “mothers and fathers” to having their “boys…sent into…foreign wars.” To quote the editors of the Correspondence: “As late as October 1941…opinion polls showed that between 75 and 80 percent of the population still strenuously opposed direct American intervention.”
So the public was not totally fooled after all. Two months before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt still needed his “incident.” Despite Lash’s exhaustive labors, the controversy over America’s entry into the Second World War is back where it started. One’s conclusion depends, as before, on how one evaluates the morality of keeping people only sporadically informed of a series of narrow yet cumulative decisions that relentlessly lead them toward a total engagement. Historians may if they like lug in the Vietnam parallel; but no clarification seems to emerge from this updating—only a further element of confusion.
Deception in the Atlantic sea lanes in 1941, deception at Yalta in 1945—they are of a piece. Roosevelt’s deviousness and Churchill’s stand and fall together, whether at the beginning or at the end of the war. I believed at the time and I believe today that the cause justified the dubious means employed. And by this I do not intend to suggest that Hitler’s Reich ever posed a direct threat to the security of the United States, as the rhetoric of Roosevelt’s apologists (including Lash) so often argues. Our country’s participation in the Second World War can be retrospectively endorsed only on humanitarian grounds; a strategic or geopolitical rationale will not suffice. And by the same reasoning the war in the Pacific must be assigned a rank below the European: under Japanese rule suffering was less intense than under the Nazis and the need for an American rescue operation less imperative. It is odd that Eisenhower should have etched the moral outlines of the war so much more sharply than historians better endowed intellectually and with fuller information at their disposal, when he entitled his chronicle of these great events Crusade in Europe.
February 17, 1977