Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill; drawing by David Levine

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.”

Professor Kimball’s impressive edition of the Roosevelt–Churchill correspondence enables us to see in detail how the “good plans” were made. The comments made by each leader on the other have little place, however, in this collection. One example for which space might have been found is Churchill’s first assessment of Roosevelt and his system, given, in the secrecy of the War Cabinet, after his return from Washington in January 1942. On that occasion Churchill told his colleagues: “An Olympian calm had obtained at the White House. It was perhaps rather isolated. The President had no adequate link between his will and executive action. There was no such organization as the Secretariat of the Cabinet or of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. When the President saw the Ministerial heads of the Fighting Services, who were really little more than Private Secretaries and responsible to him only, meetings were quite informal.” The State Department, Churchill added, “was apt to be somewhat jumpy.” These were the instruments upon which Britain had to depend.

A careful reading of the letters, in conjunction with other sources, explodes many myths. One holds that Churchill, as opposed to Roosevelt, wanted the Allies to strike at the “soft underbelly” of the Axis in southern Europe. But even this idea came initially not from Churchill—who was quickly to espouse it—but from Roosevelt. On November 15, 1942, Churchill and General Bedell-Smith, Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, discussed how to follow up the recent North African landings. They had as the basis of their discussion Roosevelt’s telegram to Churchill of four days earlier, in which the President had asked for “a survey of the possibilities including forward movements directed against Sardinia, Sicily, Italy, Greece and other Balkan areas and including the possibility of obtaining Turkish support for an attack through the Black Sea against Germany’s flank.”

Such was Roosevelt’s strategic plan. Churchill’s support for it, and his elaboration of it, were set out in a note to the British Chiefs of Staff. “I endorse the above conception by the President,” Churchill wrote. After conquering “the African shore of the Mediterranean,” the Allies should, as Churchill phrased it, “strike at the underbelly of the Axis in effective strength and in the shortest time, using bases in North Africa. Long range bombers sent by the United States to North Africa, as well as American bombers already in the Middle East, could operate against Italian targets.”

Equally curious, at the Tehran Conference in 1943 it was Roosevelt, not Churchill, who first raised what was later to be seen solely as “Churchillian” strategy, the proposed Anglo-American attack from the northern Adriatic into Austria, reaching Vienna through Yugoslavia’s Ljubljana gap.

Yet, in the main, not even Churchill and Roosevelt but their combined staffs working with high authority evolved these plans. As Professor Kimball shows, there were many messages from Roosevelt to Churchill written almost entirely by his subordinates. Nor was Kimball the first to notice this. In March 1944, after receiving two long “Personal and Secret” telegrams from Roosevelt about postwar economic organization, Churchill wrote to Eden: “I cannot believe any of these telegrams come from the President. They are merely put before him when he is fatigued and pushed upon us by those who are pulling him about.”

Churchill’s minute to Eden continued:

The main thing is to tell Ambassador Halifax to be calm and phlegmatic, and if anything is running rather loose, let it flap and break if necessary, and let us see what happens. All this frantic dancing to the American tune is silly. They are only busy about their own affairs and the more immobile we remain the better.

Nor was Churchill the author of every message that bore his signature. One important appeal to Roosevelt published here, for urgent United States naval help to Britain, was written in its entirety, including its “Churchillian” passages, by Admiral Tom Phillips (later to be drowned when his flagship was sunk by the Japanese in the Gulf of Siam). Churchill, however, dictated most of his messages himself. After one such dictation session, he commented: “If words counted, we should win this war.”

The strongest disputes between the two leaders were resolved amicably in the end: at one moment Churchill found himself begging Roosevelt not to be so severe toward De Gaulle, whom Roosevelt sought to oust altogether from the Allied counsels. At another moment he was begging Roosevelt not to pander to Gandhi. Few episodes annoyed Churchill as much as Roosevelt’s apparent support for Indian independence. This earned the President a strong rebuke. But compared with defeating Germany, Roosevelt’s views on India and even on De Gaulle were minor annoyances, and although such controversies took up thousands of encoded words, none was allowed to damage the day-to-day evolution of war policy, much as they might intrude upon it. “I love these Americans,” Churchill exclaimed after one of his meetings with Roosevelt and his generals. “They behaved so generously.”

This spontaneous reflection was confirmed again and again by the actual decisions reached at every stage of the war. Even the second front was never so divisive an issue between the two men as some commentators have alleged. Sometimes it was Churchill who hesitated, sometimes Roosevelt, about where Germany should be attacked and when. But Churchill always recognized, as did Roosevelt, that only a cross-Channel invasion could lead to the unconditional surrender of Germany to which both men had pledged themselves and their countries.

During the last months of 1943 the successful landings in southern Italy revived Churchill’s hopes of a rapid German collapse in both Italy and the Balkans, where Britain was giving aid to the partisan forces in Yugoslavia and Greece, and where German forces were in diminished control. Stalin took another view: he was keen on an Allied landing, not in the Balkans, but in the south of France, as well as the cross-Channel landing. Stalin clearly had his own picture of the postwar Balkan world at that stage. Much had been made of the conversations between Churchill and Stalin in 1943 over the future of the Balkans. The notorious “percentages agreement”—that piece of paper on which, at Churchill’s suggestion, Stalin marked his “percentages”—was in fact Churchill’s belated attempt to find out from Stalin just what degree of influence the Soviet leader imagined Russia would have in Eastern Europe, country by country. Stalin’s jottings about the countries he expected to control revealed an ambitious tyrant, but a tyrant whose armies were gaining every day by military conquest the “percentages” which he had so brazenly committed to paper. No wonder Churchill called it “a naughty document.” Neither Roosevelt’s sympathies for Soviet expansion nor Churchill’s more critical probings of Soviet ambitions, but the presence of the Red Army, was the decisive factor in establishing Europe’s postwar frontiers.

Stalin’s intentions frequently dominate the Churchill–Roosevelt correspondence. As early as January 1942, Stalin had proposed a secret agreement with Britain, whereby Russia would be promised the Baltic States, eastern Poland, and Bessarabia. Churchill rejected this overture, preferring to conduct all territorial discussions with Roosevelt as a full partner. Secret diplomacy flourished, but not at the expense of the Anglo-American bond. Hence Churchill’s anger in 1943 when Roosevelt proposed bilateral talks in Alaska between himself and Stalin, with Churchill excluded.

Differences in approach toward Stalin often disturbed the Churchill–Roosevelt relationship. Roosevelt wrote to Churchill in 1942: “I know you will not mind my being brutally frank when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin far better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department.” Roosevelt added: “Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better and I hope he will continue to do so.”

Yet even when dealing with “Uncle Joe,” Churchill and Roosevelt often found common ground. When the two men sent a joint telegram to Stalin explaining why there could be no second front in 1943, Churchill’s War Cabinet was critical of linking Britain and the United States in so dour a message. Churchill defended his decision to send a joint message on the grounds that, since Stalin would be “disappointed and furious,” he had thought it “wise that the President and I should stand together.” Churchill added: “After all, our backs are broad.”

There were times when Roosevelt and Churchill took independent steps to win Stalin’s confidence. Both Western leaders had to face the remote but haunting possibility that Stalin might make a separate peace, or truce, with Germany, as Pitt had done with Napoleon, leaving Hitler’s armies free to prevent an Allied landing in France. Churchill saw a particular danger in alienating Stalin during the six months between the stabilization of the fighting in southern Italy and the D-day landings in June 1944. During that six-month period, as Churchill pointed out to Roosevelt, no British or American soldiers would be seriously engaged in fighting Germans; while on the eastern front, the Red Army, which had sustained huge losses and was now on the offensive, would be deeply and bloodily engaged.

Roosevelt’s wooing of Stalin continued long after Churchill had realized that Western sacrifices on behalf of the Soviets, such as the vulnerable Arctic convoys, did not seem to influence Stalin’s attitudes. The dispute on how to handle Stalin came to a climax in August 1944, when Churchill pressed Roosevelt to concur in a joint Anglo-American message of protest to Stalin, urging Soviet support for the Polish insurgents in Warsaw. Roosevelt declined, telling Churchill that in view of the Soviet refusal to allow Allied aircraft to land on Soviet airfields, “I do not consider it advantageous to the long range general war prospect for me to join you in the proposed message….” Roosevelt stood aside. Churchill was on his own, a lion with clipped claws, unable to help War-saw as he had hoped.

Even when both men were united in their attitudes toward Stalin, as when they opposed a Soviet veto on election candidates in postwar Poland, there was a difference in emphasis. After Roosevelt had drafted the message to Stalin expressing their joint opposition to a Soviet veto, Churchill felt there were a few points in the draft which did not give “full expression” to Britain’s views. Nevertheless, as he informed Roosevelt, “we will whole-heartedly accept it.” Churchill wanted a stronger tone than what he called Roosevelt’s “most polite manner,” but he added that, when all was said and done, “We leave it in your hands.”

In this most un-Churchillian phrase can be seen the reality which five-and-a-half years of war for Britain, and nearly three years of war for the United States, had created: the partnership of power and superpower. Although Britain and the United States were equal and united in their determination to destroy Nazism, and although the world image of their two leaders was of equal “greatness,” they were nevertheless unequal in their respective power to shape the destiny of postwar Europe. In 1919 Churchill himself had been a prime mover in sending British aid to starving Germany; now it was the United States whose food was to sustain a shattered Europe.

That Churchill understood the reality of the postwar Anglo-American relationship was, however, never in doubt. It is a theme of his correspondence with senior British colleagues throughout the last two years of the war. It is seen with succinct irony in a letter written to his successor, Clement Attlee, a year after the war had ended. “It is clear to me,” Churchill wrote, “that only two reasons prevent the westward movement of the Russian armies to western Europe and the Atlantic. The first is their virtue and self restraint. The second is the possession by the United States of the Atomic bomb.”

One of the most revealing of the messages published in Kimball’s volumes is Churchill’s telegram to Roosevelt of March 17, 1945, written as the Polish issue, which so dominated the last months of their relationship, seemed to border on the insoluble. Aware of Roosevelt’s desperate ill health, and seeking a personal note amid the mass of official minutiae, Churchill told the President: “I hope that the rather numerous telegrams I have to send you on so many of our difficult and intertwined affairs are not becoming a bore to you. Our friendship is the rock on which I build for the future of the world so long as I am one of the builders.” Churchill’s telegram continued:

I always think of those tremendous days when you devised Lend-Lease, when we met at Argentia, when you decided with my heartfelt agreement to launch the invasion of Africa, and when you comforted me for the loss of Tobruk by giving me the 300 Shermans of subsequent Alamein fame.

“I remember,” Churchill added, “the part our personal relations have played in the advance of the world cause now nearing its first military goal.”

The “rock” on which Churchill hoped to build was broken, not by any dispute between Churchill and Roosevelt, but by Roosevelt’s death. A few months later, defeat in the British general election knocked Churchill himself out as one of the builders. The partnership that surely had so much to contribute to peace-making was destroyed by a combination of death and votes, while the Pacific war still raged, and before either power had used the atomic bomb.

This Issue

February 14, 1985