- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
There was always a good deal of chaffing between the two leaders. Both seemed to enjoy the give and take of friendly sparring to reach a compromise. At the time of the first Quebec conference in August of 1943, we had driven the Germans out of Africa and Sicily; we had landed in Italy and Mussolini’s fall was expected at any moment. The problems facing the conference were the complexities of strategy and priority: How much steel could be spared to build landing craft, landing piers and temporary harbors without interfering with the ship-building schedule? Would this hinder the steady flow of troops to England with necessary supplies and equipment? How much could be spared from Overlord for Mediterranean operations? Could we allocate enough to pin German troops to the defense of Italy, southern France and the Adriatic? What could we spare for the Pacific, and how could we keep open the Burma Road in support of the forces of General Chiang?
The Prime Minister’s lively imagination was working at full blast. He had brought with him various advocates of schemes that appealed to him as worthy of thorough investigation. Harry Hopkins shared his enthusiasm and instead of leaving technical decisions to be acted on by the Combined Staffs, Hopkins started bringing visitors to see the President in his bedroom before the poor man had even had breakfast, keeping a steady flow of visitors all day when we were not in conference, so that the President had no chance to look at his Washington mail until late in the afternoon just in time to dress for dinner. He had an hour or so to sit quietly at the movies; but when they were over, faced hours of further conference and debate. Part of my self-appointed responsibility was to try to hold the President down to reasonable working hours. But he was excited and enthusiastic too. He was never one to spare himself and did not like to be nagged. To break up a night session I several times invented a fictitious telephone call from Washington when I could tell by his expression that he had had enough. He was always pleased by the subterfuge.
Mrs. Churchill and Mrs. Roosevelt were present at the second Quebec conference and during most of our stay effectively stopped our having late night sessions and visitors before breakfast. Dr. McIntire, who was tied up with medical conferences at home and could not get to Quebec until after the conference started, had charged me, before we left Washington, with the responsibility for making the President hold to a reasonable schedule. With this in mind, I had the bright idea of putting it up to Mr. Churchill, and sent to him through his aide, Commander Thompson, the message Dr. McIntire had given me. The party broke up that night immediately after the movies, about ten thirty. As well all moved off together toward our quarters, Mr. Churchill, his arm firmly held by Mrs. Churchill, muttered to me, “Aren’t I a good boy?” His sanctity did not last long, however, for soon everyone was working until all hours over post-war control of Germany, Royal Navy participation in the war in the Pacific and other important matters. At that time President Roosevelt insisted that we must have a base in the vicinity of Hamburg and direct communication with Berlin so that our line of supply could be by sea with only a short land haul. The British objected that control of the Atlantic seaboard of Europe was essential to their security and that, since their armies were already on the coast, it would be a most complicated maneuver to exchange positions with the American army. President Roosevelt held to his demand until the last minute before giving in. I don’t know who or what persuaded him to surrender then, but I suspect it was Harry Hopkins. As for the British fleet in the Pacific, we felt that because of their short cruising radius British capital ships at that stage of the war would be more of a hindrance than a help. In order to convince Mr. Churchill, the President directed my map room to prepare special charts emphasizing the distances involved and the great increase in the number of tankers that would be required. We had too few tankers to serve the U.S. Pacific Fleet alone. The Prime Minister parried with the suggestion that the proper strategy for the Pacific was to occupy Sumatra—a suggestion that confirmed his statement that he had not given the Pacific much thought.
In spite of the grave issues involved it always seemed to me that Winston Churchill enjoyed the battle of wits and took it all in good part, although one of his moments of heat is engraved in my memory. Turning to the President, he cried: “I’ve told you time and time again that the British Empire is bankrupt and that you are the only one who can save it. What do you want me to do? Get down on my knees?”
Many other men, with so many grave and conflicting problems before them, would have lost their tempers and thereafter found it impossible to work together; but fortunately for us all, both Roosevelt and Churchill were adept at give and take, and the fine art of banter that leaves no sting.
A great deal of planning was required to pave the way for the Yalta meeting without letting the enemy know that a conference was to be held and where and when. The President decided that he would go by ship as far as Malta, meet Churchill there, and fly with the Combined Staffs and several hundred attendants to the Crimea. The situation was complicated by the President’s further instructions to arrange for a meeting, after Yalta, with the Emperor of Ethiopia, the King of Saudi Arabia and the King of Egypt in the vicinity of Cairo. How to arrange with Turkey to permit our passage and how to fix a meeting with the three kings without a leak to the enemy was a feat of diplomacy that our State Department handled with great finesse. As far as I know there was no leak from these sources.