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Churchill Offers Toil And Tears To FDR
The world-shaping relationship between these two giants got off to a rocky start
Spring/Summer 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 4
Often it is said that vast long-range economic and social forces, not the efforts of leading individuals alone, make history. The course of World War II denies this seemingly rational thesis. Hitler began World War II; he and his principal adversaries—Britain’s Winston Churchill, America’s Franklin Roosevelt, and Russia’s Joseph Stalin—determined the conflict’s course and outcome. While the latter two effectively won the war in 1945, Churchill played a significant role by not losing it in 1940 and 1941. If Churchill had not become prime minister of Britain in 1940 (or had the United States elected an isolationist, such as Herbert Hoover, as president), Hitler would have won. More than anyone else, Churchill understood that the entire British war effort depended on the United States. Roosevelt knew this, too, but it took him some time to recognize the full implications of the relations between the two nations. Among the war leaders, the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship would evolve into one of the most complex and decisive of the war.
Churchill and Roosevelt had met only once before, 22 years earlier in London, when the latter was assistant secretary of the navy. Roosevelt remembered the encounter, but Churchill had forgotten, which mildy irritated the president. Some advisors to the president, as well as his wife, Eleanor, were leery of Churchill, believing him to be a Tory imperialist who was too old and fond of drink. Much of this assessment would change, but not right away.
Early in 1939 Roosevelt had begun privately contacting political figures in Europe who appeared willing to stand up to Hitler. When installed as first lord of the admiralty in September, Churchill knew this and instigated his own confidential correspondence with the president; Churchill made it known to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax. Then, on May 10, 1940—the day that Hitler invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and northern France—Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain. His relationship with Roosevelt took on new dimensions.
Over the course of the war, Churchill and Roosevelt would exchange nearly 2,000 letters and telegrams, an unprecedented level of correspondence between two national leaders. In 1940, when Hitler came close to winning the war, Churchill and Roosevelt mostly communicated in writing. (While phone conversations did take place, Churchill preferred not to communicate this way.)
In May 1940 only the prime minister and a few others fully grasped the bleakness of Britain’s prospects—and that events were moving fast. Churchill’s letters and speeches clearly reveal his determination to rouse his compatriots and fight. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” he famously said in his first speech to Parliament as prime minister on May 13. These words had little effect at the time, making no particular impression on Franklin Roosevelt. Unlike Churchill, the American president did not know that France might soon collapse under German pressure.
That spring, as news from France grew more dreadful, the United States began to occupy Churchill’s attention. Two days after his speech to Parliament, while preparing for a flight to Paris, he drafted a long letter to Roosevelt. “If necessary,” he wrote, “we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraid of that,” hinting that France might soon fall. “But I trust you realize, Mr. President, that the voice and force of the United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated, Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear [author’s italics]. All I ask you now is that you should proclaim nonbelligerency, which would mean that you would help us with everything short of actually engaging armed forces. Immediate needs are . . . .” There followed a list.
On the following day, Roosevelt responded that he could not commit to any course of action without congressional approval. At the time, there was widespread isolationist sentiment among the American people; he was about to run for an unprecedented third term and could not risk alienating a large constituency. Nor was Roosevelt yet inclined to trust the prime minister. Churchill thanked Roosevelt anyway in a message of five sentences, two of which are telling: “I do not need to tell you about the gravity of what has happened. We are determined to persevere to the very end, whatever the result of the great battle raging in France may be.”
Two days later Churchill wrote again to Roosevelt, including these ominous words: “Members of the present Administration would likely go down during this process should it result adversely, but in no conceivable circumstance will we consent to surrender. If members of the present administration were finished and others came in to parley amid the ruins, you must not be blind to the fact that the sole bargaining counter with Germany would be the Fleet; and if this country was left by the United States to its fate no one would have the right to blame those then responsible if they made the best terms they could for the surviving in-habitants. . . . Excuse me, Mr. President, for putting this nightmare bluntly. Evidently I could not answer for my successors who in utter despair or helplessness might well have to accommodate themselves to the German will. However, there is happily no need at present to dwell on such ideas.” Few understood at the time what Churchill knew implicitly: Roosevelt believed that should Britain fall, its fleet would cross the Atlantic for Canadian and American ports.