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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
Churchill was not threatening Roosevelt. The prime minister was looking ahead toward a looming abyss. Should the Germans conquer England, or force a future British government to surrender, the removal of the fleet to the Western Hemisphere would mean little. Roosevelt did not realize that the mechanization of large armies, which could now move fast on land with the support of air power, had cut into the centuries-old, critical importance of sea power.
Between May 24 and 28, as Britain’s only army was trapped against the Dunkirk coast, Churchill struggled with Halifax, who wanted to ascertain—not unreasonably—what Hitler might be willing to offer Britain if they asked for terms. At the same time, Roosevelt and Mackenzie King, Canada’s prime minister, secretly discussed particulars about the eventual arrival of the Royal Navy in North America. Late on May 28, Churchill prevailed against Halifax in secret sessions of the War Cabinet. Halifax suggested another appeal to Roosevelt. Churchill argued that such a gesture would prove useless.
One disaster followed another. While the British army at Dunkirk was largely saved, the Germans marched into Paris a fortnight later, and France fell. Only now did Churchill invoke the United States. In a speech, he said: “If we fail, then the whole world, including the United States [author’s italics], and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss. . . .” U.S. support for intervention in Europe remain mixed. In 1940 Herbert Hoover, Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh, and other influential Americans opposed entering the war. Roosevelt would come to understand Churchill’s perspective, but not yet.
Churchill warned that Americans would stand alone against a Nazified “United States of Europe” if England fell
The desperate French Premier Paul Reynaud had begged FDR to enter the war, but the president declined. On June 15 Churchill wrote to Roosevelt again, urging him to consider the consequences: “Although the present Government and I personally would never fail to send the Fleet across the Atlantic if resistance was beaten down here, a point may be reached in the struggle where the present Ministers no longer have control of affairs and when very easy terms could be obtained for the British Islands by their becoming a vassal state of the Hitler Empire. . . . If we go down you may have a United States of Europe under Nazi command far more numerous, far stronger, far better armed than the New World.”
One of Churchill’s main concerns—second in importance only to preparations against a German invasion—was to make a single point clear to Roosevelt, something he could never mention in public, certainly not in a speech: the British Fleet would not go to the United States or Canada under any circumstances. On June 24 Churchill wrote to the Canadian prime minister: “There is no question to make a bargain with the United States . . . our despatch of the Fleet across the Atlantic should the Mother Country be defeated. . . . I shall myself never enter into any peace negotiations with Hitler, but obviously I cannot bind a future Government which, if we were deserted by the United States and beaten down here, might very easily be ready to accept German overlordship and protection. It would be a help if you would impress this danger upon the President.”
Two days later he cabled the same sentiments to Lord Lothian, the British ambassador to Washington, who had suggested that Churchill make another speech. “No doubt I shall make some broadcast presently,” Churchill answered, “but I don’t think words count for much now. Too much attention should not be paid to eddies of United States opinion. Only force of events can govern them.” He repeated that if the Germans could invade and subdue Britain, “the British Fleet would be the solid contribution with which [a] Peace Government would buy terms. We know [the] President is our best friend, but it is no use trying to dance attendance upon Republican and Democratic Conventions.”
Dependent on the United States and the Soviet Union, Churchill understood that victory against the Germans could cost Britain its empire. While this certainly concerned him, he knew also that the imperial ambitions of the British people had been fading even before the war. Churchill calculated that defeating Hitler and saving Britain from becoming, at best, a junior partner of Germany was worth the price of turning much of the empire over to America. As 1940 proceeded and the “finest hours” came and went, Churchill gradually became ever more confident that he and Britain would not lose the war. He realized that Hitler was far from losing it, too.