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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
Then the prime minister surprised and impressed Roosevelt with his improbable decision to attack the French fleet. In 1940 France boasted the world’s third largest navy, far bigger than Germany’s. While Hitler put less store in naval power than did Roosevelt, he knew that he must neutralize this powerful fleet. Hitler consequently set special conditions for an armistice with the new French government so as to avoid the prospect that the French fleet, including some of the finest battleships in the world, would sail for England or the United States. The armistice directed that French warships would not be transferred to the German navy but would remain in French ports under German surveillance. Three of these battleships were docked in the French Algerian port of Oran, known today as Mers-el-Kébir. Churchill ordered the British commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean to present his French counterpart with an ultimatum: if the ships did not set sail for Britain or cross the Atlantic to the Western Hemisphere, British warships would sink them.
Churchill admitted that the prospect was “heartbreaking” but necessary. The honorable French admiral, Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, declined the offer. Late in the afternoon of July 3, the British fleet opened fire, sinking one battleship and damaging another, while the third escaped. Twelve hundred and fifty French sailors died during this strange battle, which lasted less than an hour. The action at Oran showed Roosevelt that the prime minister had no intention of giving up. Less than a month later, the president began preparations for his first definitely unneutral step—the promise of transferring 50-odd American destroyers to Britain.
The British fleet opened fire, sinking one French battleship and killing 1,250 sailors
Roosevelt moved closer to a virtual alliance with Britain. Intense German bombing did not cow the British, nor did the German air force win the Battle of Britain in the air. By the end of the year, Roosevelt declared that the United States was becoming the “arsenal of democracy,” offering and lending every sort of sea, air, and land equipment to Britain. A few months later, American forces moved into Greenland and other islands in the western Atlantic where an undeclared war between American and German naval forces developed.
Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941. The German bombing of London now diminished, due to the reassignment of the Luftwaffe to targets in Russia, but did not cease. The prospect of Allied victory receded into darkness. British factories cranked out machines, tanks, and airplanes; many of them were shipped through black nights and ice to Russia, but to little avail. The British civilian population was becoming more hard pressed by the day. Churchill faced an awful prospect: if the Germans conquered Russia, what could he and Roosevelt do? The two had met off Newfoundland in August, but the president still could not commit the United States to war. The day before he invaded the Soviet Union, Hitler ordered all German ships and submarines patrolling the Atlantic not to fire at American vessels under any circumstances, even in self-defense. Hitler knew that an incident could provide the pretext that Roosevelt needed.
Stalin, much as Churchill had, recognized the implications of Hitler’s German powerhouse. What he said to Roosevelt’s emissary Harry Hopkins at the end of July 1941 still holds the power to stun nearly 70 years later: Germany’s might was such that Russia and Britain together might not be able to break it. What would change everything, he told Hopkins, would be an American declaration of war against Germany. Churchill thought the same. In the autumn of 1941, the prime minister often said that if forced to choose between a total American stoppage of arms and aid to Britain and a sudden American declaration of war on Germany, he would choose the latter without hesitation.
The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought America into the war, but it did not change everything—at least not right away. In the evening of that infamous day, Averell Harriman had dined with the Churchills at Chequers, the country estate of prime ministers; later he recalled that his host had been “tired and depressed.” Churchill spoke hardly at all and sat glumly “with his head in his hands” for long minutes. In The Second World War , the reader palpably feels Churchill’s relief the moment his butler brought news of Pearl Harbor. His first thoughts were that Britain would live and the empire survive. He immediately phoned Roosevelt. On that dark winter night, the news fanned the flames of his spirit. While he—and Roosevelt—had known that the Japanese intended an attack, they did not know where. Churchill had remained fearful that a Japanese attack against only British possessions and bases in the Far East might not provide sufficient ammunition for Roosevelt to ask Congress to declare war on both Japan and Germany.
Churchill now knew that the war could not be lost; but did he think that the war—first and foremost, the war against Hitler—was now won? The next morning he traveled to Parliament and told a packed house that, “It is of the highest importance that there should be no underrating of the gravity of the new dangers we have to meet, either here or in the United States.” Two days later he said that the British must “KBO,” or “keep buggering on.” These three words, while less grave than “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” delivered essentially the same message.