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Winston Churchill And “the Natural Captain Of The West”
Fifty years after FDR first took office, a British statesman and historian evaluates the President’s role in the twentieth century’s most important partnership
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
Franklin Roosevelt was, and remains, a hero to the British. During his rise to power we were detached from and ignorant of American internal politics to an extent that is not easily imaginable today. The Atlantic in the twenties and thirties was still very wide. The majority, including those politically involved and informed, never crossed it. Very few did so frequently. Anthony Eden, a young, vigorous, and peripatetic foreign secretary in the second half of the thirties, spent over two and one-fourth years in that office without ever once thinking of including Washington in his diplomatic tours. Winston Churchill, after a nasty accident with a taxi on Fifth Avenue in 1931, did not return again for ten years.
The bitter internal controversies of Roosevelt’s first term and a half therefore passed largely over British heads. There was little awareness of the enmity that he aroused amongst his moneyed opponents or of the fluctuations of policy and uncertainties of delegation that flowed from his prismatic character. He appeared as the strong, charismatic, and accepted leader of a united people, almost above the politics at which he was in fact such a determined and skillful player. The result of the 1936 election would have been more accurately guessed in Britain, though mostly for the wrong reasons, than by many in America.
And the election mostly gave pleasure and reassurance. At a time when war shadows were again beginning to lengthen over Europe, it seemed right that the first President since Wilson to have his name be a household word should be confirmed in office. The fact that his first term had been almost entirely lacking in any international initiatives was largely passed over. He was there, he had a great name, and he seemed to be handling the post-Depression economy with more success than his British contemporaries.
The most powerful of these, Neville Chamberlain, chancellor of the exchequer for six years until he became prime minister in 1937, did not share this view. He did not know Roosevelt personally—again an indication of the vast difference between the Western world of fifty years ago and that of today, when every European leader expects to be in Washington within three months of a new President taking office—but what he knew about him he was against. With a certain consistency he looked upon Roosevelt with the same distrust that the restless, innovating, erratic genius of Lloyd George had long aroused in his mind.
Yet Chamberlain was an exception. For the moderate left, Roosevelt was a beacon of successful liberalism at a time when any comparable feature was sadly lacking in Europe. For the antiappeasement right, he represented a reserve of strength, perhaps a little problematical but already of immense potential importance in the mounting world power struggle. With each six months that went by, with each advance of Hitler and with each faltering of the governments of Britain and France, the need for America, symbolized by Roosevelt, became greater. And as the need became greater, so there increased the determination to believe, sometimes against the evidence, that he would eventually save the democracies.
When, in 1941, Churchill quoted the lines of Clough familiar to many as a Victorian hymn, he was merely expressing in a peculiarly evocative form a thought that had been strongly present in many minds for several years past:
Such was the resolve to believe that the many hesitations on the other side of the Atlantic and Roosevelt’s slow progress toward involvement were, if not exactly unnoticed, received with a remarkable lack of impatience. It was the favorable statements that were remembered and the unfavorable ones that were quickly forgotten. Thus, in the campaign for the 1940 election, Roosevelt’s Charlottes ville speech as France moved toward collapse was seen as a ray of substantial light in an otherwise dreadful world, while in Boston four months later, his dampening and doubtfully wise or honest assurance to the “mothers of America” that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars” was passed over as an aberration on the path to his overwhelmingly desirable third victory. Poor Willkie’s resolutely pro-Allied campaign carried no resonance across the Atlantic. There was faith in America because the alternative was too awful to contemplate, and that faith was concentrated on Roosevelt.