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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
Yet, looking back, it is clear that Roosevelt’s path to full involvement from 1939 to 1941 was a much slower and more twisted one than had been Wilson’s approach to 1917. It is amazing how quickly the United States slipped into that first war. And the threat of the kaiser to America was much less than that of Hitler. Wilhelm II would not have obliterated the democracies or even the sovereignties of Britain and France: he would merely have clipped the wings of their trade and power. Furthermore, while the second war would have been a worse one to lose, the first was a worse one to fight. No conditions of the campaign from 1939 to 1945 approached the squalor and the slaughter of the trenches during the period from 1914 to 1918. In addition, the strength and cohesion of the American German community were much greater in Wilson’s time than they were in Roosevelt’s. And the United States was much further away from the natural acceptance of world leadership. Perhaps Wilson anticipated that responsibility too precipitately and reaped the harvest of an inevitable reaction in 1919. Perhaps Roosevelt’s greater caution showed not merely the wiles of a superior politician but also the skill of a wider sweep of statesmanship, and it was no accident that he was able to hand on the legacy of the American imperial age while Wilson left us normalcy, the rejection of the League of Nations, and Warren Gamaliel Harding. But whatever be the verdict on Wilson, we were very close to a world disaster in 1940.
Then came the partnership with Churchill. It was not what it seemed. They were not two soul mates, long linked in friendship, coming together across the oceans in a relationship of equality and mutual esteem to achieve common goals. In the first place, the basis of acquaintanceship was slight. When Roosevelt started the “former naval person” correspondence in September 1939, they had not met for many years. Until 1941 Roosevelt knew Churchill’s sovereign, King George VI, whom he had entertained for several days at Hyde Park following the state visit to Washington in the summer of 1939, far better than he knew Churchill himself. And indeed, when the first of the nine strategic meetings between Roosevelt and Churchill took place at Placentia Bay in 1941, Churchill bore with him a letter of commendation, almost of introduction, from King George to the President.
Roosevelt’s purpose in the correspondence with the then first lord of the admiralty was less to salute an old friend than to follow his well-known habit of giving the same job to several different people. The increasingly distrusted Joseph Kennedy was nominally responsible for relations with the British government, primarily with Chamberlain, the prime minister, and with Halifax, the foreign secretary, but the President would establish his own channels of communication as well.
The partnership soon became an unequal one. In a sense it always was. Churchill’s need of Roosevelt was always greater than Roosevelt’s need of Churchill. But in 1940 and even early 1941, Churchill, although bounded in the nutshell of Britain, was, if not a king of infinite space, at least the unique symbol of resistance. Even then, however, by his eager although necessary acceptance of Lend-Lease, he underscored complete British economic dependence upon the United States. “We threw good housekeeping to the winds,” as John Maynard Keynes said. And once Churchill had secured his major objective of American entry into the war, he rapidly became, in his own phrase, “Roosevelt’s lieutenant.”
He was not a lieutenant without influence. He could, and did, argue about grand strategy, sometimes with more eloquence than wisdom. He could delay the Second Front and give the Allied effort a Mediterranean tilt. But he always knew that in the last resort he had to submit. In any real dispute, Roosevelt held nearly all the cards. He was Churchill’s junior by seven years, but he was head of state and not merely head of government, he was commander in chief, and by virtue of the predominant power of the United States he was the natural captain of the West. Nor was he in the least inclined by temperament to forgo the power. He was as imperious as Churchill, probably more so, for Churchill was more inclined to accept the self-indulgence of a flight of eloquence as a substitute for getting his own way. Roosevelt’s equivalent indulgences—telling an old story, half-teasing, half-charming his interlocutors—were always much more subordinated to his ultimate purpose. He also believed that he had a wider and more realistic view of the contemporary world than had Churchill and that he could deal far more effectively with Stalin, particularly if he made it painfully clear, as he did on one or two notable occasions, that he was no closer to Churchill than he was to Stalin.
To what extent was Roosevelt moved by genuine feelings of personal friendship toward Churchill? Not greatly so, in my view. He was amused by his exuberance and titivated by his fame and extravagance of style. But he was not captivated. He enjoyed the prime minister’s visits to the White House more than Mrs. Roosevelt did, but he neither drank at the fount of his wisdom nor dissolved his judgment in any special bond of comradeship. Nor did he have the same view of friendship as Churchill. Churchill was as least as egocentric and, tempered by shafts of humanity, saw most of mankind as part of a vast collection of toy soldiers to be maneuvered in accordance with his noble but grandiloquent ideas. Yet he did have cronies to whom he gave friendship and loyalty. Once admitted into this category, a person could do little wrong.