October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
to Joseph P. Lash for Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939–1941: The Partnership That Saved the West
If Joseph P. Lash had decided, back in 1942, to write a book on the wartime friendship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, he would have been off to a lucky start. He happened to be a guest at the White House on the occasion of the British leader’s first transatlantic visit after Pearl Harbor, and found himself seated next to the famous man at lunch.
“I was too awe-struck to open my mouth,” Lash reported later. “There was no necessity. The language cascaded out of him. In my journal I wrote: ‘He is an exuberant, enormously strong personality, exciting, full of temperament, witty, his phrases resonant with the vigors of the best English stylists, his talk full of imagery.’ ”
These were appropriate observations for a young writer who, thirty-five years later, would win A MERICAN H ERITAGE’S first award of the Samuel Eliot Morison prize for “the best book on American history by an American author that sustains the tradition that good history is literature as well as high scholarship.” And the subject of that book, published in 1976 by W. W. Norton & Company, is indeed the wartime friendship between Roosevelt and Churchill.
Actually, back there in the days just after Pearl Harbor, Joe Lash hardly thought of himself as a writer; he was more (as he puts it) “a political person.” A native New Yorker, he was active in the newly formed American Student Union in the thirties until, in 1939, he met Eleanor Roosevelt—and fell under her spell. It was the start of a close friendship that moved him from the far left into the vanguard of liberal Democratic politics and lasted until Mrs. Roosevelt’s death in 1962.
Lash never saw Winston Churchill again after that brief meeting in 1942, since he entered the Army shortly thereafter and served—mostly as a weather observer and forecaster for the Air Force in the Solomon Islands—until the end of the war. A correspondent and editorial writer for the New York Post from 1950 to 1966, he covered the United Nations for many years and, besides furthering his friendship with Mrs. Roosevelt, became well acquainted with the UN Secretary-General. This prompted his first biography, Dag Hammarskjöld: Custodian of the Brushfire Peace (1961). A short memoir of Mrs. Roosevelt that Lash wrote soon after she died led to his being chosen to do her authorized biography, based on three years of work among the First Lady’s papers at Hyde Park. The result was the extraordinary Eleanor and Franklin (1971), which won the National Book Award for biography in 1972, the Pulitzer Prize for that year in the same category, and the Francis Parkman Prize given by the Society of American Historians. It also was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, as was its sequel, Eleanor; The Years Alone , which appeared in 1972.
Roosevelt and Churchill , as its subtitle suggests, is an account, meticulously documented, of the tremendous cooperative effort by which F.D.R. and the prime minister tried to prepare America to come into the struggle against Hitler. Pearl Harbor clinched the matter, and from then on Great Britain and the United States were, as Mr. Lash puts it in his final chapter, “all in the same boat.”
Mr. Lash and his wife Trude have an apartment in New York City, a home in Oakland, New Jersey, and a summer place on Martha’s Vineyard, where the author does much of his writing. He is presently at work on a sequel that will trace the relationship between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin through the end of World War II in Europe.
A MERICAN H ERITAGE is proud to make its first award of the annual Morison prize of $5,000 to Mr. Lash.