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Winston Churchill And “the Natural Captain Of The West”

July 2024
8min read

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

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:

And not through eastern windows only When daylight comes, comes in the light, In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly, But westward, look, the land is bright.

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.

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.

Roosevelt had no need for that kind of friendship—and no such loyalty. His relationships were those of occasion, with people who could be useful to him and to his often high purposes in particular circumstances. Sometimes the circumstances were manifold, as with Harry Hopkins, but the essential basis remained. This profound difference of approach affected the balance of the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship.

Who was the better strategist? In the great controversies of 1942-43, which were not personal but stemmed from differences in appraisal by the American and British staffs, Roosevelt was probably nearer to wisdom than Churchill. On the handling of Stalin toward the end of the war and on the disposition of troops that affected this, there is more room for doubt. Churchill at this stage benefited from his ability to see a single idea with greater clarity, in contrast with Roosevelt’s wider but mistier approach. However, it is easy to make oversimple judgments. Churchill’s views would not have avoided the division of Europe any more than Roosevelt’s and they took insufficient account of the problems of a continuing war with Japan. In any event, Roosevelt cannot be judged by his performance at a conference at which he was as sick as he was at Yalta.

Not only after Yalta but also after the 1944 campaign, most people who had seen him up close thought, with the benefit of hindsight at any rate, that Roosevelt would quickly die. They must have talked to many others. Yet when he did die, there were great waves of shock throughout America and the world. It was partly that after twelve years—the longest period of continuous power for any democratic leader for a century and more—it was almost impossible to imagine a world without him in the White House. There was also a peculiar irony in the fact that he would not live to see the postwar world. He had done more to shape it than anyone else, both to experiment successfully with welfare capitalism, which gave the countries of the fortunate West twentyfive years of the greatest surge to prosperity ever seen in recorded history, and to lay the foundations of benevolent American dominance, which was the shield for this advance.

It was not a small legacy. Yet a major mystery remains. Did he give much thought to passing it on? Did he, like others, realize that his chances of serving out even a substantial part of his fourth term were minuscule? Did he regard the choice of his third Vice-President as being peculiarly important? All the evidence says no. Certainly he was determined not to have Henry Wallace again. But that was just getting rid of a piece of baggage that had served its use. It was quite different from giving particular attention to the choice of Harry S. Truman, whom he hardly knew. Perhaps he was just lucky because he was self-confident, and self-confident because he was lucky, in this as in so many other things, and that these qualities in combination were his greatest attributes.

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