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The wartime relationship between
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill is
famous. Some have praised it as "the partnership that saved the west," and
even "a friendship that saved the world". While most historians take a
more measured view of the relationship, all agree that FDR and Churchill
worked unusually well together.
Their friendship carried them through serious differences in wartime
strategy and goals for the postwar world-Churchill was determined to
preserve Great Britain's colonial empire, FDR to get rid of colonialism
altogether. It also made possible the extraordinarily tight cooperation
between Great Britain and the United States, in which the two created a
military command for the western Allies-the Combined Chiefs of Staff-and
agreed that an American Supreme Commander would control all assets,
British as well as American, needed for the amphibious assault on
northwestern Europe. The two powers even shared scientific research
concerning the atomic bomb.
But what if this relationship had failed to develop?
Logically, when two leaders share common interests they should work
together harmoniously regardless of how they feel about one another. But
it seldom happens that way. Although a poor working relationship does not
preclude collaboration, it often creates a low grade but comprehensive
friction-lack of confidence in the other's good faith, a sense of being
played, misinterpretation of the other's motivations, reluctance to take
advice from the other-so the synergy characteristic of a true partnership
does not emerge. A classic example from history is the troubled
relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and Maj. Gen. George B.
McClellan, which may have scuttled the chance for an early Union victory
in 1862. It is surprisingly easy to imagine a scenario in which these
traits might have characterized the relationship between Churchill and
FDR, leaving them at loggerheads and possibly changing the course of
From 1937-38 Churchill publishes essays critical of FDR and his New Deal's
"ruthless war on private enterprise". During the 1940 presidential
campaign, Republican nominee Wendell Willkie uses Churchill's words
against FDR. Although Churchill knows that Willkie is quoting him out of
context to achieve maximum impact, he does nothing to set the record
On the eve of the election, FDR uncharacteristically ignores an important
letter from Churchill, and a chastened Churchill asks the British Foreign
Office to correct Willkie's misuse of his words. Instructed to do so, a
diplomat stationed in Washington warns that such an action will be seen as
an intervention in the election-one that would be "too late to do any good
but so timed as to be extremely suspicious". No matter who wins, the
diplomat continues, there is "serious danger of queering the pitch with
those with whom we may have to be working after November 5th". Churchill
insists on a correction nonetheless, and the diplomat's prediction proves
correct: The action indeed "queers the pitch" with FDR. He begins to
regard Churchill's barrage of cordial messages as two-faced and conniving.
In August 1941, the two leaders secretly meet aboard ships anchored in a
quiet Newfoundland bay to discuss cooperation against Germany at a
critical moment when Hitler seems on the verge of crushing the Soviet
Union. Churchill greets FDR for what he plainly believes is the first
time. FDR replies that they have met once before-in 1918. Churchill
initially persists that the two have never met, much to FDR's displeasure.
The president's annoyance deepens when during their talks Churchill-hoping
to spur the president toward more aggressive actions against Germany than
FDR seems willing to take-warns that he "would not answer for the
consequences if Russia were compelled to sue for peace". Still irritated
with Churchill, and influenced by Churchill's ham-handed last minute
intervention in the presidential election, FDR views this warning as
The chill he feels toward Churchill becomes permanent when, in the wake of
the Pearl Harbor disaster and the Axis declarations of war upon the United
States, he gets wind of a tasteless Churchillian wisecrack. Cautioned that
he ought to maintain a diplomatic tone with the United States now that the
two countries were both at war, the prime minister has blithely replied:
"Oh! That is the way we talked to her while we were wooing her; now that
she is in the harem, we talk to her quite differently".
Everything in the above scenario occurred, with three exceptions:
Churchill heeded the advice not to correct Willkie's twisting of his
essays critical of the New Deal, FDR soon got over his annoyance at
Churchill's failure to recall their 1918 meeting, and the president never
heard of Churchill's crass remark about the United States being "in the
harem" even as the bodies of over 2,000 Americans killed in the Pearl
Harbor attack lay in improvised morgues or entombed in sunken ships.
What would have ensued if FDR had disliked Churchill? Most likely, the two
would have continued to cooperate in the destruction of Nazi Germany, but
the exceptional "special relationship" between the United States and Great
Britain would not have materialized. This would have intensified the
serious differences between the United States and Great Britain with
regard to the shape of the postwar world. It could also have had major
effects on the Cold War. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization might
never have come into being. If it did, Great Britain might have adopted a
posture akin to that of France after 1966; that is to say, a member of
NATO but with its military forces not under NATO command.
But it is also possible that if FDR had mistrusted Churchill, the Second
World War itself would have played out differently. Historically, in July
1942 Secretary of War Henry Stimson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
frustrated by British resistance to an early cross-Channel attack,
recommended shifting to the defensive in Europe and adopting a "Pacific
First" strategy. While a "Germany First" strategy remained preferable,
they argued, it was pointless if British intransigence barred a direct
attack on Germany at the earliest possible moment. In 1942 the Soviet
Union was in serious trouble. Without an early cross-Channel attack,
little could be done in Europe to assist the beleaguered ally, whereas
greater pressure in the Pacific would at least ensure against a
potential-and potentially fatal-Japanese attack on the Soviet Union.
FDR angrily overruled Stimson and the Joint Chiefs and insisted on
pursuing the British preference for the invasion of western North Africa,
Operation Torch. Influenced by Churchill, he saw real potential in a
Mediterranean theater. Had FDR distrusted Churchill, he would probably
have done as his senior military advisers recommended.
In that event, a cross-Channel attack might have been deferred well past
June 1944, until the Soviet Union had overrun all of Germany, occupied
central as well as eastern Europe, and consolidated its sphere of
influence more aggressively. Thanks to Churchill's clumsiness in handling
a crucial ally, the "iron curtain" that he warned against in 1946 would
have descended sooner and more absolutely.