Moments Make Men: Churchill and FDR’s “Special” Relationship

The final assignment in our Churchill Writing Seminar was a research project.  Below, you’ll find mine on the Special Relationship between the US and Britain during WWII.  In it, I critically examine Geoffrey Best’s claim that the Special Relationship was dependent on the personal relationship between FDR and Churchill.  I think that this piece best demonstrates the overriding takeaway from my experience in Deveney’s Writing Seminar: brevity reads best.

If you’re interested in this piece, look out for my pending post on the current state of the Special Relationship in the wake of the House of Commons vote against strikes in Syria.

A Germany filled with hate and led by an insatiable dictator is conquering Western Europe with ease.  Only the United Kingdom remains free and democratic.  At her helm, Winston Churchill commands with authority and courage.  Across the Atlantic, Franklin Roosevelt battles American pacifism in the name of the greater good.  These two men seem fated to work side by side.  Fortunately for history, they performed admirably in the face of truly once in a lifetime challenges.  But to be sure, the drama of the scene presented by Germany would have been virtually the same regardless of who was leading either America or Britain.  As Geoffrey Best details Churchill’s life in A Study in Greatness, from Churchill’s early life to the World Wars and beyond, he devotes a chapter to present a picture of the special relationship between FDR and Churchill.  But how important was it that the one and only FDR happened to rule in the era of Churchill, and vice versa?  While the good relations between America and Britain were historically pivotal during World War II, the relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill was not specifically special to that success.

To be sure, the two leaders shared a deep bond.  It’s nearly impossible to quantify a friendship, but the fact that FDR and Churchill exchanged over two thousand letters[1] in total cannot be ignored.  This bond held weight outside of their personal interactions as well.  Two full years before America even entered the war, Roosevelt was determined to help Churchill defeat Hitler.[2]  Despite Congress’ strong isolationist leanings, Roosevelt spent considerable political capital to pass the Lend-Lease Act in 1941.[3]  This allowed America to sell vital supplies to Britain and the Allies without officially entering the war.  Churchill for his part was actively reciprocating and indeed fostering Roosevelt’s warmth in speeches, published articles, and radio addresses.[4]&[5]  In terms of leadership qualities, Lash provides a very in-depth chapter on the similar characteristics and philosophies between the two men.  From the level of authority each held to personal charisma, Roosevelt and Churchill were clearly cut from the same cloth.[6]

But for all their similarities, the dynamic duo of the forties had fundamental differences.  To again cite Lash (himself an advocate of the “special” relationship), “spontaneity characterized Churchill’s approach to men and events, self-control Roosevelt’s.”[7]  Best writes that “the friendship…was more eager on Churchill’s side than Roosevelt’s.”[8]  The two thousand letters are, “a unique and remarkable correspondence – but [are] not themselves…a unique and special relationship.”[9]  Further, evidence exists to suggest that Churchill withheld intelligence information regarding Pearl Harbor “in the hope that such an attack would draw the United States into the war.”[10]  To be clear, there isn’t nearly enough evidence to prove the claim, but there’s at least enough for the possibility of its veracity to exist.  These conjectures aside, there are some tangible facts that certainly make one wonder: how special could their relationship have been if, after Roosevelt’s death, Churchill didn’t even attend the funeral?[11]

The relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill was not special in the sense that these two and only these two men could have saved the West.  Churchill was “always ready for something to turn up and to take advantage accordingly,”[12] so he would have built good relations with America regardless of who the President was.  To be sure, Anglo-American relations could have been much worse, and history ought to express gratitude that fate saw fit to unite these two great leaders.  But dire times demand the best of men.  The deep and concrete footprint left behind by Roosevelt and Churchill is due not to their individual bond, but rather to the magnitude of the circumstances which bore so heavily on their shoulders.  Still, the weathering and erosion of time seem to be doing their work.  Modern Members of Parliament are calling for an end to the “special” relationship that in their view sacrifices British policy to appease America.[13]  What Churchill coined as a special relationship between America and Britain now sits small on a timeline of human history replete with centuries-old civilizations, alliances, and economic ties.  How “special” could a sixty year courtship truly be?

[1] Warren F. Kimball “Wheel within a Wheel: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Special Relationship.” In Churchill: A Major New Assessment of his Life in Peace and War, by Robert & Louis, William Roger Blake, 300.

[2] Best, Geoffrey. Churchill: A Study in Greatness, 216.

[3] Ibid., 217.

[4] Churchill, Winston. Step by Step, 233-236.

[5] Churchill, Winston. Into Battle, 54-59.

[6] Lash, Joseph P. Roosevelt and Churchill 1939-1941: The Partnership That Saved the West, 179-195.

[7] Ibid., 195.

[8] Best, Greatness, 216.

[9] Kimball, Wheel, , 300. [italics by author for emphasis].

[10] Ibid., 298.

[11] Ibid., 300.

[12] Best, Greatness, 218.