The Supreme Partnership

"Would the two men ever have been passionate friends had they not been President and Prime Minister in the time of Hitler?
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Neither was particularly the other's type. They met first at a Gray's Inn dinner, in London in 1918, during the Great War. Roosevelt thought Churchill cocky and condescending. Churchill thought nothing at all of Roosevelt and soon forgot having met him which chagrined Roosevelt at their next meeting, when they were drawing up the Atlantic Charter, at Argentia in 1941. It was only years after, in his slight mythologization of the relationship, that Churchill managed to summon up a recollection of Roosevelt at Gray's Inn "magnificent ... in all his youth and strength."

They were, in a way, an odd couple. Isaiah Berlin, who has written more brilliantly about them than anyone else, speaks of their "incompatibility of outlook." Would the two men ever have been passionate friends had they not been President and Prime Minister in the time of Hitler? Among people still alive, no one knew Roosevelt and Churchill so well as Averell Harriman. Harriman's wife Pamela was married in the war years to Randolph Churchill. I once put the question to the Harrimans. They too wondered whether in other circumstances these two forceful men would have formed a supreme partnership.

They were very different men. They had different styles of humor. They had different tastes in people. Roosevelt's closest British friend was Arthur Murray, a military attaché in Washington during the Great War, later a minor figure in the Liberal party, whom Churchill would have scorned as an old duffer. Churchill's closest American friend was Bernard Baruch, whom Roosevelt made jokes about and regarded with distrust.

Churchill worked by night, Roosevelt by day. Churchill relaxed in the company of men, Roosevelt in the company of women. Churchill painted watercolors and laid bricks; Roosevelt collected stamps. Churchill drank all the time; Roosevelt had a martini or two before dinner. Churchill believed in confrontation, order, and hierarchy; Roosevelt in evasion, competition, and improvisation. Churchill was a traditionalist with a grand and governing fidelity to the past and a somber sense of the tragedy of history. Roosevelt had an antiquarian's interest in the past but was an experimenter and optimist, who confidently embraced the future. They were hardly made for each other.

Yet some uncanny intuition prompted Roosevelt on September 11, 1939, nine days after Churchill had entered Neville Chamberlain's cabinet, eight days after Britain had declared war, to ask the new First Lord of the Admiralty to "keep me in touch personally with anything you want me to know about." An odd business: the President of one nation proposing a personal correspondence with a new cabinet minister in another country whom he really did not know. Still, though Churchill had never called on Roosevelt during his occasional trips to the United States, Roosevelt had reasons to detect the possibility of partnership.

In the spring and summer of 1933, when right-minded persons on both sides of the Atlantic had condemned Roosevelt for going off gold and for torpedoing the London Economic Conference, Churchill had robustly defended the American President. In the autumn, Churchill sent Roosevelt the first volume of his Marlborough, inscribed "with earnest best wishes for the success of the greatest crusade of modern times." "His impulse," Churchill wrote of Roosevelt with characteristic grandiloquence in 1934, "is one which makes toward the fuller life of the masses of people in every land, and which, as it glows the brighter, may well eclipse both the lurid flames of German Nordic self-assertion and the baleful unnatural lights which are diffused from Soviet Russia."

Above all, Roosevelt knew of Churchill's long struggle to awaken Britain to the danger of Hitler; and he doubted that Churchill's career would conclude at the Admirality. "I'm giving him attention now," he told Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy in December, 1939, "because there is a strong possibility that he will become the prime minister and I want to get my hand in now." In the blast of war Roosevelt perceived a co-star in the drama of the age.

So a historic correspondence began, now gathered together for the first time by Professor Warren F. Kimball, of Rutgers, the author of able books on the Lend-Lease Act and on the Morgenthau Plan. Searching through presidential, State Department, prime-ministerial, and Foreign Office files, even drawing a couple of times on German intercepts of transatlantic telephone conversations, Professor Kimball has come up with 1,949 messages—1,161 from Churchill, 788 from Roosevelt. The Princeton University Press has brought out Churchill & Roosevelt, The Complete Correspondence in three large volumes totaling (not including the index) 2,094 pages. The magnitude of this achievement can be suggested by comparison with the only previous collection, Roosevelt and Churchill: Their Secret Wartime Correspondence, published in 1975 and selected and edited by F. L. Loewenheim, H. D. Langley, and Manfred Jonas, which offered 548 documents in a single volume of 760 pages.

The judicious and incisive headnotes preceding each message provide a masterly running analysis of the military, diplomatic, and economic debates. Occasionally the commentary goes beyond the evidence supplied in the text: Did Roosevelt threaten a cut-off of Lend Lease or only a reduction in it over the civil aviation argument of 1944? Was General George C. Marshall really as systematically anti-British as Professor Kimball suggests? But I noted only one actual error: The Bank Dick, mentioned as a pretext for a Churchill-Roosevelt injoke, was a film of 1940, not 1938. Professor Kimball indicates the time of each message, the source of each text, and the names, when discoverable, of the drafters. By reproducing deletions and corrections, early drafts, and even messages drafted but not sent, he shows how initial demands or indignations were modulated by the larger needs of the alliance. Churchill & Roosevelt is an exemplary work of editing and annotation.

Advance press comment made much of "Tensions Revealed in Roosevelt-Churchill Letters," to quote the headline in the New York Times of July 11. In fact the complete correspondence contains little to surprise the historian. There are no bombshells. Everyone has known since Robert E. Sherwood's Roosevelt and Hopkins(1948) that the alliance had its strains. Alliance without strains would have been far more surprising. No doubt Churchill's splendid volumes on the Second World War put the relationship with Roosevelt in soft focus, partly because Churchill was a romantic and partly because he wanted to prolong Britain's special relationship with the United States. He had gone over his final volume with special care, Churchill explained to President Eisenhower in 1953, "to ensure that it contains nothing which might imply that there was in those days any controversy or lack of confidence between us." Still, while Churchill understated some of the disagreements, he was too good a historian to suppress them. The complete correspondence only documents them a little more vividly and harshly.

Tensions were inevitable, because the protagonists proudly embodied the national interests of their countries. Since each saw national interest as requiring the defeat of Germany and Japan, each was prepared to subordinate lesser interests to the cause of victory. But neither intended to sacrifice vital interests in the world after victory. Neither forgot his ultimate accountability to his own people. "As anxious as I am to be of the greatest help to you in this trying situation," Roosevelt wrote Churchill when British troops intervened in the Greek civil war, in December, 1944, "there are limitations imposed in part by the traditional policies of the United States and in part by the mounting adverse reaction of public opinion in this country. No one will understand better than yourself that I, both personally and as head of State, am necessarily responsive to the state of public feeling." (Roosevelt added, "I don't need to tell you how much I dislike this state of affairs as between you and me.")

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Presented by

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. He taught at Harvard University and the City University of New York.

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