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.")

So, while they marched toward the common goal of victory, each protected his flanks. But their bargaining power was always unequal. From the start of the war Churchill was in the position of seeking something from Roosevelt. By the end of the war the United States had become beyond all question the mightier power. Equality in partnership was always a theory, never a fact.

Churchill's first objective was to get the United States into the war. Roosevelt had no intention of letting Hitler win, but at the same time he mistrusted British imperial motives and wanted to limit costs to the United States. He hoped almost to Pearl Harbor that aid short of war, or war short of ground forces, would do the job. The pre-Pearl Harbor correspondence shows Churchill maneuvering, courting, cajoling, presuming ("what we now indeed call the Common Cause") in his unceasing campaign to bring the Yanks in. "I trust you realize, Mr. President," he wrote, "that the voice and force of the United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long."

He even tried to use the British fleet as blackmail. During the Nazi assault on France, he told Roosevelt that only an American declaration of war could save the situation. If France fell, he continued, Britain would stand alone against Hitler. He himself would fight on to the end, but "very easy terms could be obtained for the British islands by their becoming a vassal state of the Hitler empire." A collaborationist government in London, by adding the British to the German and Japanese fleets, could place "overwhelming sea power ... in Hitler's hands." The fate of the British fleet, Churchill said, "would be decisive on the future of the United States."

Roosevelt evaded commitment until Pearl Harbor finally ended the awful uncertainty. "Today all of us are in the same boat with you and the people of the Empire," the President cabled, "and it is a ship which will not and cannot be sunk." Problems now assailed the two leaders from every part of the globe: how to allocate scarce shipping, landing craft, tanks, planes, troops; what to do about a second front, Nazi submarines in the Atlantic, convoys to Murmansk, unconditional surrender, the Middle East, the Pacific War; how to deal with Stalin, De Gaulle, Darlan, Badoglio, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-shek, the atomic bomb ... not to mention (and they rarely did) the daily tribulations each faced on his home front.

They marvelously kept their heads and their tempers, cheered each other up, differed with candor and grace, and handled a bewildering variety of strategic and diplomatic questions with impressive virtuosity. Their messages chart the ebb and flow of war and bring back the uncertainties of the time with almost unbearable intensity. Victory looks inevitable enough from the safe haven of 1984. It looked far less inevitable in 1942 and 1943. As the historian Frederic William Maitland said, "It is very difficult to remember that events now in the past were once far in the future."

The great disagreement on military strategy came over the second front. Churchill, remembering the slaughter in the First World War, recoiled from the idea of a frontal attack and advocated a strategy that the Americans dismissed as "pecking at the periphery." His obsession with getting at Germany through the eastern Mediterranean originated on strictly military grounds, as if in vindication of Gallipoli. For a time the Americans even feared that Stalin would vote with Churchill in favor of what Roosevelt and Marshall regarded as a mischievous diversion. The Mediterranean strategy developed anti-Soviet overtones only toward the end of the war, and these were much inflated in postwar commentary.

Professor Kimball rightly rejects as "dubious" the claim that a thrust through Istria and the Ljubljana gap (in northwestern Yugoslavia) would have saved much of Eastern Europe from the Russians. He explains, "It is just as likely that such an effort by Anglo-American forces would have resulted in the Soviets' liberating more of northern Europe, possibly as far west as the North Sea." By this point, in any case, the disparity in troops and production had made Roosevelt the undisputed senior partner. Churchill had no choice but to acquiesce in the decision to invade Normandy.

But he did not abandon the Istrian dream and drafted a bitter message after Roosevelt insisted on giving priority to the follow-up invasion of southern France. "I am sure none of your officers will say we have not served you well and faithfully," he wrote in the draft. "...But no one ever contemplated that everything that was hopeful in the Mediterranean should be flung on one side, like the rind of an orange, in order that some minor benefice might come to help the theatre of your command ... I think I have a right to some consideration from you, my friend, at a time when our joint ventures have dazzled the world with success." But fury was a luxury in which junior partners could not indulge. The dissent as finally dispatched was mild, concluding almost pathetically, "However we may differ on the conduct of the war, my personal gratitude to you for your kindness to me and for all you have done for the cause of freedom will never be diminished."

The approach of victory loosened the bonds of alliance and opened the way for disagreements about the shape of the postwar world. Future relations with the Soviet Union presented the most baffling problem. "The Russians are today killing more Germans and destroying more equipment than you and I put together," Roosevelt reminded Churchill in April, 1942. "I think it is an awful thing," Churchill himself noted to Harry Hopkins in February, 1943, "that in April, May and June not a single American or British soldier will be killing a single German or Italian soldier while the Russians are chasing 185 divisions around." The correspondence makes clear how, in a time when the Russians were doing most of the fighting, the fear of a separate Soviet-German peace prevented Churchill and Roosevelt from taking the hard line against Stalin that armchair strategists urge on them in retrospect.

For a while Churchill was actually more accommodating than Roosevelt. He accepted Soviet claims regarding the Baltic states and the Polish frontier, preferred the Communist Tito to the anti-Communist Mihailovich in Yugoslavia, and in 1944 offered Stalin his sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. As late as May, 1944, he told Roosevelt, "I note that after each very rude message they send to me, they have done pretty well what was asked." With the Warsaw uprising in August, however, Churchill began to lose hope, and he soon called for a tougher policy.

Roosevelt shared Churchill's anger over the Soviet refusal to help the Polish underground. But he did not waver from the belief that he had confided, in "brutally frank" words, to Churchill in 1942: "I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better." Was Roosevelt suffering delusions about the omnipotence of charm? Or was he right in supposing that Stalin was the only key to policy in an absolute dictatorship? In 1943 Roosevelt's abortive effort to arrange a separate meeting with Stalin greatly upset Churchill, who did not, however, hesitate to meet Stalin on several occasions without Roosevelt. Each leader now tried fruitlessly to insert himself as the honest broker between Stalin and the other.

As Professor Kimball observes, it is a "risky proposition" to try and deduce Roosevelt's final thoughts about the Soviet Union from his correspondence with Churchill. In a message of April 6, 1945, drafted by Admiral Leahy, Roosevelt told Churchill that the Western armies would soon be in a position "that will permit us to become 'tougher' than has heretofore appeared advantageous to the war effort." A message drafted by Roosevelt himself and sent April 11, the day before his death, spoke of minimizing "the general Soviet problem," adding, "We must be firm, however, and our course thus far is correct." The messages must be read against the testimony of people who talked with Roosevelt in his last weeks and found growing disenchantment with Soviet policy. The correspondence with Churchill shows only that as usual he was protecting his options.

Disagreement about Russia arose less over the goal than over the tactics of what later became known as containment. Disagreement about other matters arose from diverging visions of the postwar world. To American eyes Churchill seemed determined to re-create the world of the nineteenth century. His effort to preserve monarchy in Italy and in Greece provoked strong American objection. His effort to restore European colonial systems in Asia provoked Roosevelt even more. Churchill argued back forcefully. He was vastly irritated by Roosevelt's pressure on him to grant India a measure of independence; he had little use for Roosevelt's belief in international trusteeship as a transition from colonialism to independence; and he thought Roosevelt's notion of China as a major power was sheer fantasy.

The British perceived that the economic as well as political foundations of empire were at risk. They felt threatened by what they saw as American scheming for postwar advantage. Cordell Hull's conviction that the elimination of trade barriers was essential to lasting peace came across to the British as a calculated American effort to capture pre-war British markets. The American campaign to reduce British dollar balances seemed an attack on the hope of British economic independence after the war. There was fear that the Americans were out for British oil in the Middle East.

Most angry of all, peculiarly, was the argument, toward the end of 1944, about postwar civil aviation. Churchill saw the American proposals about international air routes as a plot to seize control of the world's airways. Roosevelt warned that failure to accept the proposals might jeopardize the continuation of Lend-Lease. Churchill responded with wan dignity: "You will have the greatest navy in the world. You will have, I hope, the greatest air force.... You have all the gold. But these things do not oppress my mind with fear because I am sure the American people ... will not give themselves over to vainglorious ambitions, and that justice and fair-play will be the lights that guide them."

There was discord, but always within larger accord. Each leader was concerned to prevent disagreement from weakening the overarching framework of alliance between nations and affection between friends. The two men might have lacked natural affinity, but they were indissolubly joined by the sense of sharing a historic stage during a mortal crisis. Both knew that the threat Hitler posed to their nations and to Western civilization could be repelled only if they worked together in the utmost comradeship. This they were determined to do. Averell Harriman recalls that each asked him how best to get on with the other. (He told them: Be natural. Be yourselves.) The correspondence shows how Harriman and, most of all, Harry Hopkins served as indispensable links between two men who had, in other respects, different tastes in people—two men who, if they were not precisely made for each other, each still adored the theory of the other. "It is fun to be in the same decade with you," wrote Roosevelt; and, again, "It is lovely to be working with you." They had profoundly in common an exultation in rising to the heroic moment. They perceived the differences between them; but, as Isaiah Berlin has written, "from the unity of their differences they hoped for a regeneration of the western world."

Churchill's voice is the more personal in the messages. He was a professional writer, after all, with a talent for wit and a penchant for rhetoric. He composed more of his messages himself, and he was both more emotional and more articulate, more prepared to confront and expose his inner thoughts and hopes. There was no great mystery about him. He was solid, tough, sentimental, all of a piece.

Roosevelt was a more elusive figure—glittering, impersonal, impenetrable, superficially warm, basically cold, disinclined to yield or to disclose himself, his core buried deep in what Robert Sherwood called his "heavily forested interior." His messages were more likely to be staff-written. They were businesslike rather than eloquent. His personal drafts were chatty, jokey, casual, without memorable phrase but with revealing flashes of humor, insight, affection, and irritation. His messages expounded his ideas on strategy and policy but did little to illuminate the mystery of personality.

The correspondence in its grand trajectory begins in exhilaration and ends in pathos. Churchill's great undertaking to keep Britain a major power was doomed to frustration. One comes away with the feeling that Roosevelt frustrated Churchill at some personal level as well. The Britisher seemed to be pleading for a more consistently intimate relationship than the American was capable of sustaining. Churchill was the more unguarded, the more vulnerable. Roosevelt would never have written, as Churchill did when they were arguing about India, "Anything like a serious difference between you and me would break my heart."

In March, 1945, Churchill sent a touching message recalling "those tremendous days when you devised Lend-Lease, when we met at Argentia, when you decided with my heartfelt agreement to launch the invasion of Africa.... Our friendship is the rock on which I build for the future of the world." No answer. A fortnight later Churchill asked, "Did you ever receive a telegram from me of a purely private character?.... It required no answer. But I should like to know that you received it." Roosevelt's reply was perfunctory: "I did receive your very pleasing message." This was March 31, 1945.

The correspondence thus ends in a dying fall. Still, the nobility of comradeship remains. The supreme partnership had its problems. But it was not a myth. The two men had their vanities and illusions, but they were very remarkable men, and they provided very remarkable leadership in a desperate time. As one ponders their correspondence and their lives, one recalls that in December, 1931, Churchill, crossing Fifth Avenue in New York in search of Bernard Baruch's house, looked in the wrong direction and was knocked down by an oncoming automobile—a moment, he later wrote, of a man aghast, a world aglare: "I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry." Fourteen months later in Miami an assassin fired on Roosevelt and killed the man riding beside him in the car.

One might invite those who believe that individuals make no difference to history to tell us what would have happened to the world a decade later had the automobile killed Winston Churchill on Fifth Avenue and the bullet killed Franklin Roosevelt in Miami. Fortunately, the two men survived to find each other and to save us all.

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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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