Friends And Allies

August 24, 2004

Franklin and Winston exemplifies why the best kind of history writing holds fresh lessons for the present. In our time of war, we are drawn to consider again the issues of political leadership and international cooperation. Jon Meacham tells us that Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt led Britain and the United States in a "global era of attacks on civilian populations, warfare, tenuous alliances, and the mechanization of genocide." In short, they led in a world "like our world" and drew perhaps their most incisive wisdom from their friendship (page xv).
Some might wonder whether Roosevelt and Churchill could have been close personal friends, given their frequent disagreements. Others might propose that World War II would have made great leaders out of all but the incompetent. Meacham sees Churchill and Roosevelt as deeply flawed but ultimately great men, well suited for a time of global crisis. More interestingly, Meacham paints them as committed and even affectionate friends who relied on one another for the strength and wisdom to lead, even as they often squabbled. In other words, Roosevelt and Churchill would not have been nearly as great without each other. 
Both men began to sense that they needed to form a friendship as Europe faced the growing threat of Hitler's Germany. In Parliament in the mid-1930s, Churchill gained notoriety for his criticism of British passivity toward Hitler, and Roosevelt sensed that Churchill would become his "firewall against the dictators" (page 44), which proved correct when Churchill became prime minister in 1940. Churchill desperately needed assurances of American support against imminent German attack, while Roosevelt had to face massive public opposition to involvement in a European war. Finally, with Roosevelt elected to an unprecedented third term in November 1940, he agreed to the 1941 Lend-Lease Act of American material support for Britain.
Roosevelt's and Churchill's first face-to-face meeting as the leaders of their countries came in August 1941 in a remarkable clandestine meeting off the coast of Newfoundland. The tenor of the moment was shown in an emotional church service held on the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales. Neither leader was intensely religious, but Churchill wept as the men sang "Onward Christian Soldiers." Roosevelt said afterward, "We are [Christian soldiers], and we will go on, with God's help." (page 116) 
Pearl Harbor launched America into the conflict and brought the two leaders even closer. The two negotiated with their unexpected ally, Stalin, and decided that Britain and the United States should proceed with the development of the atomic bomb. By the time they met in Morocco in January 1943, they had developed deep attachments to one another. Churchill said of Roosevelt, "He is the truest friend; he has the farthest vision; he is the greatest man I've ever known." (page 213) Roosevelt became willing to court Stalin at Churchill's expense, however, and at a Teheran summit in November 1943, the two friends clashed over the plan to defeat the Axis powers. Roosevelt and Stalin pushed through a specific timetable for the invasion of France, which came on June 6, 1944. Churchill, and then Roosevelt, came to realize what a threat Stalin's expansionist ambitions posed, but countering the Soviet threat would be left to other leaders. 
As the war wore on and both men's health declined, their relationship became testier. Churchill would not even attend Roosevelt's funeral when he died in April 1945. Despite this apparent slight, Meacham believes that the two remained close friends to the end, united by personal ties and common belief in democratic freedom. 
The unmistakable lesson of Franklin and Winston is the continuing need for the leaders of the world's democracies, particularly Britain and the United States, to fight together against the forces of totalitarianism and oppression. Though we may disagree about the details, there can be no denying the gravity of the cause. 

Kidd, BA '94 and MA '96 (Clemson University), PhD '01 (University of Notre Dame), is assistant professor of history.