1. Strictly Cash
THROUGHOUT 1941, even after torrents of blood began to flow across the plains of Russia, Churchill’s foremost priority remained the enlistment of the United States as a fighting ally. As he followed the fortunes of Britain’s desert battles, the pursuit of theBismarck, the Atlantic convoy struggle, the campaign in Greece and the faltering bomber offensive, his American vision dominated the far horizon. Unless or until the United States joined the war, Britain might avert defeat, but could not aspire to victory. Among Churchill’s priceless contributions to Britain’s salvation was his wooing of the United States, when many of his compatriots were rash enough to indulge rancour towards what they perceived as the fat, complacent nation across the Atlantic. “I wonder if the Americans realise how late320 they are leaving their intervention,” wrote John Kennedy in May 1941, “that if they wait much longer we may be at the last gasp.” In a notable slip of the tongue, a BBC announcer once referred to the threat of “American” rather than “enemy” parachutists descending on Britain.
It would be hard to overstate the bitterness among many British people, high and low, about the United States’ abstention from the struggle. The rhetoric of Roosevelt and Churchill created an enduring myth of U.S. generosity in 1940–41. Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, wrote of “rushing vast quantities of weapons321 to Britain in the summer of 1940.” In truth, however great the symbolic importance of early U.S. consignments, their practical value was small. American-supplied artillery and small arms were obsolete, and made a negligible contribution to Britain’s fighting power. Aircraft deliveries in 1941 were moderate both in quantity and quality. The fifty old destroyers loaned by the United States in exchange for British colonial basing rights were scarcely seaworthy: just nine were operational at the end of 1940, and the rest required long refits. Only from 1942 onwards, when Britain received Grant and Sherman tanks, 105mm self-propelled guns, Liberator bombers and much else, did U.S. war matériel dramatically enhance the capabilities of Churchill’s forces.
Moreover, the guns, tanks and planes shipped across the Atlantic didn’t represent American largesse, because until the end of 1941 these were cash purchases. Under the terms of the Neutrality Act imposed by Congress, no belligerent could be granted credit. For the first two years of the war the United States reaped huge profits from arms sales. “The United States Administration is pursuing322 an almost entirely American policy, rather than one of all possible aid to Britain,” Eden wrote to Churchill on November 30, 1940. Roosevelt anticipated British bankruptcy and adopted the notion of “loaning” supplies, which originated with New York’s Century Association, before Churchill asked him to do so. But the president was furious when Lord Lothian, in October 1940 still British ambassador in Washington, told American journalists: “Well, boys, Britain’s broke. It’s your money we want.” There is doubt whether the ambassador used these exact words, but the thrust of his remarks was undisputed.
Roosevelt told Lothian there could be no suggestion of American subsidy until Britain had exhausted her ability to pay cash, for Congress would never hear of it. He might have added that the British adopted the same attitude to Finland, when that country was fighting the Soviets in 1940. London insisted on cash terms for such scanty war supplies as Britain dispatched. Now, on America’s part, there was a widespread belief in British opulence, quite at odds with reality. Amid the Battle of Britain, the U.S. administration questioned whether Churchill’s government had honestly revealed its remaining assets. Washington insisted upon an audited account, a demand British ministers found humiliating. Churchill wrote to Roosevelt on December 7, 1940, saying that if Britain’s cash drain to the United States continued, the nation would find itself in a position in which “after the victory was won with our blood323 and sweat, and civilization saved and the time gained for the United States to be fully armed against all eventualities, we should stand stripped to the bone. Such a course would not be in the moral or economic interests of either of our countries.”
In responding to Churchill, Roosevelt never addressed this point, and his evasion was significant. He acknowledged a strong U.S. national interest in Britain’s continued resistance, displaying extraordinary energy and imagination in moving public and congressional opinion, but not in its postwar solvency. American policy throughout the war emphasised the importance of strengthening its competitive trading position vis-à-vis Britain, by ending “imperial preference.” The embattled British began to receive direct aid, through Lend-Lease, only when the last of their gold and foreign assets had been surrendered. Many British businesses in America were sold at firesale prices. The Viscose rayon-manufacturing company, the jewel in the overseas crown of the Courtaulds company and possessing assets worth $120 million, was knocked down for a mere $54 million, because Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau insisted that the cash should be realised at a week’s notice. New York bankers pocketed $4 million of this sum in commission on a riskless transaction. Shell, Lever Brothers, Dunlop Tire and British insurance interests were alike compelled to sell off their U.S. holdings for whatever American rivals chose to pay. The governor of the Bank of England, Montagu Norman, wrote in March 1941: “I have never realised so strongly as now324 how entirely we are in the hands of American ‘friends’ over direct investments, and how much it looks as if, with kind words and feelings, they were going to extract these one after another.”
The British government exhausted every expedient to meet U.S. invoices. The Belgian government in exile lent £60 million worth of gold which had been brought out of Brussels, although their Dutch and Norwegian counterparts refused to sell gold for sterling. An American cruiser collected from Cape Town Britain’s last £50 million in bullion. Lend-Lease came with ruthless conditions constraining British overseas trade, so stringent that London had to plead with Washington for minimal concessions enabling them to pay for Argentine meat, vital to feeding Britain’s people. Postwar British commercial aviation was hamstrung by the Lend-Lease terms. If Roosevelt’s behaviour was founded upon a pragmatic assessment of political realities and protection of U.S. national interests, only the imperatives of the moment could have obliged Churchill publicly to assert its “unselfishness.” Whatever U.S. policy towards Britain represented between 1939 and 1945, it was never that. “Our desperate straits alone325 could justify its terms,” wrote Eden about the first round of Lend-Lease.
Most of the British anyway did not care for their transatlantic cousins. Anti-Americanism was pronounced among the aristocracy. Halifax, whom Churchill dispatched to Britain’s Washington embassy in December 1940, told Stanley Baldwin: “I have never liked Americans, except odd ones326. In the mass I have always found them dreadful.” Lord Linlithgow, a fellow grandee who was viceroy of India, wrote to commiserate with Halifax on his posting: “The heavy labour of toadying327 to your pack of pole-squatting parvenus! What a country, and what savages those who inhabit it!” Halifax told Eden that he had proposed him as an alternative candidate for the ambassadorship: “I only said that I thought you might hate it328 a little less than myself!”
Installed at the embassy, the former foreign secretary endured much suffering in the service of Britain, not least during a visit to a Chicago White Sox game in May 1941, at which he found himself invited to eat a hot dog. This was too much for the fastidious ambassador, who declined. During a trip to Detroit329, he was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by a group calling itself “The Mothers of America.” Oliver Harvey, Eden’s private secretary, described the aloof Halifax’s performance in his role as “pretty hopeless—the old trouble of being unable330 to make real personal contacts … All business in the U.S.A. is now transacted by telephoning and ‘popping-in,’ both of which H can’t abide. He only goes to see the President on business—and naturally usually to ask for things—he has never got onto a more intimate chat basis with him.” Dalton related a mischievous story that Halifax broke down and wept soon after his arrival in Washington, “because he couldn’t get on with these Americans.”331
Many Tory MPs, Eden among them, shared the grandees’ distaste for the United States. Cuthbert Headlam, admittedly something of an old woman, wrote of Americans with condescension: “They really are a strange and unpleasing people332: it is a nuisance that we are so dependent on them.” A Home Intelligence report found “no great enthusiasm for the US333 or for US institutions among any class of the British people … There was an underlying irritation largely due to American ‘apathy.’” Fantastically, some British officers questioned whether it would be in Britain’s interests for America to become a belligerent. Air Marshal Sir John Slessor, with the British mission in Washington in April 1941, noted that some of his colleagues believed that “it wouldn’t really pay us for the US334 to be actively engaged in the war.” Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, later C-in-C of Bomber Command, wrote with characteristic intemperance about the difficulties of representing the RAF in Washington in 1941. It was hard to make progress, he said bitterly,
when one is dealing with a people so arrogant335 as to their own ability and infallibility as to be comparable only to the Jews and the Roman Catholics in their unshakeable conviction that they alone possess truth. As to production generally out here. This country is now at a crossroads. Up to date they have had a damn fine war. On British dollars. Every last one of them. The result has been a magnificent boom after long years of black depression and despair … They lose no opportunity of impressing upon us individually how magnificently they are fighting [sic] and how inept, inefficient and idiotic and cowardly is our conduct of those few miserable efforts we ourselves are making in battle and in industry … Such production of war materials as has been achieved up to date has therefore been all to their profit and in no way to their inconvenience … They will come in when they think that we have won it. Not before. Just like they did last time. They will then tell the world how they did it. Just like they did last time.
If Harris’s tone was absurdly splenetic, it was a matter of fact that Britain and France provided the surge of investment that launched America’s wartime boom. In 1939, U.S. gross national output was still below its 1929 level. Anglo-French weapons orders and cash thereafter galvanised U.S. industry, even before Roosevelt’s huge domestic arms programme took effect. Between 1938 and the end of 1942 average income per family in Boston rose from $2,418 to $3,618 and in Los Angeles from $2,031 to $3,469, figures admittedly boosted by inflation and longer working hours. It could be argued—and indeed was, by the likes of Harris—that Britain exhausted its gold and foreign currency reserves to fund America’s resurrection from the Depression.
In London, ministers and generals found it irksome to be required to lavish extravagant courtesies upon transatlantic visitors. Hugh Dalton grumbled about attending a party given at the Savoy by the Sunday Express for American broadcaster Raymond Gram Swing: “It is just a little humiliating336, though we shall soon get more and more used to this sort of thing, that the majority of the Ministers of the Crown plus foreign diplomats, British generals and every kind of notability in the press world have to be collected to help to boost this, I am sure, quite admirable and well-disposed American broadcaster.” Dalton was disgusted when the guest of honour asked him blithely whether there were factions in Britain willing to make peace with Germany. Nor was such impatience confined to ministers. Kenneth Clark of the Ministry of Information suggested the need for a campaign against “the average man’s … unfavourable view337 of the United States as being a country of luxury, lawlessness, unbridled capitalism, strikes and delays.”
The British were exasperated by American visitors who told them how to run their war, while themselves remaining unwilling to fight. A British officer wrote of Roosevelt’s friend the flamboyant Col. William “Wild Bill” Donovan: “Donovan … is extremely friendly to us338 & a shrewd and pleasant fellow and good talker. But I could not but feel that this fat & prosperous lawyer, a citizen of a country not in the war, & which has failed to come up to scratch even in its accepted programme of assistance, possessed very great assurance to be able to lay down the law so glibly about what we and other threatened nations should & sh[ou]ld not do.”
It is against this background of British resentment and indeed hostility towards the United States that Churchill’s courtship of Roosevelt must be perceived. The challenge he faced was to identify what D. C. Watt has called “a possible America,”339 able and willing to deliver. This could only be sought through the good offices of its president. Churchill, least patient of men, displayed almost unfailing public forbearance towards the United States, flattering its president and people, addressing with supreme skill both American principles and self-interest. He was much more understanding than most of his countrymen of American utopianism. On the way to Chequers one Friday night late in 1940, he told Colville that “he quite understood the exasperation340 which so many English people feel with the American attitude of criticism combined with ineffective assistance; but we must be patient and we must conceal our irritation. (All this was punctuated with bursts of ‘Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree’.)”
Churchill himself knew the United States much better than most of his compatriots, having spent a total of five months there on visits in 1895, 1900, 1929 and 1931. “This is a very great country, my dear Jack,” he wrote enthusiastically to his brother back in 1895, when he stopped by en route to the Spanish war in Cuba. “What an extraordinary people the Americans are!” He was shocked by the spartan environment of the West Point Military Academy, but much flattered by his own reception there: “I was … only a Second Lieutenant341, but I was … treated as if I had been a General.” During his December 1900 lecture tour, he was introduced in New York by Mark Twain, and told an audience in Boston: “There is no one in this room who has a greater respect for that flag than the humble individual to whom you, of the city which gave birth to the idea of a ‘tea party,’ have so kindly listened. I am proud that I am the natural product of an Anglo-American alliance; not political, but stronger and more sacred, an alliance of heart to heart.”
He had met Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover, along with Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, Hollywood stars, Henry Morgenthau, William Randolph Hearst and Bernard Baruch. He had lectured to American audiences in 1931–32 about the perceived shared destiny of the English-speaking peoples. Many of his British contemporaries saw in Churchill American behavioural traits, above all a taste for showmanship, that his own class disliked, but which were now of incomparable value. Humble London spinster Vere Hodgson perceived this, writing in her diary: “Had he been pure English aristocracy342 he would not have been able to lead in the way he has. The American side gives him a superiority complex—in a way that Lord Halifax would not think in good taste—but we need more than good taste to save Britain at this particular moment.”
In 1940–41, Churchill sometimes displayed private impatience towards perceived American pusillanimity. “Here’s a telegram for those bloody Yankees,”343 he said to Jock Colville as he handed the private secretary a cable in the desperate days of May 1940. In dispatches to Washington, the malignant U.S. ambassador Joseph Kennedy made the worst of every such remark which he intercepted. He translated Churchill’s well-merited dislike of himself into allegations that the prime minister was anti-American. Kennedy’s dispatches inflicted some injury upon Britain’s cause in Washington, cauterised only when Roosevelt changed ambassadors in 1941, replacing Kennedy with John “Gil” Winant, and Churchill embarked upon personal relationships with the president, Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman. Churchill’s broadcasts, however, already commanded large American audiences, and imposed his personality upon Roosevelt’s nation in 1940–41 almost as effectively as upon his own people. By late 1941, Churchill ran second344 only to the president in a national poll of U.S. radio shows’ “favourite personality.” “Did you hear Mr. Churchill Sunday?” Roscoe Conkling Simmons asked his readers in the Chicago Defender on May 3, 1941. “You may be against England, but hardly against England as Mr. Churchill paints her … Did you note how he laid on the friendship of Uncle Sam?” Churchill’s great phrases were repeated again and again in the U.S. press, “blood, toil, tears and sweat” notable among them.
If Churchill had not occupied Britain’s premiership, who among his peers could have courted the United States with a hundredth part of his warmth and conviction? There was little deference in his makeup—none, indeed, towards any of his own fellow countrymen save the king and the head of his own family, the Duke of Marlborough. Yet in 1940–41, he displayed this quality in all his dealings with Americans, and, above all, with their president. When the stakes were so high he was without self-consciousness, far less embarrassment. To a degree that few of his fellow countrymen proved able to match between 1939 and 1945, he subordinated pride to need, endured slights without visible resentment, and greeted every American visitor as if his presence did Britain honour.
By far the most important of these was, of course, Harry Hopkins, who arrived on January 8, 1941, as the president’s personal emissary, bearing a letter to King George VI from his fellow head of state, saying that “Mr. Hopkins is a very good friend of mine, in whom I repose the utmost confidence.” Hopkins was a fifty-year-old Iowan, a harness maker’s son who had been a lifelong crusader for social reform. He met Roosevelt in 1928, and the two men formed an intimacy. Hopkins, the archetypal New Dealer, in 1932 federal relief administrator, and one of the strongest influences on the administration. Roosevelt liked him in part because he never asked for anything. It was the heady scent of power that Hopkins savoured, not position or wealth, though he had a gauche enthusiasm for nightclubs and racetracks, and was oddly flattered by press denunciations of himself as a playboy. He cherished contrasting passions for fungi and the poetry of Keats. The high spot of his only prewar visit to London, in 1927, was a glimpse of Keats’s house. A lonely figure after the death of his second wife from cancer in 1937, he was invited by FDR to live at the White House. Hopkins had pitched camp there ever since, with the title of secretary of commerce and the undeclared role of chief of staff to the president, until he was given responsibility for making Lend-Lease work.
Hopkins’s influence with the president was resented by many Americans, not all of them Republicans. He was widely unpopular, being described by critics as “FDR’s Rasputin,” and an “extreme New Dealer.” At the outset of World War II, he had been an instinctive isolationist, writing to his brother: “I believe that we really can keep out345 … Fortunately there is no great sentiment in this country for getting into it, although I think almost everyone wants to see England and France win.” Physically, he cut an unimpressively dishevelled figure, his long neck and gaunt features ravaged by the stomach cancer that had almost killed him. Many people who met Hopkins perceived, through the haze from the cigarettes he chain-smoked, “a walking corpse.”346 ATimephotograph of him carried the caption: “He can work only seven hours a day.”347 Brendan Bracken, sent to greet Hopkins when his flying boat landed at Poole Harbour, was appalled to find this vital visitor slumped apparently moribund in his seat, unable even to unfasten his seatbelt. The relationship with the British upon which the envoy now embarked became the last important mission of his life.
On January 10, 1941, Churchill welcomed Hopkins for the first time in the little basement dining room of Downing Street—the house was somewhat battered by bomb blast—for a tête-à-tête lunch which lasted three hours. The guest opened their conversation with the forthrightness which characterised Hopkins’s behaviour: “I told him there was a feeling in some quarters that he, Churchill, did not like America, Americans or Roosevelt.” This was Joseph Kennedy’s doing, expostulated the prime minister, and a travesty. He promised absolute frankness. He said that he hoped Hopkins would not go home until he was satisfied “of the exact state of England’s need348 and the urgent necessity of the exact material assistance Britain requires to win the war.” He then deployed all his powers to charm his guest, with unqualified success.
Hopkins’s intelligence and warmth immediately endeared him to Churchill. Throughout his political life, the president’s man had decided upon courses of action, then pursued them with unstinting energy. If he arrived in Britain with a relatively open mind, within days he embraced the nation, its leader, and its cause with a conviction that persisted for many months, and did incalculable service. That first Friday evening, the American drove to join the prime minister and his entourage at Ditchley, in Oxfordshire, Churchill’s weekend residence on moonlit nights during the blitz, when Chequers was perceived to be vulnerable to the Luftwaffe. The text of the Lend-Lease bill, now beginning its hazardous passage through Congress, had just been published. Britain’s dependence on the outcome was absolute. However, Churchill warned the chancellor, Kingsley Wood, that he himself would say nothing to Washington about looming British defaults on payments for arms should Lend-Lease fail to pass the U.S. legislature: “We must trust ourselves to [the president].”
Hopkins was extraordinarily forthcoming to his hosts, who welcomed his enthusiasm after the cold scepticism of Joseph Kennedy. That first weekend, on the way to see Churchill’s birthplace at Blenheim Palace, the envoy told Brendan Bracken that Roosevelt was “resolved that we should have the means of survival and of victory.” Hopkins mused to the great CBS broadcast correspondent Ed Murrow, then reporting from London, “I suppose you could say—but not out loud349—that I’ve come to try to find a way to be a catalytic agent between two prima donnas.” Churchill, for his part, diverted his guest during the month of his visit with a succession of monologues, strewing phrases like rose petals in the path of this most important and receptive of visitors. At dinner at Ditchley, the prime minister declared:
We seek no treasure350, we seek no territorial gain, we seek only the right of man to be free; we seek his rights to worship his God, to lead his life in his own way, secure from persecution. As the humble labourer returns from his work when the day is done, and sees the smoke curling upwards from his cottage home in the serene evening sky, we wish him to know that no rat-a-tat-tat [here he rapped on the table] of the secret police upon his door will disturb his leisure or interrupt his rest. We seek government with the consent of the people, man’s freedom to say what he will, and when he thinks himself injured, to find himself equal in the eyes of the law. But war aims other than these we have none.
Churchill’s old colleagues—the likes of Balfour, Lloyd George, Chamberlain, Baldwin, Halifax—had for years rolled their eyes impatiently in the face of such outpourings. Familiarity with Winston’s extravagant rhetoric rendered them readily bored by it, especially when it had been deployed in support of so many unworthy and unsuccessful causes in the past. Yet now, at last, Churchill’s words and the mood of the times seemed perfectly conjoined. His sonorous style had an exceptional appeal for Americans. Hopkins had never before witnessed such effortless, magnificent dinner-table statesmanship. He was entranced by his host: “Jesus Christ! What a man!” He was impressed by the calm with which the prime minister received news, often bad. One night during the usual evening film at Ditchley, word came that the cruiser Southampton had been sunk in the Mediterranean. The show went on.
During the weeks that followed, Hopkins spent twelve evenings with Churchill, travelled with him to visit naval bases in Scotland and blitzed south coast towns. He marvelled at his host’s popularity and absolute mastery of Britain’s governance, though he was less impressed by the calibre of Churchill’s subordinates: “Some of the ministers and underlings are a bit trying,” he told Roosevelt. Eden, for instance, he thought talked too much. Hopkins attained a quick, shrewd grasp of the private distaste towards the prime minister that persisted among Britain’s ruling caste: “The politicians and upper crust pretend to like him.” He was in no doubt, however, about the fortitude of the British people. “Hopkins was, I think, very impressed351 by the cheerfulness and optimism he found everywhere,” wrote Churchill’s private secretary Eric Seal. “I must confess that I am surprised at it myself … PM … gets on like a house afire with Hopkins, who is a dear, & is universally liked.” Roosevelt’s envoy told Raymond Lee, “I have never had such an enjoyable time352 as I had with Mr. Churchill.”
Back in Washington, the president was much tickled by reports of Hopkins’s popularity in Britain, as Interior Secretary Harold Ickes noted: “Apparently the first thing that Churchill asks for353 when he gets awake in the morning is Harry Hopkins, and Harry is the last one he sees at night.” Maybe so, growled the cynical Ickes, but even if the president had sent a bubonic plague carrier, Britain’s prime minister would have found it expedient to see plenty of him. Among the envoy’s most important functions was to brief Churchill about how best to address the American people and assist Roosevelt’s efforts to assist Britain. Above all, the prime minister was told, he should not suggest that any commitment of U.S. ground troops was either desirable or likely. Hopkins concluded his report to the president: “People here are amazing from Churchill down,” he wrote, “and if courage alone can win—the result will be inevitable. But they need our help desperately.”
When the envoy landed back at New York’s LaGuardia Airport in February 1941, the new ambassador-designate to Britain, “Gil” Winant, called out to him as he descended from his plane, “Are they going to hold out?” Hopkins shouted back, “Of course they are.” This was a self-consciously theatrical exchange for the benefit of the assembled throng of reporters, but nonetheless sincere. Thereafter, Hopkins’s considerable influence upon the president was exercised towards gaining maximum U.S. support for Britain. Londoner Vere Hodgson was among those who thrilled to a BBC broadcast by Roosevelt’s envoy: “He finished with really glorious words of comfort354: ‘People of Britain, people of the British Commonwealth of Nations, you are not fighting alone.’ I felt after this the War was won.”
Yet, however successful was the Hopkins visit from a British perspective, it did not alter fundamentals. “Winston is completely certain of America’s full help,”355 the Australian prime minister, Robert Menzies, wrote doubtingly during a visit to Chequers at the end of February 1941. “Is he right? I cannot say.” Franklin Roosevelt was conducting his nation’s policy in accordance with a belief that he could not move faster than public opinion would allow. Such opinion was moving Britain’s way. To the boundless relief of the prime minister, on February 8 the Lend-Lease bill passed the House by 260 votes to 165, and on March 8 was endorsed by the Senate, 60 votes to 13. For months thereafter, the last of Britain’s foreign exchange continued to be drained to pay for supplies—only 1 percent of war matériel used by Britain in 1941 represented fruits of Lend-Lease. But the new measure ensured that, even when Britain’s cash was exhausted, shipments kept coming. Importantly, 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie supported it—and Britain.
The president extracted for the British through Lend-Lease the most generous terms a U.S. legislature would swallow, much preferable to the straight loans of World War I, which Britain alienated U.S. opinion by failing to repay. A substantial minority of Americans, including many at the summits of industry and commerce, not merely opposed Roosevelt’s policies, but hated the man. He perceived his own power as circumscribed, in a fashion which the prime minister underestimated. Unlike Churchill, Roosevelt never led a coalition government, though he included some prominent Republicans such as Henry Stimson in his Cabinet. He always faced substantial opposition in Congress—sometimes only on lesser matters, but sometimes also on great ones. There was no doubt of his sincerity in desiring British victory. Having overcome his initial reservations about Churchill, partly thanks to Hopkins, by March 1941 he could declare to the American people: “In this historic crisis, Britain is blessed with a brilliant and great leader.” But Roosevelt considered himself lacking any mandate to dispatch American soldiers to fight in Europe. Until December 1941, while he provided increasing aid to Britain—“we must become the great arsenal of democracy,” a phrase borrowed from French economist Jean Monnet by way of Felix Frankfurter—he remained unwilling to lead a charge towards war. In this, he was assuredly wise. If the United States had plunged into belligerence with Germany before Pearl Harbor, and even in the unlikely event that Roosevelt could have pushed a declaration of war through Congress, he would thereafter have led a divided country.
The historian Michael Howard, in 1941 a student at Oxford awaiting a summons to the army, has written: “It is never very easy for the British356 to understand that a very large number of Americans, if they think about us at all, do so with various degrees of dislike and contempt … In the 1940s the Americans had some reason to regard the British as a lot of toffee-nosed bastards who oppressed half the world and had a sinister talent for getting other people to do their fighting for them.” Melville Troy was an American cigar importer living in London. Though he admired the fortitude of the British amid the blitz, he was deeply anxious to see his own country spared from its horrors: “Personally I am very sorry to see America turning357 her pruning hooks and ploughshares into implements of war, and wish we had a Woodrow Wilson to keep us out of it.” Many of Troy’s fellow countrymen thought likewise.
There was much, much more British wooing to be done. The extravagant courtesies shown by the government to Harry Hopkins were outdone when Winant arrived as ambassador. He was met at Bristol by Brendan Bracken and the Duke of Kent. A special train took him to Windsor, where King George VI was waiting at the station. The monarch then drove Winant in his own car to the castle. Never in history had a foreign envoy been received with such ceremony. Meanwhile, implementation of the Lend-Lease programme enlisted another key American player in Britain’s cause. Averell Harriman, fifty-year-old son of a railroad millionaire, was a supremely gilded product of Groton and Yale, a polo player and skier, international banker and collector of Impressionist paintings, a cosmopolitan of considerable gifts. Roosevelt explained Harriman’s new mission to reporters at the White House: “As soon as the Lend-Spend, Lend-Lease358—whatever you call it—bill is perfected, more or less, he will go over and—Oh, I suppose you will ask all about his title, so I thought I would invent one … we decided it was a pretty good idea to call him an ‘Expediter.’ That’s a new one for you. I believe it is not in the diplomatic list or any other list. So he will go over as ‘Defense Expediter.’”
In the spring of 1941 Harriman became an important American advocate of aid to Britain. Nonetheless, in Washington Hopkins and Henry Stimson, the secretary of war, remained the only prominent members of the administration wholeheartedly committed to such a policy. Other leading Americans remained sceptical. In the War Department, U.S. generals cloaked dogged resistance to shipping abroad arms that were needed at home in a mantle of complaints about allegedly amateurish British purchasing policy. One officer, contemptuous of the informality of the Hopkins mission, told Harriman: “We can’t take seriously requests359 that come late in the evening over a bottle of port.”
Among Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army George Marshall’s key subordinates, there were deep divisions about the merits of participation in the war, and of the British as prospective allies. Some senior officers unashamedly reserved their admiration for the Germans. Maj. Gen. Stanley Embick was a former chief of the War Plans Division who had become sceptical about Churchill and his people during service in France in World War I. Now he believed that Britain’s war effort would fare better if the country changed prime ministers. He thought that U.S. aid should stop far short of belligerency. Like his son-in-law, Maj. Albert Wedemeyer of the War Plans Division, Embick addressed every Anglo-American issue with a determination that his country should not be duped into pulling British chestnuts out of the fire. Maj. Gen. Charles “Bull” Wesson hated the British, because he had once been dispatched from Washington to London with a message for the Chiefs of Staff, and was kept waiting to deliver it. Raymond Lee wrote: “He resented this so much360 that it led to a wrangle and almost hatred on his part for the British, which he exploits at every opportunity. So small an act of discourtesy, either real or imagined, which took place many years ago, is having ill effects in the relations between the two countries today.”
By contrast Col.—soon to be lieutenant general361 and a key figure in Marshall’s team—Joseph McNarney, who had visited Britain, believed it was vital to American national security that Churchill’s island should not fall. Marshall himself was less implacably hostile to the British than Embick, but in the summer of 1941, in the words of a biographer, “if rather than when continued to dominate362 his thinking about American involvement.” Nor was such caution confined to senior officers. Time and Life magazines interviewed U.S. Army draftees, and reported their morale to be low. At a camp movie night in Mississippi, men booed when FDR and Marshall appeared on a newsreel.
Averell Harriman was in no doubt that America should fight. But he departed for London on March 15, 1941, fearful that Roosevelt was still unwilling to lead the United States anywhere near as far or fast as was necessary to avert a Nazi triumph: “I was deeply worried the president363 did not have a policy and had not decided how far he could go … The President obviously hoped that he would not have to face an unpleasant decision. He seemed unwilling to lead public opinion or to force the issue but [he] hoped … that our material aid would let the British do the job.” Few doubted that Roosevelt already stood among America’s greatest presidents. But he was sometimes also a notably cautious one.
Harriman noted in a memorandum of March 11: “I must attempt to convince364 the Prime Minister that I, or someone, must convey to our people his war strategy or else he cannot expect to get maximum aid.” Like Hopkins, he was received in Britain on the reddest of carpets. He was met at Bristol by Commander “Tommy” Thompson, Churchill’s administrative aide, who led him aboard a plane which took them straight to Chequers. Harriman’s guest gift to Clementine Churchill was a box of tangerines, which she received with unfeigned gratitude. The envoy was enfolded in a warm prime ministerial embrace. Kathleen Harriman, who accompanied her father’s mission, wrote to her sister: “The PM is much smaller than I expected365 and a lot less fat … and looks rather like a kindly teddy bear … I’d expected an overpowering, rather terrifying man. He’s quite the opposite: very gracious, has a wonderful smile and isn’t at all hard to talk to. He’s got the kind of eyes that look right through you. Mother [Clementine] is a very sweet lady. She’s given up her whole life to her husband and takes a back seat graciously. Everyone in the family looks upon him as God and she’s rather left out.”
In London, Harriman established himself on the second floor of a Grosvenor Square building adjoining the U.S. Embassy, and was also given his own office at the Admiralty. Churchill invited him to attend the weekly meetings of the Cabinet’s Atlantic Committee. Of Harriman’s first eight weekends in Britain, he spent seven at Chequers, though like most American guests he found his sense of privilege tempered by dismay at the coldness of the house. Churchill convoyed him, like Hopkins, as a prize exhibit on his own travels around the country. Here, he told the British people, was a living earnest of America’s commitment—the president’s personal representative.
In private to Harriman, “the PM bluntly stated366 that he could see no prospect of victory until the United States came into the war.” If Japan attacked, said Churchill, the British naval base of Singapore would be at risk. At every turn, the prime minister sought to balance his desire to convince Roosevelt that Britain was a prospective winner against the need to exert pressure by emphasising the threat of disaster if America held back. Harriman urged Churchill to bolster Britain’s case by publishing details of its appalling shipping losses. Between February and April 1941, 142 ships totalling 818,000 tons had gone to the bottom, more than double the rate of sinkings in the early months of the war. At a Defence Committee meeting in May, Eden and Beaverbrook suggested that at least meat-ship losses might be disclosed, to emphasise the gravity of the food situation. Churchill, with the support of several other ministers, opposed this, “believing that we shall get the Americans367 in by showing courage and boldness and prospects of success and not by running ourselves down.” Moreover, figures which privately frightened the British government would deal a shocking blow to domestic morale if they were revealed, and would have provided a propaganda gift to Hitler.
Some Americans displayed a condescension which irked the recipients of their aid. Kathleen Harriman described British reluctance to enthuse about American Spam and cheese: “The great difficulty is re-educating368 the people,” she wrote to her sister. “They prefer to go hungry rather than change their feeding habits.” A Tory MP wrote: “The idea of being our armoury369 and supply furnishers seems to appeal to the Yanks as their share in the war for democracy … They are a quaint lot—they are told that if we lose the war they will be next on Hitler’s list … and yet they seem quite content to leave the actual fighting to us; they will do anything except fight.” Duff Cooper, as minister of information, told newspaper editors on March 21, 1941: “The great thing is not to antagonise the United States370 … When we offered the bases against the [fifty loaned] destroyers we imagined, in Winston’s words, that we were exchanging ‘a bunch of flowers for a sugar cake.’ But not at all. The Americans have done a hard business deal.” After Lend-Lease was passed, Franks, the British driver for U.S. military attaché Raymond Lee, told his master that he noticed more goodwill towards Americans. “Well, yes,”371 agreed Lee sardonically. “Perhaps you might describe it that way, but it is only natural, don’t you think, that for seven thousand million dollars—that’s nearly a billion pounds—we ought to be entitled to a little bonhomie!” “Oh yes, sir, yes, sir, quite. That’s just what I mean, sir. I should say there is quite a bit more bonhomie in the air, sir.” This was only half true. Most British people considered that the United States was providing them with minimal means to do dirty work that Americans ought to be sharing themselves.
The threat of Japanese aggression against the British Empire in the Far East dogged Churchill that summer of 1941. Germany was fully committed in Russia. Britain’s land forces in North Africa seemed to have a real prospect of victory against the Italians and such German troops as Hitler was willing to spare from the Eastern Front. But if Japan attacked, the strategic balance would once more be overturned. Cadogan, at the Foreign Office, wrote in July that Churchill was “frightened of nothing but Japan.”372 The prime minister expressed confidence that, if Tokyo moved against the British Empire, the Americans would intervene. His ministers, generals and officials were much less convinced. It was a nightmare prospect: that Britain might find itself at war in the east while America remained neutral. Some thought it likely that Japan would join Germany’s attack on Russia, rather than strike at Malaya. Eden asked Churchill what he would do in such an eventuality. The prime minister replied firmly that Britain would never herself initiate hostilities with Japan, unless the United States did so. Month after month in 1941, he sought to promote the illusion that Britain’s war effort was viable and purposeful. In private, however, he recognised its ultimate futility unless Roosevelt’s nation came in with both feet.
2. Walking Out
THAT SUMMER, countless hours were expended by British diplomats, staff officers and the prime minister himself, weighing and debating every subtlety of U.S. behaviour and opinion. Few lovers expended as much ink and thought upon wartime correspondence as did the prime minister on his long letters to Roosevelt, sometimes dispatched twice or thrice weekly, in which he described the progress of Britain’s war. He adopted a confiding tone, taking it for granted that the president shared his own, and his country’s, purposes. He extended his courtship to the president’s people. On June 16, the award in absentia of an honorary doctorate from the University of Rochester, New York, inspired one of his finest radio broadcasts to Americans:
A wonderful story is unfolding373 before our eyes. How it will end we are not allowed to know. But on both sides of the Atlantic we all feel—I repeat, all—that we are a part of it, that our future and that of many generations is at stake. We are sure that the character of human society will be shaped by the resolves we take and the deeds we do. We need not bewail the fact that we have been called upon to face such solemn responsibilities. We may be proud, and even rejoice amid our tribulations, that we have been born at this cardinal time for so great an age and so splendid an opportunity of service here below. Wickedness—enormous, panoplied, embattled, seemingly triumphant—casts its shadow over Europe and Asia. Laws, customs, and traditions are broken up. Justice is cast from her seat. The rights of the weak are trampled down. The grand freedoms of which the President of the United States has spoken so movingly are spurned and chained. The whole stature of man, his genius, his initiative, and his nobility, is ground down under systems of mechanical barbarism and of organized and scheduled terror.
Churchill’s words moved many people in his audience. Yet in Washington, Halifax observed wearily that trying to pin down the Americans was like “a disorderly day’s rabbit-shooting.”374 Roosevelt offered much to Britain—aircrew training, warship repair facilities, the loan of transports, an American garrison to replace British troops in Iceland, secret military staff talks throughout February and March, growing assistance to Atlantic convoy escorts. But still the United States stood well short of belligerence. In July, Roosevelt’s Draft Renewal Bill passed the House of Representatives by only one vote. Churchill hankered desperately for a meeting with the president. More than that, he persuaded himself that if such an encounter took place, it would presage a decisive change in the Anglo-American relationship.
When, at last, Roosevelt fixed an August rendezvous at Placentia Bay, off Newfoundland, the prime minister’s hopes were unbounded. He wrote to the queen before his departure on the fourth: “I must say I do not think our friend375 would have asked me to go so far for what must be a meeting of world-wide notice, unless he had in mind some further forward step.” He was in tearing spirits on the rail journey north, as was his entourage on discovering the lavish scale of catering provided. From Scapa Flow he cabled the president, using language that assumed a community of purpose far closer than that which Roosevelt acknowledged: “We are just off. It is 27 years ago today that Huns began their last war. We must make a good job of it this time. Twice ought to be enough.” Then, in Colville’s words “with a retinue which Cardinal Wolsey might have envied,”376 Churchill set sail aboard the great battleship Prince of Wales for Newfoundland. Harry Hopkins, newly returned from Moscow and once more in a state of collapse, joined them for the passage. That marvellously brave man had travelled most of the way from Russia in the gun blister of a Catalina flying boat.
One of the few useful purposes fulfilled by British battleships in the Second World War was to convey Churchill on his wartime journeys in a style befitting the arbiter of an embattled empire. There was an irony about his presence aboard Prince of Wales. Only a few weeks earlier, he had demanded courts-martial of officers deemed to have lacked resolution in the navy’s contest with the Bismarck. He was furious that Prince of Wales had broken off action after Hood’s sinking, even though the British battleship was damaged. The court-martial proposal was dropped only when Adm. Sir John Tovey, C-in-C Home Fleet, said that if any such retribution was attempted, he himself would resign his post and serve as “prisoner’s friend.”
En route to the Atlantic rendezvous, much less work was done than became usual on later voyages. There was no agenda to prepare, because the British delegation had no notion how the meeting might evolve. They seized the opportunity for rest. Churchill read with relish three of C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels, tales of derring-do about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. He fantasised enthusiastically about a possible sortie from northern Norway by the Tirpitz, sister ship of the Bismarck, which might enable him to participate in a great naval engagement. Mothersill’s pills were much in demand as specifics against seasickness.
Humble members of the British delegation, such as a cluster of clerks, were amazed by manifestations of the prime minister’s informality. “Working in H[arry] H[opkins]’s cabin this morning,”377 Corporal Geoffrey Green wrote in his diary, “& WSC came in wearing only pyjama coat & cigar—no pants—grinned at us and said ‘good morning’—too amazed to reply properly!” The ship’s storerooms were packed with delicacies from Fortnum & Mason, together with ninety grouse, killed ahead of the usual shooting season to provide a treat for the prime minister’s exalted guests. On the American side, Hopkins cabled Washington suggesting that hams, wine and fruit, especially lemons, would be acceptable to the British party.
Placentia Bay is a rocky inlet on the south coast of Newfoundland, where some five hundred inhabitants occupied a fishing settlement ashore. The British discerned a resemblance to a Hebridean sea loch. Early on the morning of August 9, Prince of Wales began to stand in. Then her officers realised that the ship’s clocks were set ahead of the Newfoundland Time Zone. The ship turned and ploughed a lazy course offshore for ninety minutes, before once more heading into the anchorage. At nine a.m., her anchors rattled down a few hundred yards from the U.S. cruiser Augusta, which bore the president. The British remarked the contrast between the zigzag camouflage of their own vessel, dressed for battle, and the pale peacetime shading of the American warship’s paintwork.
No one knows exactly what was said at the encounters aboard Augusta between Churchill and Roosevelt. But Hopkins, who was present, described the mood. The president adopted his almost unfailing geniality, matched by the opacity which characterised his conversation on every issue of delicacy. As for his companion, no intending suitor for marriage could have matched the charm and enthusiasm with which the prime minister of Great Britain addressed the president of the United States.
Churchill and Roosevelt were the most fluent conversationalists of their age. Even when substance was lacking in their exchanges, there was no danger of silences. They had in common social background, intense literacy, love of all things naval, addiction to power and supreme gifts as communicators. Both were stars on the world stage. In the twenty-first century, when physical fitness is a preoccupation of many national leaders, it may also be remarked that neither of the two greatest statesmen on earth seemed much reduced by the fact that one was a fifty-nine-year-old cripple and the other a man of sixty-six famous for his overindulgence in alcohol and cigars.
One of Roosevelt’s intimates, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, declared him “really incapable of a personal friendship with anyone.”378 Yet for all his essential solitariness, the president had a gift for treating every new acquaintance as if the two had known each other all their lives, a capacity for forging a semblance of intimacy which he exploited ruthlessly. Churchill, by contrast, had scant social interest in others. After the untimely death of his close friend F. E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, in 1930, he was unwilling to interest himself in any other human being save possibly Beaverbrook and Jan Smuts for long enough to establish a social, as distinct from political, communion. Indeed, at Placentia he pricked the president’s vanity by forgetting that the two had met earlier—in London in 1918.
Churchill loved only himself and Clementine, while to Roosevelt’s mistresses it was rumoured—almost certainly mistakenly—that he had recently added the exiled Crown Princess Marthe of Norway. While Roosevelt sometimes uttered great truths, he was a natural dissembler. Henry Morgenthau claimed to be baffled by the president’s contradictions: “weary as well as buoyant, frivolous as well as grave, evasive as well as frank … a man of bewildering complexity of moods and motives.” Roosevelt was much more politically imaginative than Churchill. He told Wendell Willkie in the spring of 1941 that he thought Britain would experience a social revolution when the war was over, and he was right. Churchill, meanwhile, gave scarcely a moment’s thought to anything that might follow Britain’s desperate struggle for survival against the Axis, and was implacably hostile to socialism. Roosevelt, like his people, regarded the future without fear. Optimism lay at the heart of his genius as U.S. national leader through the Depression. Churchill, by contrast, was full of apprehension about the threats a new world posed to Britain’s greatness.
At Placentia Bay the prime minister strove to please the president, and Roosevelt, fascinated by the prime minister’s personality, was perfectly willing to be pleased. However, the shipboard meetings between British and U.S. service chiefs were tense and stilted. The Americans—generals George Marshall and Henry “Hap” Arnold, Admirals Harold Stark and Ernest King—were wary. On security grounds, Roosevelt had given them no warning of the intended meeting until they boarded Augusta. They had thus prepared nothing, and were determined to say nothing, which committed their nation an inch further than existing policy avowed. The British—CIGS Sir John Dill, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound and Vice Chief of the Air Staff Sir Wilfrid Freeman—were bemused by the fact that the U.S. Army and Navy chose to conduct briefings separately, and outlined entirely different strategic viewpoints.
When Marshall spoke of creating an army of four million men, the British expressed amazement. There seemed no prospect, they said, that land fighting would take place in the continental United States. Shipping did not exist to transport and supply a large army overseas. What need could there be for such a mobilization? Churchill himself was at pains to assure the mothers of America that, even if their nation entered the war, their sons would not be required to shed blood on the battlefields of Europe. A month before Placentia, he rebuked Auchinleck for telling journalists that U.S. troops were needed. Such remarks, said the prime minister, strengthened the hand of American isolationists, and ran “contrary to what I have said about our not needing the American Army this year, or next year, or any year that I could foresee.” British strategic calculations denied a requirement for British or U.S. land forces capable of engaging the Wehrmacht on the Continent, because Dill and his colleagues did not perceive this as a viable objective.
At Placentia, Arnold said little on behalf of the U.S. Army Air Forces, while Marshall talked more about equipment than strategy. The Americans said they found it hard to satisfy British demands for weapons. They claimed that requests were submitted in muddled profusion, through a variety of channels. The British felt a chasm between their own mind-set, formed and roughened by the experience of war, and that of their American counterparts, still imbued with the inhibitions of peace. It was not easy for men with lesser gifts of statesmanship than the prime minister to subdue their consciousness that the leaders of America’s armed forces resented shipping to Britain arms which they wanted for themselves. It was hard for Dill and his colleagues not to be irked by the caution of these rich, safe Americans, when they themselves were battered by the responsibility of conducting Western civilisation’s struggle for survival. The Royal Navy’s officers noted the lack of curiosity displayed by the Americans, notably Admiral King, about their experiences of battle, for instance against the Bismarck. Privately, U.S. sailors mocked Dudley Pound, “the old whale,” as British soldiers called him. Dill got on well with Marshall, but Ian Jacob wrote bleakly in his diary: “Not a single American officer379 has shown the slightest keenness to be in the war on our side. They are a charming lot of individuals, but they appear to be living in a different world from ourselves.”
Roosevelt was irritated to learn that the prime minister had brought with him two well-known journalists, H. V. Morton and Howard Spring. Though they were barred from filing dispatches until back on British soil, this was a reminder that Churchill sought to extract from the meeting every ounce of propaganda capital. Roosevelt, meanwhile, was determined to keep open every option, to proceed with utmost caution. The reporters were denied access to U.S. ships.
It is important to recognise that both the British and Americans still expected Russia to suffer defeat, leaving Britain alone once more to face the Nazi empire—and soon also, perhaps, the Japanese. Churchill urged Roosevelt to offer the strongest possible warnings to Tokyo against additional aggression. It has been suggested that he went further, pleading for preemptive U.S. military action in the Far East, but this seems implausible. Several times during the conference, Churchill asked Averell Harriman if the president liked him. Here was an admission of the prime minister’s vast anxiety, and vulnerability.
“It would be an exaggeration to say that Roosevelt and Churchill380 became chums at this conference, or at any subsequent time,” wrote Robert Sherwood, White House familiar and later biographer of Harry Hopkins. “They established an easy intimacy, a joking informality and a moratorium on pomposity and cant—and also a degree of frankness in intercourse which, if not quite complete, was remarkably close to it. But neither of them ever forgot for one instant what he was and represented or what the other was and represented … They were two men in the same line of business—politico-military leadership on a global scale … They appraised each other through the practiced eyes of professionals, and from this appraisal resulted a degree of admiration and sympathetic understanding of each other’s professional problems that lesser craftsmen could not have achieved.” While the prime minister eagerly succumbed to sentiment in forming a view of his fellow potentate, the president did not reciprocate. The American and British peoples felt that they understood their respective leaders, but the British had better reason to make the claim. Churchill was what he seemed. Roosevelt was not.
The prime minister brilliantly stage-managed his part in the Placentia meeting, himself choosing hymns for the Sunday church service beneath the huge guns of Prince of Wales, before a pulpit draped with the flags of the two nations: “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past” and “Eternal Father Strong to Save.” Scarcely a man present went unmoved. “My God, this is history!”381 muttered a fellow clerk “in a hushed, awed voice” to Corporal Geoffrey Green. As excited photographers clicked shutters from vantage points on the turrets and superstructure, a colleague said to Ian Jacob that the occasion must fulfil the fantasies of “a pressman high on hashish.”382
That afternoon, Churchill took a launch383 on a brief visit to the shore, wandering awhile with Cadogan, the Prof and his secretaries, and somewhat unexpectedly picking wildflowers. Senior officers of the two nations continued to shuttle to and fro between their ships, each arrival and departure being greeted with full ceremony by bands and honour guards, which ensured that the anchorage was never tranquil. The next day, there were further talks, desultory as before, between the service chiefs. Roosevelt marginally raised the stakes in the Atlantic war, by agreeing that U.S. warships should escort convoys as far east as Iceland. He justified this measure back in Washington by asserting that there was little purpose in providing American supplies to Britain without seeking to ensure that they reached their destination.
The most substantial outcome of the president and prime minister’s encounter was the Atlantic Charter, a strange document. It had its origin in a suggestion by Roosevelt that the two leaders should issue a statement of common principles. As published, it represented a characteristically American expression of lofty intentions. Yet it was drafted by Sir Alexander Cadogan, the attendant Foreign Office mandarin. The charter was signalled to London for approval by the War Cabinet, whose members were dragged out of bed for the purpose. In the small hours of the next morning—another drizzly affair, like most in Newfoundland—an officer reported to Churchill just as he was going to bed that London’s reply had arrived. “Am I going to like it?”384 the prime minister demanded—in Jacob’s words “like a small boy about to take medicine.” Yes, he was told, all was well. His ministers had endorsed the Anglo-American statement. When published, its noble phrases in support of a common commitment to freedom rang around the world, and gave hope to colonial subjects in a fashion that Churchill certainly did not intend. Back in the United States, however, the charter roused little popular enthusiasm. It was never signed, because this would have made it necessary to present the document to the Senate for ratification as a treaty.
Before they parted, the president offered the prime minister warm words of goodwill and a further 150,000 old rifles. But there was nothing that promised America’s early belligerence. This was what Churchill had come for, and he did not get it. By 2:50 p.m. on August 12 it was all over. Low cloud cut off the ships’ view of the shore. Augusta slid away into a fog, as sailors lined the side of Prince of Wales to salute the departing president. Then the British set their own course for home. “It was hard to tell whether Churchill385 returned from Newfoundland entirely satisfied with his conference with Roosevelt,” wrote Ian Jacob. The prime minister told his son, Randolph, that he had enjoyed “a very interesting and by no means unfruitful meeting386 with the president … and in the three days when we were continually together, I feel we made a deep and intimate contact of friendship. At the same time one is deeply perplexed to know how the deadlock is to be broken and the United States brought boldly and honourably into the war.”
Churchill revealed nothing of his private disappointment in the exuberant rhetoric with which he addressed his colleagues and the nation on returning to Britain. He felt obliged to satisfy their craving for good news, and told the War Cabinet that American naval commanders were bursting with impatience to join the struggle, though others at Placentia detected nothing of the kind. His report of Roosevelt’s private remarks appears wilfully to have exaggerated the president’s carefully equivocal expressions of support. Pownall, now Dill’s vice CIGS, wrote in his diary: “Roosevelt is all for coming into the war387, and as soon as possible … But he said that he would never declare war, he wishes to provoke it.” Uncertainty persists about whether the president really used these words, or whether Churchill put them into his mouth. Even such sentiments fell short of British hopes. For all the president’s social warmth, he never indulged romantic lunges of the kind to which Churchill was prone. If not quite an Anglophobe, Roosevelt never revealed much private warmth towards Britain. He left Placentia with the same mind-set he had taken there. He was bent upon assisting the British by all possible means to avert defeat. But he had no intention of outpacing congressional and popular sentiment by leading a dash towards U.S. belligerence. American public opinion was vastly more supportive of its government’s oil embargo against Japan, in response to Tokyo’s descent on Indochina, than it was of Roosevelt’s increasing naval support for Britain in the Battle of the Atlantic; this, ironically, though the embargo provoked the Japanese to bomb America into the war.
Churchill, at an off-the-record British newspaper editors’ briefing on August 22, predicted that Japan would not attack in the east, and observed that the Battle of the Atlantic was going better. Suggesting that German U-boats would be reluctant to risk tangling with American warships, which were now operating actively in the western Atlantic, he said: “I assume that Hitler does not want to risk a clash with Roosevelt until the Russians are out of the way.” The flush of British excitement faded. The prime minister’s lofty rhetoric could not overcome a sense of anticlimax, which extended across the nation. A War Office clerk seemed to a British general to judge Placentia rightly when he dismissed Churchill’s broadcast, describing the meeting as “nothing dressed up very nicely.”388
Vere Hodgson, the Notting Hill charity worker, heard the BBC promise “an important government announcement” on the afternoon of August 14, and expected a declaration of Anglo-American union. When, instead, radio listeners heard the words of the Atlantic Charter, she wrote in disappointment: “There was a statement of War Aims389. All very laudable in themselves—the only difficulty will be in carrying them out.” Churchill cabled Hopkins, revealing unusually explicit impatience: “I ought to tell you that there has been a wave of depression390 through cabinet and other informed circles here about President’s many assurances about no commitments and no closer to war, etc … If 1942 opens with Russia knocked out and Britain left again alone, all kinds of dangers may arise. I do not think Hitler will help in any way … You know best whether anything more can be done … Should be grateful if you could give me any sort of hope.”
At Downing Street, Churchill observed irritably that Americans had committed themselves to suffer all the inconveniences of war, “without its commanding stimuli.” Over dinner with John Winant, the U.S. ambassador, on August 29, he again appealed explicitly for American belligerence. Colville recorded: “The PM said that after the joint declaration391 [the Atlantic Charter], America could not honourably stay out … If R declared war now … they might see victory as early as 1943; but if she did not, the war might drag on for years, leaving Britain undefeated but civilization in ruins.” Influential American visitors continued to be courted with unflagging zeal. The journalist John Gunther was entertained at Chequers. A tedious Pennsylvania Democrat, Congressman J. Buell Snyder, chairman of the House military appropriations subcommittee, was warmly received at Downing Street. Yet at the end of August Charles Peake, minister at Britain’s Washington embassy, expressed profound gloom about the prospect of the United States entering the war soon, perhaps at all. He even questioned—as did some392 members of the U.S. administration—whether Roosevelt desired such an outcome. Although America could no longer be deemed neutral, it seemed plausible that it might cling indefinitely to nonbelligerent status. There was, and remains, no evidence that Roosevelt was willing to risk a potentially disastrous clash with Congress. Unless America became a fighting ally, Lend-Lease would merely suffice to stave off British defeat.
The autumn of 1941 was one of many wartime seasons which must be viewed without the benefit of hindsight about what followed. British prospects everywhere seemed bleak. An American diplomat who spent ten days in Scotland returned to report to his embassy: “The attitude of the people he had been with393, most of them big industrialists and realists in their points of view, is that the British are now losing the war, and that it is ridiculous to talk about subduing the German Army by bombing cities inside Germany … The German Army … must be beaten somehow or other on the ground, or the war is lost.” Churchill agreed. “It will not be possible for the whole British Army394 (other than those in the Middle East) to remain indefinitely inert and passive as a garrison of this island against invasion,” Churchill wrote to Ismay on September 12. “Such a course, apart altogether from military considerations, would bring the Army into disrepute. I do not need to elaborate this.”
Moscow regarded the meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt with its accustomed paranoia. A Soviet biographer of Churchill, writing more than thirty years later, asserted that at Placentia Bay, “plans were worked out to establish395 Anglo-American domination of the post-war world. The leaders of Britain and the USA were drawing up these plans while the USSR was bearing the brunt of the war and America had not yet entered it.” Stalin, in desperate straits, wanted thirty thousand tons of aluminium, together with four hundred planes and five hundred tanks a month from Britain. Churchill told Ambassador Maisky that Moscow would have to be content with half these quantities, and look to the Americans for the rest. On September 15, Stalin demanded that twenty-five British divisions should be sent to the Russian front via Iran or Archangel. He had already asked Harry Hopkins to solicit Roosevelt to dispatch an American army to Russia. Hopkins, suitably amazed, said that even if the United States entered the war, it was unlikely that she would send soldiers to fight in the Caucasus.
It was a measure of Churchill’s anxiety to appease Moscow that he agreed in principle to send British troops to Russia. He speculated wildly that Wavell, a Russian speaker, might command such a force. To try to assist the Russians and fail, he declared, was better than to make no attempt. He was flailing. On October 23, the notion was formally abandoned. Stalin complained that badly crated British aircraft were arriving “broken” at Archangel. The British hoped against hope that dire Russian threats to seek a separate peace were as much bluff as their own mutterings about launching a Second Front.
As Britain’s merchant fleet suffered relentless attrition in the Atlantic, Food Minister Lord Woolton briefed the Cabinet on the necessity to ration canned goods. Churchill murmured in sorrowful jest: “I shall never see another sardine!” In reality, of course, he suffered less than any other British citizen from the exigencies of war, and occasionally professed embarrassment that he had never lived so luxuriously in his life. If his energy was somewhat diminished by age, he had less need than ever before to trouble himself about personal wants, which were met by his large staff of domestics and officials. No ministerial colleague enjoyed his privileges in matters of diet, comfort and domestic and travel arrangements. Eden, as foreign secretary, waxed lyrical about being offered a slice of cold ham at a Buckingham Palace luncheon, and oranges at the Brazilian embassy. Every wartime British government diarist fortunate enough to travel, including the most exalted ministers and generals, devoted much space to applauding the food they enjoyed abroad, because the fare at home was so dismal.
The prime minister seldom ate in other people’s houses, but enjoyed an occasional meal at Buck’s Club. He sometimes attended gatherings at the Savoy of the Other Club, the dining group he and F. E. Smith had founded in 1910. There, more often than not, he sat beside Lord Camrose, proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, a friend who vainly coveted a government job. One night in the autumn of 1941, he slipped out of Downing Street with Eden and Beaverbrook to dine at the Ritz. Reminiscing, he said he would like to have his old First World War colleagues Balfour and Smith with him now. Beaverbrook suggested that, if Churchill had played his cards better, he might have become prime minister in 1916. Churchill said that the worst moment of his life came when Lloyd George told him that there was no place for him in the new Cabinet.
The housekeepers at both Downing Street and Chequers were issued with unlimited supplies of Diplomatic Food Coupons for official entertaining. These enabled Churchill and his guests to indulge a style unknown to ordinary citizens. The costs of Chequers rose dramatically in the Churchill years from those of Neville Chamberlain, matching the expansiveness of the hospitality. The Chequer Trust’s solicitor agreed with Kathleen Hill, Churchill’s secretary, in January 1942 that “the Food Account was very high.”396 The family made a modest cash contribution to compensate the trustees for the Churchills’ private share of the house’s cost, including paying a quarter of the bill for a little Ford car used by Clementine.
Privileged though the family’s domestic circumstances might be, the prime minister’s wife often found it no easier than her humbler compatriots to purchase acceptable food. This caused dismay to insensitive visitors. Once in the following year, when Eleanor Roosevelt and other Washingtonians were guests in the No. 10 Annexe, Mrs. Churchill apologised for the fare: “I’m sorry dear, I could not buy any fish. You will have to eat macaroni.” Henry Morgenthau noted without enthusiasm: “Then they gave us little left-over bits made into meat loaf.” By contrast, some of Churchill’s guests recoiled from his self-indulgence at a time when the rest of the country was enduring whale steaks. One night when Churchill took a party to the Savoy, Canadian premier Mackenzie King was disgusted that his host insisted on ordering both fish and meat, in defiance of rationing regulations. The ascetic King found it “disgraceful that Winston should behave like this.”
Churchill’s wit served better than his hospitality or the war news to sustain the spirit of his colleagues. At a vexed Defence Committee meeting to discuss supplies for Russia, he issued Cuban cigars, recently arrived as a gift from Havana. “It may well be that these each contain some deadly poison,” he observed complacently, as those so inclined struck matches. “It may well be that within days I shall follow sadly the long line of your coffins up the aisle of Westminster Abbey—reviled by the populace as the man who has out-borgiaed Borgia!” Eden, arriving for a Chequers weekend, was shown upstairs by Churchill, who himself lit his guest’s bedroom fire. The foreign secretary wrote a trifle cattily: “I know no-one with such perfect manners as a host—especially when he feels like it.”
While great men discussed affairs of state at Downing Street or Chequers, below stairs the staff gossiped about the Master in the fashion of every patrician household. “Oh, Miss, you’ll never guess what he did next …,”397 Nellie the Downing Street parlour maid would say to Elizabeth Layton, one of the prime minister’s three typists. Mrs. Landemore the cook was a fount of tittle-tattle about the British aristocracy, while Sawyers, the prime minister’s valet, dispensed among the staff glasses of wine diverted from the dining room. Every Friday afternoon, or sometimes on Saturday morning, a column of three big black cars stood waiting by the garden gate of Downing Street to waft the prime minister to Chequers at breakneck speed, his journey hastened by police outriders and sirens. Unless he took with him in the car some visitor with whom he wished to converse, he customarily dictated to a typist all the way. Arrived at his destination one day, he said to Elizabeth Layton: “Now run inside and type like HELL.”398 The staff late shift were seldom released to their beds before three a.m.
Churchill was exultant when, on September 8, Roosevelt issued a “shoot first” order to U.S. warships in the Atlantic, dramatically raising his nation’s stakes against Germany’s U-boats. But two weeks later, when Eden dined with the Churchills and Oliver Lyttelton, the Middle East minister of state just back from Cairo, Eden noted: “Winston was depressed at outset399, said he felt that we had harsh times ahead.” The prime minister knew from intercepted Japanese diplomatic traffic that Tokyo was winding down its foreign missions and evacuating nationals from British territory. Sir Stewart Menzies, “C,” showed him a cable from Berlin to Tokyo, in which Hitler’s staff assured the Japanese that “in the event of a collision between Japan400 and the United States, Germany would at once open hostilities with America.” After Churchill was glimpsed by Bletchley code beakers one Saturday, visiting their dank, hutted encampment, four of the most senior staff wrote to him personally, appealing for more resources. This prompted an “Action This Day” note to “C”: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority.”401
On October 20 Churchill told the Defence Committee that “he did not believe that the Japanese would go to war with the United States and ourselves.” After many months in which he had wilfully exaggerated the prospect of America entering the war, the chances of such a development were now greater than he avowed. It may be that, following so many disappointments, he did not dare to hope too much. The terrible, nagging fear persisted that Tokyo might launch a strike only against British possessions, without provoking the United States to fight. The views of the British and American governments were distorted by logic. Both possessed strong intelligence evidence of an impending Japanese assault. Yet it remained hard to believe that the Tokyo regime would start a war with the United States that it could not rationally hope to win.
The dispatch of a naval battle squadron to the Far East, supposedly to deter Japanese aggression, was the prime minister’s personal decision, and reflected his anachronistic faith in capital ships. Likewise, the squadron’s commander, Adm. Tom Phillips—ironically, one of Churchill’s severest critics in the Admiralty—was his own choice, and a poor one, because Phillips’s entire war experience had been spent in shore-based staff appointments. Churchill likened the prospective impact of British battleships in the Far East to that achieved by the presence of Hitler’s Tirpitz in Arctic waters, “a threat in being.” Just as the Americans absurdly overrated the deterrent power of deploying a mere thirty-six U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) B-17 bombers in the Philippines, so the prime minister failed to grasp the fact that, with or without Admiral Phillips’s squadron, British forces in the Far East were woefully deficient in strength and leadership.
The British director of naval operations, Capt. Ralph Edwards, wrote in his diary when the battleship commitment was made:
Another Prayer from the prime minister402, who wishes us to form a squadron of “fast, powerful modern ships—only the best to be used” in the Indian Ocean. This, he avers, will have a paralysing effect on the Japanese—why it should, the Lord alone knows … This, mind you, at the same time as he wishes to form a force at Malta, reinforce the Mediterranean, help Russia and be ready to meet a break-out by the Tirpitz. The amount of unnecessary work which that man throws on the Naval Staff would, if removed, get us all a month’s leave … If only the honourable gentleman were to confine himself to statesmanship and politics and leave naval strategy to those properly concerned, the chances of winning the war would be greatly enhanced. He is without doubt one of history’s worst strategists.
Churchill wrote to Roosevelt, reporting dispatch of Prince of Wales, Repulse and the carrier Indomitable: “There is nothing like having something that can catch and kill anything.”403 This was a bizarre assertion, after two years of war had demonstrated both the vulnerability of capital ships and the shortcomings of the Fleet Air Arm.
In almost all respects, during the Second World War the Royal Navy showed itself the finest of Britain’s three fighting services, just as the U.S. Navy was the best of America’s. Axis submarines and air attack inflicted heavy losses, but British seamen displayed consistently high courage and professionalism. The navy’s institutional culture proved more impressive than that of the army, perhaps also of the RAF. The Battle of the Atlantic was less visible and glamorous than the Battle of Britain, but preservation of the convoy routes was an equally decisive achievement. The sea service’s chronic weaknesses, however, were air support and antiaircraft defence. From the beginning to the end of the war, the Fleet Air Arm’s performance lagged far behind that of the U.S. Navy’s air squadrons, partly because of inadequate aircraft, partly because the British did not handle them so well, and partly because there were never enough carriers. Churchill served the navy’s interests poorly by failing to insist that the RAF divert more long-range aircraft to maritime support operations, and especially to help protect the Atlantic convoys.
As autumn turned to winter, there seemed little cause for optimism at sea, in the air, or on land. Shrewd old Field Marshal Smuts cabled Churchill from South Africa in considerable dismay on November 4: “I am struck by the growth of the impression here and elsewhere that the war is going to end in stalemate and thus fatally for us.” Many Americans perceived the British sitting idle behind their Channel moat, waiting for the United States to ride to their rescue. Averell Harriman wrote a personal letter to Churchill from Washington: “People are wondering why you don’t do something offensively404. In my opinion it is important that more should be said about what you are doing.” The diplomat urged energetic media promotion of the RAF’s bomber offensive, and of the Royal Navy’s convoys to Russia.
Smuts, meanwhile, believed that Russia was being beaten, and that the United States was still determined to avoid belligerence. This view was widely shared in London. Britain’s army vice chief of staff remained fearful of a German invasion of Britain, and baffled about how his own side might win the war: “Whatever may happen on the Russian front405, it is only by successful invasion of these islands that Hitler can definitely win the war … I wish we had so clear an idea of how we could win. At present we cling rather vaguely to a combination of dissatisfied populations, lowering of morale amongst Germans and German troops, blockade and somewhat inaccurate bombing at night … America … seems further removed now from coming into the war than she was last April.”
Yet there is evidence that Churchill’s personal view was shifting towards an expectation of U.S. belligerence. He asserted to Lord Camrose at the Other Club on November 14 that he was confident the Americans would soon be in the war. Camrose was sufficiently impressed406 to write to his son, repeating the prime minister’s words. On the nineteenth, Churchill told guests during a lunch407 at Downing Street that he expected to land the second of four possible “prizes.” The first would be U.S. entry into the war without involving Japan; the second would be America’s accession as an ally, matched by that of Japan as an enemy; the third would be that neither country entered the war; and the fourth, that Japan became an enemy, while the United States remained neutral. Yet to others, even those privy to secret intelligence of Japanese movements, the prime minister’s hopes seemed ill-founded.
Churchill strove to provide cause for Americans to modify their impression of British passivity. Briefing Commodore Lord Louis Mountbatten on his new role as “chief adviser” to Combined Operations, which soon became translated into overall command, the prime minister said: “Your whole attention is to be concentrated on the offensive.” This was another of the periods when he enthused about a possible descent on Norway, heedless of the intractable reality that its coastline was beyond British fighter range. Eden expressed dismay about this plan to his private secretary: “A.E. is much perplexed408—he feels as I do so many of W.’s gorgeous schemes have ended in failure … a false step—a faulty short-cut—would set us back years.”
The prime minister often felt oppressed by the perceived pettiness and petulance of Parliament. In the House on November 11, 1941, he faced a barrage of questions and supplementaries: first about alleged Italian atrocities in Montenegro, then about the government’s apparent unwillingness to allow the RAF to bomb Rome. When he answered evasively, Sir Thomas Moore, MP for Ayr, demanded: “Does my right hon. friend really think it wise to provide a hide-out for this rat Mussolini?” The prime minister responded: “I think it would be as well to have confidence in the decisions of the Government, whose sole desire is to inflict the maximum of injury upon the enemy.” Another MP drew attention to shortages of equipment, described in Lord Gort’s recently published dispatch on the 1940 campaign in France. Churchill brusquely rejected calls for an enquiry. He might have suggested that such matters came under the heading of archaeology, rather than conduct of the war.
Another member demanded information about the precise composition of the prime minister’s party at the Placentia Bay meeting, and asked, “whether in view of the fact that we are fighting for our existence, he will consider removing from Government service all persons of German education and of German origin.” Churchill invited the questioner to be explicit. This the MP declined to do, but the House readily comprehended the enquiry as an attack upon Lord Cherwell. Other MPs then raised questions in which Cherwell was named. “The Prof” was widely perceived as a pernicious influence upon the prime minister. MPs who did not dare to attack Churchill himself instead vented their frustrations upon his associates. The prime minister defended Cherwell, but he bitterly resented being obliged to do so.
Such exchanges filled twelve columns of Hansard, and caused Churchill to return to Downing Street in dudgeon. Who could blame him? How pettifogging seemed the issues raised by MPs, how small-minded the pinpricks of their criticisms, alongside the great issues with which he wrestled daily. If self-pity about the intrusions of democracy is in some measure common to all national leaders in war or peace, such carping became infinitely irksome to the leader of a nation struggling for survival against overwhelming odds.
The best news in November was of Auchinleck’s long-delayed offensive in the desert, Operation Crusader, which began on November 18. Churchill trumpeted its progress: “For the first time, the Germans are getting a taste of their own bitter medicine.” On the twentieth, before the House of Commons, he described the North African assault in the most dramatic terms: “One thing is certain—that all ranks of the British Empire troops involved are animated by a long-pent-up and ardent desire to engage the enemy … This is the first time that we have met the Germans at least equally well-armed and equipped.” Churchill knew from Ultra that Auchinleck had launched 658 tanks against Rommel’s 168, that the RAF deployed 660 aircraft against 642 of the Luftwaffe’s. Yet, in Crusader’s first days, the British suffered much heavier losses than the Germans. The prime minister continued to cherish hopes for the tangled, messy desert fighting, but there was no sign of a breakthrough. On November 23 Auchinleck sacked Alan Cunningham, commander of the newly christened Eighth Army, and replaced him with his own chief of staff, Neil Ritchie. Rommel had destroyed the career of yet another British general. The Germans were once again fighting harder, faster and more effectively than the British.
It was at this time that Churchill’s patience with his senior soldier, Sir John Dill, chief of the imperial general staff since May 1940, at last expired. Dill’s difficulty was that, like his predecessor, Sir Edmund “Tiny” Ironside, he suffered from a surfeit of realism. This inspired in both men successively a gloom about their own nation’s prospects which grated intolerably upon the prime minister. Dill was exhausted by Churchill’s insistence upon deciding every issue of strategy through trial by combat, testing arguments to destruction at interminable Downing Street meetings. “Winston’s methods were frequently repulsive to him,”409 wrote Alan Brooke. He recoiled from the need to work with the Russians, whom he abhorred. He believed that whenever Hitler chose to reinforce Rommel, the Middle East would be lost, and feared that neglect of Britain’s Far East defences would precipitate disaster if the Japanese attacked. Dill never doubted Churchill’s greatness as national leader. But he considered him wholly unfit to direct strategy.
Churchill, in his turn, had told John Kennedy many months earlier that he found Dill “too much impressed by the enemy’s will.”410 The CIGS was an intelligent man, possessed of famous charm. But, like many other British officers, he lacked steel to bear the highest responsibilities in a war of national survival. On November 16, 1941, Churchill told Dill he must go, designating as his replacement Sir Alan Brooke, C-in-C Home Forces. The change provoked dismay in high places. Dill’s colleagues and friends indulged that fatal British sympathy for agreeable gentlemen, however inadequate to their appointed tasks. He was perceived as a victim of Churchill’s determination to bar dissent from his own conduct of the war. There is no doubt, however, that his removal was right. Never a driving force, he was now a spent one.
His successor proved the outstanding British command appointment of the Second World War. Brooke—like Dill, Montgomery and Alexander—was a Northern Irishman, fifty-eight years old. He had characteristics often identified with Protestant Ulster: toughness, diligence, intolerance, Christian commitment and a brusqueness that sometimes tipped over into ill-temper. His sharp brain was matched by extraordinary strength of purpose. A passionate bird-watcher, Brooke saved his softer side for his feathered friends, his adored second wife, Benita, and their two young children. A misanthrope, he had a low opinion of his fellow men, fellow soldiers and allies, expressed in his wartime diaries with a heavy dressing of exclamation marks. His booming voice and thick-rimmed spectacles intimidated strangers. Intensely active and indeed restless, Brooke was so little seen in the War Office that it was said of him that he knew his way to only two rooms there—his own and the lavatory.
Though the new CIGS was often charmed by the prime minister’s puckish wit, and did not doubt his greatness, he and Churchill never achieved full mutual understanding. Brooke was disgusted by the selfishness of Churchill’s working habits, late hours and strategic flights of fancy. Like Dill and Wavell, he loathed war as much as the prime minister relished it. But he displayed a tenacity and resolve in the face of difficulties and Churchillian follies which Dill lacked. David Margesson, the secretary for war, said that Brooke was sustained by “his ability to shake himself like a dog411 coming out of water after unpleasant interviews with Winston, and … his power of debate (& his rasping voice).” The new CIGS was a harsh and ruthless man. These qualities equipped him to fulfil his role far more effectively than the mild-mannered Dill.
Brooke proved a superb planner and organiser. He gained nothing like the public celebrity of Montgomery and Alexander. The CIGS and prime minister could not be described as brothers in arms. But they forged a partnership in the direction of British strategy which, however stormy, served their nation wonderfully well. Churchill, so often accused of surrounding himself with acolytes and yes-men, deserves the utmost credit for appointing and retaining as CIGS an officer who, when their views differed, fought him to the last gasp. The ascent of Brooke, on the eve of another critical turning point in the war, was a great day for British arms.
In the first days of December, a flood of intelligence revealed Japanese forces redeploying in Southeast Asia. The suspense was very great, as the British waited for Tokyo to reveal its objectives. To the end, there was apprehension that a Nipponese whirlwind might bypass the United States and its possessions. On Sunday, December 7, Churchill learned that Roosevelt proposed to announce in three days’ time that he would regard an attack on British or Dutch possessions in the Far East as an attack on America. That day at lunch, U.S. ambassador “Gil” Winant was among the guests at Chequers. Churchill asserted vigorously that if the Japanese attacked the United States, Britain would declare war on Japan. Winant said he understood that, for the prime minister had declared it publicly. Then Churchill demanded: “If they declare war on us412, will you declare war on them?” Winant responded: “I can’t answer that, Prime Minister. Only the Congress has the right to declare war under the United States constitution.” Churchill lapsed into silence. That terrible apprehension persisted, of facing the Japanese alone. Then he said, with his utmost charm: “We’re late, you know. You get washed and we will go into lunch together.”
Harriman, a fellow guest at dinner that night, found Churchill “tired and depressed413. He didn’t have much to say throughout dinner and was immersed in his thoughts, with his head in his hands part of the time.” Then they heard the radio news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and looked incredulously at one another. Churchill jumped up and started for the door, saying, “We shall declare war on Japan.” Within a few minutes, he and Winant were speaking by phone to Roosevelt. Soon afterwards the Admiralty called, reporting Japanese attacks on Malaya.
Churchill could not claim that his long campaign of seduction was responsible for U.S. entry into the war. This had followed only upon Japanese aggression. America’s policy of deterrence in the east, fortified by sanctions, had instead provoked Tokyo to fight. Though the “day of infamy” resolved many dilemmas and uncertainties, it is unlikely that Roosevelt viewed Pearl Harbor with the same enthusiasm as the prime minister. Events had produced an outcome which the president, left to himself, would not have willed or accomplished for many months—if ever. What is certain is that Churchill had sown seeds of a fertility such as only he could have nurtured, for a harvest which he now gathered. He possessed a stature and commanded an affection among the American people incomparably greater than any respect won by the faltering performance of Britain’s war machine. In the years ahead, his personality would enable him to exercise an influence upon American policies which, for all its limitations, no other British leader could have aspired to.
When Britain’s Tokyo ambassador, Sir Robert Craigie, later submitted a valedictory dispatch, he was sharply censured by the prime minister for describing Japan’s assault in the east as “a disaster for Britain.” On the contrary, said Churchill, it was “a blessing … Greater good fortune has never happened to the British Empire.” That night of December 7, 1941, Churchill wrote in a draft of his memoirs: “Saturated and satiated with emotion414 and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful. One hopes that eternal sleep will be like that.”