DE GAULLE SAID after Pearl Harbor: “Well then, this war is over415. Of course, there are more operations, battles and struggles ahead; but … the outcome is no longer in doubt. In this industrial war, nothing can resist the power of American industry. From now on, the British will do nothing without Roosevelt’s agreement.” The U.S. president told Churchill: “Today all of us are in the same boat with you and the people of the Empire, and it is a ship which will not and cannot be sunk.” Unlike Churchillian assertions earlier in the war, born of blind faith, Roosevelt’s words were rooted in realities of power.
Harold Nicolson wrote on December 11: “We simply can’t be beaten416 with America in. But how strange it is that this great event should be recorded and welcomed here without any jubilation. We should have gone mad with joy if it had happened a year ago … Not an American flag flying in the whole of London. How odd we are!” Part of the explanation was given by London charity worker Vere Hodgson. Like many of her compatriots, she felt that Pearl Harbor served the Americans right: “Though I do not wish anyone to be bombed417, a little wholesome shaking-up is good for people who contemplate the sufferings of others with equanimity … Poor dear people in those islands of bliss, sunshine and fruit drinks. They must have had an unpleasant Sunday afternoon … I should think Colonel Lindbergh has retired to a room with dark blinds—not to be heard of for many a long day.”
A Home Intelligence report said: “While the public are prepared to make418 any sacrifices necessary to help Russia … they have no such disposition towards America … America is ‘too damned wealthy’… Americans are too mercenary-minded, and … the hardship and suffering of war ‘will do them a lot of good.’” Few British people felt minded to thank the Americans for belatedly entering the war not from choice or principle, but because they were obliged to. Some were fearful that U.S. belligerence would check the flow of supplies to Britain and Russia. It was left to the prime minister to open his arms to a transatlantic embrace, which many of his compatriots were foolish enough to grudge.
In the days following Pearl Harbor, from everywhere save Malaya the war news reaching Churchill briefly brightened. The Royal Navy was faring better in its struggle with Hitler’s U-boats. Auchinleck continued to signal optimistically about the progress of Crusader in the desert. “Consider tide turned,” he reported from Cairo on December 9, and two days later: “We are pressing pursuit vigorously.” The Russians were still holding Moscow, Leningrad and the Baku oil fields. Churchill told the House of Commons on December 8: “We have at least four-fifths of the population of the globe upon our side. We are responsible for their safety and for their future. In the past we have had a light which flickered, in the present we have a light which flames, and in the future there will be a light which shines over all the land and sea.”
On December 10 came ghastly tidings, of the destruction of Prince of Wales and Repulse by Japanese air attack off Malaya. Churchill was stunned. Their deployment reflected his personal decision, their loss an indictment of his misplaced faith in “castles of steel” amid oceans now dominated by air and submarine power. It is often claimed that the fate of the two capital ships was sealed by the absence of the carrier Indomitable, prevented by accidental damage from joining the battle squadron. Given the shortcomings of the Fleet Air Arm and its fighters, it seems more plausible that if Indomitable had been at sea off Malaya, as intended by Churchill and the Admiralty, it would have been lost with Prince of Wales and Repulse.
Yet even this blow was endurable, in the context of American belligerency. On December 11, Germany and Italy removed a vital lingering doubt, by declaring war on the United States. The next day Churchill cabled to Eden, who was en route to Moscow: “The accession of the United States makes amends for all, and with time and patience will give certain victory.” There were short-term hazards. Washington would cut overseas weapons shipments, to meet the needs of its own armed forces. Ten RAF squadrons en route to Persia to support Stalin’s southern front would have to be diverted to the Far East. But these were mere inconveniences alongside the glittering prospect opened by American might.
The prime minister’s first priority was to meet Roosevelt and his military chiefs face to face, to cement the alliance created by events, though never ratified by formal treaty. Henceforward, Anglo-American dealings would be influenced by formal agreements on matériel issues, above all Lend-Lease, but governed chiefly by personal understandings, or lack of them, between the leaders of the two nations and their Chiefs of Staff. When Churchill proposed himself for an immediate descent on Washington, the president demurred. On security grounds, he suggested a rendezvous in Bermuda, which he said that he could not himself attend before January 7. In reality, Roosevelt was hesitant about making space at the White House for the overpowering personality of Britain’s prime minister and the torrent of rhetoric with which he would assuredly favour the American people. Nonetheless, in the face of Churchill’s chafing, the president agreed that he should come to Washington before Christmas.
As the prime minister prepared to sail, there was a flurry of last-minute business. He cabled Eden that while it might be desirable for Russia to declare war on Japan, Stalin should not be pressed too hard on this issue, “considering how little we have been able to contribute” to the Soviet war effort. The foreign secretary was told, however, that on no account should he appear willing to satisfy Moscow’s demands for recognition of the frontiers which the Russians had established for themselves by agreement with Hitler, absorbing eastern Poland and the Baltic states. Not only would such action be unprincipled, it would discomfit the Americans, who were at that time even more hostile than the British to Stalin’s territorial ambitions. Meanwhile, Attlee was urged not to implement a threatened cut in the British people’s rations: “We are all in it together and [the Americans] are eating better meals than we are.” Reducing supplies would savour of panic, said the prime minister. From Gourock, on the Clyde, on the morning of December 13, he telephoned Ismay to urge that “everything that was fit for battle” should be dispatched to the Far East. Then, with his eighty-strong party which included Beaverbrook and the Chiefs of Staff—Dill still representing the army while Brooke took over at the War Office—he boarded the great battleship Duke of York, sister of the lost Prince of Wales.
The passage was awful. Day after day, Duke of York ploughed through mountainous seas which caused her to pitch and roll. Max Beaverbrook, who had been invited partly to provide companionship for “the old man” and partly because he was alleged to be popular with Americans, wheezed that he was being borne across the Atlantic in “a submarine masquerading as a battleship.” Churchill, almost alone among the passengers, was untroubled by seasickness. Patrick Kinna, while taking dictation, found his own misery worsened by the cigar smoke that choked the prime minister’s cabin high in the superstructure. A stream of bad news reached the party at sea: the Japanese landed in northern Borneo on December 17, on Hong Kong island the next day. Churchill minuted the Chiefs of Staff on the fifteenth, urging the vital importance of ensuring that Singapore was held: “Nothing compares in importance with the fortress.” Heedless of the pitching of the storm-tossed warship, he dictated a succession of long memoranda, setting out his views on the way ahead.
Supplies for Russia from both Britain and the United States must be sustained, he said, for only thus “shall we hold our influence over Stalin and be able to weave the mighty Russian effort into the general texture of the war.” He proposed that American troops should be sent to Northern Ireland, to provide an additional deterrent against German landings. By 1943, he said, Britain would be “more strongly prepared against invasion than ever before.” The possibility of a German descent on Britain continued to feature in his calculations. If Russia was knocked out, as still seemed likely, the Nazis could again turn west. Hitler must recognise the urgency of completing the conquest of Europe before America became fully mobilised. Churchill suggested that U.S. bombers should deploy in Britain, to join the growing air offensive against Germany. He expected Singapore to be defended for at least six months.
He interrupted his dictation to tell Kinna to make some sailors stop whistling outside his cabin. This was a distraction and vulgarity which he could not abide—he once said that an aversion to whistling was the only trait he shared with Hitler. Kinna duly retired, but was too nervous of his likely reception to address the offending seamen, who lapsed into silence spontaneously. Oblivious of the towering seas outside, the pitching of the huge ship, Churchill resumed composition of his tour d’horizon. He wanted the Americans to land in French North Africa in 1942. The following year, he anticipated launching attacks against some permutation of Sicily, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France’s Channel or Atlantic coasts or possibly the Balkans. In his memoranda, he made some wild assertions, for instance anticipating that, when the time came to invade the Continent, “the uprising of the local populations for whom weapons must be brought will supply the corpus of the liberating offensive.” But he also looked with imaginative foresight to the creation of improvised aircraft carriers, which would indeed play a key role later in the war, and urged a carrier-borne air assault on Japan.
On December 21, he wrote a long letter to Clementine: “I do not know when or how I shall come back419. I shall certainly stay long enough to do all that has to be done, having come all this way at so much trouble and expense.” He told her that he had no patience with those who denounced Britain’s unreadiness in the Far East: “It is no good critics saying ‘Why were we not prepared?’ when everything we had was already fully engaged.” In this, he was surely justified. Those like Dill, who had favoured reinforcing Malaya at the expense of the Middle East, were mistaken. It would have been absurd to dispatch desperately needed aircraft, tanks and troops to meet a putative threat in the Far East, at the likely cost of losing Egypt to an enemy already at its gates. It is hard to imagine any redeployment of available British resources in the autumn of 1941 which would have prevented disaster. So far-reaching were British weaknesses of leadership, training, tactics, air support and will in Malaya and Burma that the Japanese were all but certain to prevail.
The heavy seas imposed delays which caused Duke of York’s passage to seem to its passengers interminable. Churchill fulminated at the waste of time, but was obliged to concede that he could not subdue the elements. A five-day crossing stretched to nine, then ten. The Chiefs of Staff delivered their comments upon Churchill’s long strategic memoranda, which were discussed at a series of meetings under his chairmanship. They opposed a firm commitment to opening the major Second Front in Europe in 1943. Germany, they said, must first be weakened by intensified and protracted bombing. They urged acknowledgement of the fact that “the Japanese will be able to run wild in the Western Pacific” until Germany and Italy were disposed of. Churchill, who was undergoing one of his periodic bouts of scepticism about bombing, resisted any declaration of excessive faith in its potential. He warned against expecting the Americans to take as insouciant a view of Japanese Pacific advances as the Chiefs proposed. He said that it was essential to promote an offensive vision, rather than merely to advocate countermeasures against Axis thrusts. All this was very wise.
On December 22, Duke of York at last stood into Hampton Roads. The British party landed, and Churchill and his immediate staff boarded a plane for the short flight to Washington. Through its windows, they peered down through gathering darkness, fascinated by the bright lights of America’s capital after the gloom of blacked-out London. There to meet the prime minister at the airport was Franklin Roosevelt, whose guest he became for the next three weeks. If this was a tense time for the British delegation, it was also an intensely happy one for Churchill. Who could deny his deserving of it, after all he had endured during the previous eighteen months? That first Anglo-American summit was code-named Arcadia, the paradise of ancient Greek shepherds. To the prime minister, Washington indeed seemed paradisiacal. Installed in the White House, he enthused to Clementine: “All is very good indeed420; and my plans go through. The Americans are magnificent in their breadth of view.”
From his first meeting with Roosevelt, he emphasised the danger that Hitler might seize Morocco, and thus the urgent need that Allied forces should preempt him. Less convincingly, he cited the French battleships Jean Bart and Richelieu, sheltering in North Africa, as “a real prize.” He was galled when Dill suggested that shipping shortages might make it impossible to convey an American army across the Atlantic in 1942, and swept this argument aside. The two national leaders and their Chiefs of Staff discussed, then dismissed, arguments for creating a war council on which all the Allies and British dominions would be represented. It was agreed that while the dominions should be consulted, policy must be made between the Big Three.
This latter outcome was inevitable, but sowed the seeds of future unhappiness around the Empire, and especially in Australia. While in Washington, Churchill learned of the crippling of the battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth by Italian human torpedoes in Alexandria Harbour, together with the loss of two cruisers at sea. He was furious to hear that his deputy prime minister had informed the Australians and Canadians of the drastic weakening of the Mediterranean Fleet. “I greatly regret that this vital secret should be spread about the world in this fashion,” he cabled Attlee. “We do not give our most secret information to the Dominions.”
The British and American Chiefs of Staff held twelve joint meetings. To the relief of Churchill and his delegation, the U.S. leadership immediately confirmed the conclusion of earlier Anglo-American staff talks, that the Allies should pursue the policy of “Germany first.” It is sometimes insufficiently recognised how far Allied decisions for 1942 were influenced by shipping imperatives. The British were shocked, in the first weeks after Pearl Harbor, to discover how few bottoms would be available in the year ahead, before the huge U.S. “Liberty Ship” building programme achieved maturity. Britain required thirty million tons of imports a year to sustain itself, which had to be borne across the Atlantic by merchant fleets much diminished by sinkings.
With the limited capacity available, there was much more scope for American action against the Germans, by supplying Russia and deploying U.S. troops in the west, than against the Japanese in the Pacific. The Asian war required three or four times the freighting effort of the European one, because of the distances involved. A merchant ship could make only three round-trips a year to the Pacific theatre. The “Germany first” strategy thus represented not only strategic sense, but also logistic necessity. Yet, given the much greater popular animosity towards Japan in the United States, it should never be taken for granted. Harold Macmillan observed later of the prime minister: “No one but he421 (and that only with extraordinary patience and skill) could have enticed the Americans into the European war at all.” This overstated the case. But the U.S. commitment to the western conflict indisputably represented a diplomatic triumph for Britain.
When Roosevelt introduced the prime minister to a throng of American pressmen, Churchill roused cheers and applause by climbing onto a chair so they could see him better. Asked whether it was true that Singapore was the key to the Far East war, he parried skilfully: “The key to the whole situation is the resolute manner in which the British and American democracies are going to throw themselves into the conflict.” How long would it last? “If we manage it well, it will only take half as long as if we manage it badly.” His exuberance was increased by further optimistic signals from Auchinleck in North Africa about the progress of Crusader.
On Christmas Eve, standing beside Roosevelt on the balcony as the White House tree lights were illuminated before a huge crowd, he said: “I cannot feel myself a stranger here in the centre and at the summit of the United States. I feel a sense of unity and fraternal association which, added to the kindliness of your welcome, convinces me that I have a right to share your Christmas joys … Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.” He found his pulse racing after the balcony appearance, from which his words were broadcast: “It has all been very moving.” That evening, it was also a struggle to overcome private dismay: he learned of the fall of Hong Kong.
Roosevelt, matching the prime minister courtesy for courtesy and jest for jest, taunted him at dinner about having fought on the wrong side in the Boer War. When Churchill was asked about the quality of U.S. food supplies to Britain, he complained: “too many powdered eggs.” He cabled Auchinleck, urging that, now that the desert campaign seemed to be progressing so well, he should release an armoured brigade and four RAF squadrons for the Far East. On Christmas evening, he left the rest of the presidential party watching a movie, and stumped off upstairs murmuring about “homework.” He was writing next day’s speech to the U.S. Congress.
Washington Post reporter Hope Ridings Miller wrote: “Senators’ … office telephones carried call422 after call from friends—wondering if there was some way, somehow, something could be done to obtain tickets for the biggest show on the season’s calendar.” It was late in the morning when Churchill, wearing a blue polka-dot bow tie, clambered to his feet in the chamber on Capitol Hill. He grinned, donned spectacles, blinked back the tears that so often filled his eyes at dramatic moments. Congressman Frank McNaughton saw “a stubby, granite little man … dumpy, heavy-shouldered, massive-jawed, with a solid bald crown flecked with straggles of grey hair.” Hands on hips, Churchill began to address the audience beyond the dense bank of microphones. “Smiling, bowing, and looking very much at home,” wrote Miller, “the Prime Minister flushed slightly as the ovation ushering him in increased in volume and burst into an earsplitting crescendo. Compared with that demonstration, the tone in which he began his speech was so low those of us in the press gallery had a difficult time catching all his opening lines … A consummate actor, who carefully times his speech so that each word and each syllable is given the exact emphasis it should have, Mr. Churchill also pauses at the proper time for applause …”
In the knowledge that Americans, and especially their legislators, were deeply wary of Britain as a suppliant, he said nothing of dependency, real though this was. Instead, he talked of partnership, shared burdens. He flourished his own American parentage: “I shall always remember how each Fourth of July my mother would wave an American flag before my eyes.” He reached his peroration: “Lastly, if you will forgive me for saying it, to me the best tidings of all is that the United States, united as never before, has drawn the sword for freedom, and cast aside the scabbard.” He unsheathed an imaginary blade, and brandished it aloft.
Then he sat down, sweating freely. As one man, the chamber rose. The applause echoed on and on, until at last with a little wave Churchill left the rostrum. Hope Ridings Miller reported: “I never saw Congress in a more enthusiastic mood, and some diplomats, who habitually sit on their hands at a joint Congressional meeting, lest one gesture of applause might be diplomatically misinterpreted, clapped louder and longer than anybody.” Interior Secretary Harold Ickes called him “the greatest orator in the world423 … I doubt if any other Britisher could have stood in that spot and made the profound impression that Churchill made.” It was just after one o’clock. The prime minister, pouring himself a whiskey in the Senate secretary’s office, said to Charles Wilson, his doctor, “It is a great weight off my chest.”424 At an informal lunch after his speech, he told congressmen: “The American people will never know how grateful we are for the million rifles sent us after Dunkirk. It meant our life and our salvation.” If this was a flourish of flattery, it promoted a legend that Americans cherished. That night Wilson was alarmed to discover that Churchill had suffered an attack of angina pectoris. But there was nothing to be done, no change in the schedule to be considered. It would have been a political catastrophe, if the world saw Britain’s elderly war leader flag.
Churchill used Roosevelt’s personal train to travel to Ottawa to address the Canadian Parliament, where he achieved another wonderful success. Back at the White House, he wrote happily to Attlee, “We live here a big family, in the greatest intimacy and informality.” Peerless phrases dropped from his lips in even the most banal circumstances. At the White House lunch on New Year’s Day, as he transferred hash and poached egg to his plate, the egg slipped off. The prime minister restored it to the hash, and, with a glance at his hostess, said, “to put it on its throne.”425 It was fortunate that conversation sparkled, for the food at the Roosevelt White House was notoriously awful. After the meal, in her sitting room Eleanor Roosevelt and her secretary Malvina “Tommy” Thompson compared notes on the two leaders with the First Lady’s friend and confidant Joseph Lash. Lash said the prime minister had the richer temperament, but the president was a more dependable, steadier man in a crisis. “‘Tommy’ clapped her hands426 and said she and Mrs. Roosevelt felt the same. The president was more hardheaded, they felt. He was less brilliant, but more likely to do the right thing. The president also gave the impression of being more under control, of never letting himself go.”
It is striking how many of those who worked with Roosevelt deferred to his greatness, but disliked his personality. Diplomat Charles Bohlen, for instance, observed that despite the president’s pose of informality, “the aura of the office was always around him.”427If Churchill’s outbursts of ill temper sometimes irked colleagues, Roosevelt’s associates were made uneasy by his bland geniality, his reluctance to display anger, or indeed to reveal any frank sentiment at all. Where Churchill sought clarity of decision by working on paper, Roosevelt preferred to do business verbally. No minutes were taken of his Cabinet meetings. This approach led to many confusions, on issues of war and domestic policy alike. The president prided himself on his powers of persuasion, and had raised to an art form the ability to send every visitor out of his presence confident that he had got what he wanted. Both Churchill and Roosevelt were often accused of betraying their own social class, but the president was a much more skilled politician. De Gaulle described him as “a patrician democrat whose every simple gesture428 is carefully studied.”
Halifax wrote with condescension but some justice about Churchill’s late-night sessions with the Chiefs of Staff at the White House: “Winston’s methods, as I have long known, are exhausting for anybody who doesn’t happen to work that way; discursive discussions, jumping like a water bird from stone to stone where the current takes you. I am sure the faults that people find with him arise entirely from overwhelming self-centredness, which with all his gifts of imagination make him quite impervious to other people’s feelings.” Some of Roosevelt’s intimates were struck by Churchill’s single-minded obsession with the war. The occupant of the White House, by contrast, was obliged to devote far more of his energies to domestic matters, and to managing Congress. “The difference between the President429 and the prime minister,” wrote his secretary William Hassett, “is the prime minister has nothing on his mind but the war: the President must also control the government of the United States.”
Churchill felt able to take more for granted with his own nation’s legislature than did Roosevelt with his. Yet, while the Americans perceived Britain’s government as entirely dominated by Churchill, the British took a legitimate pride in the effectiveness of their bureaucratic machine. Churchill’s team were bemused by the whimsical fashion in which the U.S. government seemed to be conducted. Ian Jacob thought the Oval Office “one of the most untidy rooms430 I have ever seen. It is full of junk. Half-opened parcels, souvenirs, books, papers, knick-knacks and all kinds of miscellaneous articles lie about everywhere, on tables, on chairs, and on the floor. His desk is piled with papers; and alongside his chair he has a sort of bookcase also filled with books, papers, and junk of all sorts piled just anyhow. It would drive an orderly-minded man, or woman, mad.” FDR’s famous dog, Fala, had to be evicted from a meeting in the Cabinet Room for barking furiously during a Churchillian harangue.
Cadogan asked Halifax with mandarin disdain: “How do these people carry on?”431 They were unimpressed by Roosevelt as a warlord. Jacob wrote: “By the side of the Prime Minister he is a child432 in military affairs, and evidently has little realisation of what can and what cannot be done … To our eyes the American machine of Government seems hopelessly disorganised … They will have first to close the gap433 between their Army and Navy before they can work as a real team with us.” Had any American senior officer read these words, he would have answered that it was pretty rich for a British soldier thus to patronise the United States and its armed forces when Britain’s record since 1939 was of almost unbroken battlefield failure and since her economic survival rested upon American largesse. Criticisms of Roosevelt’s working methods had substance, but ignored America’s untold wealth and achievements.
The British, in the years ahead, would persistently underestimate U.S. capabilities, and feed American resentment by revealing their sentiments. They failed, for instance, to recognise the potency of Roosevelt’s personal commitment to supplying Russia. Just as Churchill and Beaverbrook faced opposition on this issue in Britain, so the president was obliged to overcome critics at the top of the armed forces, in Congress and in the media who were fiercely reluctant to offer Stalin open cheques on the U.S. Treasury. Roosevelt, like Churchill, stood head and shoulders above his military advisers in his understanding of the importance of supporting Russia’s war. While American deliveries, like those of Britain, lagged far behind promises, without the exercise of the president’s utmost personal authority the Soviet Union would have been denied food, commodities, vehicles and equipment that became vital to its war effort.
In Washington, the Allies agreed to a vast increase in U.S. weapons production—Beaverbrook made a useful contribution by urging the feasibility of this on Roosevelt. It would be more than two years before the full effects became apparent on the battlefield. The Americans, including George Marshall, were slow to grasp the length of the inevitable delay between decisions to arm and achievement of capability to unleash upon the enemy the vast war machine they planned to create. But a beginning was made at Arcadia. On January 5, Churchill flew to Florida for five days’ warmth, rest and work. He revised the strategy papers he had composed on the voyage from Britain. Amid the obvious determination of the U.S. Chiefs of Staff to grapple with the German army, he committed himself to “large offensive operations” in Europe in 1943. This, even though news from the battlefronts was turning sour again. Rommel had been able to extricate seven German and Italian divisions from the desert battle, and was regrouping in Tripolitana. The Japanese were storming down the Malay Peninsula, prompting the first stab of apprehension about Singapore. Large reinforcements were being rushed to “the fortress,” as Churchill so mistakenly called the island.
Then there were a few more days with Roosevelt. “They tell me I have done a good job here,”434 Churchill said to Bernard Baruch. The financier replied: “You have done a one hundred per cent job. But now you ought to get the hell out of here.” The visitor was in danger of outstaying his welcome. The president had grown bored with the relentless, self-indulgent sparring between the prime minister and Beaverbrook. While never lacking confidence in the superior might of the nation which he himself led, Roosevelt found that it became tiring to live alongside the Englishman’s bombastic presence. He was glad to see his guests go. Churchill wrote in his memoirs: “The time had now come when I must leave435 the hospitable and exhilarating atmosphere of the White House and of the American nation, erect and infuriate against tyrants and aggressors. It was to no sunlit prospect that I must return.” He knew with what dismay the British nation must greet the torrent of ill tidings from the Far East, which had yet to reach a flood.
The president said to the prime minister at their parting, “Trust me to the bitter end.” Then Churchill took off in a Boeing Clipper flying boat, one of three such aircraft purchased from the Americans the previous year. The Clipper flew low and slow, but offered its passengers a magnificent standard of comfort and cuisine. Dinner, served between Bermuda and Plymouth, consisted of consommé, shrimp cocktail, filet mignon with fresh vegetables, dessert, coffee, champagne and liqueurs. Then the passengers were able to retire to bunks, though Churchill wandered restlessly during the night. They landed in Britain on the morning of January 17, after an eighteen-hour flight. That evening, the prime minister briefed the War Cabinet. “An Olympian calm” prevailed at the White House, he said. “It was perhaps rather isolated. The president had no adequate link between his will and executive action.” The British found the State Department “jumpy.” Cordell Hull had been enraged by the unheralded Free French seizure of the tiny Vichy-held islands of St.-Pierre and Miquelon, off Newfoundland, a development which wasted precious Anglo-American time and goodwill to resolve. Amery noted wryly436 that, in Churchill’s report to the Cabinet, he did not trouble to mention his visit to Canada.
But the prime minister’s mood was exultant, as well it might be. He had achieved a personal triumph in the United States such as no other Englishman could have matched. He told the king that, after many months of dating, Britain and America were at last married. If there was no doubt that henceforward Britain would be junior partner in the Atlantic alliance, Churchill had imposed his greatness on the American people, in a fashion that would do much service to his country in the years ahead.
There were important nuances about this first visit, however. First, at a time when most of the decision makers in both Britain and the United States still thought it likely that Russia would be defeated, they failed to perceive the extent to which the war against Hitler would be dominated by the struggle in the east. At the turn of 1941–42, Roosevelt and Churchill in Washington supposed that they were shaping strategy for the destruction of Nazism. They had no inkling of the degree to which Stalin’s nation would prove the most potent element in achieving this. Though the United States was by far the strongest global force in the Grand Alliance, the Soviet Union mobilised raw military power more effectively than either Western partner.
As for Anglo-American relations, Charles Wilson wrote of Churchill: “He wanted to show the President437 how to run the war, and it has not quite worked out like that.” Eden told the Cabinet: “There is bound to be difficulty in practice438 in harmonizing day-to-day Anglo-Russian co-operation with Anglo-American co-operation. Soviet policy is amoral: United States policy is exaggeratedly moral, at least where non-American interests are concerned.” Despite the success of Churchill’s Washington visit, it would be mistaken to suppose that all Americans succumbed to the magic of his personality. His great line to Congress—“What kind of people do they think we are?”—prompted widespread editorialising. But in the weeks that followed, by no means all of this was favourable to Britain. The Denver Post said sourly: “There is one lesson the United States should learn439 from England. That is to put our own interests ahead of those of everybody else.” The Chicago Tribune’s attitude was predictably rancid: “It is unfortunate that Mr. Roosevelt440 has had the example of Mr. Churchill constantly before him as a guide. Mr. Churchill is a man of very great capacity in many directions, but as a military strategist he has an almost unbroken record of disappointments and failures.”
Some of the foremost personalities at Arcadia found one another unsympathetic. Henry Morgenthau, the treasury secretary, thought Max Beaverbrook cocky to the point of impertinence. In the absence of the newly appointed Alan Brooke, the British Chiefs of Staff made a weak team. The Americans liked Charles Portal, but the airman rarely imposed himself. Admiral Dudley Pound seemed a cipher, whose fading health disqualified him from meaningful participation. The Americans were too polite to allude in the visitors’ presence to Britain’s resounding military failures, but these were never far from their minds when they discerned extravagant assertiveness in Churchill or his companions. They had respect for the Royal Navy and RAF, but scarcely any for the British Army. Scepticism about British military competence would persist throughout the war in the upper reaches of the U.S. Army, colouring its leaders’ attitudes in every strategic debate.
As for the president and the prime minister, Hopkins said, “There was no question but that [Roosevelt] grew genuinely to like Churchill.” This seems at best half true. Their political convictions were far, far apart. For all Franklin Roosevelt’s irrepressible bonhomie, excessive doses of Churchill palled on him. A joke did the rounds in Washington, and indeed was featured in Time magazine, that the first question the president asked Harry Hopkins on his return from Britain in February 1941 was, “Who writes Churchill’s speeches for him?”441 The prime minister sought to display courtesy by pushing the president’s wheelchair each evening from the drawing room to the lift. Yet it seems plausible that this gesture was misjudged, that it merely emphasised the contrast between the host’s enforced immobility and the guest’s exuberant energy. British witnesses at the White House observed Churchill striving to overcome his own irrepressible instinct to talk, and instead trying to listen to the president. It is hard to believe that Roosevelt’s profound vanity was much massaged by Churchill’s presence in his home.
The president’s respect for the British prime minister’s abilities was not in doubt, any more than was his commitment to the alliance to defeat Germany and Japan. But he was a much cooler man than Churchill. “Even those closest to Roosevelt,”442 wrote Joseph Lash, who knew him well, “were always asking, ‘What does he really think? What does he really feel?’” At no time did Roosevelt perceive himself engaged with the prime minister in a matched partnership. He was no mere leader of a government but a head of state, who wrote to monarchs as equals. Churchill felt no deep sense of obligation to America for its provision of supplies. In his eyes, Britain for more than two years had played the nobler part, pouring forth blood and enduring bombardment in a lone struggle for freedom. Roosevelt had scant patience with such pretensions. He paid only lip service to Britain’s claims upon the collective gratitude of the democracies. Churchill’s nation was now mortgaged to the hilt to the United States. Sooner or later, the president had every intention of exercising his power as holder of his ally’s title deeds.
Roosevelt had visited Britain several times as a young man, but never revealed much liking for the country. As president, he repeatedly rejected invitations to go there. He perceived hypocrisy in its pretensions as a bastion of democracy and freedom, while it sustained a huge empire of subject peoples denied democratic representation. Cooperation with Churchill’s nation was essential to the defeat of Hitler. Thereafter, in the words of Michael Howard, Roosevelt “proposed to reshape the world443 in accordance with American concepts of morality, not British concepts of realpolitik.” Roosevelt’s acquaintance with foreign parts had been confined to gilded European holidays with his millionaire father and a 1918 battlefield tour. He nonetheless had a boundless appetite to alter the world. Eden was appalled when he later heard the president expound a vision of Europe’s future: “The academic yet sweeping opinions444 which he built … were alarming in their cheerful fecklessness. He seemed to see himself disposing of the fate of many lands, allied no less than enemy.” The president mentioned, inter alia, a liking for the notion that the French colonial port of Dakar should become a U.S. naval base. His hubris shocked not only the British, but also such wise Americans as Harriman.
Eden claimed that Churchill regarded Roosevelt with almost religious awe. Yet the foreign secretary almost certainly misread as credulity Churchill’s supremely prudent recognition of necessity. In no aspect of his war leadership did the prime minister exercise a more steely self-discipline than in this relationship. “My whole system is founded on friendship445 with Roosevelt,” he told Eden later. He knew that, without the president’s goodwill, Britain was almost impotent. He could not afford not to revere, love and cherish the president of the United States, the living embodiment of American might. He dismissed doubts and reservations to the farthest recesses of his mind. For the rest of the war, he sought to bind himself to Roosevelt in an intimacy from which the president often flinched. Churchill was determined upon marriage. Roosevelt acknowledged the necessity for a ring; but was determined to maintain separate beds, friends and bank accounts. The prospect of ultimate divorce, once the war was won, held no terrors for him.
The second strand in that first alliance conference was the attitude of the U.S. Chiefs of Staff. They were appalled by the spectacle of Britain’s prime minister establishing himself for weeks on end at the White House, engaged in strategic discussions with the president from which they were often absent. Marshall, an intensely moral man, deplored casual intermingling of professional and social intercourse—so much so that he always refused invitations to stay at Hyde Park, the Roosevelt estate on the Hudson River in upstate New York. So strict was his personal austerity that when he added a chicken run to his quarters at Fort Myer, he insisted upon paying personally for the materials used in its construction. Unfamiliar with the promiscuity of Churchill’s conversation, he resented every moment of the visitor’s intimacies with Roosevelt. “The British,446” wrote Henry Stimson, “are evidently taking advantage of the president’s well-known shortcomings in ordinary administrative methods.” Hopkins cautioned Roosevelt against agreeing to military decisions in the absence of Marshall. Yet, to the army chief of staff’s fury, Roosevelt accepted Churchill’s proposal that, if the Philippines fell, residual American forces should be redeployed to Singapore.
Marshall was even more hostile than Roosevelt to British imperial pretensions. And while from the outset the president’s imagination was seized by the notion of a North African landing, Marshall’s was not. He and his colleagues were irked by a perceived British assumption that they could now draw on United States manpower and weapons “as if these had been swept into447 a common pool for campaigns tailored to suit the interests and convenience of Great Britain,” in the words of a Marshall biographer. “From the British standpoint it was easy to conclude that a course of action favorable to their national interest was simply good strategic sense and that failure of the Americans to agree showed inexperience, immaturity and bad manners.” From the first day of the war, Marshall was bent upon engaging the Germans in northwest Europe at the earliest possible date and avoiding entanglement in British “sideshows.”
The only British officer with whom Marshall forged a close relationship was Dill. Ironically, the discarded CIGS now became a significant figure in the Anglo-American partnership. By an inspired stroke, when Churchill went home he left behind in Washington a somewhat reluctant Dill, who was shortly afterwards appointed chief of the British military mission. Between the embassy and the mission—housed in the U.S. Public Health Building on Constitution Avenue—there were soon nine thousand British uniformed and civilian personnel in Washington. Dill also became the British representative on the newly created Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee when it met in Washington in the absence of Pound, Brooke and Portal. Halifax, as ambassador, achieved no intimacy with the Americans, and it was never plausible that he should do so. Dill was understandably bemused by his new appointment: “It is odd that Winston should want me448 to represent him here when he clearly was glad of an excuse to get me out of the CIGS job.” But he became Marshall’s confidant, a sensitive interpreter of the two nations’ military aspirations. In the years that followed, Dill made a notable contribution to the Grand Alliance, calming transatlantic storms and explaining rival viewpoints. He prospered as a diplomat where he had failed as a director of strategy.
Churchill’s first visit to Washington was thus a public triumph, but a less assured private one. Still, he was wise to bask while he could in the sunshine of the new American relationship. Back at home, many troubles awaited him. History perceives 1940, when Britain stood alone, as the pivotal year for the nation’s survival. Yet 1942 would prove the most torrid phase of Churchill’s war premiership. The British people, so staunch amid the threat of invasion, two years later showed themselves weary and fractious. Amid the reality of crushing defeats, they tired of promises of prospective victories. In peace or war, the patience of democracies is seldom great. That of Britain had been progressively eroded by bombardment, privation and battlefield humiliation. In the press, the Commons, and on the streets of Britain, Churchill now faced criticism more bitter and sustained than he had known since assuming office.