** biographies: Winston S. Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt World War II

Churchill and Roosevelt: Britain and America in World War II

Figure 1.--President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill are shown in the Allantic Charter meeting (August 1941). They had only met once earlier, during World War I. (Which Churchill did not remenber). The Presdident committed to an undeclared naval war against Germany. Four montyhs later, Japan would bring American officially into a shooting war. The naval commanders hejing them are Adm. King and Adm. Stark. Almost out of the image to the left is Gem. Marshall. King and Marshall would be the two most important Amnerican military commnders of the War.

Britain found itself in desperate straits in 1940. The day that Winston Churchill became primeminister, the German's launched their long-awaited Western offensive. This time Britain could probably not even survive without America. The result was the most remarkable political association of the 20th century that between the Churchhill and Fraklin Roosevelt. Thankfully for Western democracy, Roosevelt was prepared to risk the ire of the Isolatiinists to assist. Destroyers for bases and Lend Lease helped keep Britain in the War. Roosevelt dispatched Harry Hopkins to assess whether Britain could hold out. A few months before America entered the War, the relationship and Allied vission of a free democratic Europe was sealed with the Atlantic Charter. The two met aboard the Prince of Wales which had been battered by the Bismarck and was soon to be sunk by Japanese bombers. Churchill and Roosevelt had, however, forged a political relation between Britain and America that would not only prove to be a central element in the Allied victory in World War II, but literaly the salvation of Western civilization.

Winston Churchill

One historian was to refer to it as "the supreme partnership". Churchill was out of Government during most of the 1930s. As back-bencher, he warned of te danger posed by the NAZIs and German rearmament. He collected data on the German rearmament program that Prime Minister Baldwin and later Chamberlain preferred to ignore, chosing a policy of appeasement. Until Munich most Britains saw him as a maverick, has been politican. After Munich this began to change. Churchill and Roosevelt were two very different men both in character and outlook, but Roosevelt was aware of Churchill's long struggle to alert Britain to the dangers posed by Hitler and the NAZIs. The men were so different with such different vissions of their respective countries' interests that on has to wonder if any series of events short of the rise of Hitler would have drawn them together. [Schlesinger]

Franklin Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt did visit England as a boy. He also visited Germany and for a while attended a German primary school. Unlike Churchill, he had not been out of Government in the 1930s. Roosevelt had assumed office a little more than a month after Hitler had been appointed chancellor (1933). From the beginning he saw Hitler as a threat to peace. The temper of America at the time was to limit military funds to fught the depression and to stay out of European conflicts. Roosevelt and Churchill had begun to correspond when Churchill entered the Government as First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939. Roosevelt at first still hoped that Hitler could be stopped without using American troops. President Roosevelt played a key role in forging the great Arsenal of Democracy that would in the end play a key role in saving Britain and destroying the Axis.


The correspondence between Churchill and Roosevlt which began when Churchill returned to the Admiralty was a remarkable correspondence and was to continue throughout World War II between the two men who would play key roles in effect saving Western Civilization. [Tarapani] Thhere were to be almost 2,000 letters during the more than 5 years of the War. [Meacham]

American Isolationism

This time Britain could probably not even survive without America. The result was the most remarkable political association of the 20th century that between the Churchhill and Fraklin Roosevelt. Thankfully for Western democracy, Roosevelt was prepared to risk the ire of the Isolatiinists to assist. With the oubreak of the War (September 1939), the U.S. Neutrality Act prevented aid to Britain or any other beligerant country. The Roosevelt Administration guides changes to the laws through Congress to permit arms sales to the Allies. He is immediately attacked by isolationists like Charles Lindburg who are determined to keep America oit of the War. FDR also succeeds in establishing a draft and major increases in defense spending, especially naval spending.

Churchill Becomes Primeminister (May 1940)

Just as the NAZI blow in the West came, Prime Minister Chamerlain resigned. His position in Parliament had become untenable. "Go! In the name of God go!" shouted one MP. It was expected that Foreign Minister Lord Halifax would replace him. But Halifax declined. It is not know why he declined nor has he ever explained. Perhaps he realized he was not up to the job. Instead the Commons turned to Churchill. Later Churchill wrote, "At last I had the authority to give direction over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial." Never has a British prome minister taken office in such a crisis. The news was bad and would get worse. Ambassador Bullit in Paris and Ambassador Kennedy in London cabled Washington with reports that got worse day by day. Neither had confidence in Churchill or the British. As the weight of the NAZI offensive fell upon France, Churchill atempted as best he could to keep the French in the War.

Fall of France (May-June 1940)

Britain was unprepared for war when the German's invaded Poland. After the fall of France, however, Britain found itself in desperate straits in 1940. The day that Winston Churchill became primeminister, the German's launched their long-awaited Western offensive. Only narrowly did the British Expeditionary Force escape from Dunkirk. Frce provided airbases to attack Britain and naval bases to intensify the U-boat camoaign in the North atlantic. Most observers believed that Britain could not resist. Some even in Goverment suggested that Britain shood seek terms with the NAZIs. Churchill was, however, having none of it. There would be no British Vichy.

The Objective

After the fall of France, the correspondence was now between two heads of government. Churhchill's goal became to was to draw America into the War and until that was achieved to obtain as much support from America as possible. The aid from America proved vital, especially Lend Lease. Churchill later described how "No lover ever studied the whims of his mistress aas I did those of Presidenbt Roosevelt." Roosevelt also had his own objectives. He wanted to keep Britain in the War until the rest of the country realized that America would have to fight. He also was cocerbed about the British fleet. If it fell into German hands, the ballance of power at sea would be significantly altered.

Valliant Britaiin

Britain was alone, but not only did Britain resist the NAZIs, but in the Battle of Britain delivered the Luftwaffe its first defeat. Radio reports from Britain by Edward R. Murrow and his colleagues built considerable sympthy for Britain in America. Britain was, however, badly battered and the U-boat campaign in the Atlantic proving extreemely successful. Worst still, the British were running out of money to pay for American arms.

Britain's Plight (December 1940)

The Battle of Britain made a German cross-Channel invasion impossible in 1940. The RAF managed to defeat the Luftwaffe and stave off invasion. The triumphant German Wehrmacht, however, dominatd Europe. The Royal Navy was hard-pressed in the Atlantic. NAZI Germany dominated virtually all of Western and Central Europe. It seemed that Britain in the long run had little chance of holding out against the economic and industrial resources at Hitler's command. It was unclear at the end of 1940 if the British were prepared or able to continue the fight. And Britain was rapidly reaching the point that it could not afford to continue purchasing military equipment and supplies in the United States. Churchill wrote to Roosevelt in a letter he described as the most important he had ever written (Decemnber 1940). Churchill described in stark terms Britain's position and the substantial losses as a result of the Blitz and U-boat attacks. He warned the President, "Unless we can establish our ability to feed this Island, to import the munitions of all kinds which we need, we may fall by the way, and the time needed by the U.S. to complete her defgensive preparations may not be fortcoming." Then Churchill came to the cruxof the matter,"The moment approiacheswhere we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies. While we shall do our upmost and shrink from no proper sacrifices to make payments across the exchange, I believe you will agree that it would be wrong in principle and mutually disadvantageous in effect if, at the eight of this struggle Great Britain would be divested of all saleable assetts othat after the victory was won with our blood, civilization saved and the time gained for the United States to be fully armed against all eventualities, we hould stand strpped to the bone. Such a course would not be in the moral or economic interests of either if our countries. .... You may be assured that we shall prove ourselves ready to suffer and sacrifice to the utmost to the Cause, and that we shall glory in being its champions. The rest we leave with confidence to you and to your people, being sure that ways and means will be foundwhich future generations on both sides of the Alantic will approve and admire."

Hopkins Mission (January 1941)

The letter from Primeminister Churchill set in motion two actions. He decided to send Harry Hopkins o Britain. Second, he began to formulate Lend Lease. Before commiting America's defence to Britain, the President needed to know know just how determined Britain was. The American Army was still not equipped with modern arms. Should America provide the still limited production of armaments to Britain before its own military was equipped. Many around Roosevelt, including his closest adviser Harry Hopkins, were unsure how closely Roosevelt should tie American defenses to Britain. Roosevelt dispatched Hopkins to assess Britain's determination and situation. Churchill did not understand just who Hopkins was. His advisers told him that Hopkins was close to the President. Informed of Hopkin's WPA work, Churchill thought he was a social worker and began giving him statistics about loos (bathrooms) and electrity in British slums. Hopkin's interupted him. "Mr Churchill, I don't give a damn about your cottagers. I've come over here to find out how we can help you beat this fellow Hitler." Of course nothing could have pleased Churchill more. Churchill rose and said, "Mr Hopkins, come with me," and the two disappeared into Churchill's study. Churchill proceeeded to escort Hopkins all over the United Kingdom, from rhe Royal Navy Scappa Flow in northern Scotand to the Channel beach defenses in Kent. Hopkins was shocked by the ruins left by the Luftwaffe in British cities. They spent time together at Chequers, brcoming fast friends. Churchill called him "Lord Root of the Matter". Churchill completely converted him to the British cause. No one really knew what Hopkins would say in private to the President when he returned to Washington. At a small dinner party hosted by Lord Beaverbrook before he returned, Hopkins rose to propose a toast. "I suppose you wish to know what I am going to say to President Roosevelt on my return. Well I am going to quote to you one verse from the Book of Books. ... "Whither thou goest, I will go and where thou lodgest I will lodge, thy people shall be by peple, and thy God my God." Hopkins then added in on ending, "Even to the end." Tears were streaming down Churchill's face. [Goodwin, pp. 213-213 and Meacham] Hopkins became the administrator of Lend Lease, the American program to supply Britain and the other Allies.

American Aid

FDR's Destroyers for Bases and Lend Lease played a major role in helping keep Britain in the War. And it was not just American supplies. It was an America Catalina co-piloted by a U.S. Nav pilot that found Bismarck. The U.S. Navy was helping to escort convoys and firing on U-boats. For Roosevelt this was huge political risk. The American public was unaware in 1941 of the extent to which their country had been committed to war against Germany in the North Atlantic.

The Atlantic Charter (August 1941)

The Atlantic Charter is one of the key documents of the 20th century and remains still relevant today. A few months before America entered the War, the relationship and Allied vission of a free democratic Europe was sealed with the Atlantic Charter. The two met aboard the Prince of Wales which had been battered by the Bismarck. President Roosevelt with considerable effort because of his paralasis boarded the Prince of Wales supported by his son. In an emotional Sunday service, American and British sailors sand together "Onward Christian Soldiers". Only a few months later, the Prince of Wales was sunk by Japanese bombers.

Personal Relationship

The relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt was not just an official one. The two men became close personal friends. They in fact spent considerable time together. One estimate puts it at 13 days, much of it in the White House. They were, however, very different men. Churchill was in many respects a romantic and very open. His Daughter Mary once described how, "He could be wiley, but it did not come natuarally." Once in the White House, Roosevelt came into Churchill's room as he was emerging from his bath. Churchill remarked, "You see the Primeminster of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United states. Much to the chagrin of the Republicans, Roosevelt was one of the most calculating and ffectuve politicans in American history. His last Vice President, Harry Truman, with whom he almost never conferred described him as the "coldest man I ever met". Churchill and Roosevelt showed realmaffection for each other. Roosevelt told Churchill, "Its fun being in the same decade as you." Elenor Roosevelt who often hosted Churchill in the hosted Churchill in the White House described the affection with which her husband held Churchill. (Churchill once said to the First Lady, "I don't think you entirely approve of me.") ite Househosten describes the affectChurchill watching Roosevelt struggling to stand, told his daughter with misty eyes, "I love that man." [Meacham]

Conduct of the War (1942)

It was the Soviet Red Army that carried the burden of the War in 1942. Among the Western Allies it was the British through most of 1942 that were engaging the Germans. The British 8th Army in North Africa was involved in a sea-saw battle with Rommel and the Africa Korps. Churchill was with Roosevelt in the White House Oval Office when they learned that 25,000 British and Empire forces had surrendered to Rommel at Tobruk. Churchill was apauled at the surrender. Roosevelt asked what he could do. Churchill asked for as many Sherman tanks as possible to be sent to the 8th Army making a stand in Egypt. Although many U.S. Army units still had obsolete Grants, Roosevelt issued the orders. [Meacham]

D-Day (June 1944)

The Allied success at Normandy in large measure may be attributed to the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt. The American Army was intent on a cross-Channel invasion as early as 1942. The Army did not yet fully appreciate the German strength or the effectivness of German armor as was proven at Kaserine in Tunisia (1942). Nor did the Allies have complete air superority in 1942 and 43. It is highly questiinable if America and Britain could have been sucessful in 1942 or even 1943. As so much depended on the invasion, Churchill wise advise here was of incalcuable importance and his ability to persude Roosevelt critical. [Meacham] Even if the Allies had eventually prevailed, Western Europe would have been liberated by the Red army with incalcuable consequences.


Had President Roosevelt survived the war, he would have visited London and France much like President Wilson after the World War I. Churchill looked forward to standinfg with the King and Queen at the Roosevelt on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The reception would have been thunderous. For Churchill's memorial service in St Paul's Cathedral, the congregation sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in honor of Churchill and Britain's great war-time ally. The two are remembered together in Westminster Abbey. Near the west door, a tablet reads, "To the Honored Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a faithful friend of freedom and of Britain." Nearby a marbel slab reads simply, "Remember Winston Churchill". Little more needs to be said.


Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Frranklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World war II (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1994), 759p.

Meacham, Jon. Franklin and Winston (Random House, 2003).

Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. "The Supreme Partnership," The Atlantic Monthly (October 1984).

Trapani, Carol, "Letters cemented partnership," Poughkeepsie Journal (December 8, 2001).


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Created: October 21, 2002
Last updated: 7:27 PM 1/30/2022