Churchill and Three Presidents

Finest Hour 123, Summer 2004

Page 31


Developed and underwritten by The Churchill Centre, a symposium on “Churchill and Three Presidents” was held on February 19th at the Library of Congress James Madison Building: one of two scholarly discussions complementing “Churchill and the Great Republic.” The program was free.

Symposiarch was Professor James Muller of the University of Alaska, Anchorage, chairman of the Centre’s Academic Advisers, who gathered a distinguished panel of experts on the subjects to be covered.

The Churchill Centre also proposed and underwrote the cost of publication of a 96-page book that complements the exhibition. Copies of the book, and CDs of the event, may be ordered from Churchill Stores or on our website,

Piers Brendon, author and former head of the Churchill Archives, began by reviewing Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s very different views of the British Empire. Terming the Empire Churchill’s “secular faith,” Brendon explained how Churchill focused on India as central to the Empire, noting that Churchill viewed the Empire as having been essential to Allied victory in World War I. But Roosevelt’s family had traditionally taken a dim view of the Empire, and FDR himself had opposed the British in the Boer War. By 1941 and the high rhetoric of the Atlantic Charter, the two leaders defined “self-determination” very differently—or at least with different countries and peoples in mind. Churchill, Brendon said, was “adamantly imperialistic.” Empire was his grand theme, and Churchill’s talisman, rather than a matter of self-perceived pragmatism.

Warren Kimball, Robert Treat Professor of History at Rutgers and editor of the standard collection of Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence, questioned whether the two were joined “at the hip by history or historians.” There would not have been a relationship without the war: Churchill would not have become prime minister, and FDR might not have run in (or won) the 1940 election. Kimball saw Churchill wooing FDR through 1941, their growing equality in 1942-43, and American dominance after that—with Joseph Stalin playing a kind of “correspondent” in the relationship. Kimball argued that the so-called Special Relationship was not central to the war, since much (such as the overriding role of the Red Army) would have happened anyway. The public relations abilities of both leaders played a big role in public perceptions. Churchill was more focused on specific regions (such as the Mediterranean or the Balkans), while FDR took a more global view of cooperation and world order. Kimball summarized Roosevelt as an advocate of the “Four Policemen” (US, UK, Russia, China) to guarantee postwar peace, an opponent of spheres of influence and colonialism. Churchill was skeptical of all but regional alliances. Kimball concluded, however, that both leaders were one, and correct, in demanding “unconditional surrender” from the Axis.

Arnold Offner reviewed a growing ambivalence in his talk, “Churchill without Tears,” exploring the Truman-Churchill relationship. The Cornelia F. Hugel Professor of History at Lafayette College, Offner noted the skepticism with which Truman approached the near-mythical Churchill after Roosevelt’s death. Truman’s lack of background and “intense nationalistic outlook” also contributed to a very different approach from that which WSC had received from Roosevelt. There was a growing feeling in the U.S. leadership that the out-of-office Churchill was passé. Thus, in Offner’s view, the AngloAmerican relationship became “ambivalent, not special.” Offner said Churchill wanted an early showdown with Stalin in 1945, and an Anglo-American postwar military alliance; Truman would have none of either. Offner also believes that Truman pre-approved the “Iron Curtain” speech, and then walked away from it when it was immediately criticized by Stalin. Times were difficult for the financially-strapped British, who had to acquiesce to nearly every American demand. Offner summed up this short period using the British Underground announcement to subway riders: “Mind the Gap.” Power determined the relationship.

David Reynolds, professor of international history at Cambridge and author of a forthcoming study of Churchill’s wartime memoirs, discussed the “struggle for history” between Truman and Churchill. To Reynolds’ surprise, he found that Churchill was extremely active in the 1945-55 period, “presiding over the manufacture” of his own six-volume record of the war. The famous “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, where Truman introduced him, pulled WSC out of his post-election funk (Reynolds called this “Churchill’s resurrection”) and gave him a clear sense he still had something to say to the world. The two leaders squabbled over use of memos in each other’s books; this was more a matter of who would publish first rather than any security concern. Reynolds spoke of the “cleansing” of the final volumes of Churchill’s work so as not to exacerbate postwar political difficulties—making clear the difference between providing a narrative of events versus a persuasive document. He spoke also of the different views toward summit conferences: Churchill promoted what he knew from the war; Truman resisted what he had not taken part in. Churchill desperately wanted a postwar summit with the new Soviet leaders, but Truman showed only hostility to the idea.

Klaus Larres, holder of the Royal Holloway Chair in International Relations and Foreign Policy at the University of London, discussed the “unequal relations” between Churchill and Eisenhower. Initially at least, Churchill stood up to Ike, given their respective background as senior and junior during the war. Again, political and military power was telling, and the views of the two as to their primacy differed sharply. Churchill also felt the Cold War could not be “won,” as the risk of nuclear war was too great—he sought a negotiated settlement, and thus his strong push for a summit conference. American leaders felt differently. Eisenhower thought Churchill too old, closed to new ideas. The potential reunification of Germany and a potentially neutral Germany were concerns of Eisenhower and Dulles. Churchill thought this nonsense, and worried more that a prolonged period of a divided Germany would spark a new wave of malevolent German nationalism. But Britain was far too weak to hold its own in these and other debates and had to give way consistently to U.S. views. The Bermuda mini-summit was a disaster for Churchill for just this reason.

John Ramsden, professor of modern history at Queen Mary University, spoke about the “old and dear friends,” Churchill and Eisenhower. He began by noting that this was a longer relationship than Churchill’s with Roosevelt or Truman, as he and Ike had come to know each other in late 1941. Churchill, “one of nature’s cavaliers,” as Ramsden termed him, was in many ways quite different from Eisenhower, the Kansas-bred soldier. Yet they shared a surprising number of similarities which provided common ground for communication, including the fact that their fathers thought little of their likely futures. Both had begun their careers in military academies and showed some similar literary tastes (e.g., C. S. Forester.) Both were credited with treating their immediate staffs with considerable decency and loyalty; both could be tenacious in advocacy in private sessions. While they could be privately critical of one another, this was behind the scenes. Eisenhower never forgot that Churchill had supported his appointment to supreme command both in North Africa and for Operation Overlord. But Eisenhower didn’t see the Special Relationship as Churchill did. They disagreed, for example, on the end of colonialism. Yet Eisenhower sought to maintain the Anglo-American relationship, working to rebuild it after the Suez disaster of late 1956, during the early months of the Eden premiership. The seeds of continuing cooperation on intelligence and other matters were laid in this era. As Ramsden put it, “all of this [history] has a current application.”

A second symposium, covering “New Research on Churchill,” was held in the same location on June 1st and will be covered in the next issue of FH.

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