RIDDLES, MYSTERIES, ENIGMAS: FINEST HOUR 140, AUTUMN 2008
TR’s Great White Fleet
Q: Why did Churchill oppose Australian Prime Minister Arthur Deakin’s invitation for Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” to visit Australia in 1907? Was this based on Churchill’s opinion of Roosevelt after having met him in Albany in 1901, or other reasons? —DR. GENE PRINTZ-KOPELSON, TCC AND THEODORE ROOSEVELT ASSOCIATION
A: Churchill’s opposition had less to do with naval rivalries than to his antipathy toward Prime Minister Deakin, an outspoken opponent of Free Trade, which WSC ardently supported. Deakin favored Joseph Chamberlain’s “Empire Free Trade,” with heavy tariffs on goods from outside the Empire.
Churchill admired Theodore Roosevelt, but the view was not mutual. (See Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s article, “Churchill and TR,” Finest Hour 100; or select “search” on our home page and enter “Theodore Roosevelt.”)
Of interest is that in 1918, WSC suggested the Allies send an emissary to Lenin to get the Russians back in the war, in exchange for which he proposed to guarantee the Bolshevik Revolution! (When he realized this “commissar,” as he called him, would likely not be he, WSC suggested Roosevelt.) See Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (1991).
Henry Pelling, Winston Churchill (London: Macmillan, 1974), reports on pages 100-01:
“The Colonial Office in this period was still responsible for relations with the self-governing as well as with the dependent territories of the Empire. In April and May 1907 a Colonial Conference was held in London at which the prime ministers of the self-governing territories were present. In order to satisfy their feelings of self-respect Lord Elgin [Colonial Secretary] announced to the conference that he was proposing to establish a separate department for them within the Colonial Office, to deal with their relations with Britain. The conference itself was thereafter renamed the Imperial Conference and the department within the Colonial Office became known as the Dominions Office.
“Churchill was not formally a member of the conference, but he attended its sessions and perhaps at his own request was invited to deliver an address on the political aspects of Imperial Preference. He wished to expound to the prime ministers, who were mostly in favour of Tariff Reform, the nature of the opposition that he felt would persist in Britain even if a British government eventually agreed to join in an Imperial system of fiscal protection. The higher prices which were bound to result from the preferences would, thought Churchill, ‘accumulate a deep feeling of sullen hatred of the Colonies and of Colonial affairs among [the] poorer people in this country.’ The argument seemed rather overstrained, and it provoked Alfred Deakin, the Australian Prime Minister, into replying rather tartly that the speech suggested ‘the indulgence of a riotous imagination.’ The members of the conference had to agree to differ on the question of Imperial Preference— as indeed they had done at their previous meeting in 1902, which was before Joseph Chamberlain had announced his conversion to the idea.”
Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 2 Young Statesman 1901-1914 (London: Heinemann, 1967), 207-8, adds the following:
“Lord Elgin to Lord Crewe, [?] May 1908 [Dunphail, Morayshire] ‘…When I accepted Churchill as my Under-Secy I knew I had no easy task. I resolved to give him access to all business —but to keep control (and my temper). I think I may say I succeeded. Certainly we have had no quarrel during the 2 1/2 years, on the contrary he has again and again thanked me for what he had learned and for our pleasant personal relations. I have taken a keen interest in his ability and in many ways attractive personality. But all the same I know that it has affected my position outside the office and the strain has often been severe….’
“…the Sixth Colonial Conference [was] arranged to meet in April 1907. The initial arrangements had been made by the Unionist Government and it had been hoped that Imperial Preference would be the principal topic under discussion with Alfred Deakin of Australia and Dr. Jameson of Cape Colony as its principal protagonists. But it was obvious that the new Liberal Government would not entertain such an idea. Other subjects, however, were also planned for discussion at the conference, including Imperial defence, the establishment of an Imperial Court of Appeal and immigration into the Colonies….
“Churchill inclined to the view that the State Prime Ministers of Australia should be invited as well as the Federal Prime Minister…because he thought that they would be less keen on Imperial preference than Deakin. As he wrote to Elgin on January 8: ‘Deakin is the most hostile to our Government of all the Australians, and [the conference] will simply be turned into a demonstration of the Tariff Reform League. The State Premiers would ipso facto have gone the other way. Divide et impera!’
“…Eventually the seven Australian Premiers formally requested that they be invited; Churchill argued his point of view in a series of letters to Elgin and submitted a memorandum to be placed before the Cabinet. This Elgin refused to circulate, maintaining that the Premiers should not be invited—’they are in some cases by no means high class.’ But he did promise to put forward Winston Churchill’s case, which seems to have been favoured by the King as well as by the officials at the Colonial Office. It did not, however, prevail: the State Premiers were not invited.
“All the Colonial Prime Ministers except Sir Robert Bond of Newfoundland, who was delayed by ice, were assembled in London in time for the opening of the Conference on April 15, and were accommodated by the Government at the Hotel Cecil in the Strand. Among them there was Alfred Deakin of Australia, a stubborn, determined politician and a great orator, who had attended the Colonial Conference twenty years before as the thirty-oneyear-old Chief Secretary in the government of the State of Victoria. On that occasion he had refused a knighthood, just as in 1907 he was to refuse a Privy Councillorship.”
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