Finest Hour 143, Summer 2009
Editor’s Essay – Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt
Is there a market for a symposium on Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt that would welcome both the Churchillians and the “TR advocates” I know are among our readers? If you like the idea, email the editor. We have long been chary of joint conferences, which “gang aft agley.”At one such event recently Churchillians politely turned out for all the non-Churchill panels; but the “other fellows” left as soon as their programs finished, or didn’t bother to attend at all. Perhaps we would have done the same had “they” hosted. The ideal approach would probably be a symposium in some neutral corner, with a distinguished moderator and, to ice the cake, C-Span coverage.
There’s more to the TR/Churchill relationship than seems apparent from its inauspicious beginnings. On his second visit to America in December 1900, Churchill met the Vice President-elect, who, as Robert Pilpel observed, “had charged up San Juan Hill two months before Churchill had charged at Omdurman. In their vitality, their energy, their lust for adventure, the two men had other things in common as well. It was a case of likes repelling.” Roosevelt wrote: “I saw the Englishman, Winston Churchill here….he is not an attractive fellow.”
Six years later the President read Lord Randolph Churchill: “I dislike the father and I dislike the son, so I suppose I may be prejudiced….both possess or possessed such levity, lack of sobriety, lack of permanent principle, and an inordinate thirst for that cheap form of admiration which is given to notoriety, as to make them poor public servants.”
The ice melted slightly in 1908, when, planning a safari to Africa, Roosevelt read Churchill’s My African Journey. “I do not like Winston Churchill but I supposed I ought to write him,” TR wrote U.S. Ambassador to Britain Whitelaw Reid. “Will you send him the enclosed letter if it is all right?” The letter thanked Churchill “for the beautiful copy of your book,” expressing the wish that “I shall have as good luck as you had.”
Both Roosevelt and Churchill enjoyed a relationship with Winston Churchill the New Hampshire novelist. (See “That Other Winston Churchill,” FH 106.) TR often visited Churchill and others gathered around Augustus SaintGaudens’ literary colony in Plainfield, New Hampshire, not far from Churchill’s home in Cornish. Alistair Cooke, speaking at our 1988 Bretton Woods conference, began by saying he was pleased that so many had “come to the state where Winston Churchill spent the last forty years of his life.”
“Why don’t you go into politics?” English Winston wrote the American, after they’d met on the same journey in which Churchill visited Roosevelt. “I mean to be Prime Minister of England: it would be a great lark if you were President of the United States at the same time.” American Winston was elected to the New Hampshire legislature (1903, 1905), but rose no higher—in part because of TR. In 1912 Roosevelt broke with William Howard Taft and formed the Progressive or “Bull Moose” party, unsuccessfully opposing Taft for President. In the same election American Winston, also running as a “Bull Moose,” lost a bid for Congress. I suspect, but have not been able to prove, that the relationship between the two Winstons withered because of TR’s influence: they could hardly been so close and not have discussed American Winston’s opposite across the Atlantic.
Roosevelt began to admire English Winston after World War I broke out in 1914, when he wrote a friend: “I have never liked Winston Churchill, but in view of what you tell me as to his admirable conduct and nerve in mobilizing the fleet, I do wish that if it comes your way you will extend to him my congratulations on his action.”
English Winston for his part seemed to harbor no hostility for TR—quite the contrary. Despite the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Churchill typically remained committed to job #1: “beating the Hun.” As Martin Gilbert has stunningly revealed, Churchill actually proposed that Britain send what he called a “commissar” to Lenin, to negotiate Russia’s re-entry into the war—in exchange for which Britain would guarantee the Bolshevik revolution! When he realized that in no event would that commissar be he, Churchill recommended Theodore Roosevelt.
Sir Martin tells me he sprang this remarkable factoid in Moscow, in a lecture before a large number of highranking Soviet officers. “You could have heard a pin drop,” he said.
Teddy Roosevelt had died when Winston Churchill next visited America in 1929, but he did find himself seated at a dinner party with the President’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth. “Despite her lineage,” Robert Pilpel wrote, “Mrs. Longworth seems not only to have taken to him but even to have engaged in a little flirtation as well. When he asked her to state her opinions about Prohibition, for example, she leaned over and murmured, ‘I would rather whisper them to you.’ (Of course, this may simply have been because bad language from a lady was still unacceptable in polite society.)”
Pilpel’s judgment of “likes repelling” was confirmed by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., after I published a piece on their relationship in Finest Hour 100. “I once asked Alice Roosevelt Longworth why her father disliked Winston Churchill so much,” Schlesinger wrote. “She replied, ‘Because they were so much alike.’”
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