FINEST HOUR 152, AUTUMN 2011
BY WARREN F. KIMBALL
Professor Kimball, author of several important books on the two leaders in World War II, is a senior editor of Finest Hour. The author thanks Allen Packwood, director, Churchill Archives Centre; and Bob Clark, super-archivist at the Roosevelt Library, for kind assistance in research. This paper was first delivered at the 27th International Churchill Conference in Charleston, South Carolina, in March 2011.
Churchill disliked and avoided press conferences, but FDR pushed him into five. While different backgrounds gave them different approaches to reporters, both leaders were sensitive to the wartime need for secrecy. Yet their wariness toward the news media was as political as it was military and strategic.
Welcome to another foray into what I call “Church-evelt Studies,” based honestly on my belief that the wartime partnership of the two leaders is historically more important than their singular accomplishments. Since Stalin’s name was on the title of the Charleston program, let me address Stalin and managing the media. He managed it! ‘Nuff said.
In 1941, Winston Churchill listened to a general who gave the press too much information about an upcoming operation. His reprimand also revealed his assessment of the persistence and the power of news reporters: “These gentlemen of the press were listening carefully to every word you said, all eagerly anxious for a tiny morsel of cheese which they could publish. And you go and give them a whole ruddy Stilton!”
Franklin Roosevelt, asked in 1944 by his press secretary to make a statement about freedom of the press, replied testily, “Quite frankly I regard Freedom of the Press as one of the world’s most microscopic problems.” I suspect Churchill, if asked, would have launched into a long, example-studded historical exposition that, when parsed, said pretty much the same thing: It was not a problem in Britain, though during the Second World War, British media complaints about any lack of such freedom would likely have been censored. I have not found Churchill commenting directly on freedom of the press, but this quote is close: “Free speech [something a bit different from freedom of the press] carries with it the evil of all foolish, unpleasant and venomous things that are said; but on the whole we would rather lump them than do away with it.” That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, though I suspect the remarks of both men could be interpreted as grudging admiration for the skills and tenaciousness of news reporters.
Both leaders were sensitive to the wartime need for secrecy. But their wariness toward the news media was as political as it was military and strategic. A look at an early misunderstanding between Churchill and Roosevelt about media-handling policies illustrates their differing styles and their common concerns. It came during their first meeting in Argentia, Newfoundland (the first one Churchill remembered— they had met briefly at Gray’s Inn in London back in 1918). It was the Atlantic Conference, held aboard U.S. and British warships in Placentia Bay, where an American naval station was under construction (on land leased as part of the Lend-Lease agreement). The Atlantic Charter, and the image of Britain and the U.S. as allies in every way but formally, were the key results of the meeting, but a small contretemps sprang up over press coverage. At the Americans’ request, Churchill had agreed not to bring reporters, but showed up with two “writers” (one of them H.V. Morton, see FH 151:18), traveling as officials from the British Ministry of Information. Harry Hopkins, FDR’s closest adviser, had come from Britain aboard Churchill’s ship, and blew the “writers” sobriquet as soon as he joined the Americans. Roosevelt said if the British had what amounted to an “exclusive right to the story,” the U.S. press “would tear him to pieces.” The Prime Minister immediately limited access for the writers, and forbade dispatch of any reports. Morton when able wrote an approved book about the meeting.
On Roosevelt’s return home after the Atlantic Conference, he told assembled press that he had been caught off-guard.
I will have to talk off the record—not for use, literally, not for use. There is no reason why you fellows shouldn’t know. The reason I can’t use it is that it would be discourteous. The whole point of the original arrangement was, as you know, secrecy, for perfectly obvious naval reasons, and I didn’t take any newspapermen. [The U.S. press associations could tell their London offices that] there were two literary gentlemen who were put on board by the British Ministry of Information, and that they have agreed with me that any release from the pens of either of those gentlemen goes to our three press associations [without charge]. I couldn’t think of any better way to cover it. I can’t say, “Mea culpa,” because it was the other fellow’s “culpa.”
Churchill disliked and avoided press conferences and even interviews. He granted only two major interviews early in his life (FH 144). But FDR pushed him into five joint ones during the Second World War. Nevertheless, even when faced with an American- style press conference, Churchill left little doubt that he could play the game as well as Roosevelt. On the afternoon of 23 December 1941, with Americans still assessing the impact of the Pearl Harbor attack, Churchill and Roosevelt conducted a joint press conference for about 200 journalists and broadcasters. WSC, seated in the back of the presidential executive office, could not be seen very well by the crowd of reporters. So when the President introduced him, he suggested that the Prime Minister stand to give his audience a better view. After Churchill climbed on his chair to be seen better, “loud and spontaneous cheers and applause rang through the room.” His wit charmed everyone. Asked how long he thought it would take to win the war, he quipped, “If we manage it well, it will only take half as long as if we manage it badly.” Later he was asked by a reporter from a southern state if he considered U.S. entry into the war as one of its “great climacterics.” Churchill smiled and answered in his best Texan drawl, “I sho’ do.” Newsweek reported that the spontaneous and “lusty cheers” were the first in the annals of presidential press conferences.
Franklin Roosevelt made radio famous (or perhaps vice versa), but he was not the first U.S. president to make radio broadcasts. Wilson, Harding, and not-so-silent Calvin Coolidge (who averaged one broadcast a month) all used the radio, but for announcements and speeches: pronouncements from on high. Hoover spoke frequently as the Great Depression deepened in 1930, but neither his style nor his policies proved persuasive. Not so for Roosevelt, who mastered what he called this “aerial speech.” As one of his critics remarked, with a note of jealousy, “Roosevelt possessed a golden voice and a seductive and challenging radio technique.”
His best known phrase—”the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—came in his first inaugural address, heard on radios from coast to coast. But his most effective means of communication with Americans came with his famous “fireside chats.” In just over twelve years as president he gave only some thirty such radio talks, commenting that he used them sparingly—no more “than once every five or six weeks”—lest they “lose their effectiveness.” In fact, he once opined that “Churchill, for a while, talked too much….” Like Churchill’s seemingly impromptu speeches in the House of Commons, Roosevelt’s fireside chats were carefully scripted and planned, even to the point of adding a small false tooth to eliminate a slight whistling noise caused by a gap in his lower two front teeth.
Just as his radio broadcasts were careful productions, Roosevelt also took measures to control his “pictorial image”—another strong parallel with Churchill. (One current observer commented that Yousuf Karsh was just plain lucky.) FDR, working through his press secretary, Steve Early, cajoled and pressured newspapers not to show or describe him in ways that would remind the public of his paralysis. In 1936, when Roosevelt fell full length on a ramp in Philadelphia during the Democrats’ National Convention, not a single photograph or even a cartoon was published depicting the event.
Churchill’s style with the news media—at that time essentially the newspapers and to a lesser degree news-reels— stemmed directly from the British political institutions. Who needed the unelected, uninformed press asking questions, when Question Time in Parliament brought answers from elected representatives who were presumably well-informed? Moreover, the procedure put ministers (answering for themselves or their department) on the spot. To quote Wikipedia, reliable in this instance: “Ministers may attempt to avoid opposition questions, but lying or intentionally providing mis- leading answers to Parliament is not permitted by the standing orders. The resulting political outcry could, and often does, result in that Minister being relieved of his position, and possibly suspended from the House.” Needless to say, Churchill’s handling of Question Time was superb.
But his favored method of communicating with the country was public speeches. Robert Rhodes James’s definitive collection of Churchill’s speeches allows us all to luxuriate in his mastery of the English language, though I would recommend that you read them aloud rather than leaving them as lifeless print on a page. Wherever the speeches were made, wartime security provided an easy way to avoid any Q&A with reporters. Almost all the speeches made during that time were distributed to the press, frequently prior to delivery, forcing reporters to check carefully lest they miss a significant ad lib or last-minute change.
Both men showed cautious respect, or perhaps awareness, for the power of the press, although their styles and hence their relationships with news reporters were different. Churchill’s isolation from direct contact with the press left it to British censorship to police his public speeches and statements. It is a commentary on just how well the famously voluble Churchill could police himself—when he chose to do so—that the chief censor in the World War II Ministry of Information, George P. Thompson, recalled that “questions and debates in Parliament provided the only two occasions I can remember when the Prime Minister himself was censored. Twice he accidentally referred to bomb damage to the House of Commons —a rigid censorship ‘stop’—but the Speaker asked parliamentary journalists not to quote these references and they were taken out of Hansard.”
American restrictions created similar issues with the press. For example, when Churchill and his large party came over for the First Quebec Conference in August 1943, Canadian news reports covered their arrival. After all, more than 200 British officials came over on the Queen Mary. Yet U.S. censorship prevented any mention of Churchill’s arrival—a bit like trying to hide an elephant with a dish towel.
By the time that conference convened, however,the world press lurked round every corner: forty-eight American reporters and photographers, sixteen from Britain, thirty-five Canadians, five Australians, one each from China, France and Russia. Yet both Churchill and Roosevelt refused to let reporters into the Citadel, where the talks were held. The Prime Minister’s closest equivalent to a press secretary, Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information, was unprepared for, in the words of one Quebec newspaper, “the Washington Wolf Brigade trained on the tough White House course.” Roosevelt’s press secretary Steve Early said that Churchill never held press conferences in Britain and was wary of holding one in Quebec. So at the close of the conference, Early bluffed Churchill into agreeing to a joint press conference by warning that FDR was going to meet the press the next day (not true unless Churchill joined him), and Churchill gave in. That next day, 24 August 1943 at noon, a joint press conference on the terrace of the famous Citadel found Churchill a bit puckish. He refused to answer any questions, and made some anodyne remarks that he insisted were “off the record,” the signal that what he said could not be reported—a British censorship rule that the American reporters blithely ignored. Noticing Harry Hopkins, Anthony Eden, Brendan Bracken and Early “perched on the parapet” with a sheer drop of some 300 feet to the St. Lawrence River behind them, the Prime Minister warned them to take care, which is exactly what he did in speaking to the reporters. He and Roosevelt were there, he cautioned, merely to “exchange greetings [with the press].” FDR began similarly, saying he had no news, but then gave only a sketchy account of what he and Churchill had talked about—the overall military picture, invasions to come in North Africa and Europe (no details or dates), their hope of meeting Stalin. It was nothing reporters hadn’t heard before, but it gave them “a morsel of meat,” to quote Early. Churchill soon returned to his preferred means of communicating— without the media. In a radio broadcast from Quebec City, he spoke of Canada as a place where “freedom has found a safe and abiding home”—but apparently not freedom for reporters to ask him questions.
The joint Roosevelt-Churchill press conference earlier that year, in May 1943 following the Washington Conference, found FDR listening while reporters probed Churchill for information. The Prime Minister invariably deflected the questions. Had they selected an Allied commander for the European theatre? “We have an Allied commander in the theatre that is at present in force in Northwest Africa….haven’t got to the point where the executive command had to be chosen.” Requests for assessments of the Soviet Union’s military situation brought on a short speech, clearly intended for Russian ears: “They have been grand Allies….They have struck blows that no one else could strike.” Would the Russians go to war with Japan after victory in Europe?
“Oh well, it’s one of those oversights that I haven’t been placed in position to give directions to Russia.” What about Australian fears of a Japanese invasion? “The threat is certainly…less serious than it was when I last saw you in this room” (23 December 1941). Asked if he was satisfied with the military situation, Churchill pointed out that it was far better than a year ago when the fortress at Tobruk surrendered: “I don’t think there was…any Englishman in the United States so unhappy, as I was on that day, since Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga [loud laughter].” He then went on to offer a brief overview of successes in North Africa and on the Russian front—all old news.
Perhaps the only newsworthy event at the press conference was Churchill’s second self-elevation. Once again, this time without prompting from Roosevelt, he stood on a chair and gave his famous “V” for victory sign to applause from the some 150 reporters, just as he had done in 1941.
Clearly Churchill captivated the American press corps. So perhaps he was on the mark when he told Congress assembled in December 1941, “I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been an American and my mother British, instead of the other way around, I might have gotten here on my own.” Well he might.
1. Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill By Himself (London: Ebury Press, 2008), 55.
2. Linda Lotridge Levin, The Making of FDR: The Story of Stephen T. Early, America’s First Modern Press Secretary (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2008), 13.
3. Churchill By Himself, 574.
4. Theodore A. Wilson, The First Summit (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), 51, 79-80. The story that Churchill promised no reporters originated with the President’s son, Elliott, who was routinely critical of the British. Probably the Americans made a request through channels for no re- porters, ostensibly for security reasons, but more likely because FDR thoroughly enjoyed escaping the reporters. One of the two “writers” Churchill brought, H.V. Morton, later agreed with Elliott Roosevelt’s claim—and FDR’s annoyance suggests the story was accurate. The President had deceived reporters before the meeting, telling them he would be cruising on the presidential yacht. The deception included crewmen dressed in yachting rig with one waving a long cigarette holder (FDR’s trademark) as the President presumably sailed through the Cape Cod Canal. In reality, FDR was heading for Newfoundland on a U.S. cruiser, without any reporters aboard or trailing him. Morton’s travelogue of the journey, Atlantic Meeting, published in 1943, contained no mention of the hoax or the no-reporters commitment.
5. Press Conference, USS Potomac, 16 August 1941.
6. By my count, Roosevelt and Churchill held five joint press conferences; one just after the attack on Pearl Harbor: Washington, 23 December 1941; Casablanca, 24 January 1943; Washington, 25 May 1943; Quebec (with King) twice, on 24 August 1943 and 16 September 1944.
7. Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 25 vols. (New York: DaCapo Press, 1972), XVIII 386.
8. The paragraphs and quotes about Roosevelt’s fire-side chats and his pictorial policy are from Betty Houchin Winfield, FDR and the News Media (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).
9. G.P. Thomson, “Churchill and the Censorship,” in Charles Eade, ed., Churchill by His Contemporaries (London: Hutchinson, 1953), 144-49. See pages 38-39 in this issue.
10. Levin, The Making of FDR, 344-47.
11. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 6, Road to Victory (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 485.
12. All quotes and paraphrases taken from FRUS: Conferences at Washington and Quebec, 1943 (Washington: USGPO, 1970), 211-20.
13. Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), VI 6536.
Get the Churchill Bulletin, delivered to your inbox, once a month.