Finest Hour 163, Summer 2014
By Richard M. Langworth
Churchill Seemed to Regard Most Highly the American Presidents Who Didn’t Return His Admiration
Winston Churchill experienced eleven American presidents—as many as the Queen. He did not personally meet them all, as she has; but each contributed to his outlook and policies. His relations with the seven presidents from McKinley to Hoover are only stage-setters to the main events: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower. But one of them, Theodore Roosevelt, offers interesting insights.
Churchill, aged 26, and TR, aged 42, got off to a thoroughly bad start. When Churchill met the hero who had charged up San Juan Hill two months before the Englishman had charged at Omdurman, he professed vast approval of then-Governor Roosevelt. But TR, doubtless aware of young Winston’s reputation as a publicity seeker, did not return the compliment.
“I saw the Englishman, Winston Churchill…he is not an attractive fellow,” Roosevelt confided to a friend after the meeting.1 The negative impression proved as enduring as their parallel careers—both were to shift party allegiance; both were to achieve the highest political office; both were awarded a Nobel Prize. TR was, incidentally, the only president who profusely wrote books: eighteen, against Churchill’s fifty-one—mostly about hunting and outdoor life, though it is noteworthy that both he and Churchill wrote about the War of 1812.2
When Churchill published his filial biography Lord Randolph Churchill in 1906, TR was hostile: “I dislike the father and dislike the son, so I may be prejudiced,” he told his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. “Still, I feel that, while the biographer and his subject possess some real farsightedness…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.”
To the English statesman and author George Otto Trevelyan, the President wrote of young Winston’s “clever, forceful, rather cheap and vulgar life of that clever, forceful, rather cheap and vulgar egoist, his father.” To his son, Roosevelt said: “I can’t help feeling about both of them that the older one was a rather cheap character, and the younger one is a rather cheap character.”3
But Churchill did not dislike TR, and went out of his way to smooth Anglo-American relations. In December 1906 Sir Alexander Swettenham, Governor of Jamaica, tried to stop the U.S. from recruiting Jamaican workers for the Panama Canal. The following month, after an earthquake had destroyed Kingston and killed 800, an American admiral landed armed sailors from his anchored warship to assist in clearing the rubble. Swettenham wrote him a scathing open letter, saying that the recent ransacking of a New York millionaire’s home would not have justified a British admiral landing an armed party to assist the police.
President Roosevelt complained of both incidents to Britain’s Colonial Secretary, Lord Elgin, whose number two, Churchill, agreed and demanded the Governor withdraw his letter. The Governor obeyed, then resigned. “Swettenham was an ass…wrong on every point,” Churchill snorted.4
If he heard of this, Churchill’s action might have softened Roosevelt’s opinion of him. In any case, when planning his African safari two years later, TR waxed enthusiastic over Churchill’s travelogue, My African Journey, then being serialized in The Strand Magazine. “I should consider my entire African trip a success if I could…find the game as Churchill describes it,” TR wrote his Ambassador to Britain, Whitelaw Reid. This must have reached Churchill, who sent the President an inscribed copy of the hardbound version. “I do not like Winston Churchill but I supposed I ought to write him,” TR wrote Reid. “Will you send him the enclosed letter if it is all right?” The letter read:
My dear Mr. Churchill: Thru Mr. Reid I have just received the beautiful copy of your book, and I wish to thank you for it. I had read all the chapters as they came out, with a great deal of interest; not only the chapters upon the very important and difficult problems of the Government itself, but also the hunting chapters and especially the one describing how you got that rare and valuable trophy, a white rhinoceros head. Everyone has been most kind to me about my proposed trip to Africa. I trust I shall have as good luck as you had.5
Churchill’s reply to this singularly restrained encomium, if he wrote one, is not preserved.
And TR remained unmollified. To Lodge from his African safari he referred to their friend the American novelist of the same name: “I mean, of course, our Winston Churchill, Winston Churchill the gentleman.” Representing the U.S. at the funeral of Edward VII in 1910, he wrote pettily: “I have refused to meet Winston Churchill, being able to avoid any scandal by doing so. All the other public men, on both sides, I was glad to meet.”6
Churchill was slightly rehabilitated when World War I began in 1914. “I have never liked Winston Churchill,” TR wrote to an English friend, “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 would extend to him my congratulations on his action.”7
In April 1918, Churchill paid TR a final, and almost unbelievable, return compliment. Lenin, in power in Moscow, had taken Russia out of the war. So Churchill proposed that the Allies send a plenipotentiary to Moscow—a “commissar” as he called him—and nominated Theodore Roosevelt. Then, in exchange for Lenin reentering the war, the Allies would “safeguard the permanent fruits of the Revolution”! “Let us never forget,” Churchill argued, “that Lenin and Trotsky are fighting with ropes round their necks. They will leave office for the grave. Show them any real chance of consolidating their power…and they would be non-human not to embrace it.”8
Churchill’s biographer Sir Martin Gilbert told me that he first broke this astounding revelation in a Moscow lecture to an audience of high-ranking Soviet officers. “You could have heard a pin drop,” he smiled.9
Alas, Churchill’s radical proposal was too imaginative for his colleagues, and he soon concluded that the Bolsheviks actually were non-human after all. (“Baboons” was his preferred expression.) But the incident serves to display, in the First as in the Second World War, how singleminded he was about defeating the enemy at hand—and the depth of his regard for Theodore Roosevelt.
It is an intriguing question whether the then-former president ever heard of Churchill’s Russian initiative and surprise nominee for “commissar.” Perhaps he would have been unimpressed. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. once asked Alice Roosevelt Longworth why her father harbored such permanent dislike for Churchill. “Because,” she quipped, “they were so much alike.”10
Excerpted from “Churchill and the Pre-FDR Presidents,” a paper delivered to the 2013 International Churchill Conference, Washington, November 1st.
1. Robert Pilpel, Churchill in America 1895-1961: An Affectionate Portrait (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976), 37-38.
2. “As Others Saw Him: Theodore Roosevelt,” by Richard M. Langworth, Finest Hour 100, Autumn 1998, 46.
3. Pilpel, Churchill in America, 60-61. Elting E. Morison, ed., The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, 8 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951-54), VI 1467.
4. CV1/2, 635-36, 652. Martin Gilbert, Churchill and America (New York: Free Press, 2005), 130. Sir Martin erroneously dates the incident 1909.
5. Pilpel, Churchill in America, 53.
6. Charles H. Redmond and Henry Cabot Lodge, Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge 1884-1918, 2 vols. (New York: Scribners, 1925), II 349, 385.
7. Pilpel, 69-70.
8. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (London: Minerva, 1992), 389-90.
9. Sir Martin Gilbert to the author; private correspondence.
10. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., letter to the editor, Finest Hour 102, Spring 1999, 4.