Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017
Review by Manfred Weidhorn
Lewis E. Lehrman, Churchill, Roosevelt & Company, Stackpole Books, 2017, 472 pages, $29.95. 978-0811718981
The roles in the Second World War of the leaders of the two English-speaking nations, Churchill and Roosevelt, have inevitably been much studied. But even proponents of the Great Man theory of history must acknowledge that the successful outcome of the war was made possible by a cast of supporting players—advisers, emissaries, military leaders, industrialists, as well as experts in numerous fields, not to speak of the many soldiers. These secondary characters make brief appearances in the histories of the war and the biographies of the leaders. It is the goal of Lewis E. Lehrman’s book to bring them into the foreground and provide character sketches of them. It is good to have the more important of these men presented in detail, including their physical infirmities, as these affected their meetings and deliberations.
Having read widely, Lehrman often quotes various sources at key junctures. This book therefore provides a helpful digest of the scholarly literature in this field. It usually does not quote from primary sources—diaries, memoranda, letters, interviews—and therefore has no startling new information. Nor does it aim to do so; Lehrman confines himself to offering a compendium of received wisdom about the personages discussed.
The author begins with a comparison and contrast of the president and the prime minister, a road that by now has been much traveled. Then, in more or less chronological order, come the secondary characters who have their day in the sun: brief portraits of Joseph Kennedy, Harry Hopkins, Lord Beaverbrook, Anthony Eden, Averell Harriman, Edward Stettinius, Harry Dexter White, and John Maynard Keynes are interwoven with discussions of major events like the attack on Pearl Harbor or the gradual waning of Churchill’s influence on Roosevelt. The book concludes with the vexing problem of Communist infiltration of some departments in the Roosevelt administration (though the consequences listed seem to be minor), the aborted Morgenthau Plan, and of course the ending of the war, a conclusion which Churchill aptly labeled “Triumph and Tragedy.”
The two major figures are seen as titanic, despite a host of shortcomings. Roosevelt was cunning, devious, evasive, vain, and eager to be liked—as successful politicians are apt to be. Some of his other weaknesses may be arguable: keeping an eye out for what America can gain from Britain’s plight even while doing his best to help out; moving only as fast as public opinion would allow him, even while trying to prepare the nation for its rendezvous with a wartime destiny; sharing in the American distrust of the British obsession with retaining the Empire, despite the vast changes the war would bring about; becoming, halfway through the war, more concerned—for good reasons—about catering to Stalin’s needs than to Churchill’s; oblivious of the Soviet spies; not overly concerned with economics. Of course it did not help that FDR, like Churchill and Hopkins, was a physical wreck during these testing years.
Churchill had his own sorry tale to tell, one about going from being the savior of Western Civilization to being a peddler with hat in hand. He was the living embodiment of Machiavelli’s principle that if a weak power seeks help from a strong power, it will soon find itself eclipsed. As John Charmley and others have pointed out, Churchill needed America and Russia on his side in order to survive, but the price tag for survival was a Britain, shorn of empire, becoming just another European nation.
One of Lehrman’s conclusions is “That the Anglo-American alliance came together with the massive Russian army is itself a partial explanation of the total defeat of Hitler” (277). “Partial,” indeed. Much credit must also be given to the man most responsible for making all this possible: Corporal Hitler. The German leader picked a fight with Russia while Britain was still alive and then improved on that by picking a fight with the US while both Russia and Britain were still alive. He thus ended up, literally and figuratively, fighting a three front war.
This was self-destructiveness born of hubris. Hitler was under no compulsion to declare war on the US after Pearl Harbor. By so doing, he relieved Roosevelt of a dilemma. It could well be that the course of the war was severely altered by Hitler’s ultimate gamble, without which there would have been no massive Anglo-American presence on the continent. That makes Hitler as responsible for the outcome as Zhukov and Eisenhower. As Stalin put it, “Hitler does not know where to stop” (272).
Manfred Weidhorn is Emeritus Guterman Professor of English at Yeshiva University and author of four books about Churchill.