Sunday, March 27, 2011

Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill

FDRandChurchillMuch has been written about the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the two great World War II allied leaders.  They had a significant amount of correspondence with each other, and they have been dissected by several modern writers, including Jon Meacham in his excellent 2003 book, Franklin and Winston.

I have extensively studied both men and here is my assessment of them.  Both were supreme egotists who came to believe that they had a special destiny.  They were hugely confident in their abilities.  Both were manipulators—perhaps Roosevelt more so—who were committed to placing their respective country’s needs first during the war.

Churchill understood that Britain’s ability to survive and ultimately defeat Hitler was contingent on the support of the United States.  Therefore, he assiduously courted FDR, before and during the war.  Churchill was able to subsume his ego in deference to the bigger, more pressing goal. 

Roosevelt understood that he was the dominant partner in this relationship and also that Western leadership would be transferred from Great Britain to the United States after the war.  He had no scruples about ridiculing Churchill at Yalta in an effort to curry favor with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. 

In my opinion, Churchill was the greater statesman; he could be a visionary although he was sometimes wrong, certainly related to Indian independence and the perpetuation of the empire.  On the other hand, he was no party man and had only modest political prowess. 

Roosevelt was the greater politician but, here too, there were flaws.  For example, accumulating hubris from his Teflon-like first term, FDR stumbled mightily in his court-packing scheme of 1937 and in his effort to purge anti-New Deal Democrats the following year.

Churchill, the prolific writer and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was the greater intellect.  But Roosevelt was the more pragmatic, often representing no fixed ideology.  Critics would rightly assail his chameleon-like personality.

Having said all of this, it is interesting to review an old book that a Slovenian writer, Louis Adamic, had published about his close observation of the two men in January 1942, only a few weeks after the United States entered the war.  Entitled Dinner at the White House, Adamic discusses a small gathering in which he and his wife interacted with Roosevelt, Churchill and Mrs. Roosevelt.

The dinner that he describes took place on the last night of Churchill’s three-week visit to Washington to plot strategy after Pearl Harbor. 

Adamic had released another book a few months earlier, Two-Way Passage, which discussed the rebuilding of post-war Europe.  The book captured some attention, and it was probably the reason why he had been invited to the White House. 

Perhaps what is most notable about Two-Way Passage is its recommendation that select immigrants who had come to America should form a corps that would consult and help rebuild Europe; he talks about the “Passage Back.” 

Adamic’s dinner appraisal of Churchill is harsh.  He portrays him as boorish and petulant, something like a humorless W.C. Fields.  Clearly coloring his impression is an underlying antipathy to Churchill’s imperialistic worldview.  Adamic finds this especially distasteful in light of the war and his desire to see peacetime based on democratic principles.

He describes the interaction between FDR and Churchill as one in which the president continues to needle the prime minister and Churchill responding with controlled annoyance.  The writer suggests that this underscores a political rift between the two men.

Adamic is charmed by Roosevelt but somewhat ambivalent about him and his commitment to core principles.  He quotes Mrs. Adamic’s comment about Roosevelt:  “He’s so…I don’t know…so abstracted.”

Perhaps because the writer is so focused on the aftermath of the war, which he sums up as the potential clash between “conquest and liberation,” he comes away disappointed with both men.  Assuming that the new world would be molded by these two, he says, “What a pair, these two.”

However, neither man would be part of rebuilding the world.  Roosevelt died in April 1945 and Churchill was turned out of office three months later; neither was in power when the war ended in August. 

It is ironic that the person at the dinner for whom Adamic had great admiration, Eleanor Roosevelt, would be the one to have a significant post-war role with her work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and at the United Nations.

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