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This article about the special relationship between President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill originally was written for the RUSI Journal.


President Roosevelt on the arm of his son, Elliot, greeted by the Prime Minister after boarding HMS Prince of Wales




“ Fancy dressing up a little guy like that in RAF uniform and expecting us to believe he’s Winston Churchill. The British certainly get some crazy ideas.” 

A major with the American security organisation in passing to Averell Harriman at Casablanca in January 1943.




Other than Christopher Columbus much of our history is shared. From Jamestown to the Seven Years War the early colonists were our flesh and blood. When the American Revolution broke out not everyone in London supported the King. A third of the Royal Navy were colonial Americans. The members of Brooks’s club remained firmly on the side of the colonists – no taxation without representation.

After the War of 1812 and the American Civil War, reason once again prevailed. Our youth emigrated westwards while America’s heiresses, starting with Blenheim Palace, saved many a stately home and its occupants from ruin. Nowadays we are divided only by our legal systems and the English language. 

We often forget the relentless westward flow of people from these islands. The mill owners of Massachusetts who recruited heavily in Lancashire before the First World War simply followed a long established trend. By the nineteen twenties, despite mass immigration from most of Europe, no less than 67% of the American people had their birth or family origins in these islands. At this new century’s dawn British accents can be heard the length of Silicon Valley and every summer the heart of London becomes an American town.


A little Folklore

America’s Expeditionary Force in 1917 sailed direct to France and marched straight to the Western Front. General Pershing’s relationships with both the French and British generals were difficult and only after much argument did Pershing retain an independent national command. The Americans might have fought as a corps of the French Army. Instead they won their spurs magnificently at Saint Mihiel and the Argonne Forest. America’s troops came home believing their own newspapers – namely that victory occurred after the New World rescued the exhausted Old.

Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George had a distant and often strained relationship. At times they were more like antagonists than allies. What became known as the special relationship grew from the telegram friendship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt - who started the messages on the 11 September 1939. This correspondence was much more personal than any modern exchange. Indeed, there has not been any other exchange like it since. Some 1700 messages passed between them until the President’s sudden death. And unlike their telephone conversations, posterity has the full story.

Both came from old families that were political dynasties. Roosevelt’s had landed in New Amsterdam 200 years before; one ancestor had ratified the Declaration of Independence for New York. Roosevelt had been a modernising Assistant Secretary of the Navy and once America went to war in April 1917 virtually administered the United States Navy. He was a proponent of big gun ships and submarines, wanted to lay mines from Scotland to Norway, created the naval reserve and although he master-minded demobilisation remained opposed to reducing the fleet beyond a prudent strength. He knew of Churchill the soldier and journalist, restless and reforming aristocrat, moreover in those days with the same politics as himself - the brain behind the brilliant strategy though flawed operational concept of the Dardanelles. They met only once during the First World War at a dinner for the British War Cabinet in late July 1918 at Gray’s Inn although twenty years later to the President’s dismay his ally could not remember their meeting! Roosevelt greatly admired Churchill’s writing. For his part Churchill had been impressed by the President’s economic programmes to pull America out of the depression.

A direct descendent of the greatest soldier in British history, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, his mother American and according to family history with red indian blood flowing through her veins, Churchill had already lived through two political careers. A young Home Secretary, he had risen to become First Lord of the Admiralty and in a parallel fate with Roosevelt, one of his greatest achievements was that by summer 1914 the Royal Navy was fully ready for the outbreak of war. After the burning experience of the Dardanelles in 1915 he resigned from the Government and served as a humble infantry colonel on the Western Front. Returning to London in early 1916 he began rebuilding his political future as Minister for Munitions. After the war he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the General Strike of 1929 made the Government unpopular and Labour won the next election. By 1930 he had returned to the political wilderness and despite the 1935 landslide victory of the Conservatives, stayed there largely due to his warnings about Hitler. Only the catastrophes of France and Norway in May 1940 forced the humbled political leadership to turn finally to Churchill as the only man who offered any hope of survival for Britain and its Commonwealth.

Churchill kept meticulous records, private and government. At least once a week he personally briefed his key advisers and military staff. Confusion thus avoided, decisions became easier for subordinates because they knew their leader’s mind. Revealed only to a few close aides, personally dictated, his secret essays roamed over the whole strategy of the war – proving that retired cavalry subalterns who become journalists along their way to better things, stay somewhat lively strategists.

In stark contrast, Roosevelt often instructed that no record be taken of meetings, indeed shared secrets parsimoniously – ensuring that the only person completely in the know remained himself. Again the secret messages were known only to a few close aides and although more often drafted by Admiral Leahy and Harry Hopkins, invariably were polished by the President himself. Despite his aversion to written records the President sent 700 messages during the next five years.

Roosevelt had one particularly urgent task. Something had to be done about the chaotic staff work in Washington and consequently the Americans instituted a Combined Chiefs of Staff modelled on the British version. The chiefs voted General Marshall as Chairman – just as Field Marshal Alanbrooke chaired the British Combined Chiefs of Staff solely by popular vote – both positions were informal and had no powers other than the incumbents’ personal qualities. Thus did the Allies take the first small step towards pooling brains on an industrial scale. Roosevelt never claimed to have any great military knowledge and, effectively, handed over the higher direction of the war to General George Marshall – during the early days of America’s war blessed with a brilliant Director of Operational Plans, one Brigadier-General Dwight D Eisenhower.


Church parade on the quarter deck of HMS Prince of Wales

The Atlantic Charter

 Churchill, partly through his American mother, also through the shock of the First World War, strongly believed in bringing America and Britain much closer, advocating Anglo-American unity during the 1920s. Many of the societies formed at that time in favour of closer ties between us survive to this day on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, he would first raise the idea of a special relationship, perhaps even shared citizenship, between the United States and the British Commonwealth, on 6 September 1943 before the students at Harvard University.


During August 1941, three months before America came into the war, at Roosevelt’s suggestion, he and Churchill met - on board the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the cruiser USS Augusta anchored in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. For secrecy the President was code-named Admiral Q and the Prime Minister travelled as Colonel Warden. During the weeks prior to the Newfoundland rendezvous there was a certain amount of apprehension among their respective staffs, both nations equally, in case once facing each other in the flesh all the chemistry evaporated. They need not have worried. Friendship was instant and from this first meeting the Atlantic Charter was born, forerunner of the UN Charter, and still a more workable fall back! There is no fancy parchment version of this treaty, indeed the only paper records are the naval signals sent from both ships - messages to London and Washington seeking the agreement of both Cabinets.

Placentia Bay set the pattern. They would meet a further eight times. Not for them today’s shallow diplomacy with hasty decisions taken at meetings staged for television cameras. Over Christmas and New Year 1941 Churchill was Roosevelt’s guest at the White House for three weeks - a stay broken only by his Ottawa visit and followed by a week of much needed rest in Florida. Roosevelt kept almost the reverse hours as Churchill but the White House staff took the Prime Minister’s eccentric timetable in their stride even if the President became a little weary along the course. Close allies should not mistake strategic logic for undying friendship. America’s proposal for the Allied strategy had its origins in the US Navy staff but was largely drawn up by the then Colonel Albert Wedermeyer on Dwight Eisenhower's staff; Ike then sold the ' Victory Plan ' to General Marshall because it made sense for the United States.

After catastrophe in the Pacific and faced with immediate multiple threats from the Japanese fleet, the tasks in the order listed by Eisenhower were not obvious early in 1942 - maintenance of United Kingdom, which involved relative security of the North Atlantic sea lanes; retention of Russia in the war as an active enemy of Germany; retention of a position in the India-Middle East area which would prevent physical junction of the two principal enemies, and would probably keep China in the war. There was no question in Eisenhower’s mind that the war had to be won in Europe first. Ultimately that meant invasion of the Continent and to do this required a secure base. There were only two options – North Africa and the British Isles – moreover the second was much closer to the industrial core of Germany’s war machine. When the first batches of American troops arrived in Britain during 1942 the Germans concluded they were reinforcements to secure these islands. Massive efforts to rearm, supply and reinforce Britain, first with airpower and then armies simply obeyed the strategic logic. It was as much in the interest of the United States as in Britain’s to ensure first our survival and then, keeping the sea lanes open, turn our islands into a mighty fortress from which powerful air forces and then armies could sally forth and take the fight into the enemy’s belly. Allied strategic interests were identical.

After Church Parade

These great wartime conferences required several days. Casablanca in January 1943 took eight and represents the friendship at its closest and most influential. By the autumn Roosevelt’s instincts gained the upper hand, for he began to believe that he could manage Stalin and distanced himself from Churchill for this purpose. Churchill never doubted the friendship, nor did he trust Stalin. And he insisted the President and he conferred with their staffs for a week in Cairo before heading for Teheran and the crucial five days with Stalin. Already the Prime Minister grew alarmed in case Stalin hoodwinked the President, just as Roosevelt’s close advisers earlier had worried about Churchill’s influence. And herein lies a lesson about their relationship - as the balance of power between the two allies changed with the course of the war, so did the special relationship. 

Some two years later as the First Allied Airborne Army prepared to land by parachute and glider across Holland and capture the Rhine bridges, Churchill crossed the Atlantic in the liner Queen Mary heading for the second Quebec conference. Also on board her the British staff worked on plans to send a large fleet and powerful bomber force to the Far East and help defeat Japan. For by September 1944 the strategic pendulum already swung towards the Pacific Ocean. Despite much progress with the atomic bomb the Allies had to plan for invasion and occupation of the Japanese main islands. Judging from the Japanese track record, horrendous casualties were likely. At Quebec that fall the President set aside his concerns about inadvertently reviving colonial empires and gladly accepted both offers, leaving a reluctant Admiral King to fight his own rearguard action to keep the British fleet in the Indian Ocean. Admiral King failed to undo the President and Churchill’s prudent agreement and by late 1944 the most powerful and combat hardened British Commonwealth fleet ever assembled, with ships from Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, gathered in Australia before joining the Americans for the final battles around Formosa, Okinawa and the Japanese main islands. Three modern battleships, seven fleet carriers and twenty-two escort carriers with three-hundred aircraft, supported by cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines and a huge fleet train became Task Force 57 of Admiral Halsey’s massive Third Fleet. The easy working relationship between the two navies starts from this time.

We should not forget Albert Wedermeyer and his Victory Plan. Three months after Germany's defeat, came Japan's.

Dinner in the USS Augusta

When Japan surrendered Roosevelt sadly was dead and Churchill no longer Prime Minister. But their special relationship had laid the foundations for millions to build upon. Theirs was a friendship born in a war for the survival of our great democracies, which became the lifeline of freedom. At the beginning it was a friendship of equals – Roosevelt was more aware than most that Britain fought America’s war for three and half years completely alone. Throughout that harrowing time there were moments of victory and hope. The invincible Luftwaffe were at last beaten over the skies of two islands - Britain and Malta. The Royal Navy did not suffer a Pearl Harbour, rather in November 1940 inflicted the first such carrier attack on the Italian battle fleet anchored at night in Taranto.  Although mauled, while the British did not have the industrial capacity and liquid wealth to defeat Hitler, neither could the Axis force Britain into submission. Roosevelt knew that America was in no position to fight anyone during those first cruel years - a judgement proven horribly right when the blow fell. It is no coincidence that the largest American military cemetery is in the Philippines where 36,000 lie buried, three times the number laid to rest at Colleville-sur-Mer along the bluffs above Omaha Beach.


 Fifty Years War

Within a year of victory Churchill’s voice warned at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, of the iron curtain descending across Europe and once more proposed the need for a special relationship between the people of the United States and the British Commonwealth. Within another three years the NATO alliance had been born. A year later open warfare on the Korea peninsular jolted America and Britain into massive re-armament programmes. The national effort involved for the scale of the British arms build-up still impresses American visitors to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford as they gaze at the RAF’s stable of jet fighters and bombers in the nineteen fifties and sixties. One may argue that for two or three years the V bombers’ readiness and proximity to Russia at the most volatile period of the Cold War placed Britain as near enough an equal partner alongside Strategic Air Command.  During the next 50 years NATO’s strategy on the Central Front, drawn up in the spirit of Eisenhower’s original 1942 paper, depended on the close partnership between the US Navy and the Royal Navy as guardians of the Atlantic life-line. Once more our strategic interests had become identical.


Worm’s Eye View

From 1942 onwards the youth of America sailed direct to our shores and helped the mauled lion invade across the sea and liberate the Old World. This time we could not have won without the youth of the New World. Millions of young Americans spent a year or more living among us, made close friendships, learnt about warm beer and cold bathrooms, friendly people and dreadful food. For the black troops these islands became their first experience of life without racial segregation. For many thousands of young Americans ours were their last friendly faces, the last welcoming shore in lives cut short. This mass migration spread the special relationship far beyond the two leaders. Not through clever propaganda over the new means of mass communication. Great human movements simply do not happen that way. Otherwise the Nazis still would be in charge today.


The special relationship


One good turn deserves another

One has to belong to the band of brothers to truly experience the friendly rivalry born from a strong mutual loyalty among the American and British armed forces. This is close between the two navies - the nuclear submarine services might as well be one – and almost legendary among the Marines and Airborne Forces. As a young diplomat, newly arrived in Vietnam, though only recently an airborne soldier, I was checked – for all six senses and running - then quickly absorbed into the US Ranger company with the 173 Airborne Brigade. Most had expected an old guy wearing a panama hat. ( The inspiration for our tour operation’s name was the ' Sky Soldiers Association ' and I still have my indefinite membership card plus a very smart neck-tie!) I recall a conversation among the Vietnamese coastal mountains with the combat experienced commander of Alpha Company, First Battalion, First Marine Regiment – commanded by Colonel nowadays General PX Kelly long retired - who told me the best command experience of his career so far had been two years secondment with 41 Royal Marine Commando. His spell with them provided the longest time that he had commanded the same men since he joined the US Marine Corps, staunchly maintaining that he had learned more about man management with 41 Commando than during any typical six months assignment within the US rotation system other than his experience in Vietnam. I stress - at that time – in case you’re already emailing to say it’s all changed long ago. Writing this article I listened with a smile as a former US Marine officer recounted on BBC Radio how during his training in the late nineties’ the only instructors with combat experience were two seconded sergeants from the Royal Marines who had fought in the Falklands War. Most home grown veterans from the large scale and bitter combat of Vietnam had retired and those from the first Gulf War already pushed pens. Plus ca change.


While the strategic interests remained identical the political tactics had diverged over Vietnam and when there is disarray between America and Britain, democracy and freedom suffer.


Small Town America

 Today, in a good year, these islands are invaded by at least half-a-million American visitors. They come here for the history and scenery, because we’re friendly and we speak English although rich Americans complain they feel very poor in London. Mythical ties still exert their annual pull. Americans go to France for the food and culture plus driving on the right. They go to Italy for sun, history, food and wine, above all the Italians – despite exorbitant prices. Americans – and Canadians – are laid back until they suspect they’re being cheated. The further west you travel on their continent, the more laid back are the people. Most voters in the United States take sparse interest in foreign squabbles - until their leadership obviously have lost control whereupon the public become alarmed. Most live in small towns scattered across a vast continent. Few trust the White House. All regard the big offices of State as medieval fiefdoms, power centres in their own right for swelling gigantic egos. They detest government. Nor, ironically for a country with so much firepower in the average home, do most Americans feel at ease with a standing army. They tend to assume close allies know their own minds and face the world with similar freedom of choice. They understand bargaining and respect deals. They believe that the partner who puts in the most effort usually takes the greatest risk and therefore should call the most shots. A capacity to act alone is what Americans most admire.

The President wishing the Prime Minister safe voyage - on the deck of the USS Augusta on the 12 August 1941

Our side of the Pond

After the outrage committed against New York City on the 11 September 2001 - unless you're living on another planet - our strategic objectives became starkly clear and identical. As a partner we are no longer a super-power. There is only one at present. America defends a bickering socialist Europe, Japan, Korea, much of the Arab world and its oil fields, Latin America, most of the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand. America largely defends us and one can argue that beyond a certain minimum armed strength – and we’re on the brink - we might more sensibly disband our armed forces and contribute to America’s defence budget. Our politicians and diplomats are not privy to the special relationship described above – they’re military virgins who have never sat around the campfire – therefore cannot grasp its nature and consequently have little influence on the other partner.

They also often forecast events completely wrong. When Ronald Reagan became President the ‘ institutional wisdom’ in the FCO was that Californian conservatives would show the special relationship a lot less respect than did East Coast liberals. That wasn’t the message given to me by several well-known American journalists enjoying the farewell Carter and hello Reagan party in the State Department on the afternoon of the Inauguration. And Margaret Thatcher soon proved the American journalists better judges of their own country.

British diplomats are taught to claim that as a country we punch above our weight. This is glib nonsense. We punch a long way below it. Britain's Armed Forces do a great deal with very sparse resources. Our politicians' record in supporting them while they fight our battles remains shameful. At present our forces are still involved with one major campaign in Afghanistan while containing four other major trouble spots. Our three services have about a quarter of the strength they need in ships, aircraft and people. Americans are puzzled by the contempt with which most politicians and officials are held over here, particularly by those of us - a dwindling number - who have worn the Queen's uniform. All we see is an increasing burden placed on our Armed Forces coupled with repeated major reductions in their strength. The Royal Navy was promised two new aircraft carriers and many other vessels yet after nearly twelve years the Labour Government only just started building the carriers for electoral reasons - while both Labour and Conservatives built half the numbers of destroyers originally planned and cancelled many, many more ships and submarines. Compare this record with the construction programme of the United States Navy. Twelve years is plenty of time to design and build new aircraft carriers. After a long political battle against the government at last the first aircraft carrier has completed sea trials. She'll wait another two years for a single strike fighter squadron. The ships ought to be cruising the Atlantic Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

We should take theses decisions away from Parliament.

Diplomatic and military independence require commitment – to gathering accurate intelligence, maintaining strong long range intervention forces and a hefty budget for overseas aid that supports our national diplomatic goals.

Why not just defend our own borders? Why go to all the expense of maintaining long range naval, land and air power for Global intervention? Add up the cost and inconvenience of trying to provide security for the World's air travel over the last thirty years. Better to destroy the fanatics in the Syrian and Iraq deserts. Moreover, America cannot shoulder the whole world's burdens, nor should they.

Ensign Franklin D Roosevelt with the Prime Minister


Sleeping with the Elephant

Pierre Trudeau once described Canada’s relationship with its southern neighbour as like being in bed with an elephant. Putting all Britain’s military eggs in the US basket is fraught with similar risks. Europe is not a serious option – save for equipment programmes and even those are costly and a minefield of difficulties. NATO has great difficulty raising more forces for anywhere from its European members and the Germans want to do a deal with Russia. Yet the options are not straightforward. American politics obey the Constitution’s relentless timetable. Attacks on ' terror hives ' in Iraq had to wait until the November election rounds were over in the United States - even though the action and one would have thought the timing – supported the hope for an election in Iraq. Fear of losing the Presidency over-rode fear of losing control in the cities of Iraq. America’s enemies know how to manipulate these constitutionally enshrined seasons. America’s friends take second place to domestic politics.

There is no rule that we British must go along with every American decision. Nor vice versa. Providing this country is willing once more to stand on its own two feet the future is promising. No group of people would be more relieved to see this country rebuild adequate armed strength to influence and keep the peace in a dangerous world than the American Armed Forces. They do not want their British allies reduced to the modest status of the Australians and New Zealanders when providing a brigade of first class troops in South Vietnam. General Abrams was glad to have them aboard. The White House barely knew they existed. The real value of a special relationship is a bond between strong partners. When senior American ground commanders suffered grave doubts about the wisdom of their political masters, prior to invading Iraq, they should have been able to enlist the support of their British counterparts speaking as military equals.

Since we voters seized the wheel and swung around the ship of state, brought her back onto her original course, this all becomes even more important. Our close friendships among the old dominions already provide the core of a global alliance with the Americans. In many ways the world resembles the beginning of the eighteenth century. Europe is dominated by a despotic centralised power, defended by high tariff walls and a devalued currency, hostile towards free trade, controlling nearly thirty vassal economies as captive export markets, increasingly resentful of British freedom and fearful of our success. Over in the Far East the Chinese Emperor does almost exactly the same thing though is slightly cleverer to put it mildly. Sailing away from these blocs are the free-trading Anglosphere and their friends of many different races and cultures. ( The free trading Indian Emperor may soon overtake the Chinese protectionist although the latter doesn’t believe it yet.) A Martian peering down at the blue planet can be forgiven for thinking that below is the start of round three of the German quest to conquer the European continent. This time they’re trying to enslave Europe within a cage made from money. Our puzzled Martian is partly right but there are forces at work on the planet which imply that the German empire is a waning power. The world belongs to the sea going nations, great and small. We can’t go wrong so long as our combined naval and air power is always strong enough to keep the seven seas open for our trade. 

American officers swear an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America. With that oath comes a duty to obey the lawful orders of their Commander-in-Chief – the President - and the appointed officers of his Administration. Senior officers in the United States Armed Forces have made no secret to me of their envy towards their British counterparts - whose commander-in-chief is a great grandmother in her nineties and although she wore a uniform herself when young, does not spend hours in a bunker among the dungeons below Windsor Castle, peering into a computer screen giving network-centric orders to Corporal Taff Jones and his SAS patrol among the Afghan mountains; above all whose daily intelligence briefing is the Racing Post.


This article - written long before our bankers revealed their commercial gifts - draws from many conversations and published sources. Adrian particularly recommends reading Roosevelt’s Secret Wars by John Prisco, published by Random House; Roosevelt and Churchill, their secret correspondence, edited by Francis L Loewenheim, Harold D Langley and Manfred Jonas published by Barrie and Jenkins; Three Years with Eisenhower by Captain Harry C Butcher USNR published by Heinemann; Atlantic Meeting by HV Morton published by Methuen; The War and Colonel Warden by Gerald Pawle published by Harrap; Crisis in the West by Drew Middleton published by Secker and Warburg; Churchill and the Admirals by Stephen Roskill published by Collins; The War at Sea Volume 111 Part 11 by Stephen Roskill published by HM Stationary Office; The Second World War, Volume 111 The Grand Alliance by Winston Churchill published by Cassell; The Struggle for Europe by Chester Wilmot published by Collins; ‘Overlord’ Normandy 1944 by WGF Jackson published by Davis-Poynter; Winston S Churchill by Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert published by Heinemann. Some of these books are long out of print but a good major library should be able to track them down.


              We strongly recommend spending a few minutes browsing the links below. You will find a new page about Churchill College Cambridge home to the Archives of Sir Winston Churchill and also those of Baroness Margaret Thatcher. There is detailed information on our Stop Press page about touring the Archives. Only a short distance from Churchill College is the American Cemetery at Madingley and the superb collection of aircraft at Duxford Imperial War Museum is only a few miles south. You can find more about some of the aircraft - still flying magnificently from the home airfield at Duxford - on the pages for ' Their Finest Hour ' and ' Twelve o'clock High' We also recommend a walk around Cambridge. Such a tour can be arranged by opting for a further day around Cambridge when taking one of our Normandy D Day Air/Land Tours.   




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