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PRIMARY DOCUMENTS  |  Provoked by Pearl Harbor: The White House Meetings of FDR and Churchill, December, 1941
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Activities: II. Inside the White House  |  Back to Activity


A. Roosevelt and Churchill: A first meeting

On the last day of the Atlantic Conference, with all points of the Charter and the joint cable to Stalin straightened out, the President had the Prime Minister, Beaverbrook* and Hopkins to lunch, and this, from Hopkins’ point of view, was the most satisfactory session of all. There was no business to be transacted. Both Roosevelt and Churchill were relaxed and amusing and amused. This was Hopkins’ ambition as a “catalyst” or “marriage broker”: to prove to Roosevelt that it was a possible to be utterly at ease with Churchill and vice versa. Beaverbrook, whom Roosevelt had known of old, helped considerably in this process.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Roosevelt and Churchill became chums at this Conference or at any subsequent time. They established an easy intimacy, a joking informality and a moratorium on pomposity and cant – and also a degree of frankness in intercourse which, if not quite complete, was remarkably close to it. But neither of them ever forgot for one instant what he was and represented or what the other was and represented. Actually, their relationship was maintained to the end on the highest professional level. They were two men in the same line of business —politico-military leadership on a global scale – and theirs was a very limited field and the few who achieve it seldom have opportunities for getting together with fellow craftsmen in the same trade to compare notes and talk shop. They appraised each other through the practical eyes of professionals and from this appraisal resulted a degree of admiration and sympathetic understanding of each other’s professional problems that lesser craftsmen could not have achieved. Thus, when Churchill was being particularly unyielding on some point during the Yalta Conference, Roosevelt could say to Hopkins, “We’ve got to remember that Winston has an election coming up.” And, as the record proves, there were many occasions when the Prime Minister yielded on major points in deference to the domestic political problems which were forever besetting the President.

It is a matter of sacred tradition that, when an American statesman and a British statesman meet, the former will be plain, blunt, down to earth, and ingenious to a fault, while the latter will be sly, subtle, devious and eventually triumphant. In the cases of Roosevelt and Churchill, this formula became rather confused. If either of them could be called a student of Machiavelli, it was Roosevelt; if either was a bull in a china shop, it was Churchill. The Prime Minister quickly learned that he confronted in the President a man of infinite subtlety and obscurity – an artful dodger who could not readily be pinned down on specific points, nor hustled or wheedled into definite commitments against his judgment or his will or his instinct. And Roosevelt soon learned how pertinacious the Prime Minister could be in pursuance of a purpose. Churchill’s admirers could call him “tenacious, indomitable,” and his detractors could describe him as “obstinate, obdurate, dogged, mulish, and pig-headed.” Probably both factions could agree on the word “stubborn,” which may be flattering or derogatory. In any case, it was this quality which, at times, made him extremely tiresome to deal with and, at other times – and especially times of most awful adversity – made him great.

Roosevelt and Churchill certainly had the capacity to annoy each other, but the record of their tremendous association with one another contains a minimum of evidences of waspishness or indeed of anything less than the most amiable and most courteous consideration. For they had a large and wonderful capacity to stimulate and refresh each other. In one of the darkest hours of war, Roosevelt concluded a long serious cable to Churchill with the words, “It is fun to be in the same decade as you.”

* Lord William Beaverbrook, British Minister of Supply


Roosevelt and Hopkins, pp. 363-364





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