From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s

By David Reynolds | Go to book overview

9
The Wheelchair President and his Special
Relationships

The British royal visit of 1939 and Winant's appointment as Ambassador in 1941 provide two case studies in the intricacies of Roosevelt's diplomacy. They also offer a telling contrast with Churchill's style as war leader. Whereas the Prime Minister loved the dramatic public gesture, the President preferred the nudge here and the wink there. This was partly because of the political constraints imposed on him before Pearl Harbor by congressional and public opinion but it also reflected his machiavellian nature, which revelled in plots and schemes. 'Never let your right hand know what your left is doing,' he told Henry Morgenthau, his Treasury Secretary and a close friend since 1915. 'Which hand am I, Mr President?' Morgenthau asked. 'My right hand' came the reply. 'But I keep my left under the table.'1 Moreover, Churchill liked nothing better than to dictate broad surveys of grand strategy, thereby leaving a detailed paper trail for historians. Of course, those documents need careful analysis: as we have seen, they involved a good deal of wishful thinking. But Churchill left scholars much more to go on than did the secretive FDR, who avoided committing himself on paper. To the frustration of the State Department, he rarely dictated a record of his conversations with foreign statesmen and stated that 'no notes should have been kept' of President Wilson's discussions at the Paris Peace Conference.2

These differences of style touch on a deeper issue. Not only did Churchill outline sweeping plans, he loved racing around the world trying to implement them. During the war he travelled more than 107,000 miles—checking out the war fronts from North Africa to the Rhine, browbeating or even sacking recalcitrant generals, visiting the troops (as close to the frontline as possible), and haranguing other heads of government. During his visit to Moscow in October 1944, someone remarked that Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin were like the Trinity. 'If that is so,' quipped Stalin, 'Churchill must be the Holy Ghost. He

This chapter develops some ideas outlined in the London Review of Books, 2 June 2005, 29–31.

1 John Morton Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries: Years of Crisis, 1928–1938 (Boston, 1959),
254, entry for 20 May 1935.

2 Warren F. Kimball, The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (Princeton, 1991), 203.

-165-

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