Churchill Disses Amer­ica

Our exclusive first look at the diaries of King Ge­orge VI re­veals Win­ston Churchill’s se­cret hos­til­ity to the United States

Smithsonian Magazine - - Prologue - By An­drew Roberts Il­lus­tra­tion by Lin­coln Agnew

HE GIFT OF A COM­MON tongue is a price­less in­her­i­tance and it may well some­day be­come the foun­da­tion of a com­mon cit­i­zen­ship,” Win­ston Churchill proph­e­sied in his fa­mous speech at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity on Mon­day, Septem­ber 6, 1943. “I like to think of Bri­tish and Amer­i­cans mov­ing about freely over each other’s wide es­tates with hardly a sense of be­ing for­eign­ers to one an­other.” His mother hav­ing been born in Brook­lyn of Amer­i­can parent­age, Churchill be­lieved that he per­son­i­fied what he later called the “spe­cial re­la­tion­ship” be­tween the United King­dom and the United States. It was long a theme of his: He had been mak­ing speeches on the sub­ject of An­glo-Amer­i­can unity of ac­tion since 1900, and in 1932 had signed a con­tract for his book A His­tory of

the English-Speak­ing Peo­ples, which em­pha­sized the same thing.

“If we are to­gether noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble,” he con­tin­ued that day in 1943. “If we are di­vided all will fail. I there­fore preach con­tin­u­ally the doc­trine of the fra­ter­nal as­so­ci­a­tion of our two peo­ples . . . for the sake of ser­vice to Mankind.” He pro­claimed that doc­trine for the rest of his life— in­deed, on the day he re­signed the premier­ship in April 1955 he told his cabi­net, “Never be separated from the Amer­i­cans.” Through­out a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer that spanned two-thirds of a cen­tury, Churchill never once pub­licly crit­i­cized the United States or the Amer­i­can peo­ple. In all of his 16 vis­its to the United States be­tween 1895 and 1961, with eight as prime min­is­ter and al­most half of them af­ter 1945, he stu­diously con­fined him­self to pub­lic ex­pres­sions of sup­port and ap­pro­ba­tion.

Yet as I dis­cov­ered while writ­ing my new bi­og­ra­phy, Win­ston Churchill: Walk­ing With Des­tiny, he of­ten took a very dif­fer­ent stance in pri­vate. From a va­ri­ety of new sources—in­clud­ing the wartime diaries of King Ge­orge VI in the Royal Ar­chives at Wind­sor Cas­tle, opened to me by the gra­cious per­mis­sion of Her Majesty the Queen—it is clear that Churchill reg­u­larly ex­pressed sear­ing crit­i­cism of the United States, and espe­cially the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Franklin D. Roo­sevelt dur­ing World War II. The newly pub­lished diaries of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet am­bas­sador in Lon­don from 1932 to 1943; ver­ba­tim War Cabi­net records that I dis­cov­ered at the Churchill Ar­chives; and the pa­pers of Churchill’s fam­ily, to which I have been given priv­i­leged ac­cess, all pro­vide con­fir­ma­tion.

As the first Churchill bi­og­ra­pher to be al­lowed to re­search the king’s un­ex­pur­gated wartime diaries, I was sur­prised at the depth of ire that Churchill some­times di­rected to­ward Bri­tain’s great­est ally, in­deed in many ways Bri­tain’s sav­ior. Much can be put down to the frus­tra­tion he nat­u­rally felt to­ward Amer­i­can mil­i­tary non­in­ter­ven­tion in Europe un­til af­ter Adolf Hitler de­clared war on the United States on De­cem­ber 11, 1941, but there was a good deal of anti-Amer­i­can vent­ing there­after, too. Churchill’s re­la­tion­ship with his moth- er coun­try was much more com­plex than the Har­vard speech and the rest of his pub­lic stance im­plied.

Although he had en­joyed his first trip to the United States in 1895, at age 20, Churchill’s ini­tial at­ti­tude to­ward An­glo-Amer­i­can unity was sar­cas­tic, bor­der­ing on the face­tious. When his mother, the so­cialite Jennie Jerome, pro­posed pub­lish­ing a mag­a­zine ded­i­cated to pro­mot­ing that idea in March 1899, he wrote from Cal­cutta, where he was serv­ing as a ju­nior cav­alry of­fi­cer, that the motto she wanted to adopt— “Blood is thicker than water”—had “long ago been rel­e­gated to the pot­house Mu­sic Hall.” He sneered at her con­cept of print­ing the Union Jack crossed with the Stars and Stripes on the front cover as “cheap” and told her that the “pop­u­lar idea of the An­glo Amer­i­can al­liance—that wild im­pos­si­bil­ity—will find no room among the literary ven­tures of the day.”

From the be­gin­ning, his at­ti­tude was one of

clear-eyed, un­sen­ti­men­tal re­alpoli­tik. “One of the prin­ci­ples of my pol­i­tics,” he told his mother in 1898, “will al­ways be to pro­mote the good un­der­stand­ing be­tween the English-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties. . . . As long as the in­ter­ests of two na­tions co­in­cide as far as they co­in­cide they are and will be al­lies. But when they di­verge they will cease to be al­lies.”

Churchill fully ap­pre­ci­ated the United States’ en­try into World War I in April 1917. “There is no need to ex­ag­ger­ate the ma­te­rial as­sis­tance,” he wrote in his book The World Cri­sis, but “the moral con­se­quence of the United States join­ing the Al­lies was in­deed the de­cid­ing cause in the con­flict.” With­out Amer­ica, the war “would have ended in a peace by ne­go­ti­a­tion, or, in other words, a Ger­man vic­tory.”

In the 1920s, Churchill was highly crit­i­cal of the United States’ de­ter­mi­na­tion to build a fleet equal in power and ton­nage to the Royal Navy’s. “There can re­ally be no par­ity be­tween a power whose navy is its life and a power whose navy is only for pres­tige,” he wrote in a se­cret cabi­net me­moran­dum in June 1927, while he was chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer. “It al­ways seems to be as­sumed that it is our duty to hu­mour the United States and min­is­ter to their van­ity. They do noth­ing for us in re­turn but ex­act their last pound of flesh.” The next month he went much fur­ther, writ­ing that although it was “quite right in the in­ter­ests of peace” to say that war with the United States was “un­think­able,” in fact “ev­ery­one knows this is not true.” For, how­ever “fool­ish and dis­as­trous such a war would be, we do not wish to put our­selves in the power of the United States. . . . Ev­i­dently on the ba­sis of Amer­i­can naval su­pe­ri­or­ity, speciously dis­guised as par­ity, im­mense dan­gers over­hang the fu­ture of the world.” The next year, speak­ing af­ter din­ner to the Con­ser­va­tive politi­cian James Scrym­geour-Wedderburn at Churchill’s coun­try house, Chartwell Manor in Kent, he said that the U.S. was “ar­ro­gant, fun­da­men­tally hos­tile to us, and that they wish to dom­i­nate world pol­i­tics.”

Her­bert Hoover’s elec­tion to the pres­i­dency in Novem­ber 1928 made mat­ters worse, be­cause of his tough stance on Bri­tish re­pay­ment of war debts and the ef­fect that had on the econ­omy, which Churchill was still stew­ard­ing as chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer. “Poor old Eng­land,” he wrote to his wife, Cle­men­tine. “She is be­ing slowly but surely forced into the shade.” Cle­men­tine wrote back to say that he should be­come for­eign sec­re­tary, “But I am afraid your known hos­til­ity to Amer­ica might stand in the way. You would have to try and un­der­stand and mas­ter Amer­ica and make her like you.” But his hos­til­ity to Amer­ica was not known be­yond the cognoscenti in­side gov­ern­ment, as he as­sid­u­ously kept it out of his many speeches.

The out­break of World War II nat­u­rally in­ten­si­fied Churchill’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to al­low no word of pub­lic crit­i­cism to drop from his lips, espe­cially of Roo­sevelt. “Con­sid­er­ing the sooth­ing words he al­ways uses to Amer­ica,” noted his pri­vate sec­re­tary, Jock Colville, nine days af­ter Churchill be­came prime min­is­ter in May 1940, “and in par­tic­u­lar to the Pres­i­dent, I was some­what taken aback when he said to me, ‘Here’s a tele­gram for those bloody Yan­kees. Send it off tonight.’” Dur­ing the Bat­tle of Bri­tain, Churchill said the Amer­i­cans’ “morale was very good—in ap­plaud­ing the valiant deeds done by oth­ers!” A week be­fore Roo­sevelt was re-elected in Novem­ber 1940, Colville recorded in his diary that Churchill said he “quite un­der­stood the ex­as­per­a­tion which so many English peo­ple feel with the Amer­i­can at­ti­tude of crit­i­cism com­bined with in­ef­fec­tive as­sis­tance; but we must be pa­tient and we must con­ceal our ir­ri­ta­tion.”

Any hope Churchill had that Roo­sevelt’s elec­toral vic­tory might bring the United States into the war against the Nazis had evap­o­rated by New Year’s Day 1941, when Bri­tain faced bank­ruptcy be­cause it had to pay cash for all the mu­ni­tions and food it was buy­ing from the United States. Churchill told Colville, “The Amer­i­cans’ love of do­ing good busi­ness may lead them to de­nude us of all our re­al­is­able re­sources be­fore they show any in­cli­na­tion to be the Good Sa­mar­i­tan.”

As well as ex­press­ing these crit­i­cisms to his pri­vate sec­re­tary and to some cabi­net col­leagues, Churchill also told the monarch what he re­ally thought of Roo­sevelt and the Amer­i­cans. His re­la­tions with King Ge­orge VI were not ini­tially good when he be­came prime min­is­ter, largely be­cause Churchill had sup­ported the king’s elder brother Ed­ward VIII (later the Duke of Wind­sor) dur­ing the ab­di­ca­tion cri­sis four years ear­lier. But dur­ing the months of the Fall of France, the Bat­tle of Bri­tain and the Lon­don Blitz they swiftly im­proved, and by 1941 Churchill was con­fid­ing in the king at their pri­vate lunches at Buck­ing­ham Palace every Tues­day. They served them­selves from a side­board so that no ser­vants need be present, and af­ter each meet­ing the king wrote in his diary what Churchill had told him.

His diary is held in the Royal Ar­chives at the top of



the Round Tower at Wind­sor Cas­tle. The tower’s ori­gins may be traced to the 11th cen­tury, soon af­ter the Nor­man Con­quest, but King Ge­orge IV added the top floor in the early 19th cen­tury. Be­cause there are no el­e­va­tors, every trip to the sum­mit in­volves a mini-work­out, which is re­warded by mag­nif­i­cent views of Berk­shire and the sur­round­ing coun­ties. But I had lit­tle time to gaze out the win­dow as I made the most of my ex­tra­or­di­nary op­por­tu­nity to ex­am­ine King Ge­orge VI’s diary, which I was al­lowed to do one blue-leather-bound vol­ume at a time, and un­der con­stant over­sight, even on trips to the lava­tory (though the staff, even while pro­vid­ing such ea­gle-eyed su­per­vi­sion, was un­fail­ingly able and friendly).

“The Amer­i­cans are all talk and do noth­ing while Ja­pan lands fresh forces in Su­ma­tra, Sarawak and else­where,” the prime min­is­ter com­plained to the king soon af­ter Pearl Har­bor was at­tacked in De­cem­ber 1941. A month later he in­sen­si­tively added, of the dan­gers of a Ja­panese in­va­sion of Aus­tralia, “The U.S. fleet would have pre­vented this from hap­pen­ing had her fleet been on the high seas in­stead of at the bot­tom of Pearl Har­bour.” That April, as the Ja­panese Navy threat­ened Al­lied ship­ping in the Bay of Ben­gal and the In­dian Ocean, he said, “We are in a hole, and the USA fleet is in San Fran­cisco do­ing noth­ing to help.” On New Year’s Day 1943, Churchill said of fu­ture Al­lied strat­egy, “We have to col­lab­o­rate with the Amer­i­cans over these mat­ters as we can­not do them with­out their help. They are so slow in train­ing their army and get­ting it over here.”

Churchill was clearly jeal­ous of the lead­ing po­si­tion the Amer­i­cans had as­sumed through their vastly su­pe­rior pro­duc­tion of war ma­teriel by the spring of 1943. “Win­ston is keen on an Im­pe­rial Con­fer­ence,” the king noted that April, “so as to dis­cuss the ques­tion of put­ting up a united Bri­tish Com­mon­wealth and Em­pire front to show the world and USA that we are one unity. The Amer­i­cans are al­ways say­ing they are go­ing to lead the post­war world.” A week later the prime min­is­ter ex­pressed his (com­pletely un­founded) sus­pi­cions that the “USA re­ally wants to fight Ja­pan and not Ger­many or Italy.” By Oc­to­ber he was in­sist­ing, “The USA can­not have Supreme Com­man­ders both here and in the Mediter­ranean and we must not al­low it. The Med is our af­fair and we have won the cam­paigns there.” That was not true, ei­ther, as the king must have known. The U.S. Army fully shared the tri­als of the Ital­ian cam­paign from the in­va­sion of Si­cily in July 1943 on­ward, and in- deed it was the Amer­i­can gen­eral Mark Clark who was the first to en­ter Rome, on June 5, 1944.

In March 1944, Churchill likened the strate­gic sit­u­a­tion in Europe to “a Bear drunken with vic­tory in the east, and an Ele­phant lurch­ing about in the West, [while] we the UK were like a don­key in be­tween them which was the only one who knew the way home.” By July 4, nearly a month af­ter D-Day, he was re­port­ing to the king that, over his pleas to Roo­sevelt to fight in the Balkans rather than the South of France, “He was def­i­nitely an­noyed at FDR’s re­ply, and put out that all our well thoughtout plans had been ig­nored by him and [the U.S. Joint] Chiefs of Staff.” A month later he wor­ried that with Gens. Ge­orge S. Pat­ton and Omar Bradley ad­vanc­ing faster in Ger­many than Gen. Bernard Mont­gomery, “The two Amer­i­cans may want to sep­a­rate their army from ours which would be very stupid.”

Yet there was not a whis­per of this an­tipa­thy in Churchill’s tele­grams to the Amer­i­cans, let alone in his pub­lic ref­er­ences in the Com­mons and his broad­casts to his al­lies. He ripped up many bad-tem­pered tele­grams to Roo­sevelt be­fore send­ing much more tem­per­ate ones. In par­tic­u­lar he kept pri­vate his re­sent­ment that the Amer­i­cans did not sup­port tak­ing a tougher stance against the Soviet Union over Pol­ish in­tegrity and in­de­pen­dence af­ter the Yalta Con­fer­ence of Fe­bru­ary 1945. “Win­ston was not sat­is­fied with FDR’s re­ply to his tele­gram re Poland,” the king noted on March 13. “It was much too weak and the Rus­sians want to be told mat­ters strongly.”

The next month, Churchill told Cle­men­tine, “Un­doubt­edly I feel much pain when I see our armies so much smaller than theirs. It has al­ways been my wish to keep equal, but how can you do that against so mighty a na­tion with a pop­u­la­tion nearly three times your own?”

It was im­pos­si­ble. But while Churchill is of­ten ac­cused of ap­peas­ing the United States, in fact he pro­moted An­glo-Amer­i­can unity be­cause it served Bri­tain’s best in­ter­ests. His pub­lic ret­i­cence to crit­i­cize the United States re­flected two as­pects of his char­ac­ter that were of­ten to the fore through­out his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. The first was his ca­pac­ity ruth­lessly to sac­ri­fice the triv­ial and the short-term for the greater prize. The sec­ond was his pow­er­ful sense of per­sonal and na­tional des­tiny. He fore­saw a time when Bri­tain would need the United States des­per­ately.


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