Franklin and Winston

Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham, an accomplished author, media executive and social/political commentator, is a great read on the close, personal relationship of the primary protagonists – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill – behind the Western Hemisphere’s defeat of German fascism and Japanese hegemony during World War II. 

I became a fan of Meacham’s approach to historical figures and concepts through my weekday habit of catching segments of MSNBC’s Morning Joe while getting dressed for work.  Meacham has always struck me as a down-to-earth commentator on political and social issues.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for his treatment of Andrew Jackson in American Lion (not reviewed here); and his book on religion’s influence on the American experiment in American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation is an excellent guide to discussions on the spiritual foundation of American governance.  

Meacham’s approach in Franklin and Winston is similar to the other works mentioned above.  He takes an overview approach to the subjects, and provides plenty of source notes and references for the serious scholar who wishes to dig deeper.  It is this approach that makes his books enjoyable reads regardless of your reasons for picking up a Meacham historical study.

In Franklin and Winston Meacham focuses on the personalities of FDR and Churchill, including their family lives and how their personal backgrounds, ambitions and political situations played into the Allied war effort and the friendship that developed between the two during the war. 

Both men were the products of rich American mothers; Churchill’s mother marrying Lord Randolph Churchill, Member of Parliament, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons (1886).  Their parental relationships – or lack thereof – influenced both men in their very public lives.

Churchill’s parents were almost entirely absent; his father did not like him; and his upbringing and education was left to his nanny and the prescribed boarding schools for England’s power elite.  As a result, Churchill was driven to be the center of attention.  He was vigorous in all things he did, but was also impulsive and stubborn.  Churchill needed to be liked by those he highly regarded.  This would become a continuing theme in the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship, as Churchill found himself constantly chasing the more aloof, confident Roosevelt. 

FDR’s upbringing was quite the opposite.  He was doted on constantly by his mother.  Very little is mentioned of his father.  His mother’s coddling became even more prevalent when Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio in 1921 at the age of 39.  What FDR found at home as a child and even as an adult was everything Churchill’s early home life lacked.  As a result FDR did not feel compelled to seek anyone’s approval, even Churchill’s.  FDR greatly admired Churchill’s strength and leadership however, especially his skills at oratory during the dark days of 1940-41 (Battle of Britain). 

The friendship that these men forged in the year-and-a-half leading up to America’s entering the war and throughout the conflict resulted in a vision and strategy that freed Europe from the Nazis and chased the Japanese back to their home islands.  In this regard, Churchill did not have much choice but to follow the lead of Roosevelt on most matters of strategy.  Britain desperately needed the resources and manpower of the United States for their ultimate survival.  Only the thinnest of margins kept the Germans from attempting a cross-Channel invasion in 1940-41. 

Roosevelt – on the other hand – had to deal with an American electorate that for the most part wanted nothing to do with another war in Europe.  Yet he understood that the United States had to eventually enter the war or Europe would be lost to fascism.  He characterized his plight as ” … no leader should get too far ahead of his followers.”  FDR’s political strength permitted him to push such programs as Lend-Lease, which allowed for the sale of supplies and munitions to England (and eventually to all Allies) on a cash-and-carry basis.  Earlier under the Destroyers for Bases Agreement Roosevelt was able to send 50 aging destroyers to England for basing rights in the Caribbean.  Britain’s loss of those bases – though painful – provided FDR with necessary political cover, allowing the country to fulfill Roosevelt’s vision as “the arsenal of democracy”.

Despite Churchill’s standing as #2 in his relationship to FDR and to a greater extent England’s relationship to the U.S., he was a loyal and sensitive confidante to Roosevelt.  He protected FDR’s image in light of his crippling disease when the two met for the first time as world leaders at sea aboard the U.S.S. Augusta.  And he admired Roosevelt’s ability to transcend his disability and to accept the dependence on others that it required.  The description of the two leaders enjoying the view atop La Saardia in Marrakech in January 1943 is one of a caring Churchill overseeing the spiritual well-being of a cherished friend.

Like all friends, they also had their disagreements and slights that resulted in hurt feelings.  Churchill was upset when Roosevelt neglected to acknowledge Churchill’s cable of congratulations following FDR’s successful election in 1940.  And Roosevelt was miffed when Churchill sought a meeting of minds with Wendell Wilkie, FDR’s opponent in the 1944 election.  To make matter worse, Churchill ends up with Roosevelt on the phone due to a miscommunication and fails to recognize Roosevelt’s rather unique voice when the call goes through to the wrong man.  As the war winds down, Roosevelt realizes that stability in the post-war world requires greater interaction between the U.S. and Soviets as opposed to the British; and Churchill is – for a time – left out in the cold.

At the core of what would normally be an arm’s-length diplomatic relationship, the two most important men at such a critical juncture of history shared much.  Both had children serving in theatres of war.  Something not seen much these days aside from Britain’s royal family.  They leaned on each other at times of darkness, be it Dunkirk or Pearl Harbor.  They not only cooperated strategically and politically during the most trying of times, but genuinely liked each other and were lifted in spirit whenever they had the chance to get together.

And at times like those, what else are friends for?

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3 thoughts on “Franklin and Winston

  1. Churchill was the man, a legend before his time and in his own time, and later left swinging by the British Government. I recall reading a review of a Churchill biography that reported that in battle as a young man he was always willing to close with the Queens enemies.

    FDR of course is interesting. Went to bed one night healthy and awoke paralyzed, could easily have quite on life. I was shocked to read that he and his family were anti-Semetics, as was a common thing among the well off of that time who traveled Europe widely and favored Germany as a vacation destination.

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