Why Did FDR Initiate His Correspondence with Churchill?
September 30, 2014 6:48 PM   Subscribe

I've known about the correspondence for years, but was curious recently about how it had actually initiated. So I picked up a copy of "Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence", and was surprised by what I read in that very first overture from Roosevelt. Can you help me sort it out?

Of course, Churchill was, at the time, not yet Prime Minister, just serving in the Prime Minister Chamberlain's cabinet. So it was a strange overture from a foreign president to a cabinet underling (i.e. bypassing the PM). But the first message explicitly invites Churchill and Chamberlain to keep in touch with him personally "with anything you wish me to know about". Even though it was addressed to Churchill (under the flimsy pretension that both were "navy men").

I was surprised, because it's usually said that Roosevelt opened a personal "back-channel" with Churchill. But on further consideration, any such notion would have been silly, since Churchill would have been seriously in the wrong - perhaps even legally - if he'd not informed his PM of the overture. So Roosevelt was acknowledging that the discussion would be, despite the personal facade, conducted between governments rather than between men. And, indeed, it's made clear in "The Complete Correspondence" that a number of people were involved in parsing and feeding this correspondence (though, of course, once Churchill was in control, it become a bit more of a bona fide dialog).

But then, where did that leave Chamberlain at first? If I'm the PM of Britain and the American president opens a channel with one of my underlings, even acknowledging that, naturally, I'd be hearing about it, I'd be puzzled and miffed. And since Chamberlain would obviously be calling the shots on what were supposedly Churchill's "personal" responses, what, exactly, was the point....considering it without benefit of hindsight; i.e. where the Roosevelt/Churchill relationship ultimately led)?

The popular answer is that the correspondence launched just after war was declared with Germany, and so FDR knew Chamberlain's days were numbered (given his failed record of appeasement), and was getting in early with the guy he expected would soon take over. But that's not true. Chamberlain enjoyed very high public approval all the way into 1940, six months after both the war declaration and Roosevelt's initiation of the "dialog". He was hardly on the way out at that moment.

Also, in the early days Roosevelt was recalcitrant about getting America involved in the war. So the correspondence at that point was vastly more important to panicky Britain than it was for aloof America. And so I'm not clear on why the unusual step was taken to initiate a dialog via a non-head of state (I do know Roosevelt was known to skip intermediaries and speak directly to various parties, but this is actually the opposite situation). It's not as if FDR felt dire need at that point.
posted by Quisp Lover to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would argue that Roosevelt knew we would be getting into the war - he wasn't recalcitrant but rather was doing the hard political work to make it possible to get us into the war until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and made it clear. And I wouldn't downplay the importance of the "two Navy men" connection either. Ken Burns' recent documentary on the Roosevelts goes into a great deal of detail about all of this among other things and is well worth the 14 hours!
posted by leslies at 6:57 PM on September 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

That kind of thing was more common than I think you believe. Churchill had a similar relationship with Harry Hopkins.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:13 PM on September 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Atlantic (from 1984) has a bit of the context -- from their first having met in 1918 and Churchill making a poor impression, to FDR believing that once Churchill had nearly the same job that FDR himself had had back then (First Lord of the Admiralty, vs. Assistant Secretary of the Navy), they had shared concerns, to the fact that Churchill had been an clarion bell against Hitler for years, to the straight-up fact, which FDR himself acknowledged, that it was a good idea to schmooze up to "the guy he expected would soon take over":

"I'm giving him attention now," he told Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy in December, 1939, "because there is a strong possibility that he will become the prime minister and I want to get my hand in now."

Still, even this comprehensive look can only ascribe it to "some uncanny intuition" -- obviously Roosevelt could not have absolutely predicted the future, but he definitely knew he needed allies.
posted by dhartung at 11:41 PM on September 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Reddit's AskHistorians group might be a good place to ask - but be warned, it's a fascinating time suck!
posted by Mistress at 1:48 AM on October 1, 2014

FDR knew that europe was going to blow up, and that Asia was already a problem. Chamberlain was an isolationist. Given the facts of the time it would seem natural that FDR and WC would correspond since they were kindred spirits. Churchill's huge influence on British politics may also have been a factor. It would be the equivalent to corresponding with the majority whip or Senate President.
posted by Gungho at 7:32 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

From Wikipedia comes these insights:
Churchill was a fierce critic of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Adolf Hitler and in a speech to the House of Commons following the Munich Agreement, he bluntly and prophetically stated, "You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war." [in 1939]
After the outbreak of the Second World War on 3 September 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the War Cabinet, as he had been during the first part of the First World War. When they were informed, the Board of the Admiralty sent a signal to the Fleet: "Winston is back."[165][166] In this position, he proved to be one of the highest-profile ministers during the so-called "Phoney War," when the only noticeable action was at sea and the USSR attack on Finland.
Although the prime minister does not traditionally advise the King on the former's successor, Chamberlain wanted someone who would command the support of all three major parties in the House of Commons.
I think a reasonable, objective observer of UK politics would guess that, at the very least, Winston Churchill was destined to be vitally important in the war, whether he was PM, or some other post.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:48 AM on October 1, 2014

Just throwing this out there as a possibility, perhaps FDR was giving Chamberlain some plausible deniability? Write to the underling with the understanding--and express instruction to be sure--that the communication would be shared. Leaves Chamberlain the ability to say "I was not told of this correspondence by that scallywag" if necessary.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:29 AM on October 2, 2014

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