75th Anniversary of the Atlantic Conference

St. John's, Newfoundland

by Conrad Black (September 2016)

I assume I was invited here as a biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and would like to speak of how the relations developed between Roosevelt and Churchill coming up to the Atlantic Conference of August 1941. Roosevelt had often visited Britain as a youth and young man, and came twice during World War I as assistant secretary of the Navy. He had met the leading British public figures at that time, including King George V, who told him, of his first cousin Kaiser Wilhelm, "I have German relatives and none of them is a gentleman." And he met Mr. Churchill, whom he had found rather abrasive and prone to drink too much, though Roosevelt was no abstainer. For his part, Mr. Churchill, though he later claimed otherwise, didn't remember meeting Roosevelt at all. Their relations, such as they were, lapsed after 1919, until Roosevelt had spent seven years convalescing from polio, two terms as governor of New York, and had become president, and Churchill had changed parties, served five years as chancellor of the Exchequer and then been dropped from the government. He reopened relations with Roosevelt by sending the president a copy of the first volume of his biography of his distinguished ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough, on October 8, 1933.

Roosevelt, normally a punctilious man of impeccable manners, did not respond to it for six years. In the dedication of the Marlborough volume, Churchill wrote; "With earnest best wishes for the success of the greatest crusade of modern times." Roosevelt had not been impressed with Churchill's performance as chancellor and with his unimaginative attachment to the gold standard, and assumed this was a gesture by an under-employed old tory whose political future was behind him and whose praise of the New Deal was at considerable variance with his own performance in high economic office. Roosevelt did not much think of Churchill as he attempted in vain to fire up Ramsey Macdonald, then Stanley Baldwin, and finally Neville Chamberlain, to take a stronger line with Hitler. The first school Roosevelt had attended was in Germany, and he spoke German fluently, and always spoke German with bilingual visitors such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann.

From the beginning, he thought Hitler would prove impossible and that he was a mortal threat to the West. He began to entertain hopes for Churchill when he led the small parliamentary opposition against the Munich agreement, telling the crowded government benches: "You chose shame and you will get war." A few weeks later, Roosevelt withdrew his ambassador from Berlin in outrage at the infamous Night of Broken Glass, when hundreds of German synagogues were destroyed. Hitler then withdrew his ambassador from Washington, just before Roosevelt expelled him, and Ambassador Dieckhoff, a perceptive diplomat, warned Hitler that Roosevelt would take a third term and use his position as commander in chief of the armed forces to provoke war with Germany over issues at sea.

When Churchill was recalled to the Admiralty with the onset of war in 1939, Roosevelt finally acknowledged his gift of the book of six years before, as if it had just arrived: "My dear Churchill," (he wrote in jaunty English upper class style), "It is because you and I occupied similar positions in the World War that I want you to know how glad I am that you are back in the Admiralty." He invited direct communication, as he had found Chamberlain hopeless and evidently anti-American, and concluded: "I am glad you did the Marlboro volumes before this thing started-and I much enjoyed reading them." It is unlikely that he did read them, but that was beside the point. Their correspondence developed and became much more urgent and authoritative once Churchill was installed as prime minister with practically unlimited powers as head of a national unity government on May 10 1940, as the long-awaited German offensive in the West erupted. Churchill telephoned Roosevelt that evening to personalize what he foresaw would become a vital relationship.

On May 15, Churchill was awakened by the French premier, Paul Reynaud, at 7.30 a.m., screaming down the telephone; "We are defeated. The road is open to Paris." Churchill wrote Roosevelt that day that "As you are no doubt aware, the scene has darkened swiftly...The small countries are simply smashed up, like matchwood." He said that they expected mass air raids and paratroop drops on Britain any day, but added "If necessary, we shall continue the war alone, and are not afraid of that. But I trust that you realize, Mr. President, that the voice and force of the United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated, Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear." This was the beginning of Churchill's delicate balancing act of claiming a fierce will and high ability to carry on alone, combined with the possibility that without American collaboration in the war, Britain's most heroic efforts might not be sufficient to continue in the war. Churchill asked for the loan of 40 or 50 of America's old destroyers for a year or so, several hundred aircraft, anti-aircraft batteries and ammunition, raw steel, and a steadying hand on the Irish Republic.

Roosevelt responded the next day that he would start recommissioning the destroyers but couldn't commit them at this point, as he at first thought that congressional approval would be required. He more or less agreed the other points. Churchill, after a visit to the beleaguered French, wrote back on May 20 repeating the theme of his intention to fight on but the possibility that with the greatest will, without American assistance, Britain might be subdued. He concluded: "There is happily no need at present to dwell upon such ideas," which, of course, is what he intended Roosevelt to do. The same day, Roosevelt addressed the Congress and called for, and immediately received, approval for the production of the astounding total of 50,000, and soon 100,000 warplanes, (ten times German annual production). On May 28, as the Dunkirk evacuation was underway, Belgium abruptly surrendered, without notice to its over-extended allies. In the ensuing week the Royal Navy and Air Force covered the move of twelve British and five French divisions from Dunkirk to England and shot down three or four German aircraft for every loss of their own. This was partly because of the vulnerability of German bombers, when the British Spitfires and Hurricanes got through to them, but it was clear that British fighters and airmen were at least the equal of the Germans.

In one of his many great Demosthenean orations in this desperate period, on June 4, Churchill said that "wars are not won by evacuations" and gave his famous sequence of defiant promises to fight on, concluding "We shall never surrender." Mackenzie King played a greater role than has been generally appreciated in the preparation of this speech, in causing the insertion of the clause that even if Britain were overrun, the Commonwealth and Empire and the Royal Navy would carry on the fight. Roosevelt had asked King to invite the Royal Navy and Royal Family to North America if necessary and Churchill had asked him "not to let the Americans view too complacently prospects of a British collapse, out of which they would get the British fleet and the guardianship of the British Empire, minus Great Britain." Churchill need not have feared on that score; Roosevelt was anything but complacent. But at this critical point, King knew Churchill and Roosevelt better than they knew each other.

The British had to leave their tanks and artillery and most of their rifles behind at Dunkirk, but Roosevelt was sufficiently impressed by British fortitude that he immediately overruled his military chiefs and ordered the dispatch of 500,000 rifles, 900 artillery pieces, 50,000 machine guns and huge quantities of ammunition, artillery shells, and bombs, on fast American flag vessels that the Germans would not dare to intercept. On June 10, as Churchill and Roosevelt's own diplomats had predicted, Mussolini declared war on France and Britain, and Reynaud asked Roosevelt for unlimited assistance apart from an American Expeditionary force.

That day, Roosevelt spoke to the University of Virginia at Jefferson's Charlottesville campus and declared in a world-wide broadcast that if the "United States became a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force," it would be in a prison "handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents." He said of Mussolini, "The hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor."

The French government abandoned Paris to the Germans and decamped to the south, and Churchill wrote Roosevelt on June 12: "If there is anything you can say publicly or privately, to the French, now is the time." Roosevelt urged continued resistance on Reynaud, promised material aid and implied that France would still be a viable fighting ally even if it were temporarily required to wage war from its far-flung empire. Churchill tried again with the French, visiting its divided and itinerant government at Bordeaux, almost on the Spanish frontier on June 14, and asking Roosevelt to make the strongest statement he could. Both men knew France was finished and were only trying to detain as many Germans as possible in France for as long as they could. Reynaud and Churchill both asked Roosevelt for a commitment to go to war even if it did not intend to commit forces to the war. This was out of the question, as Roosevelt gently explained.

On June 17, Roosevelt fired his War secretary, Harry Woodring, who had opposed rearming the British after Dunkirk, and in the closest the United States has come to coalition government, named eminent Republicans Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, who had been the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1936, as secretaries of War and of the Navy, just a week before the Republican convention. Roosevelt had still not hinted whether he would seek nomination to a third term. Roosevelt wrote Woodring a letter expressing his determination to stay out of the war on June 17, the same day he wrote Reynaud promising support and inciting the inference that The U.S. could join the war. Roosevelt declined the request of both recipients to make the letters public, and they would have been difficult to reconcile. This was the gap Roosevelt was trying to bridge as the Battle of Britain began and he prepared to break a tradition as old as the republic and seek a third term in what promised to be a fierce reelection campaign.

The Reynaud government fell on June 17 and the 84-year old fascist sympathizer and hero of the Battle of Verdun in 1916, Marshal Philippe Henri Petain, sued for peace and France surrendered on June 22. On June 18, as France left the war, Churchill in another world broadcast, uttered perhaps his most famous and stirring words: "Let us brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth should last for a thousand years, men will still say 'This was their finest hour.'" They did and it was. On July 3, having received insufficient assurances from the French about keeping its fleet, the fourth in the world and second in Europe after Britain's, out of German hands, Churchill ordered an attack on the main units of the French navy at Oran, and sank one battleship and shot up two others. Roosevelt, who had been gradually raising his estimation of Britain's chances of survival, was particularly impressed when Churchill received an immense ovation in parliament when he explained his government's action. With the British victory in its own skies that summer and autumn, military success sired diplomatic and political success and assisted Roosevelt in bringing his countrymen out of isolationism.

Roosevelt reckoned that if Germany were allowed to consolidate the territory it then held -Austria, the Czechs, Dutch, Belgians, Danes, Norway, and most of the Poles and much of France, with a combined population equal to that of the United States, about 130 million, it would morally putrefy all Europe. And with Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, and Romania governed by fascist pro-German governments, Nazi Germany would within a generation be the strongest power in the world. His views were identical in these matters with Churchill's and were formed at the same time or even earlier. He believed the U.S. national interest required the continuation of the British Commonwealth in the war, and the eventual entry of the U.S. into the war, to prevent the Eurasian land-mass from being perpetually controlled by Hitler, Stalin, and the Japanese imperialists.

While there has been much advocacy of term limits in recent years in democracies, on this one occasion when a third presidential term was attempted in the United States, the whole future of democratic civilization depended on it being achieved. As the election campaign unfolded, Roosevelt advanced the British the 50 destroyers Churchill had requested, without referring the transaction to Congress, supported a private bill for the first peacetime conscription in the country's history, and kept his unsuitable ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy, from endorsing his Republican opponent by threatening to block the future of Kennedy's sons in the Democratic Party. And partly as a pay-back for Roosevelt's refusal to support the anti-clerical Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, but also reflecting the views of Pius XII and of most American Catholics, New York's Roman Catholic Archbishop Francis J. Spellman delivered on national radio a statement that was read in every Roman Catholic service in the country on the Sunday before election day. It included the passage: "It is better to have force and not need it than to need it and not have it, Americans seek peace, but not a peace that is a choice between slavery and death." It was an outright endorsement of Roosevelt's policy of all aid short of war to the democracies, though not technically a recommendation of how to vote.

His Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, supported assistance to Britain and Canada, but did not control the Republican Party, and would not have been able to bring the U.S. to assist the Allies as quickly and tangibly as Roosevelt did. Roosevelt's Lend-lease bill, which effectively gave the British Commonwealth anything it asked and enabled it to pay when it could, assured Britain's ability to continue in the war, and was passed by the Democrats over the opposition of most Republicans.

On December 29, 1940, Roosevelt gave one of the most famous of his Fireside radio addresses to the nation; 75 per cent of American adults listened and a heavy majority agreed when he said that the United States must be "the great arsenal of democracy." He denounced what he called the "pious frauds" of the isolationists, and said there would be no agreement with the aggressor states. He warned that if Britain were defeated, "We in this hemisphere would be living at the point of a gun... No dictator, no combination of dictators," he said, would distract or deter the United States from doing what its clear national interest and unmistakable moral duty required.

In January 1941, he sent both his closest subordinate, Harry Hopkins, and his recent Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, on fact-finding missions to London. Hopkins explained to Churchill that there were four distinct blocs of American public opinion: ten to fifteen per cent were Communist or Nazi sympathizers who professed to be neutral but really favoured the Germans and sheltered behind the isolationist aviator, Charles Lindbergh. Fifteen to twenty per cent, led by Ambassador Kennedy, who had just been replaced in London by Republican John G. Winant, wanted to help Britain but absolutely wanted to stay out of war; ten to fifteen per cent, led by the newly arrived Republicans Stimson and Knox, thought war with Germany was inevitable, and wanted to get on with it. And 60 per cent wanted to give all possible aid to Britain and Canada whatever the risk of war, though they would prefer to avoid war. Roosevelt held all the last two groups and some of the Kennedy faction, approximately 75 per cent of public opinion, a considerable achievement in such fraught circumstances. It happened that Churchill's daughter and daughter-in-law were soon having torrid affairs with the U.S. ambassador and the eminent American news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Mr. Churchill was an indulgent father and a full service ally.

Toward the end of his British visit, Hopkins spoke after one of the many dinners Churchill tendered to him and said what he would report to the president. Though not a religious man, Hopkins adapted from the Bible: "Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God, even to the end." Mr. Churchill's ability to stir powerful emotions among his listeners was matched by a tendency to emotional response himself. The prime minister wept, silently and without embarrassment. It had been a lonely and a brave struggle, and the prospect of the approaching might of the New World was a vision of inexpressible consolation.

Willkie made a fine impression on the British public, joining them in air raid shelters and standing the house to drinks in workers' pubs. He delivered to Churchill a hand-written note from Roosevelt including the famous verse from Longfellow which he wrote applied to both countries, and which Churchill read over the air waves, beginning: "Sail on O Ship of State," and ending: "Humanity is Hanging Breathless on thy Fate." Churchill replied with the verse from Arthur Hugh Clough, beginning "Say not the Struggle Naught Availeth, the Labour and the Wounds are Vain," and ending: "Westward Look, the Land is Bright" Apart from anything else, we were fortunate in that supreme drama that the English-speaking world was led by men who so largely personified the civilization they were defending.

Hopkins and Willkie returned to the United States to support passage of Lend-Lease, and when it did pass, Mr. Churchill urged a parliamentary resolution that was adopted unanimously on March 12 1941, that praised America's "generous and far-seeing statesmanship. The most powerful democracy has declared that it will devote its overwhelming industrial and financial strength to ensuring the defeat of Nazism. The government and people of the United States have in fact written a new Magna Carta that not only proclaims the rights and laws of a healthy and advancing civilization, but also proclaims by precept and example the duty of free men and free nations to share the responsibility and burden of enforcing them. In the name of all freedom-loving peoples, we offer to the president, government, Congress, and people of the United States our gratitude for their inspiring act of faith." Two days later, in an internationally broadcast address, Roosevelt declared that "In this historic crisis, Britain is blessed with a brilliant and a great leader," and declared the "end of any attempts at appeasement in our land, of urging us to get along with the dictators, the end of compromise with tyranny and the forces of oppression."

By this time, Roosevelt had extended U.S. territorial waters from three to 1,800 miles, and had ordered the U.S. Navy to attack on detection any German ship. Roosevelt had laid down 24 aircraft carriers, more than there then were in the world. He was waging undeclared war on Germany and giving Germany's enemies all the sinews of war they asked. It was, to say the least, an idiosyncratic definition of neutrality. It is little wonder that Hitler concluded that the just reelected Roosevelt intended to go to war with Germany as soon as he had brought his immense rearmament programs to fruition. Viewed from this perspective, Hitler reasoned that if he could dispose of Russia before Roosevelt could drag America into war against him, he would be able to turn all his attention to repulsing the Anglo-Americans and would be practically impregnable in Western and Central Europe. It would be another huge gamble, but Hitler had built his whole career on gambles, always successfully. Thus did Hitler determine to attack Russia, on June 22, 1941. Roosevelt sent Hopkins to meet Stalin, estimate the tenacity of the Soviet war effort, and come with Churchill to the Newfoundland meeting and report to both leaders and their military staffs on his findings in Russia.

Hopkins became the chief promoter of a Churchill-Roosevelt meeting, and the conference whose 75th anniversary we are observing was the result. Both men grilled Hopkins about the other, Hopkins referred to both as prima donnas, and Churchill later wrote that no paramour had ever been wooed as assiduously as he had wooed Roosevelt. The principal Canadian involvement in this conference, to Mr. King's annoyance, as Jack Granatstein has pointed out, was a coastal command report of a German pocket battleship advancing with escort vessels up the Nova Scotia coast in scattered fog. This was in fact Roosevelt's squadron. I have the letter Roosevelt sent his cousin Daisy, rather imaginatively portrayed in the film Hyde Park on the Hudson, in which he compares Mr. Churchill to New York's Mayor La Guardia, and declares: "I like him."

The Atlantic Charter of human rights could not have been in greater contrast to the notions of government of Germany and its allies, and Goebbels suppressed all public reference to it. It did create certain ambiguities for parts of the British Empire, such as India, as the Canadian Lord Beaverbrook pointed out. The conference also confirmed the hypothesis that had been agreed at the start of the joint staff talks in Washington nine months before: that if the U.S. were drawn into the war, even if through Japanese actions, Germany was the principal enemy and would have to be subdued as a priority. This was especially the case now that Russia, if not an ally, at least shared the common enemy. There was disagreement over the British claim that Germany could be successfully defeated by aerial bombardment, a sea blockade, and assistance to guerrilla resistance movements. Roosevelt and his advisers did not believe a word of it and assumed it was just an attempt to sugar-coat what war with Germany would be like. But General Marshall, whom Roosevelt asked to reply on strictly military matters, passed over this quickly as the U.S. was not a combatant. It would be settled later, when it was no longer an academic point.

In the short term, the most important result of the meeting was the attention paid to the Japanese, a country that the British, preoccupied as they were with Europe and the Mediterranean, had not much considered. Japan imported 85 per cent of its oil from the United States, and Roosevelt, as a policy on its merits, and as a means of approaching the war in a way that would unite American opinion, had embargoed exports to Japan of oil and scrap metal which fed most of the Japanese steel industry, until that country abandoned its invasions of China and Indochina. Roosevelt explained to Churchill that there was not an absolute embargo, merely a review of exports on a case by case basis as each tanker-load required an individual permit. Churchill remonstrated that a complete cut-off should be imposed, so desirous was he of having the U.S. in the war, whatever route got it there.

Roosevelt demurred, as he wished, as always, to retain some flexibility, and had already suggested a compromise to Japan. When Roosevelt returned to Washington, he discovered that in fact, his undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs, Dean G. Acheson, in a line worthy of the television satire 'Yes Minister,' while awaiting the president's declaration of a "policy," had adopted the "practice" of declining all applications by Japan to buy oil. In the light of the meeting here in Newfoundland and the report made to it on the situation on the Russian front, Roosevelt determined that he could not wait until the completion of his vast armament program, before taking the next step toward war. He would intensify naval harassment of German submarines, and would not allow the sale of a drop of oil to Japan. About six weeks later, American intelligence reported the redeployment of Japanese army units from Siberia to the south, presumably to seize the oil fields of what is now Indonesia. And Roosevelt advised Stalin of this, which facilitated the movement of 15 divisions Soviet from the Far East for the final defense of Moscow and Leningrad.

He calculated that war could result, and that military requirements would cause the Axis to attack the United States without warning, producing a unanimity of revanchist opinion among his countrymen. He was horrified when the attack came, at the absence of torpedo nets along Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor, and the absence of air patrols at all daylight hours around the Hawaiian Islands, despite many warnings that had been sent out. But he could not have been more satisfied with the air-tight consensus to win the war that Japan provided him, or with Hitler's obliging declaration of war three days after Pearl Harbor.

Churchill returned to London from Newfoundland, and told his colleagues "President Roosevelt will make war without declaring it." So he did, but the impetuosity of the Japanese and German governments relieved him of the need for such acrobatics after the briefest interval. This conference generated great decisions in assisting the Soviet Union and broadening the war to the Pacific. It changed the world with its definition of the war aims of the Western Allies, even though a 40-year post-conflict Cold War was required to achieve those aims. This conference in Newfoundland may have been the most important since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It did bring together the world's two greatest democratic statesmen of the last 150 years.

When Roosevelt died four years later, Churchill was asked to give an all-party eulogy in Parliament, and he concluded it: "In the days of peace, President Roosevelt had broadened and stabilized the basis of American life and union. In war he raised the might and glory of the Great Republic to a height never attained by any nation in history. All this was no more than worldly power and grandeur had it not been that the causes of human freedom and justice to which so much of his life had been given, added a luster to him and his achievements which will long be discernible among men. He was the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the New World to the Old."

Roosevelt died before the British election that changed governments in 1945, but General de Gaulle best summarized that shocking event, in words made more eloquent by his frequent disagreements with Mr. Churchill: "Winston Churchill lost neither his glory nor his popularity thereby, merely the adherence he had won as guide and symbol of the nation in peril. His nature, identified with a magnificent enterprise, his countenance, etched by the fires and frosts of great events, were no longer adequate to the era of mediocrity." These great men met here in Newfoundland, 75 years ago, and changed the world forever.

 

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Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of FreedomRichard M Nixon: A Life in FullA Matter of PrincipleFlight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership and Rise To Greatness: A History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present. He was the chairman of the Telegraph newspapers in Britain, 1987-2003, and founded the National Post in Canada, where he remains a columnist. He also writes in the National Review Online and Huffington Post. He has been one of Canada's best known financiers for 35 years and has returned to that occupation, and has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2001.

 

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