Citizens of London

The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour

by Lynne Olson

11 May 2010

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill in Casablanca (January 22, 1943) 

The Absolute Minimum Necessary for Existence

Although Germany had failed to subdue the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940, the Luftwaffe continued to ravage London, Bristol, and other British cities. An invasion by sea was a possibility in the near future. The greatest immediate peril, however, was the U-boat threat to British supply lines. German submarines in the Atlantic were sinking hundreds of thousands of tons of merchant shipping each month, with losses that more than doubled in less than four months.

At the end of one of the coldest winters in recorded history, the British were barely hanging on, with little food, scarce heat, and dwindling hope. Imports of food and raw materials had fallen to just over half their prewar levels, prices were skyrocketing, and there were severe shortages of everything from meat to timber.

St. Paul's Cathedral during the London Blitz (1940)

St. Paul’s Cathedral during the London Blitz (1940)

“In exchange for the fifty aging U.S. destroyers that Churchill sought in the summer of 1940, the Roosevelt administration demanded that it be awarded ninety-nine-year leases for the use of military bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, and six British possessions in the Caribbean.”

The week before Winant’s arrival in Britain, one of Winston Churchill’s private secretaries passed on to the prime minister the latest in a series of reports of merchant ship sinkings. When the secretary remarked how “very distressing” the news was, Churchill glared at him. “Distressing?” he exclaimed. “It is terrifying! If it goes on, it will be the end of us.” Top German officials agreed. That same month, Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop told the Japanese ambassador in Berlin that “even now England was experiencing serious trouble in keeping up her food supply.?.?.?. The important thing now [is] to sink enough ships to reduce England’s imports to below the absolute minimum necessary for existence.”

Surrounded by a gauntlet of enemy submarines, warships, and aircraft, Britain could survive, Churchill believed, only if a very reluctant America could somehow be persuaded to enter the war. He continued to nurture that hope, even as President Roosevelt said repeatedly that the United States was, and would remain, neutral. “The expert politician in the President is always trying to find a way of winning the war for the Allies—and, if he fails to do that, of ensuring the security of the United States—without the U.S. itself having to take the plunge into the war,” the British ambassador to Washington confided to the Foreign Office, which, like the U.S. State Department, was responsible for promoting its country’s interests abroad.

Yet it was hard to blame Roosevelt for his caution. After all, the British themselves had done their best to stay out of war in the 1930s, standing quietly by as Hitler rose to power and began his conquest of Europe. For the sake of peace—Britain’s peace—the Chamberlain government had done little or nothing in the late 1930s to prevent country after country from being swallowed up by Germany. In the case of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, Britain, at the Munich conference, had been complicit in its seizure. Then, in the chaos- filled days of June 1940, the British, to their shock, found themselves facing Germany alone. With their future bordering on the calamitous, they hoped the United States would pay more attention to them than they had paid to Europe.

Churchill, the country’s combative new prime minister, was relentless in wheedling, pleading, and coaxing Roosevelt for more support. In his speeches, FDR responded magnificently. He promised all aid short of war, and, after Germany conquered France and launched the Battle of Britain, he declared: “If Britain is to survive, we must act.” But, as the British saw it, America’s actions did not match its president’s words: the help it sent was invariably too little and too late. Even more disturbing, it always came with a cat’s cradle of strings attached.

In exchange for the fifty aging U.S. destroyers that Churchill sought in the summer of 1940, the Roosevelt administration demanded that it be awarded ninety-nine-year leases for the use of military bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, and six British possessions in the Caribbean. The deal was, as everyone knew, far more advantageous for the United States than for Britain, and it was deeply resented by the British government. Nonetheless, the British had little choice but to accept what they considered grossly unfair terms. “This rather smacks of Russia’s demands on Finland,” John Colville, a private secretary to Churchill, wrote sourly in his diary.

The British felt even more aggrieved when the World War I–era destroyers finally arrived. Dilapidated and obsolete, they could not be used without expensive alteration. “I thought they were the worst destroyers I had ever seen,” fumed one British admiral. “Poor seaboats with appalling armament and accommodation.” Equally irritated, Churchill was nonetheless persuaded by his advisers to couch his concerns in more diplomatic language. In a cable sent to Roosevelt in late 1940, the prime minister said: “We have so far only been able to bring a very few of your fifty destroyers into action on account of the many defects which they naturally develop when exposed to Atlantic weather after having been laid up so long.”

As Britain’s situation grew ever more dire, the price of American aid grew ever more onerous. Since November 1939, when Roosevelt persuaded a reluctant Congress to amend the Neutrality Act banning U.S. arms sales to countries at war, Britain had been permitted to purchase American weapons and equipment. But, according to the amendment’s terms, the matériel had to be paid for with dollars at the time of purchase, and buyers had to transport the supplies in their own ships.

In the year that followed, heavy armament purchases had drained Britain of most of its dollar and gold reserves. To continue arms shipments, the British Treasury was forced to borrow from the gold reserves of the Belgian government-in-exile in London. So serious was the gold situation that the chancellor of the exchequer advised the cabinet to consider requisitioning from the British people their wedding rings and other gold jewelry. Churchill counseled delay. Such a radical idea, he said, should be adopted only “if we wished to make some striking gesture for the purpose of shaming the Americans.”

The prime minister and other British officials repeatedly warned the Roosevelt administration that they were running out of dollars, but the U.S. government refused to believe them. The president, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull were convinced that the riches of the British empire were virtually limitless. If the British needed more cash, they could simply liquidate some of their investments in North and South America. Morgenthau, in particular, pressed the British to sell to American investors such blue-chip companies as Shell Oil, American Viscose, Lever Brothers, and Dunlop Tires. When the British government protested that such sales (presumably at fire-sale prices) would be a serious blow to the country’s postwar economy, Morgenthau snapped that this was no time to be concerned about such matters.

Having had many allies in its long and colorful history, Britain was skilled at using them to further its own goals and interests. Now, however, this proud imperial power was forced to grovel before a former colony that had become its most formidable trade rival. The humiliation was made worse by what the British saw as America’s determination to take economic advantage of their misfortune.

The U.S. government offered no apologies. For the British to receive any aid at all, Roosevelt and his men believed, the American people must be persuaded that their own country was getting the better of the deal. “We seek to avoid all risks, all danger, but we make certain to get the profit,” said the isolationist senator William Borah.

The administration felt obliged to assure the American public that the scheming, tricky British would not be allowed to lure the United States into another European war. Indeed, Roosevelt shared that common view of the British, once declaring to an aide, “When you sit around a table with a Britisher, he usually gets 80 per cent out of the deal and you get what is left.” The government’s image of itself as a shrewd Yankee trader did succeed in striking a chord with a large segment of the population. When Herbert Agar, the Pulitzer Prize–winning editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and a staunch interventionist, told fellow newspaper editors that America was getting from England “far more than we deserved,” he was dismayed to find his colleagues “happy rather than thoughtful.”

Thus, as the world faced the greatest crisis in its history, its two most powerful democracies, bound by a common heritage, language, and allegiance to personal liberty, were divided by a prejudice and lack of understanding that had widened into a chasm since their World War I quasi-alliance. Their famously egocentric leaders, meanwhile, were suspicious of each other to the point of antagonism.

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had first met at an official dinner in London during the waning days of the Great War. Then an assistant secretary of the navy, the thirty-six-year-old Roosevelt had come to the British capital as part of a European fact-finding tour. Although charming and good-humored, he did not cut a particularly impressive figure at this early stage of his government career. To one of his colleagues in Washington, he was “likable and attractive but not a heavyweight.” According to former secretary of war Henry Stimson (who more than thirty years later would be appointed to the same post in Roosevelt’s cabinet), he was “an untried, rather flippant young man.” Unabashed by such criticism, Roosevelt always sought to be “the life of the party” and “never happily surrendered the limelight to anyone.”

Lynne Olson, a former Moscow correspondent for the Associated Press and White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, is the author of Troublesome Young Men and Freedom’s Daughters and co-author, with her husband, Stanley Cloud, of A Question of Honor and The Murrow Boys. She lives in Washington, D.C.

© 2010 Lynne Olson

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