Franklin and Winston: A friendship forged in the fire of war

Richard H. Ryder, 2018

He stood as a powerful force against the evil overtaking Europe.  Newly elected to the highest office in his land, he led his country while hundreds of thousands of its soldiers were trapped on the opposite side of the channel with seemingly no place to escape.  And yet, with strong leadership, military bravery, the determination of the citizenry, and divine intervention disaster was averted at Dunkirk.  The world took a deep sigh of relief.  The man was Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his country, Britain, was the only thing standing between Hitler and the West.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean stood a nation unsure of its leadership role.  Still struggling from the effects of financial depression, there was building consensus in America that the U.S. should stay out of the turmoil in Europe.  The President, though sympathetic to the plight of his British counterpart, had neither the political capital nor congressional authorization to assist with what Churchill really needed to hold a formidable and sustained defense against the tides of war – armaments, ships, warplanes, and military personnel.

Industrial production in America was not coordinated. The Army was in no shape to defend America, let alone fight a world war.  The Navy and Air Force were in no better shape.  And yet, Churchill kept persisting with Franklin Roosevelt, his distant cousin and Masonic Brother.  (Roosevelt belonged to Holland Lodge #48 in New York; Churchill belonged to Studholme Lodge #1591 in London). Against the backdrop of war, a unique, often-times tested friendship and alliance was formed between two men so different in personality, yet so similar in character and will.

Little did Hitler know after Dunkirk that it was he who ultimately would be responsible for forging a collaboration between two 20th century icons.

First Impressions

Their first encounter was uneventful and far from memorable. It was July 29, 1918, at a Gray’s Inn dinner function in London given for the Allied Ministers Prosecuting the War.  Churchill, former first Lord of the Admiralty and now minister on munitions, would later not recall meeting Roosevelt.  On the other hand, Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, remembered Churchill as being brusque and a “stinker”.  In his speech that evening Secretary Roosevelt talked about the importance of the personal in politics and war, citing the need for an “intimate personal relationship” among allied nations 1. To Churchill, who once referred to Roosevelt as “awful and arrogant”, and Roosevelt, who once thought Churchill to be “pig-headed in his own way”, it would seem reasonable to think these two personalities would never heed Roosevelt’s words 22 years later in one of the greatest military collaborations in the history of mankind.

Defending Britain

As the conflict unfolded in Europe it became increasingly stressful for Churchill to wage a defense against Hitler’s overwhelming force.  With the war expanding beyond the continent of Europe Hitler would wreak havoc in the sea lanes of the Northern Atlantic.  English merchant ships and those of other nations fell victim to constant and deadly U-boat attacks.  From the air Nazi warplanes began bombing sorties over London and other British cities; missiles were hurled across the channel terrorizing the British people.  Churchill was in desperate need of assistance.

In September 1940, to work around restrictions in the U.S., Roosevelt responded as best he could by creating the lend-lease program to ‘lend’ ships and other military supplies to Churchill under the guise that Britain would reimbursed the U.S after the war.  Technically, we weren’t fighting the war, for a declaration of war had not yet been made.  But, we were quickly heading down that slippery slope toward full involvement.

Charles Lindbergh, Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy, and many others strongly and verbally opposed U.S. involvement in a war not of our making. But, after the attack on Pearl Harbor Churchill knew America was free to escalate their war machine, rally its people, and come to the aid of those defending freedom across the sea.  The war production and military ramp up that followed, along with the support of the American people, is unparalleled in human history.  A thankful world looked on, but the key beneficiary was Winston Churchill.

Complex Relationship

As the war progressed the two leaders would speak by phone, but they also exchanged letters.  It seemed like a match made in heaven, and yet, their relationship was not perfect.  There were times when Roosevelt acted as if theirs was a relationship of convenience.  Due to the proximity of Britain to Germany, coupled with Roosevelts dominating personality, it seemed Churchill needed Roosevelt and his admiration more than the other way around.  There were times when Churchill would write Roosevelt, then wait for a written reply that never came, much to the dismay of Churchill and his wife, Clementine.  Roosevelt was known by many to say one thing in public, but privately do the opposite.  Churchill would occasionally find himself on the receiving end of this behavioral inconsistency.

Despite this seemingly one-sided relationship, Churchill would visit Roosevelt and stay for days on end at the White House and Roosevelt’s private home on the Hudson in Hyde Park, New York. Much to Eleanor Roosevelt’s dismay this man of crude manners made himself at home.  He talked loudly, constantly smoked his trademark cigar, and drank at all hours of the day.  In the evening the two leaders would retire to FDR’s study, drink and tell stories, burning the midnight oil.  They each had the ability to turn off the world around them and act like college roommates versus the dignified leaders of two great nations.

Stalin Cuts In

As the war progressed, the relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill was strained by a third Allied leader, Russia’s Joseph Stalin.  Russia was fighting a brutal defense on their military front and had as much to lose from a German victory than any other nation.  But Churchill was concerned about the Soviet spread through Europe. Although allies, the three had their own agendas, from the timing of Operation Overlord (D-Day) to their post-war expectations for the treatment of France and the division of Germany.

There was a palpable bond between Roosevelt and Stalin that frustrated Churchill.  Supposed equals in the fight against the Third Reich, it was not uncommon for FDR and Stalin to shun Churchill and make him the odd man out. According to John Boettiger, FDR’s son-in-law, Stalin believed that “Churchill had softened between wars”2. This strain in the relationship was no more apparent than at the November 1943 “Big Three” conference in Teheran.

At the conference Roosevelt made no secret of the fact that he was trying to win over Stalin.  According to Jon Meacham “it was becoming clear also to Roosevelt that at the end of the war there would be only two great super powers – Russia and America”.3  Roosevelt and Stalin lodged together, much to the disappointment of Churchill, who wished to stay with FDR.  Before the first three-way meeting Churchill requested a private meeting with Roosevelt but was rejected.  According to special envoy Averell Harriman, “Roosevelt believed he would get along better with Stalin in Churchill’s absence.”4

Stalin enjoyed needling Churchill, and Roosevelt did not intervene; in fact, he appeared to enjoy it.  Harriman commented that “He always enjoyed other people’s discomfort. I think it is fair to say that it never bothered him very much when other people were unhappy.”5 Churchill felt trapped between a Russian bear and an American buffalo.  Jon Meacham states that “Throughout the edgy exchanges, Roosevelt was either silent or sided with Stalin, leaving Churchill on his own”6 and that “Joe teased the P.M. like a boy”.  Roosevelt reported to his cabinet “and it was very amusing.”7 Churchill resented FDR’s treatment, whom he thought was his friend. In a final insult, Roosevelt said to Churchill prior to a final three-way meeting, “Winston, I hope you won’t be sore at me for what I am going to do.” Then, FDR proceeded to tease Churchill in front of Stalin in order to secure his good standing with “Uncle Joe”.  Churchill’s daughter, Mary, would later say that “My father was very hurt, I think.”

Dear and Cherished Friends

Despite their unbalanced and complex relationship there remained genuine brotherly love and a deep abiding respect for each other.  In their own way each leader drew something personal and profound from their transatlantic friendship. When FDR died on April 12, 1945, Churchill learned the news by phone after which, in a letter to his daughter, Mary, he stated, “You know how this will hit me.”  He then prepared to attend his friend’s funeral, but in the end, decided not to go.  In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt he penned the following words: “As for myself, I have lost a dear and cherished friendship which was forged in the fire of war.  I trust you may find consolation in the magnitude of his work and the glory of his name.”

Winston Churchill died on January 24, 1965, 70 years to the day from when his father died.  The “British Bulldog” was borne on the same gun carriage that carried the coffin of Queen Victoria8. In a tribute to Churchill, referencing Churchill’s famous June 18, 1940 speech, Adlai Stevenson stated “He, with Franklin Roosevelt, gave us our final hour”.

In his memorable speech on August 20, 1940, Churchill eloquently praised the heroic Royal Air Force crews defending the homeland in the Battle of Britain when he said, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”   The same could be said about these two trans-Atlantic friends, brought together by fate, who bonded as one to defeat the greatest threat to modern civilization.


1 Jon Meacham, Franklin and Winston – An intimate portrait of an epic friendship, (New York, Random House 2003), p. 4-5.” (Hereinafter referred to as Meachum, Franklin and Winston.)”

2 Meachum, Franklin and Winston, p. 259

3 Meachum, Franklin and Winston, p. 245

4 Meachum, Franklin and Winston, p. 248

5 Meachum, Franklin and Winston, p. 259

6 Meachum, Franklin and Winston, p. 260

7 Meachum, Franklin and Winston, p. 261

8 Meachum, Franklin and Winston, p. 362

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