British Empire Books

Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship

AuthorJon Meacham
PublisherRandom House

Jon Meacham's book recounts the intimate relationship between two of the titans of early Twentieth Century history. Their interactions were vital in helping secure ultimate victory against Germany and Japan, but it underwent many mutations as the relative power and influence shifted between the two politicians. The author tracks the relationship back to the tail end of World War One when the two first met. Roosevelt was less than impressed by the upstart politician and Roosevelt made so little impression upon Winston that he had to be reminded that the meeting had even taken place. The author tends to treat both parties deferentially and with sympathy although criticising in places. He forgets to mention that Roosevelt's claims of having seen war and hating it (much played upon in the interwar years) were less than fully accurate as he merely caught the consequences of action and was never anywhere close to fighting - unlike Churchill.

The story focusses on Churchill's attempts to seduce Roosevelt into supporting Britain in the dark days of World War Two especially after the Fall of France. The author skillfully explains the isolationist political impulses acting as a break to American participation in the war. Roosevelt is portrayed as sympathetic but always mindful of following public opinion and never daring to lead it. The role of the Empire in the equation between the two men is mentioned on a number of occasions but not really explored in depth. Roosevelt is seen as extracting concessions from Britain in return for the limited help before Pearl Harbour. However, the implications of the British ceding ports, access to imperial markets and promises of self-government are not fully exploited. The author seems to suggest that the concessions were to allow Roosevelt to nudge America closer to the conflict rather than as outright benefits to an American economy able to take advantage of a straightened Britain in the midst of the darkest days of the war. The author hints that Roosevelt was motivated more be advantage and benefit to America whilst Churchill is working towards higher principles of freedom and democracy. However, the author does not then fully see through the logical conclusion of this thesis in the days before America was a fully fledged participant. I wouldn't say that he was dragging his country reluctantly along with him, rather he was dealing with the world as it was at the time but did little to shape its direction. He was obviously more sympathetic to a British victory than a German one, but would not commit himself fully to achieving this.

Despite the author's best intentions, Roosevelt does not come out of this account particularly well. He seems a very slippery character who managed to deceive a lot of the people a lot of the time - including his own wife. It was the early part of America's war that seems to have seen the best side of Roosevelt as he was willing to listen and help Churchill in any way that he could. By 1943 though, he seems to have gravitated away from Churchill and towards the far more sinister Stalin.It is also clear that Roosevelt totally mis-read Stalin and underestimated the ambition and ruthlessness of the Soviet leader - a mistake that Churchill did not make to the same extent. It can certainly be argued that Churchill was still interested in a bigger picture concept of the war and wished to place British and American military assets in the Mediterranean, Aegean Sea and Eastern Europe as a counter to the Soviets whilst the Americans were interested in the more direct route approach to shorten the war and get the war over as quickly and efficiently as possible. Roosevelt seems to have managed to achieve the worst of both worlds; he allowed allied units to be used in Italy but then diverted to the D-Day approach only to fail to push on directly towards Berlin and be distracted into going southwards towards Bavaria and Austria and leaving the ultimate prize of Berlin to Stalin.

In many ways, the value of this book is as an account of the supplanting of The British Empire by an American one. You can feel the strength of America rising as the British power ebbs away. Churchill does the best that he can with his diminishing political and military powers. The productive capacity of America, on the other hand, allows it to become the real power broker - supplying not just their own army but much of the British and Soviet ones also.

The final deceit of Roosevelt was his desire to run for the presidency once more in 1944 in the full knowledge of his severely declining health. Indeed, he would be dead within six months of his election victory and leaving an untried and unknown replacement. Once again the author fails to explore this handover in what was a critical phase for Anglo-American relations. The author explains that Churchill and Roosevelt frequently discussed 'Alloy Tubes' (code for Atom bombs) and had agreed to share the fruits of their joint research. However, Truman was not aware of the Manhattan program at all, let alone the deal between Churchill and Roosevelt. He felt no obligation at all to share the fruits of these atomic secrets. It did not help that Churchill himself lost his 1945 election to a labour government. These are crucial events that were a direct consequence of the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt and yet are not explored in any meaningful way.

Do not get me wrong, this is an interesting and informative book, but it dwells too much on the personal and not enough on the political impact of the complicated relationship between these two men. The timing is crucial as it was during a period of relative decline of one power whilst an emergence power of the other. If you want to understand the fate of The British Empire you have to be familiar with the events discussed in this book. Unfortunately, despite doing much of the legwork, the analysis of the consequences of this relationship has to be inferred rather than it be provided to the reader of this book. As it is, it will provide good, general background information but will not provide fundamental answers to the questions raised by their co-existing periods of leadership.

Buy this book at: Amazon or at Abebooks


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by Stephen Luscombe