(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)
In September, 1940 America and Great Britain reached an agreement. America gave Britain 50 destroyers in exchange for 99 year lease rights to naval ports and other facilities in British possessions in the Caribbean and North Atlantic. Most of us today looking back on that agreement will say something like: “Well, that made sense for both sides.”
But the agreement was preceded by months of controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. Some Americans feared the agreement would help propel the country to war. Many in Britain were concerned about sovereignty issues. On both sides there were those who followed the negotiations leading to the agreement with a “calculator” mentality: their side might get the short end of the deal. They wouldn’t stand for that.
President Roosevelt and Churchill conducted much of the negotiations directly between themselves and in secret. Anticipating ultimate agreement, they made arrangements for the swift implementation of the agreement even before it was signed. For example, without public announcement British naval crews were sent to American bases where they were trained to sail the American destroyers.
A final version of the agreement was drawn on September 2, and officials in Washington and London began the signing process.
On September 5 Churchill announced the agreement in the House of Commons.
You’ll see in a moment how with brief, effective words he gives “some stick” to those who’d question the agreement, leaving them in the position of questioning an agreement Hitler won’t like but the Admiralty does:
The memorable transactions between Great Britain and the United States, which were foreshadowed when I last addressed the House, have now been completed. …"British crews (and) the long arm of coincidence." Can you help but smile? I’m sure most of the House smiled, too.
I have no doubt that Herr Hitler will not like this transference of destroyers, and I have no doubt that he will pay the United States out, if he ever gets the chance.
That is why I am very glad that the army, air, and naval frontiers of the United States have been advanced along a wide arc into the Atlantic Ocean, and that this will enable them to take danger by the throat while it is still hundreds of miles away from their homeland.
The Admiralty tell us also that they are very glad to have these fifty destroyers, and that they will come in most conveniently to bridge the gap which, as I have previously explained to the House, inevitably intervenes before our considerable wartime programme of new construction comes into service.
I suppose the House realizes that we shall be a good deal stronger next year on the sea than we are now, although that is quite strong enough for the immediate work in hand.
There will be no delay in bringing the American destroyers into active service; in fact, British crews are already meeting them at the various ports where they are being delivered. You might call it the long arm of coincidence.
I really do not think that there is any more to be said about the whole business at the present time. This is not the appropriate occasion for rhetoric.
Perhaps I may, however, very respectfully, offer this counsel to the House: When you have got a thing where you want it, it is a good thing to leave it where it is.
In tomorrow’s post I plan to comment further on Churchill’s remarks to the House announcing the agreement. They illustrate what a superb parliamentarian he was