(One of a series of weekday posts about the life of Winston S. Churchill. )
In yesterday's post I quoted from Jon Meacham's Franklin and Winston something FDR is alleged to have said of Churchill in 1939:
“I always disliked him since the time I went to England in 1917 or 1918,” Roosevelt said to Joseph P. Kennedy, the American ambassador to Britain, in a conversation in 1939. “At a dinner I attended he acted like a stinker.”Kennedy is the only source of that quote.
I can accept that Roosevelt may have said it, but if he did, I doubt he meant it.
FDR often told visitors what they wanted to hear. He knew Kennedy disliked Churchill intensely.
FDR had his eye on the 1940 presidential election and knew Kennedy’s support would be very helpful with Irish-American Catholic voters.
Now let’s consider some events which make me skeptical FDR meant what he may have said about Churchill.
In September, 1939 FDR did something extraordinary. He reached out to Churchill who had just been made First Lord of the Admiralty.
In a letter sent directly to Churchill, FDR said given their common experiences in WW I as administrators of their countries navies, he wanted Churchill to feel free to correspond directly with him on matters about which Churchill felt FDR should be informed and might be helpful.
As far as I know, it was a presidential act without precedent in the Anglo-American relationship.
America’s head of state bypassed the British head of state, King George VI; the head of British government, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain; Britain’s Foreign Office; our State Department and America’s Ambassador in Britain, Joseph P Kennedy; all to invite a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet to correspond directly with him.
FDR knew Churchill had for years been the Prime Minister's and the Government’s fiercest and most outspoken critic.
FDR not only proposed direct correspondence with Churchill, he wanted it to be confidential, something the British government agreed to after discussions.
Later in September 1939 FDR was reading intelligence reports. He noticed one item suggesting German subs might be planning to attack a British passenger ship.
Normally such intelligence was passed to the British “through channels.”
But FDR decided in this case to do something unusual. He telephoned Churchill directly at his home and delivered the warning. I believe it was their first phone conversation.
There’s more I could cite, but I'm sure you can see why I’m skeptical FDR felt Churchill was a "stinker," although I would not doubt he led old Joe Kennedy to think he did.