We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Churchill and American Aid

LAURENCE REES: Lets talk about America. So how important to Churchill was American aid for the British war effort?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Churchill always had the United States in his frame of reference. He was half American and he had long argued that Britain should form an alliance with the United States and draw America into European affairs, so that was something that mattered to him in a way it didn’t instinctively to Halifax or to Chamberlain. Having said that, given the way the war changes so dramatically in the summer of 1940, any British leader would have had to start looking to America in a new way because it was the only source of significant support. Up till then, the British had assumed that there would be a French army holding the continent and that Britain’s role would be in support of that through naval and air power and so on. Suddenly the French just simply disappeared from the equation, Hitler is in control of continental Europe and if Britain wants to carry on the war it’s going to need at the very least large scale economic aid from the United States and probably military support as well, an army and all the rest of it. So Churchill, from the time he becomes Prime Minister, really treats his number one diplomatic project as wooing the President of The United States and trying to draw him into the war.

LAURENCE REES: Churchill’s actually wrote to Roosevelt around this time, saying - in effect - that if you don’t provide aid then the game’s up for us. Isn't that right?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Churchill is playing on all sorts of strings with the Americans. He is appealing at times to a sense of common kinship and language and so on, but he is also quite ready to threaten that if the support isn’t available then the Americans can’t point the finger if Britain makes the best terms possible. He’s certainly willing to hint at that because he really doesn’t know what is going to work in the summer of 1940, and part of what is so unsettling for him really is the lack of clear commitment from Roosevelt in those early months in the summer of 1940.

LAURENCE REES: And why is he not getting a clearer sense of Roosevelt's intentions at that time?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Well, because Roosevelt is having to completely rethink his own foreign policy at this stage. Indeed, he’s having to rethink his own politics. Roosevelt, but for what happened in the summer of 1940, would have been a two term President who would have retired in January 1941, and, as such, we would think of him now as a fairly successful President who had done something to get America moving out of the depression. But in 1939 you still have 20 percent unemployment in the US, the Depression isn’t over and it’s the war that ends the depression for America, and it’s the war that makes Roosevelt into one of the great Presidents of American history because he presides over the Depression and the war and, in a sense, victory over both. But in the summer of 1940 Roosevelt is rethinking everything. Can he run for a second term? He thinks he can, but if he is going to run for a third term then he has got to play this foreign policy thing very, very carefully all through the summer of 1940. So he is quite cautious about what aid he can give to Britain, and one of the critical things that Churchill is asking for in the summer is 50 of America’s old destroyers. And Roosevelt only moves on that when he is persuaded that that can be done in his power as Commander-in-Chief and Chief Executive, not by going to Congress.

There is one other thing that also restrains Roosevelt which is his own genuine doubts about whether Britain will survive. He says in early July 1940 that he reckons that the chances are one in three of Britain surviving. He doesn’t know either - his instinct is to bet on Britain, his whole foreign policy has been, since 1938-39, to say to Americans, look, your front line is no longer on the Atlantic Sea Board for the US, it’s on the right. A country like Britain is the outer bulwark of the United States. So keeping Britain going in the war is what Roosevelt wants, but given what’s happened to France, just like that, he can’t be sure that Britain’s going to hang on through the summer either. His instinct is it probably will, but he’s not going to bet his bottom dollar on that until he sees how the Battle of Britain begins to evolve.