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Roosevelt & Churchill’s relations

LAURENCE REES: And much has been made since of the enormously friendly, cosy relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill. To what extent, at the beginning, is that really accurate?

DAVID REYNOLDS: The two men have only met once in their previous life before Churchill becomes Prime Minister. That was in 1918 in London when Roosevelt came for a visit, and rather unfortunately Churchill forgot the whole meeting and Roosevelt was quite miffed when he discovered this later on in the war. When Churchill becomes Prime Minister, Roosevelt says rather sniffily to his Cabinet, well, I suppose Churchill is the best man England’s got even though he is drunk half of the time. That’s Churchill’s reputation, a kind of old stager and a bit too ready with the booze. He’s also identified with the reactionary part of the Conservative Party, India, imperialism, all of that stuff, so in January 1941 Roosevelt sends Harry Hopkins, his right hand man, over to London to try and suss out Churchill and find out whether it really is true that Churchill is just basically an old die hard, and really just try and get a handle on Churchill. And Churchill is primed about this visit just in time by Brendan Bracken, one of his right hand men, somebody who actually knew something about America and who mattered in America, and Churchill really turns it on for Hopkins.

He takes Hopkins everywhere, he takes him to Cabinet meetings, he takes him on tours around the war damaged cities, the docks, and he has him to dinner and then after they’ve had dinner then Churchill says, right, I’m off to do some work and so he’s doing amazing 18 hour days, and on one occasion after one of these, Churchill disappears to do more work and Hopkins just sits back in the chair and says, “Jesus Christ, what a man!”. He goes back, absolutely clear, to Roosevelt, that this is the genuine article, he’s in this war till the end and he’s serious about the relationship with America. So it’s a kind of a gradual coming together.

LAURENCE REES: How crucial was that moment?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Well you’re weighing, as it were, the importance of personalities in history against structures. Roosevelt had reasons to back Britain regardless, but the fact that Churchill is validated then really mattered. Hopkins does the same thing in the summer of 1941. He goes to Moscow, and Hopkins’ reports on Stalin are also very important for Roosevelt. Hopkins goes nowhere near the Front, he doesn’t really have a clue the state that the Red Army is in at the time, which is, of course, shambolic, but basically he’s there face to face with Stalin and what he likes is Stalin’s will, the determination, and the sense of things happening. That’s what he reports back to Roosevelt, and on the basis of that really, Roosevelt goes ahead and says, right, we’re giving lend lease to the Russians and so on.

Roosevelt’s instinct there, even more than Churchill’s in the summer of 1941, is that the Russians will see through 1941. So Hopkins plays a very important part in Roosevelt getting the vibes. Roosevelt’s a very feely kind of President, you know, and it’s the vibes about people that matter to him. And Hopkins gives the right vibes in 1940 and 1941 about Churchill and Stalin.