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Western FrontDecember 1940

'Special Relationship'

What was the ‘Special Relationship’ before Pearl Harbour?
How did Franklin Roosevelt manage to support the British war effort before Pearl Harbour, when so many Americans wanted to keep out of the war?

Video Transcript

Commentary: From here in Washington DC, America was led right up until April 1945 by this man, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Professor Robert Dallek: Franklin Roosevelt was probably the premier politician we had in America throughout the entire twentieth century.

Commentary: And Roosevelt would need all of his political skills to deal with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. For in June 1940 Hitler was able to visit Paris as the all powerful conqueror of France.

Professor Robert Dallek: Roosevelt was profoundly concerned about the situation in Europe in the summer of 1940. The collapse of France sent a chill of fear through this country and particularly disturbed Roosevelt. Because he saw the Nazis - Hitler - as an aggressive nation that was intent on undermining democracy around the globe.

Commentary: But Roosevelt had a problem. In the summer of 1940 America was neutral. And he knew that a large number of Americans wanted their country to stay that way. Indeed Roosevelt had made it clear a few years earlier that he wasn’t exactly a warmonger himself.

Archive of Franklin Roosevelt (14th August 1936): I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.

Commentary: The trouble was that here in Britain in 1940 the situation seemed desperate. The Nazis were bombing London and other British cities and it even seemed possible that they might invade. Britain needed help. And it was clear to the British government just where that help needed to come from.

Professor David Reynolds: 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 possibly, probably, military support as well. You know, an army and all the rest of it. So Churchill, from the time he becomes Prime Minister, really treats as his number one diplomatic project wooing the President of the United States and trying to draw him into the war.

Commentary: Churchill on the 18th May 1940, just eight days after he had become Prime Minister, had written to Roosevelt saying that if America didn’t help the British might even be forced to make peace with the Nazis. 

Andrew Roberts: Churchill mentions it again and again - the New World will come to the saviour of the old. These are not just rhetorical phrases, they actually give people hope.

Commentary: Roosevelt now had to balance the desire of the majority of Americans to stay out of the war, with his desire to help Britain. Difficult, but not impossible for this master politician.

Professor David Reynolds: He keeps all his cards close to his chest. He does not confide really in anybody else. So Roosevelt’s idea is he gets information from different people, but only he knows what the information is. Nobody else has the whole picture.

Commentary: And one strategy Roosevelt pursued in an attempt to change American opinion was to try to show how – if Britain fell – Hitler could then threaten the United States. 

Wartime archive newsreel: Conquer Britain, force the surrender of the British fleet. Then, with the combined sea power of Germany, Britain, Italy, France and Japan, he could control the seas and tell us where to head in. The torch of freedom flickered low.

Commentary: In December 1940, just a few weeks after being re-elected President, Roosevelt announced an aid package to Britain called Lend Lease. Then, in May 1941 he made his support for Britain crystal clear.

Archive of Franklin Roosevelt (27th May 1941): From the point of view of strict naval and military necessity, we shall give every possible assistance to Britain, and to all who with Britain are resisting Hitlerism.

Commentary: Roosevelt knew that the American ships crossing the Atlantic couldn’t be targeted by German U-boats. After all, America was still officially neutral. Roosevelt, as Churchill was to say in the summer of 1941, seemed to have decided ‘to wage war, but not declare it’. Meantime, the threat from Hitler to world peace appeared to grow larger every day.

Archive of Winston Churchill (12th June 1941): What tragedies, what horrors, what crimes has Hitler and all that Hitler stands for brought upon Europe and the world. It is upon this foundation that Hitler pretends to build out of hatred a new order for Europe. But nothing is more certain than that every trace of Hitler’s footsteps, every stain of his infected and corroding fingers will be sponged and purged, and if need be blasted from the surface of the earth. Lift up your hearts, all will come right. Out of the depths of sorrow and of sacrifice will be born again the glory of mankind.

Commentary: But Churchill’s optimism was based almost entirely on his expectation of Roosevelt’s help. Which is why Churchill was so glad to meet the American President face to face for the first time in the war, here on board a warship off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941. The propaganda film showed the two of them getting on famously. But they weren’t exactly bosom pals.

Andrew Roberts: It was in the interests of both men to make out that these two people were firm friends. That’s not the case. They were very highly attuned politicians who at every stage of the war put the interests of their own countries first. And that’s what you elect somebody President or Prime Minister to do.

Professor Robert Dallek: They really didn’t have any significant relationship. And what operated with both men was national interest. Not friendship, not love of each other, though of course they came to have a great regard for each other. But their primary concern was to ensure the safety, the security, the well-being of their respective nations.

Commentary: It was almost ironic, given Roosevelt’s particular focus on Hitler, that it was the actions of the Japanese here at Pearl Harbour in December 1941 that finally brought America into the war. As for Churchill, he now warmly welcomed the United States into the conflict. 

Words of Winston Churchill: I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and into the death. So we had won after all.1


1 Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, Volume III: The Grand Alliance, 1950, chapter 32