Churchill, Roosevelt, and Company: A Book Review
A Study In The Power Of Personal Diplomacy
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How, and why, did the US enter the war against the Nazis and come to the rescue of Great Britain? Lewis E. Lehrman richly unpacks the whole story, centering around the “special relationship” between America and Great Britain. That relationship was born from a personal relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as between the men surrounding these titanic figures.
This is a story of the power of personal diplomacy, and in an era where it seems everyone is but an email away, perhaps this idea of personal diplomacy is worth looking at again. The intangible benefits of personally sizing up and knowing another person cannot be gained with pixels on a computer screen, and back in the 1940’s, when this story takes place, the trouble one had to go through to effect a face to face meeting was considerably greater than it is now.
Lewis E. Lehrman applies scholarly yet lucid treatment to complicated relationships. Lehrman is a holder of the National Humanities Medal, one of America’s most distinguished awards. The medal “honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects.” This work certainly lives up to these criteria.
It is, therefore, no wonder that as of August 1, 2017, the book stood at #33 under Diplomacy in Amazon print books and at #6 for Kindle editions.
Churchill, Roosevelt & Company is written to be enjoyed by lay readers and scholars alike. It is immediately accessible. Even if you are not a history buff, the drama behind the story Lehrman provides is as compelling as a work of great fiction. As a bonus, if you will, it contains reveal after reveal that helps make sense of contemporary politics, both national and worldwide.
For instance, did you know that Winston Churchill was allowed to virtually “take over” the White House once while he was in Washington and Roosevelt was absent? Did you know the immediate and long-term importance of the “miracle at Dunkirk?”
What is more, the personal diplomacy of key members of the two leader’s staffs was also an interesting dynamic whose twists and turns could match any episode of Game Of Thrones.
On one side, Lehrman demonstrates the polished political legerdemain of a consummate political operator, FDR, and, on the other, the blunt but persuasive stratagems of a staunch realist, Winston Churchill. On one hand, the new, rising, power — America – was chary to enter someone else’s war, with all the blood and treasure that surely would spill. And yet, we know, some on FDR’s staff thought he and Churchill were cut very much from the same cloth.
On the other hand, Great Britain, and its Empire, was being brutally assaulted by the Axis powers. England seemed on the ropes. The rebel child of the British Empire, America, still had sympathy for its mother country. Also, consider the enemy: Hitler.
America was on the cusp of becoming a greater global power than its progenitor. But, unlike in the past when an emerging empire rolls over the corpse of an encumbent empire, the United States was called on to aid the British, who, in turn, believed they were saving all of civilization from a menace the likes of which had never been seen before. It was a dance, spelled out in the diplomatic wrangling so well documented in this book.
As cordial and cultured as this personal diplomacy may have been, it was to decide the fate not of millions, but, ultimately, of billions of souls. The depth of this drama is well captured.
This book recounts an exciting time. It easily could have devolved to a much uglier — Nazi and fascist — world order. Churchill laid the groundwork by statecraft, which, when triggered by Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war on the US, led America to heroically seal the defeat of the Axis powers. Thus, America ended one of the greatest menaces to humanity ever, defeating an evil empire bent on exterminating and enslaving whole peoples.
The story Lehrman reports appears to be the fruit of a lifetime of research. There is hardly a point he makes that is without substantial documentation. His fascinating endnotes encompass over 100 pages. For the student of history, or the amateur, and even for the professional, historian, these notes prove a wealth of knowledge. One need only look them up to see the validity of the point made, or to come to one’s own conclusions. This provides an immediately accessible story that is easy to read and follow. But the endnotes and documentation add further depth of understanding of a formative period of our age.
Churchill, Roosevelt & Company: Studies in Character and Statecraft reveals that Roosevelt also was callous, if not ruthless, toward the British Empire, while naïve about the Soviet Union. FDR’s handling of lend-lease was brutal to the British both in terms of territory and coin. His administration was more generous to the Soviets. Why this was, the reader may decide: there are no shrill or rash rushes to judgment in this book. But the personal feelings between the two men, and their staffs, were the glue that bound them in a singular task, which was to defeat the Nazis.
Churchill understood the price of defeating Hitler could entail the end of the Empire. And yet, he did what was necessary. This is the main point I took from reading this revelatory work of history: Churchill’s recognition that unless he could draw a reluctant USA into WWII Nazi Germany would win. Coaxing the US into committing troops was Churchill’s entire purpose, statecraft-wise, even recognizing the high cost — Britain’s loss to America of world supremacy. It was a sobering, although necessary, trade.
History is a fickle goddess, putting the arch-champion of the British Empire into the unenviable role of having to trade in that greatness for the survival not only of Britain, but of civilization itself.
I have always believed that great figures in history understand both the real crisis and the price to be paid in confronting it. Nazism was the great threat to human civilization. Churchill understood this and engaged his whole being into overcoming that at great risk and at great cost. He did so with his eyes wide open. This story of this existential trade makes for a compelling one. America had no dream of empire. History records we were, and are, a rare great power who went to war not motivated to create its own empire. But we were determined to dismantle one.
Despite this, however, what might have happened without the personal diplomacy carried out by both these great leaders and the men around them? How could they have prevailed against such an existential threat?
Yes, the story Lehrman tells, with great human interest, documents the events leading America into the war against, and victory over, Hitler. At the same time, it also recounts the cost imposed by America — the destruction of the British Empire — also at the hands of Americans who actively sought to dismantle their rival power, Great Britain. Such is the march of history. But were it not for the personal diplomacy involved, perhaps much more than an empire would have been lost.