Winston Churchill's Christmas Meeting with FDR

An interview with Anthony Tucker-Jones, author of the newly released Churchill: Master and Commander.

Anthony Tucker-Jones, author of the newly released Churchill, Master and Commander, interviewed by Jeremy Collins, Director of Conferences and Symposia at The National WWII Museum. 

Churchill reflected upon his reaction to the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and said he “slept the sleep of the saved.” Obviously, his spirits were elevated now that the United States was in the war, but tell us about those days, from December 8 through December 11, when there was no declaration of war between the Americans and Germans. Was he sleeping easy the nights of December 8, 9, or 10?

Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill declared war on Japan. Crucially, though, Roosevelt refrained from also declaring war on Germany, despite the provocation of a U-boat attack on the USS Kearny in mid-October 1941. This had left 11 dead and 22 wounded. 

Churchill initially hoped that President Roosevelt would declare war on Germany and Italy in August 1941, when the pair met at Placentia Bay to discuss the situation in Europe. They had issued the Atlantic Charter that set out a series of broad American and British goals for the postwar world.

By the end of the year Churchill knew that war was brewing in the Far East thanks to British intelligence, which was monitoring Japanese fleet and troop movements. What he did not know was whether they would only attack British and Dutch interests. The American oil embargo against Japan for its incursions into Indochina indicated that the Japanese might also lash out against America.

While Churchill was relieved that Britain would not be fighting alone in the Far East, it would not benefit from American intervention in the Mediterranean and Europe. However, Hitler then did Churchill a quite remarkable favor on December 11 by declaring war on America. He was fed up with America violating its own neutrality policy by favoring Germany’s enemies with financial support, weapons, and training facilities.

Was the famous Christmas 1941 visit by Churchill planned before the attack on Pearl Harbor, or was it hastily put together in reaction to it? What were Churchill’s goals for the encounter?

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt really had better things to do than host Churchill, but he knew that another face-to-face meeting was important. Undoubtedly Churchill’s emergency visit helped to energize and focus Roosevelt and the US chiefs of staff. It was vital that the two political leaders find common cause on how to win the war.

Churchill, in light of the Japanese rampaging through the Pacific, was anxious that America stick to its professed Europe-first strategy. He was understandably anxious that America might prioritize the campaign in the Pacific and reduce or cut off military aid. Roosevelt reassured him that he would stick to Europe-first, though under pressure from Churchill, it would soon turn into a Mediterranean-first strategy. It was agreed that the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini would be the top priority.

Major strategic aims were discussed and decided, but there was also much social and personal interaction between the two heads-of-state. Describe Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s time together during the Christmas season.

Churchill and the British chiefs of staff spent three weeks with Roosevelt and the US chiefs of staff, during which time there was a mixture of hard work and social events. Importantly, Churchill and Roosevelt presented a united front with the American media. When Churchill was asked by a reporter how long would it take to win the war, he replied, “If we manage it well, it will only take half as long as if we manage it badly.” 

This had been met with much laughter. During their Christmas Eve party, after much champagne and as they settled down to brandy, Churchill teased Roosevelt that America had sent too much powdered egg. Roosevelt good humoredly retorted “Nonsense, you can do as much with powdered egg as with real egg.” Some joker then asked “How do you fry powdered egg?”

Hong Kong fell to Japanese forces on Christmas Day. Churchill delivered his now-famous speech to the joint chambers of Congress the next day. That evening, he had a mild heart attack. How taxing was this trip for him and were his health concerns known to his American counterparts?

When Churchill arrived in America on December 22, photographs show him looking absolutely exhausted, but he was immediately launched into a round of socializing that very night. It was not long before he was complaining to Sir Charles Wilson, his personal doctor, of palpitations and a racing pulse. Churchill was undoubtedly under enormous pressure and he worried constantly about his speech. 

Having won over Roosevelt and the US chiefs of staff, he knew it was vital for him to win over the assembled American politicians. Fortunately, he was a resounding success, with Sir Charles remarking, “The Senators and Congressmen stood cheering and waving their papers till he went out.”

Immediately afterwards Churchill complained of chest pain and discomfort down his left arm. An alarmed Sir Charles diagnosed a mild heart attack, but refrained from telling Churchill for fear it would affect his conduct. He reasoned “at a moment when America had just come into the war, and there is no one but Winston to take her hand. I felt that the effect of announcing the P.M. had had a heart attack could only be disastrous.” Instead he simply told Winston he had been overdoing it. Just imagine what would have happened had Churchill died in Washington. It would have been catastrophic and undoubtedly setback the Anglo-American alliance.

The “Special Relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States has come under fire of late. This summit certainly helped form the bonds of the western allies that would lead to ultimate victory. Just how special was the “Special Relationship”?

It is very important to remember that it was Roosevelt who initiated this relationship from the point when Churchill was reappointed First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939. It then developed apace once Churchill became prime minister in May 1940. From then on, Roosevelt did everything in his power to help Britain even before America was dragged into the war and despite the legal constraints of the US neutrality acts. 

He sold arms to Britain and France through his ‘cash and carry’ policy, he then transferred destroyers to the Royal Navy, provided the RAF with training bases, followed by Lend-Lease. An immensely grateful Churchill called the latter a “turning point” and described it “as the most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history.”

While it is accepted that both Britain and America had a common goal, ultimately they had very divergent agendas when it came to the future of Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. Roosevelt had no intention of restoring the British, nor the French for that matter, empire which he viewed as wholly undemocratic. Both he rightly felt were at odds with the Atlantic Charter, especially when it came to India. Likewise, Roosevelt did not share Churchill’s enthusiasm for Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French, whom he saw as a dictator in waiting who wanted to take power in a liberated France.

Churchill and Roosevelt did not see eye to eye over the opening of the Second Front nor the conduct of the war in Italy and Southeast Asia. Regarding the latter, Churchill’s goal was to return Singapore to British authority, whereas Roosevelt’s goal was to gain China’s support for the war against Japan in the Pacific. Nonetheless, Churchill and Roosevelt retained a strong respect for each other. 

After Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945 Churchill said, “I conceived an admiration for him as a statesman, a man of affairs and a war leader.” Churchill then added, “He was the greatest American friend that Britain ever found.” It was their personal bond which forged the “Special Relationship.”


Meet the Author: Anthony Tucker-Jones

British author and historian Anthony Tucker-Jones comes to discuss his latest work on one of the giants of history, Winston Churchill, with the Museum’s own Dr. Rob Citino. 

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Jeremy Collins

Jeremy Collins joined The National WWII Museum in 2001 as an intern, and now oversees the institution’s public programming initiatives.

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