FDR and Churchill
Their Political and Military Legacy
Richard J. Garfunkel
May 30, 2006
With regards to Winston Churchill, the political role of the American system is much different then Britain. Churchill never had to really stand for election as leader and was never really trusted with “domestic” responsibilities. He was much more of a “loose cannon” and never really felt comfortable working with others. He was certainly a fabulous talent, but had too many inner doubts to be completely confident with himself. His “black” moods and depression limited his ability to have the confidence to “rule.” He had too many opinions that limited his ability to make political alliances. He was a man of action and not a calculating “planner.” He never understood the need to build organization of political support. He was basically a talented loner. His forte was more foreign policy and the Empire. He had cabinet level domestic responsibilities early in his career, but his name and fortune was linked with the navy when he was First Lord of the Admiralty. Of course because Britain was primarily a naval power since the time of Drake and through Nelson and had dominated the seas, the post of First Lord of the Admiralty had great cachet.
He was not willing to sublimate himself to the will of others and never could pose as a team player. Later on, after the WWII victory he wasn't prepared for the 1945 elections that swamped him and his government. His campaign was inadequate and he did not have a “clue” of what the public was thinking about regarding its needs. On one hand he was still a captive of the upper classes that dominated British life. He seemed unaware and unconcerned regarding how the MacDonald-Baldwin-Chamberlain governments ignored the working classes that suffered throughout the Depression. Of course British politics were divided between the “plutocrats” and the “aristocrats” and Churchill never seemed to know where he fit. He was not keen on real reform that would have worked to restructure the critically unbalanced British economic and social landscape along with its infrastructure. He never understood the moribund future and moral bankruptcy of colonialism and his attitude towards India was foolish and archaic. His political philosophy was inconstant and vacillating. Both sides of the British ideological divide constantly mistrusted him. He was not able to dominate either party and was perceived by the public as a political outsider with no place to “hang his hat.” His strategy as First Lord of the Admiralty, in the First World War, was badly criticized after the disaster of Gallipoli. His “snafu” was actuated more by logistical insanity then strategic miscalculation. All in all it was a costly failure in blood and material, and therefore his career suffered terribly. With regards to WW II his strategy was basically no better then Chamberlain's. Under his watch the British experienced disasters with the navy in Norway, the 8th Army in North Africa and its collapse at Tobruk, the insane and huge defeat and disaster in Singapore, (the worst and most costly British defeat in history), the disaster at Dunkerque, the catastrophic losses of the HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales off Hainan Island, near the Chinese mainland, the abandonment of Greece and Crete, the ill-fated attack at Dieppe, the alienation of the French and the subsequent defection of the French fleet causing the need for it to be crippled by British naval action along with many others. He was lucky that the Nazis re-directed the Luftwaffe to bomb British cities and not go after their radar early warning stations, their aerodromes and the British fighter defense. A smartly delivered strategy against these targets would have reduced the British to a position where their air cover became hopeless.
Basically US Lend-Lease, the US Navy and the convoy system, the undeclared US naval war in the North Atlantic against the Nazi submarine wolf packs and the attacks by Germany on Yugoslavia and Greece, culminating with the postponed late spring, early summer invasion of Russia helped Britain survive. Churchill’s strong vocal leadership rallied Britain and the free world, but without Roosevelt and the power that he formulated by creating the “Arsenal of Democracy,” Britain would have eventually been beaten despite the flawed Hitlerian strategy. If the US had not helped Britain with our fleet, the fifty destroyer exchange and Lend-Lease for Russia, the Soviets probably would have been neutralized and the further European resistance would have ceased. Greece and Yugoslavia were basically beaten, and the rest of the Eastern Europe, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania were German allies. Turkey was in Germany's camp and would have remained an associated “player” looking to reclaim their former Ottoman Empire.
Churchill did have many successes aside from American help. Their victory at Taranto that devastated the Italian fleet, the sinking of the Graf Spee, the hunting down of the Bismarck, the destruction of the 10 German destroyers off Norway, his policy supporting Orde Wingate and the Chindits in Burma, his mobilizing massive bombing raids over Germany, the destruction of the French dry docks at Saint Nazaire, and his selection of Montgomery to head the British 8th along with his subsequent victory at El Alemain were strong plusses. But even with the entrance of America into the war, later British strategy with Churchill's blessing and interference led to the huge loses in Holland with the ill-fated Market-Garden assault on the Dutch bridges. Montgomery, Churchill's greatest choice for leadership squandered his opportunity to cross the Rhine and was trumped by the American capture of the Ludendorf Bridge at Remagen. That single event of intrepid work by American forces dealt a huge blow to German resistance on the Western front. While Montgomery was accumulating landing craft, the US Army was surging over the Rhine with men and armor, creating an unassailable bridgehead, and trapping German forces on the wrong side of the River.
FDR, on the other hand mobilized the American economy in an unprecedented way, fought an effective two ocean war, selected and appointed excellent overall leadership with his Joint Chiefs lead by Admiral Leahy, who coordinated the activities of Generals Marshall and Arnold along with Admiral King. FDR's selections, in all of the theaters of his responsibility of MacAthur, Nimitz, Eisenhower, reflected excellent carefully thought out judgment. Their choices of subordinates that included Bedell-Smith, Clark, Bradley, Patton, Hodges, Simpson, Eaker, Doolittle, Stillwell, Halsey, Spruance, Vandergrift, Smith, Lemay and many others spelled eventual success. His speeches, and cool leadership gave the people confidence after Pearl Harbor and the loss of the Philippines. FDR's leadership of the wartime conferences at Argentia Bay, Quebec, Casablanca, Teheran and Yalta were the driving force behind victory and the post-war dominance of the West. His sponsoring of the Bretton Woods Conference had the most lasting effect on the future world's economies vis-à-vis monetary stability. All in all FDR's domestic leadership before and during the war were unprecedented. The late President, the architect of victory, won a hard earned election in 1944, with excellent majorities in Congress, even with his health suffering from advance heart disease and arterial sclerosis. He was able to maintain his majorities in Congress all through his tenure in office, and even though the Democrats narrowly lost Congress in 1946, they quickly recovered their majorities until the Eisenhower landslide of 1952. But from 1954 until the 1980's the FDR-New Deal coalition of Democrats maintained Congressional hegemony.
Churchill, as a man, was bold, talented and basically remarkable. He was a brilliant speaker, a marvelous writer, a brave soldier, a reporter, a painter, a magnificent Parliamentarian, a cabinet official, a Prime Minister, and most importantly a beloved wartime leader. He embodied what was great about Britain. But he was a failure as a politician, lacked excellent judgment went it came to strategy and suffered from great insecurities. His terrible childhood and education plagued him with self-doubts, depression and lack of direction. Churchill spent a lifetime comparing himself to his father Randolph who had a meteoric political career but eventually became a miserable failure. Churchill like Roosevelt became much more a product of his mother. Overall he was able to overcome all of those limitations. Churchill was still, at heart, part of the “ruling class” that dominated Britain. He was still part of the Imperialist mindset, and he was still sadly lacking, with regards, to what the average “Brit” needed. He never built a political base, and when the post-war choices were made he was cast aside with little regret from the British people. His return to office in 1951 was no great success and he was too, too old to be a major factor in re-shaping Britain after years of war and social reform.
FDR was not the writer that Churchill was, but as an orator he was certainly in his league. He was determined and self-confident. His childhood was one of nurtured success and happiness. He was beloved by his adoring parents. He was self-educated to age fourteen and went on to the best schools where he achieved moderate success. In a dissimilar way FDR’s father, whom he adored and respected, died when he was eighteen while he was a freshman at Harvard. Unlike Churchill’s father who was much younger, James Roosevelt was intimately interested in his second son. His first son, a product of his earlier marriage to Rebecca Howland, who died, was 29 years older and his contact with him was not well known. But even with his loss, FDR had looked up to his father and respected his judgment and memory. James Roosevelt was not a politician like Randolph Churchill, and with his death FDR was able to transform his need for a psychological mentor to his 5th cousin Theodore Roosevelt.
Unlike Churchill, FDR was the single greatest elected politician in modern history and was able to overcome the devastating physical challenge of Polio. He was a vigorous man who overcame a lifetime of sickness. He had wonderful mentors, Theodore Roosevelt, Al Smith and Woodrow Wilson. He took something from all of them, and was smart enough to avoid the problems they all experienced. He shaped his own destiny, built the Democratic Party, reversed the Depression, rallied the public, instilled great respect from the world at large, inspired great enemies and opposition, took on the Fascists when America wanted no part of that fight, created the United Nations, built the “Arsenal of Democracy” and through his actions, at the Atlantic Conference in Argentia Bay, put forth his vision of the world based on the “Four Freedoms.” His vision is the vision of the modern world; his vision is of one of the world community pulling together for the common good. Not unlike Churchill, who was one of the lone voices protesting against “appeasement,” FDR had withstand an “American First” isolationism that cut across almost all social and political barriers and subgroups. FDR had to use his unequalled mastery of the America political landscape to on one hand re-arm America and on the other hand battle the limitations of our Neutrality Laws and the passion of people like Charles Lindbergh, who were his most vocal critics.
In retrospect Churchill really left no governmental legacy. He really never governed. FDR's legacy was one of not only unprecedented leadership, but of government innovation, reform and restructuring. Both have great-unequalled places in the history of our world and our time.