Robert Dallek is a Historian and retired professor specializing in American presidents. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE interviewed Dallek about key points in FDR's presidency leading up to U.S. entrance into World War II.
The Atlantic Charter
Well the Atlantic conference in the North Atlantic off Newfoundland is a dramatic moment in World War II history because for the first time, Roosevelt and Churchill are meeting face to face in this war.
They had had an earlier meeting back during World War I, but Churchill certainly didn't remember it. But for the first time now in World War II they're getting together and having a summit conference. And the two of the great world class leaders are coming together and they're going to confer on how their two democracies can combat Nazism, fascism. There's a lot of worry in the United States when it's revealed that Roosevelt went to meet with Churchill that he's mixing us up too much in British affairs and that he's going to draw us into this war. And they're deeply concerned. On the other hand there's also the feeling that this is a very good idea because what they're doing out of this conference is issuing what they call the Atlantic Charter. And that they stand for the principles of freedom of religion, of free speech, of free assembly, of national sovereignty, of nonaggression. They are standing together for those time-honored principles of constitutionalism and democracy that the American people are very committed to.
Roosevelt meets with Churchill in the summer of 1941 and Harry Hopkins is instrumental -- Roosevelt's right-hand man, Harry Hopkins -- is instrumental in arranging the meeting. He's very worried that these two men of such gigantic ego and prestige and standing may not get along and this will be very destructive to this Anglo-American alliance which is developing in World War II. In fact they get along marvelously. They find that they're very drawn to each other, that they're very congenial. Though they have terribly different habits, their schedules of sleeping and of drinking and eating are really at odds with one another. But what's striking is how much they accommodate to each other. And also how much Churchill accommodates to Roosevelt, cause he understands how dependent Britain is upon this great American leader. And so he works very hard to achieve a kind of rapport with him and they do it marvelously.
I think the lasting importance of the Atlantic conference between FDR and Churchill was that they got along, that they had a kind of mutual view of the world. They accepted the proposition that the greatest thing they had to do was to defeat Nazi Germany, that this was an absolutely crucial thing for democracy in the world. And that this blight upon western civilization had to be overcome. And that they were both committed to it and it was clear, crystal clear to both of them that this was their agenda. Whatever tactics, methods they might use, that this was their ultimate goal and they shared it and they wouldn't lose sight of it.
The Lend-Lease Act
Well by the winter of 1940-41, Churchill had come to Roosevelt and told him that the British were out of money, they were busted. They had no way to continue paying for the supplies which they so desperately needed from the United States. Also there were still on the statute books those neutrality laws which said we couldn't lend the British the money to buy the supplies from us.
So Roosevelt needs to find a means to keep supplying the British without antagonizing the isolationists and particularly the Congress of the United States. The idea that he would go through the Congress was unacceptable to him because he knew it would be hung up in some kind of long-winded and painful debate. And this would demoralize the British more than help them. So he invents this thing called Lend-Lease. And he's marvelous at selling it again to the public.
In essence, Lend-Lease was a way to give the British planes, tanks, guns, artillery, ammunition without them really paying for it. And Roosevelt calls it Lend-Lease. And reporters at a press conference ask him, what does this mean? What does Lend-Lease mean? Well essentially what it meant was we were simply giving them the supplies and they were going to use it to defend themselves and Roosevelt felt it was in defense of the United States.
But Roosevelt invokes a marvelous homily. He says, well you know it's like you have a neighbor whose house is on fire. And the neighbor comes running to you and shouts over the garden fence, "Neighbor, neighbor, my house is on fire, help me out, lend me your garden hose." Well of course you're a good neighbor, you lend the garden hose to your neighbor and he puts out the fire and then he gives you the hose back.
Well of course it was patent nonsense. What were the British going to do, give us the tanks back that were blown up, the planes that were shot down, the ships that were sunk? I mean there was no way they were going to be able to resupply us or return this materiel to us. But Roosevelt's invocation of this homily about the neighbor and the garden hose is a wonderful way for him to sell it to the public and that was his political genius. That was something that he had a kind of sixth sense for. You can't understand it, you can't define it, you can't put it under any scientific rubric, it simply was something that the man had as a brilliant politician in the United States.
Winston Churchill and FDR, 1942
I think the most important thing that comes out of the meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt in early 1942 is a commitment on Roosevelt's part to fight Europe first. To struggle first against Germany and put Japan and the Pacific as a secondary theatre in the in the conflict. And this is what Churchill was after. This is what he came over to get, a commitment from Roosevelt to do Europe first.
They were already beginning to be at cross purposes as to when they'd cross the Channel, because what the American military was talking about was getting into Europe, striking at the German forces directly head-on, into the heart of France and Churchill was very dubious about this because he was fearful that it would produce a military disaster. So he wanted to wait for as long as he could until he was as confident as he could be that this invasion would succeed.
Now the American military wasn't going to be reckless and Roosevelt wasn't going to be reckless and they knew they didn't have the resources in 1942 to do this, but they wanted to put this on the agenda. So this is something which is in the background as a point of tension between Roosevelt and Churchill and the American and British military chiefs. But the more important point is that they agree on a Europe-first strategy.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?