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Had FDR distrusted Churchill, the Soviet Union could have controlled much more of Europe at the war’s end

The wartime relationship between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill is famous. Some have praised it as “the partnership that saved the west,” and even “a friendship that saved the world.” While most historians take a more measured view of the relationship, all agree that FDR and Churchill worked unusually well together.

Their friendship carried them through serious differences in wartime strategy and goals for the postwar world—Churchill was determined to preserve Great Britain’s colonial empire, FDR to get rid of colonialism altogether. It also made possible the extraordinarily tight cooperation between Great Britain and the United States, in which the two created a military command for the western Allies—the Combined Chiefs of Staff—and agreed that an American Supreme Commander would control all assets, British as well as American, needed for the amphibious assault on northwestern Europe. The two powers even shared scientific research concerning the atomic bomb.

But what if this relationship had failed to develop?

Logically, when two leaders share common interests they should work together harmoniously regardless of how they feel about one another. But it seldom happens that way. Although a poor working relationship does not preclude collaboration, it often creates a low grade but comprehensive friction—lack of confidence in the other’s good faith, a sense of being played, misinterpretation of the other’s motivations, reluctance to take advice from the other—so the synergy characteristic of a true partnership does not emerge. A classic example from  history is the troubled relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, which may have scuttled the chance for an early Union victory in 1862. It is surprisingly easy to imagine a scenario in which these traits might have characterized the relationship between Churchill and FDR, leaving them at loggerheads and possibly changing the course of history:

From 1937–38 Churchill publishes essays critical of FDR and his New Deal’s “ruthless war on private enterprise.” During the 1940 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Wendell Willkie uses Churchill’s words against FDR. Although Churchill knows that Willkie is quoting him out of context to achieve maximum impact, he does nothing to set the record straight.

On the eve of the election, FDR uncharacteristically ignores an important letter from Churchill, and a chastened Churchill asks the British Foreign Office to correct Willkie’s misuse of his words. Instructed to do so, a diplomat stationed in Washington warns that such an action will be seen as an intervention in the election—one that would be “too late to do any good but so timed as to be extremely suspicious.” No matter who wins, the diplomat continues, there is “serious danger of queering the pitch with those with whom we may have to be working after November 5th.” Churchill insists on a correction nonetheless, and the diplomat’s prediction proves correct: The action indeed “queers the pitch” with FDR. He begins to regard Churchill’s barrage of cordial messages as two-faced and conniving.

In August 1941, the two leaders secretly meet aboard ships anchored in a quiet Newfoundland bay to discuss cooperation against Germany at a critical moment when Hitler seems on the verge of crushing the Soviet Union. Churchill greets FDR for what he plainly believes is the first time. FDR replies that they have met once before—in 1918. Churchill initially persists that the two have never met, much to FDR’s displeasure. The president’s annoyance deepens when during their talks Churchill—hoping to spur the president toward more aggressive actions against Germany than FDR seems willing to take—warns that he “would not answer for the consequences if Russia were compelled to sue for peace.” Still irritated with Churchill, and influenced by Churchill’s ham-handed last minute intervention in the presidential election, FDR views this warning as blatantly manipulative.

The chill he feels toward Churchill becomes permanent when, in the wake of the Pearl Harbor disaster and the Axis declarations of war upon the United States, he gets wind of a tasteless Churchillian wisecrack. Cautioned that he ought to maintain a diplomatic tone with the United States now that the two countries were both at war, the prime minister has blithely replied: “Oh! That is the way we talked to her while we were wooing her; now that she is in the harem, we talk to her quite differently.”

Everything in the above scenario occurred, with three exceptions: Churchill heeded the advice not to correct Willkie’s twisting of his essays critical of the New Deal, FDR soon got over his annoyance at Churchill’s failure to recall their 1918 meeting, and the president never heard of Churchill’s crass remark about the United States being “in the harem” even as the bodies of over 2,000 Americans killed in the Pearl Harbor attack lay in improvised morgues or entombed in sunken ships.

What would have ensued if FDR had disliked Churchill? Most likely, the two would have continued to cooperate in the destruction of Nazi Germany, but the exceptional “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain would not have materialized. This would have intensified the serious differences between the United States and Great Britain with regard to the shape of the postwar world. It could also have had major effects on the Cold War. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization might never have come into being. If it did, Great Britain might have adopted a posture akin to that of France after 1966; that is to say, a member of NATO but with its military forces not under NATO command.

But it is also possible that if FDR had mistrusted Churchill, the Second World War itself would have played out differently. Historically, in July 1942 Secretary of War Henry Stimson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, frustrated by British resistance to an early cross-Channel attack, recommended shifting to the defensive in Europe and adopting a “Pacific First” strategy. While a “Germany First” strategy remained preferable, they argued, it was pointless if British intransigence barred a direct attack on Germany at the earliest possible moment. In 1942 the Soviet Union was in serious trouble. Without an early cross-Channel attack, little could be done in Europe to assist the beleaguered ally, whereas greater pressure in the Pacific would at least ensure against a potential—and potentially fatal—Japanese attack on the Soviet Union.

FDR angrily overruled Stimson and the Joint Chiefs and insisted on pursuing the British preference for the invasion of western North Africa, Operation Torch. Influenced by Churchill, he saw real potential in a Mediterranean theater. Had FDR distrusted Churchill, he would probably have done as his senior military advisers recommended.

In that event, a cross-Channel attack might have been deferred well past June 1944, until the Soviet Union had overrun all of Germany, occupied central as well as eastern Europe, and consolidated its sphere of influence more aggressively. Thanks to Churchill’s clumsiness in handling a crucial ally, the “iron curtain” that he warned against in 1946 would have descended sooner and more absolutely.