When Churchill and FDR Found Themselves 'in the Same Boat'

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December 26 is Boxing Day if you live in the U.K. and some of its former dominions, Saint Stephen’s Day in Ireland (and elsewhere), and for Californians who love thoroughbred horse racing, the day after Christmas is traditionally opening day at Santa Anita Park.

December 26 is also the date when Winston Churchill became the first British prime minister to address the United States Congress. In happened in the waning days of 1941, as America entered — some would say, finally entered — the Second World War.

It’s extraordinary when you think about it, but with his beleaguered island under the gun from Nazi Germany, and the ocean between England and America infested with enemy submarines, Winston Churchill braved stormy winter seas after the Pearl Harbor attack to sail to the land of his mother’s birth. The prime minister traveled aboard a British battleship, the HMS Duke of York, docking at the U.S. Navy port in Norfolk, Va., 150 miles from the place that would be his home away from home for the next three weeks: the White House.

Churchill, it’s no exaggeration to say, had been exhilarated by the Japanese bombardment of Pearl Harbor, and by Hitler’s subsequent — and stupid — miscalculation to declare war on the country that had just been attacked.

The night of the air raid, Churchill was hosting the American ambassador for dinner. As the first, sketchy reports filtered in from Hawaii, a telephone call was placed to the White House so a wartime prime minister could talk directly to a newly minted wartime U.S. commander-in-chief. “Mr. President,” Churchill asked, “what is this about Japan?”

“It’s quite true,” a shaken Franklin D. Roosevelt replied. “They have attacked us at Pearl Harbor. We are all in the same boat now.”

In his memoirs, Churchill amplified on his feelings. “No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy,” he wrote. “[T]he United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all!”

“Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful,” he added.

To his American counterpart, Churchill was more restrained, but only rhetorically. He immediately began planning his U.S. visit, which he initiated himself. “We could review the whole war plan in light of reality and new facts,” Churchill wrote FDR. Although fearful for his counterpart’s safety in the U-boat-filled Atlantic, Roosevelt welcomed the company.

“Delighted to have you here at the White House,” he replied.

For the previous year, Roosevelt had employed a phrase of political art, “arsenal of democracy,” as a way of harnessing American pride and industrial muscle on the side of the Western democracies without breaking his promise to the American people to stay out of Europe’s war. Now that promise was moot. Americans were indeed in up to their necks, as Churchill had mused. Nearly three weeks after the attack at Pearl Harbor, on this date in 1941, Churchill added his famous voice to the fray.

“The United States, united as never before, have drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard,” the British prime minister told a joint session of Congress. “Now we are masters of our own fate.”

Extolling the power of the nation that was hosting him, Churchill also spoke to the theater of the Second World War at the forefront of most Americans’ minds — the Pacific Ocean. Japan’s aggression that December, Churchill proclaimed, was inconsistent “with prudence or even with sanity.”

Speaking as though Britons and Americans were made of the same stock — as he himself was — Churchill added: “What kind of people do they think we are?”

Subsequent events soon proved that the supreme confidence Churchill and Roosevelt voiced on behalf of their two nations was well-placed. Yet history is not a still pond, but a flowing river — or a raging ocean — and 14 years ago on this date, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean sent an unfathomably large wall of water hurtling toward land in Southeast Asia. The powerful tsunami of 2004 killed an estimated 227,000 people.

George W. Bush, spending the Christmas holiday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, was censured in some quarters for not making an immediate public statement, and for not instantly pledging an adequate amount of U.S. assistance. These criticisms had a partisan component and are largely forgotten today. What is remembered is that two former U.S. presidents, Dubya’s father and the man who served between the two Bushes, joined in common purpose to raise money and awareness for the relief efforts.

The “sword of freedom,” as the world learned in the aftermath of World War II, can also be unsheathed for humanitarian concerns.

After Bill Clinton left the White House, I flew to Chappaqua, N.Y., to interview the 42th president, whom I’d covered for eight years in the White House. What struck me most were his comments about something he’d done after leaving office.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, Clinton had visited Indonesia along with George H.W. Bush, who’d been a Navy combat pilot in the Pacific in World War II. Both men were struck by the realization that the presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier in that time and place had come to signify something much different than it had in the 1940s, when the U.S. Navy conquered the Pacific militarily. In 2004 and 2005 it meant blankets, food, medicine, drinking water — and the smiling faces of compassionate American sailors.

Here is how Bill Clinton explained it to me:

“One of the things we saw in the tsunami when we got there was this grief counseling being done for the children. These kids were asked to draw what they were feeling or thinking or the nightmares they were having. We saw the succession of the kids’ drawings through various phases, but the first thing the kids did was draw very dark pictures — death, destruction, whatever — and the last thing they did was draw typical kid pictures: sunshine, flowers, and people playing. At some point, all these kids would draw salvation pictures, and every one of them had something to do with the American military, saving the lives of them or their parents. Bush and I were looking at that, and it was all we could do not to cry.”

As I think back on that sentiment today, and of Franklin Roosevelt’s rueful observation to Winston Churchill, I’d say that whether we know it or not, we’re all in same boat. All human beings here on this earth. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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