I have often written of my deep love of history; how, while many pick up a history book and see only remote dead men in one dimension, I've been blessed with the gift to see our historical figures in three dimension as they leap from the page, shake hands and say "how do you do". Never has that feeling been more pronounced than when I recently read in great detail of the night of 22 December, 1941.
It was on that night, only two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, that two of the 20th century's historical giants stood on the top portico of the White House, looking out on the masses of people singing Christmas carols in Lafayette Park across the street.
Now try to imagine the events that have brought Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt together on this night. From Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931 the world has been at war again, while America lived on in splendid isolation. World War I, "the war to end all wars", had concluded in 1918 and America finished that one off and came home in quiet disgust with silly European wars that claimed the lives of millions. "Never again", America declared..."let them settle their own destructive affairs".
But this new war was different. Already a decade old, Italy and Japan were hungry for new territory and new resources to fuel their industrial economies. In the mid-30's Germany, smarting from excessive war reparations laid on to them by France and England, was suffering from runaway inflation and the Wiemar Republic seemed impotent in their efforts to to resolve it. When a wheel barrel of deutchmarks are needed to buy a loaf of bread a government is bound to fall.
And fall it did. To a Jew-hating, demented, unemployed house painter named Adolph Hitler. And an evil fell on the world unlike any in history. Not only did Hitler lust after power and territory; he dedicated his every waking hour in his quest to kill every Jew on the planet.
Should we ever meet our creator, we might ask him why were world events allowed to fall into place that would afford Hitler and the old German war machine the chance to resurrect itself and create such destruction. After annexing Austria, British Prime Minister at the time, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Munich, received a Hitler pledge to "cool it", then flew back to Britain declaring "peace in our time".
Then Hitler invaded Poland and England and France declared war in 1939.
France, ever the "military marshmallow" fell to Germany in record time and only the grand heroics of the young men of the Royal Air Force would save Britain, and buy them more time. By 1940 Roosevelt knows that we'll have to get involved but he's not willing to risk political favor in a nation of pacifists.
So, throughout 1940 and early 1941 Roosevelt comes up with a ruse in order to help Britain survive. He declares a need for a western Atlantic naval port and swaps military equipment under a program called Lend-Lease, sending Britain the few tanks and planes and guns we own. In fact, by early 1941 our military recruits, few as they were, were training with wooden rifles! Even the U.S. aid offered is meager, and made smaller as German U-Boats are sinking our cargo ships bound for Britain. Even these sinkings cannot drag us into war.
Then, around 8 o'clock in the morning Hawaii time, December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and take out much of our Pacific Fleet. The next day FDR will go before Congress and declare war on Japan. Hitler then wraps all the wars up in a nice neat package by declaring war on the United States.
Back at #10 Downing Street Churchill learns of the Pearl Harbor attack, performs a joyful jig and declares that at last Britain will be saved as America rides to the ally's aid. Churchill cables Roosevelt that he wants to come to America to confer immediately. Roosevelt cables him back, pleading for delay. But Churchill secretly boards a British Destroyer four days later, risking a treacherous crossing of the Atlantic.
When Churchill arrives in Norfolk he again cables Roosevelt and asked for transportation to Washington. FDR sends his own plane and ferries the ebullient Churchill to the White House.
So, as the two stand on the White House portico, Eleanor is down in the White House kitchen, angry beyond reason that Churchill and staff have burst in unannounced (FDR gives her no pre-warning). She will none the less scramble the modest kitchen staff to prepare a dinner.
Churchill will give a Christmas speech to the American people that very night. He will urge them to celebrate in joy, remind them that the task ahead will be long and hard, and to appreciate the family unity that will no doubt be broken as millions of American men depart for war.
To Be Continued in Part II; Churchill will remain in the states for weeks, raising hell in the White House, tromping around nude, drinking massive quantities of whiskey and brandy, keep FDR up till all hours of the night, suffer a minor heart attack while opening a window to clear his room of near solid cigar smoke, and drives Eleanor crazy! But most importantly he will awaken the U.S. War Department's staff of the massive requirements that will be needed to defeat the axis...and he will put in place many of the ideas that, when executed to plan, will turn America into the biggest industrial war machine that ever existed in human history. Stand by for Part II!
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