“If we are together nothing is impossible,” Winston Churchill famously said of the United States and Britain in his Harvard speech of Sept. 6, 1943. “If we are divided all will fail. I therefore preach continually the doctrine of the fraternal association of our two peoples … for the sake of service to Mankind and for the honour that comes to those who faithfully serve great causes.”
Churchill, whose mother Jennie Jerome was born in Brooklyn, is rightly considered the most pro-American prime minister in British history. It was he who coined the term “special relationship”, and even proposed that Britain and the United States explore the idea of a common citizenship. Yet one of the greatest surprises I encountered when researching my biography of him, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, was that he went through a short but profound secret anti-American phase in the late 1920s.
As Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929, Churchill had grown increasingly concerned that the American Republican Party’s extremely tough stance over First World War debt and reparations was severely damaging global trade, while simultaneously the United States insistence on building a large navy would imperil the primacy of the Royal Navy. In September 1928, after a private dinner at Chartwell, Churchill’s country house in Kent, the Conservative politician James Scrymgeour-Wedderburn noted how the Chancellor had “talked very freely about the U.S.A. He thinks they are arrogant, fundamentally hostile to us, and that they wish to dominate world politics.”
“Poor old England,” Churchill wrote to his wife Clementine, after Herbert Hoover’s election victory two months later, “she is being slowly but surely forced into the shade. Why can’t they let us alone? They have exacted every penny owing from Europe, surely they might leave us to manage our own affairs.” Clementine wrote back saying that he ought to become Foreign Secretary, “But I am afraid your known hostility to America might stand in the way. You would have to try and understand and master America and make her like you.”
In fact, his hostility to America was not at all publicly known; he assiduously kept it out of his public pronouncements, which was just as well when 12 years later he had to beg the Roosevelt Administration for help against Nazi Germany in the dark days of 1940. What changed Churchill’s mind about America were the two journeys he took to America in 1929 and in 1931–’32, and meeting ordinary Americans across the continent.
He had visited America several times before, starting with a trip to New York when he was 21, on his way to observe the Cuban insurrection against the Spanish in 1895. “This is a very great country, my dear Jack,” he told his brother. “Picture to yourself the American people as a great lusty youth — who treads on all your sensibilities, perpetrates every possible horror of ill manners — whom neither age nor tradition inspire with reverence — but who moves about his affairs with a good hearted freshness which may well be the envy of older nations of the earth.”
This initial enthusiasm had comprehensively soured by the late 1920s, to be replaced by a resentful prickliness towards America. “The United States are stretching their tentacles out in all directions,” he complained to Clementine from Ottawa in August 1929. Yet once he crossed over into America from Canada, his attitude started to change, despite taking a heavy personal financial hit in the Wall Street Crash. (A bankrupt jumped off a ledge from a window in his hotel.)
“I do not think America is going to smash,” Churchill told his American stockbroker in the depths of the Great Depression, however. ‘On the contrary I believe that they will quite soon begin to recover…. If the whole world except the United States sank under the ocean that community could get its living. They carved it out of the prairie and the forests. They are going to have a strong national resurgence in the near future.”
Instead of leading Churchill to doubt America and Capitalism, the Wall Street Crash and subsequent depression made him believe in their resilience. Despite very nearly being killed when a car ran him over on Fifth Avenue in December 1931, between January and March of 1932 Churchill undertook a marathon 15-state, 28-city, 41-day, 11,700-mile lecture tour. The northernmost city visited was Toronto, the easternmost Boston, the westernmost Minneapolis and the southernmost New Orleans, which together with earlier trips made him much the best-traveled British politician of the era, having visited 28 states of the then 48-state Union.
It was this tour, where he met hundreds of ordinary Americans and spoke to audiences of tens of thousands, that dissipated all the doubts he had about the United States. His interactions with Americans left him uniformly delighted with the people whom he now hoped would be Britain’s closest ally. Once he returned to New York, he publicly pronounced, “If the United States wishes to build a new ship I would say, “Build it and God bless you”.” On March 9, 1932, Churchill was interviewed by CBS Radio, and predicted that, “As long as the French keep a strong army, and Great Britain and the United States have good navies, no great war is likely to occur.” He was proved wrong, of course, but it was a sign of how far he admired and trusted the United States by then. “No people respond more spontaneously to fair play,” he was to tell a colleague a decade later. “If you treat Americans well they always want to treat you better.”
Of what he termed the English-speaking peoples — the American Republic allied with the British Empire and Commonwealth — Churchill argued on CBS in March 1932, “There must be some organizing force at the summit of human affairs, some chairmanship in the Council of Nations, strong enough to lead them out of their present confusion, back to prosperity.” It was a message of hope that he was to state with growing certainty over the coming years, as a result of having been won over by close contact with ordinary Americans.