Boris Johnson, whose book, The Churchill Factor, is feted widely, speaks his mind with a smile. Like Mr. Obama, he’s a chap I’d like to share a pint with at the local.
But fame and likability don’t a Churchill scholar make. And in that department, Boris Johnson needs some help.
His remarks are quoted from a November 14th speech at the Yale Club in New York City.
1) Lend-Lease, Roosevelt’s World War II “loan” of $50 billion worth of war materiel to the Allies, “screwed” the British.
I queried Professor Warren Kimball of Rutgers University, editor of the Churchill-Roosevelt Correspondence and several books on World War II, who wrote:
The U.S. did not construct Lend-Lease to take advantage of Britain. FDR and Treasury Secretary Morgenthau rejected suggestions that America take ownership of British possessions. The initial agreement committed Britain to so-called “free” trade, aimed primarily at the Empire. This angered the British (including Keynes), but turned out to be meaningless.
Britain received 60% of Lend-Lease—$31.4 billion (nearly half a trillion today). Churchill regarded Lend-Lease “without question as the most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history.” (Churchill By Himself, 131)
Destroyers or Bathtubs?
2) Roosevelt’s “Destroyers for Bases” deal (September 1940, six months before Lend-Lease) was “heavily biased against Britain.” The fifty aged destroyers Britain received (in exchange for American bases on British possessions) were “useless bathtubs.”
This is both wrong and beside the point. Churchill said the Americans had “turned a large part of their gigantic industry to making munitions which we need. They have even given us or lent us valuable weapons of their own.” (Churchill By Himself, 129) Naval historian Christopher Bell, Dalhousie University, Halifax, author of Churchill and Sea Power, writes:
Churchill was eager for the old destroyers, knowing full well that they were WW1 vintage. They nevertheless helped fill a gap at a critical time. A measure of Churchill’s determination to obtain them was his willingness (mentioned in my book) to trade one of Britain’s new battleships for them—an idea the Admiralty quickly shot down.
Professor Kimball adds the major point Mayor Johnson misses:
What mattered, as any thoughtful person knew and should know, is that Destroyers-for-Bases was a remarkable commitment by FDR and America to Britain’s aid—if it could hold on. It was seen, and was intended to be seen, as a morale builder in the UK, at a time when morale was crucial.
3) Churchill did not go to Roosevelt’s funeral in 1945 because he was “miffed” at the President.
Facts: Germany was nearing surrender, in a war that had taxed Churchill and Britain for six years. Would you go? Yet Churchill’s first impulse was to go. I owe these references to my colleague Paul Courtenay:
“At the last moment I decided not to fly to Roosevelt’s funeral on account of much that was going on here.” (Churchill to his wife in Mary Soames, Personal Letters, 526). “Everyone here thought my duty next week lay at home.” (Churchill to FDR confidant Harry Hopkins in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill VII: 1294.) “P.M. of course wanted to go. A[nthony Eden] thought they oughtn’t both to be away together….P.M. says he’ll go and A. can stay. I told A. that, if P.M. goes, he must. Churchill regretted in after years that he allowed himself to be persuaded not to go.” (Diaries of Alexander Cadogan, 727.)
4) Remembering Churchill’s “snub” of the Roosevelt funeral, President Johnson took revenge by not attending Churchill’s funeral in 1965.
No: The President was suffering from a bad case of the flu. He sent Chief Justice Earl Warren and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. President Eisenhower joined them and gave a moving eulogy on the BBC. President Johnson said: “When there was darkness in the world…a generous Providence gave us Winston Churchill…. He is history’s child, and what he said and what he did will never die.”
Boris repeated several alleged Churchill quotations on which “I ‘eard different” from eye-witnesses.
“I’ll kiss him on both cheeks—or all four if you prefer.” The object of that crack was De Gaulle, not the Americans. “Proud to be British” involved an old man making improper advances to a young lady, not the way Johnson spins it. Of course Churchill, who often stored and retreaded favorite wisecracks, might have said the same thing at different times.
On the big issues, though, it would be a nice thing if Boris would run his statements past a scholar, lest they add to the cacophony of Churchill tall stories that pollute the Internet.