Why Churchill Skipped the Roosevelt Funeral in 1945

Why Churchill Skipped the Roosevelt Funeral in 1945

Excerpt­ed from “Dud­geon or Duty?: Churchill’s Absence from the Roo­sevelt Funer­al,” my essay for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. To read the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from the Churchill Project, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

The funeral quandary

Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt died on 12 April 1945 and his funer­al cer­e­monies began two days lat­er. A read­er asks why Churchill was absent: “A num­ber of sources, some rep­utable his­to­ri­ans, say he pur­pose­ly skipped the funer­al out of strat­e­gy or per­son­al feel­ings. Is there any truth to these assertions?”

There is con­jec­ture that Churchill missed the funer­al for polit­i­cal rea­sons, or envy at FDR’s posi­tion as de fac­to Allied leader. There is also con­sid­er­able evi­dence to the con­trary. Defend­ers argue that his absence was owed to cir­cum­stances dur­ing a crit­i­cal time. There may be a broad­er les­son here, on the dif­fi­cult choic­es fac­ing states­men in fraught times.

Reasons of strategy?

War­ren Kim­ball, edi­tor of the Churchill-Roo­sevelt Cor­re­spon­dence and eru­dite works on their wartime rela­tion­ship, sug­gests that Churchill’s absence was a polit­i­cal strategy:

Churchill’s deci­sion not to attend Roosevelt’s funer­al was an attempt to bring the moun­tain to Mohammed—subtly to shift the focus of the Anglo-Amer­i­can rela­tion­ship from Wash­ing­ton to Lon­don. “I was tempt­ed dur­ing the day to go over for the funer­al and begin rela­tions with the new man,” he wrote to the King, but “I should be fail­ing in my duty if I left the House of Com­mons with­out my close per­son­al attention….”

This is plau­si­ble, con­sid­er­ing how Churchill’s pres­ence might have actu­al­ly drawn atten­tion away from the solem­ni­ties. Con­sid­er also how lit­tle Churchill might have accom­plished with Tru­man dur­ing the pre­oc­cu­py­ing events of the funer­al. The new Pres­i­dent was fac­ing sud­den, enor­mous chal­lenges. Could they pre­pare for sub­stan­tive talks in a day? Churchill’s two 1941 meet­ings with FDR had been pre­ced­ed by long sea voy­ages, full of lengthy plan­ning ses­sions with his staff.

Artifice and affection?

Jon Meacham, author of the dual study Franklin and Win­ston (2003) had the impres­sion “that the deci­sion was part­ly polit­i­cal and part­ly emo­tion­al, the prod­uct of a pride­ful moment in which Churchill, after play­ing the suit­or to Roo­sevelt, want­ed to him­self be court­ed….. Was Churchill, tired of danc­ing to anoth­er man’s tune, relieved Roo­sevelt was dead? Had it all been an act? No—like so many human rela­tion­ships, Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s was a mix of the self­ish and the unselfish, of arti­fice and affection.”

One might expect those around the PM, such as Jock Colville or Lord Moran, to men­tion this pos­si­bil­i­ty in their mem­oirs. But if there was evi­dence of Churchill being “tired of the dance.” No inti­mates sug­gest it. All we have on record are Churchill’s deep sense of loss, also record­ed by Meacham, to Eleanor Roo­sevelt, Har­ry Hop­kins and Parliament.

A fit of pique?

Less char­i­ta­ble than Kim­ball or Meacham was the late Christo­pher Hitchens. He declared that Churchill skipped the funer­al in “pique at Roosevelt’s repeat­ed refusals to vis­it Britain dur­ing the war.” Three years lat­er, Richard Holmes adopt­ed a sim­i­lar line in Foot­steps of Churchill (2005):

It is not unrea­son­able to won­der whether FDR’s death…did not strike Win­ston as rob­bing him of the time­ly finale to which he him­self aspired. Noth­ing he said to those clos­est to him at the time or wrote lat­er offers a clue to why he chose not to pay his last respects to the man with whom his fate had been so close­ly bound, and to spurn an invi­ta­tion to con­fer with Har­ry Tru­man…. Such a fla­grant depar­ture from Winston’s nor­mal stan­dards of behav­iour, and such a lapse in his duty as prime min­is­ter of a nation that need­ed U.S. good will more than ever, argues that some irra­tional fac­tor was at work.

First, in April 1945, Churchill was not antic­i­pat­ing his finale. Sec­ond, what he said to those clos­est to him does offer clues to his deci­sion, and these are not irra­tional. So let us con­sid­er the case most like­ly. It comes, as most sound inter­pre­ta­tions do, from the offi­cial biog­ra­ph­er, Sir Mar­tin Gilbert.

First impulse

Wash­ing­ton cer­e­monies were set for 14 April, inter­ment at Hyde Park the next day, Sir Mar­tin wrote. “No soon­er did he hear the news than Churchill made imme­di­ate plans to fly to Hyde Park….

He would leave on 8.30 on the evening of April 13. Every­thing ready for his depar­ture, but by 7.45 he was unsure. “PM said he would decide at aero­drome,” not­ed [Alexan­der] Cado­gan in his diary. At the last moment Churchill decid­ed not to go, explain­ing to the King that with so many Cab­i­net Min­is­ters already over­seas, with Eden on his way to Wash­ing­ton, and with the need for a Par­lia­men­tary trib­ute to Roo­sevelt, “which clear­ly it is my busi­ness to deliv­er.” he ought to remain in Britain.

Churchill’s rea­son­ing was con­firmed by Antho­ny Eden, his For­eign Min­is­ter, in his own mem­oirs. Eden was due in Amer­i­ca for the Unit­ed Nations con­fer­ence—anoth­er fac­tor influ­enc­ing Churchill’s decision. 

What we know

 There is more evi­dence back­ing Gilbert’s and Eden’s sce­nario, as Paul Courte­nay sum­ma­rized in review­ing Holmes’s book:

Churchill told his wife: “I decid­ed not to fly to Roosevelt’s funer­al on account of much that was going on here” (per Mary Soames). He wrote to Har­ry Hop­kins: “…every­one here thought my duty next week lay at home, at a time when so many Min­is­ters are out of the coun­try” (per Mar­tin Gilbert). And: “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 deeply regret­ted in after years that he allowed him­self to be per­suad­ed not to go at once to Wash­ing­ton” (per Alexan­der Cadogan).*

There is no doubt that Churchill faced one of the statesman’s painful deci­sions. There was, after all, a World War going on, but the Allies were clos­ing on Berlin. The end might come any day. Yet there is no doubt about his bereave­ment. “I feel a very painful per­son­al loss, quite apart from the ties of pub­lic action,” he telegraphed to Har­ry Hop­kins. “I had a true affec­tion for Franklin.”

The read­er may decide if there was more to it than that. Was there a sub­tle, under­ly­ing vein of strat­e­gy or regret? Even then, Churchill’s deci­sion was not irra­tional. It is not hard to believe that, with vic­to­ry approach­ing, he would wish to be close at hand.


* Paul H. Courte­nay, “Great­ness Flawed,” in Finest Hour 128, Autumn 2005, 37. Mary Soames, Speak­ing for Them­selves (1998), 526. Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. 7, Road to Vic­to­ry 1942-1945 (2013), 1294. David Dilks, ed. The Diaries of Sir Alexan­der Cado­gan O.M. 1938-1945 (1971), 727.

Churchill’s tribute

Two days after Franklin Roo­sevelt was interred at Hyde Park, Win­ston Churchill addressed Parliament:

I con­ceived an admi­ra­tion for him as a states­man, a man of affairs, and a war leader. I felt the utmost con­fi­dence in his upright, inspir­ing char­ac­ter and out­look, and a per­son­al regard—affection I must say—for him beyond my pow­er to express today….

In the days of peace he had broad­ened and sta­bi­lized the foun­da­tions of Amer­i­can life and union. In war he had raised the strength, might and glo­ry of the Great Repub­lic to a height nev­er attained by any nation in his­to­ry.… But all this was no more than world­ly pow­er and grandeur, had it not been that the caus­es of human free­dom and of social jus­tice, to which so much of his life had been giv­en, added a lus­tre to this pow­er and pomp and war­like might, a lus­tre which will long be dis­cernible among men.…

For us, it remains only to say that in Franklin Roo­sevelt there died the great­est Amer­i­can friend we have ever known, and the great­est cham­pi­on of free­dom who has ever brought help and com­fort from the new world to the old.

And to quote again my old friend Pro­fes­sor David Dilks: “If you will allow the remark in paren­the­sis, ladies and gen­tle­men, do you not some­times long for some­one at the sum­mit of our pub­lic life who can think and write at that level?”

One thought on “Why Churchill Skipped the Roosevelt Funeral in 1945

  1. Roo­sevelt humil­i­at­ed Churchill on two occa­sions, first in 1941 when the Atlantic Char­ter was draft­ed by Roo­sevelt, which was going to be a dis­as­ter to the eco­nom­ic inter­est of Britain, espe­cial­ly Clause 3 of the Char­ter. Anoth­er occa­sion was 1943 in Teheran, the first wartime meet­ing between Big three lead­ers. Amid the con­fer­ence, a secret meet­ing had been held between Stal­in and Roo­sevelt to avoid Churchill. They dis­cussed relin­quish­ment of the British colonies.

    Thanks for com­ments. “Humil­i­at­ed” is kind of strong, but there is no doubt that WSC was extreme­ly dis­ap­point­ed by FDR’s atti­tude toward the Empire and his pri­vate meet­ing with Stal­in at Teheran. But FDR did not press Britain on India. Wikipedia has an accu­rate account of that: https://bit.ly/3BULG4T.

    Nor was Clause 3 very spe­cif­ic. FDR and WSC declared: “They respect the right of all peo­ples to choose the form of gov­ern­ment under which they will live; and they wish to see sov­er­eign rights and self-gov­ern­ment restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” The last part of that was Churchill. There was plen­ty of give and take in their rela­tion­ship, and as Churchill said, “the only thing worse than fight­ing with allies is fight­ing with­out them.” —RML

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