Before Bibi, There Was Winston

In twenty years, the thing that I hope changes the most in the narrative of American history is the part that deals with the question of what started the “cold war.” It seems to me that our textbooks and our collective memory are ripe for developing their perspectives on this matter. There are a few distinct fronts on which I think historians would do well to advance on the question of the cold war’s origins, but today I’ll mention one: the role of Winston Churchill.

I’ll focus on Churchill for a couple of reasons. First, the recent din about Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and his re-election as Israeli prime minister has me thinking about echoes of Churchill. Israel, like England, is supposed to be a special friend of the United States, one with which it allegedly shares a commitment to liberalism, democracy, and human rights. And yet, like Churchill, Netanyahu is nakedly imperialistic. And perhaps as was the case with Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, Netanyahu and Barack Obama have performed a strange kind of diplomatic dance, a performance of frenemies masquerading as friends. Although one could argue that in recent events, Obama has dropped all pretense of being a friend to Netanyahu.

Second, I stumbled upon a book a few weeks ago that I find rather fascinating: Dinner at the White House, by Louis Adamic. Some readers might know Adamic as an author who advocated for cultural pluralism in the mid-20th century. (Wendy Wall writes quite a bit about him in the excellent Inventing the American Way.) Adamic was an Eastern European immigrant who fit right into the 1930s and 40s worlds of Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition and the more radical Popular Front. As such, he gained an audience with Franklin Roosevelt at a White House dinner in 1942. And Churchill was there too.

I first became interested in Churchill’s role in the answer to the “cold war” question after reading up on Henry Wallace a few years ago. In the mid to late forties, Wallace spoke as if British imperialism — what he called “Anglo-Saxon Ueberalles” — was the chief obstacle of postwar peace.[1] I was again reminded of Churchill recently when I watched the new film about Alan Turing. But as was widely reported, the film plays fast and loose with the historical record. Was my favorite part about the film — its depiction of Churchill as zealously anti-Soviet — to be trusted as accurate?

Adamic suggests that Churchill was single-minded in his belief that there would be no waning of the British Empire after the war. And he writes in an pleasant, first person form that anticipates the “new journalism” of the postwar decades. Adamic narrates his coming to the White House to learn that Roosevelt has invited him in order to try to sway Churchill towards the vision of postwar Europe on which Adamic had recently published a book. The book, he notes, “was a bit hard on the British” (23). Adamic portrays himself as being sheepish and humbled when he learns that the President and his wife are admirers of his work.

Adamic writes of the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt: “They were obviously friends, but — perhaps less obviously — friends of a special kind… The divergent characters of their countries entered into those relations. Their own personalities were very unlike, in spite of certain similarities of background. There were tensions” (26). I won’t spoil the rest for you, but there are some humorous passages that describe Churchill and Roosevelt’s demeanor towards one another.

Ultimately, the key to unlocking the postwar world, Adamic suggested, was getting around Churchill. And the “friendship” between the US and England was in the way. Adamic writes: “There’s a Britain other than Churchill’s. F.D.R. can appeal to this other Britain if […] he and Churchill haven’t already become too great pals” (121).

There is of course a question as to what degree Dinner at the White House can be taken seriously as an indicator of the personal and political differences between Roosevelt and Churchill. But as a piece of wartime New Deal coalition propaganda, its fascinating enough on its own, I think. Over the last sixty years or so, we’ve papered over the differences, real, imagined, or embellished as they were, that clearly existed in some form between the U.S. and Great Britain in order to serve the manichean narrative of the “cold war.”

The Obama administration said last week that recent statements of Netanyahu’s might cause the United States to “rethink” its policy towards Israel. (NPR slyly suggested that the relationship between the two leaders was “complicated.”) What if Roosevelt had rethought the utility of Churchill’s perspective on world affairs? Or what if Harry Truman had rethought his country’s relationship with England in 1946, as Wallace asked?

1. John Culver and John Hyde, American Dreamer, 301.