Churchill Descendent: Great-grandfather, FDR ‘Shaped the Modern World’

Event in support of National Churchill Library and Center provides glimpse into complex relationship with the Roosevelts.

October 7, 2014

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Randolph Churchill and Mary Jo Binker field questions during Monday's event in support of the National Churchill Library and Center.

By James Irwin

On Jan. 20, 1941, the day of his third presidential inauguration, Franklin Roosevelt penned a letter to Winston Churchill.

The United Kingdom had survived the Battle of Britain, yet still faced Adolph Hitler alone in a European theater overrun by the Nazi war machine. The United States, itself slowly climbing out of the Great Depression, was neutral. The historic Lend-Lease Act was two months away from being signed into law.

Roosevelt's hand-written note of support included the opening lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “O Ship of State” and was delivered by Wendell Willkie, who had run against Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election but shared the president's view on supporting Britain in the war. It elicited an immediate reaction from Churchill, who knew that in receiving the letter, he also had been sent a message.

“It was no accident that this letter was entrusted to Wendell Willkie,” said Randolph Churchill, great-grandson of Winston Churchill. “His mission to see Churchill with this letter of introduction from Roosevelt was a clear statement of bipartisan support for Britain, an indication deliberately linking the British cause with that of the United States.”

The relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt helped shape the modern world, Randolph Churchill said Monday at the George Washington University, where he delivered remarks at an event in support of the National Churchill Library and Center. In speeches and open discussions, Randolph Churchill and Mary Jo Binker, editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, provided brief glimpses into the lives of Winston Churchill, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

The January 1941 letter from Franklin Roosevelt to Winston Churchill, and Churchill’s response—his famous “give us the tools and we will finish the job” speech broadcast a month later over the BBC—helped lay the groundwork for the Atlantic Charter and the formation of the Allied powers.

“The [Roosevelt] letter held political importance,” Randolph Churchill said. “And Churchill’s response—these are powerful words that still resonate today. On the one hand it sends a message to the embattled people of Britain that help will come; on the other it tells the people of the United States that they must provide it.”

Discourse was prevalent in discussions and opinions between Churchill and the Roosevelts. Franklin Roosevelt was at first against Churchill's plan of sending troops to North Africa and Italy to breach Hitler's Fortress Europe. Following the war, Churchill advocated a pact between the United Kingdom and the United States to ensure peace, while Eleanor Roosevelt favored using the newly formed United Nations as a forum for global cooperation.

Though Eleanor Roosevelt and Churchill respected each other, they held political differences, Ms. Binker said.

“Eleanor Roosevelt, in her ‘My Day’ syndicated column, takes [Churchill’s] ideas apart,” she said. “She did not think his proposal for an English-speaking alliance differed very greatly from the balance-of-power politics that had been going on in Europe for hundreds of years—the only difference was that America would become embroiled in ancient feuds. She offered an alternative vision in which the nations of the world could come together through collective security against an aggressor and use the forum of the United Nations to discuss their differences.”

The Churchill center, which will be the first permanent facility in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the scholarship of Winston Churchill, will be located on the ground floor of the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library. The facility will house both permanent and rotating exhibits and will work with other Churchill resources, including the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Mo., and the Churchill Institute at Westminster College.

“Our aspirations for this center are very high,” Provost Steven Lerman said. “We wanted to inspire and support original scholarship to [Churchill’s] life, his leadership, the times in which he lived and how his life influenced the times we live in today.”

The center will put a spotlight on the complex, enduring Churchill-Roosevelt relationship, Randolph Churchill said.

“To my mind, Winston Churchill, for American people, stands as a beacon of their own liberties,” he said. “This facility will bring the second World War, our freedoms and liberties to light to a generation that hasn’t known the horrors of world war. Roosevelt and Churchill together stand as the giants who preserved our freedoms.”