The Unnecessary War
Churchill's warnings about the danger of the new Nazi regime in Germany initially fell on deaf ears. In 1938 Britain and Germany almost went to war over Hitler's desire to annex part of Czechoslovakia. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich to secure a guarantee that there would be no further German aggression. Churchill was critical of the policy of appeasement and broadcast directly to the United States, appealing for greater American involvement in Europe. When Hitler occupied Prague and the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, Churchill's predictions were seen to be coming true.
In September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. The attack touched off the world struggle that Churchill would later call “The Unnecessary War” because he felt a firm policy toward aggressor nations after World War I would have prevented the conflict. Chamberlain brought Churchill into government again as First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940, the day Hitler launched his invasion of France, Belgium, and Holland. During the tense months that followed, Britain stood alone with her Empire and Commonwealth, surviving the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Churchill's speeches and broadcasts carried a message of determination and defiance around the globe.
Churchill spent much of the 1930s warning about the dangers of Nazi Germany and working on a biography of his illustrious ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough. The Duke had led a coalition against a dominant and aggressive European superpower (Louis XIV's France). This cartoon shows that others saw a parallel in Churchill's similar approach toward Germany's Adolf Hitler. Churchill also was concerned about Hitler's anti-Semitic actions and rhetoric. This letter to Churchill from a fellow Conservative member of Parliament, Robert Boothby, describes Boothby's meeting with Hitler and asks about “the Jewish question.” It reveals concern about the Nazis, and perhaps something about latent anti-Semitism in the British establishment—a view not shared by Churchill. Churchill later arranged for a similar meeting with Hitler in Germany in 1932, but the Nazi leader failed to appear.
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In the 1930s, while out of power and with the international scene becoming ever more threatening, Churchill began his multi-volume study of the English-speaking peoples as a way to trace the emergence of concepts of freedom and law. This passage from the fourth volume of The Great Democracies reflects Churchill's lifelong interest in the American Civil War. Early in 1937, Churchill wrote to his friend, Bernard Baruch, giving his views on the Abdication Crisis. When Edward VIII was pressured to resign the throne over his determination to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson, Churchill was one of the few who defended the King. Churchill's support of the King was damaging to him—he was shouted down in Parliament and appeared out of touch with mainstream politics.
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Winston S. Churchill. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 4. New York: Dodd, Mead 1956-1958. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (93.1)
Winston Churchill to Bernard Baruch, January 1, 1937. Carbon copy of letter with annotations. Churchill Papers, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, U.K. (94)
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In this key page from Churchill's notes for his broadcast to the United States in the aftermath of the Munich Crisis, his plea for greater American involvement in Europe is set out in his distinctive “psalm form.” Churchill always spoke with a full set of notes, even though he committed most of the content to his remarkable memory.
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Page from speaking notes for Churchill's broadcast to the United States, October 16, 1938. Annotated typescript. Churchill Papers, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, U.K. (95)
Winston Churchill. Broadcast to the United States, October 16, 1938. Sound disc. Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (95.1)
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Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. On the same day, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brought Churchill back into government as First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill threw himself tirelessly into all aspects of war policy and direction. This letter, written to his chief during a prolonged lull in the ground action known as the “Phony War,” shows his aggressive approach. In a November 12 broadcast speech, he taunted the “boastful and bullying” Nazis, led by “that evil man,” Hitler. The editorial cartoon, shown here, depicts Churchill and a German official goading each other over the German border defense system called the West Wall.
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Winston Churchill to Neville Chamberlain, October 1, 1939. Typescript letter with manuscript annotations. Churchill Papers, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, U.K. (98) ©Crown copyright 1939, Archival Reference # CHAR 19/2C/303
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After the fall of France to Germany in June 1940, Britain faced the possibility of invasion. Germany, however, was unable to achieve the necessary air superiority, and the planned invasion, code-named sealion, was postponed. By October Churchill quipped, “We are waiting for the long-promised invasion. So are the fishes.” This photograph shows the new Prime Minister inspecting his coastal defenses during the summer of 1940, when landings seemed imminent.
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On May 10, 1940, as the Germans were beginning to attack the British and French ground forces arrayed against them, Churchill became Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. He later wrote, “I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” This cartoon shows the British national symbol John Bull handing him “complete control,” at least temporarily.
Clifford Berryman. We Are Just Lending This to You, Winnie, You Can Return It Later, 1940. Drawing. Cartoon Drawings Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (104) © 1940, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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This is Churchill's draft for one of his most famous pieces of oratory. His speech of June 18, 1940, delivered first in the House of Commons and then broadcast to the Nation, occurred against the backdrop of the fall of France, one of the darkest moments in British history. Churchill did not flinch from admitting the severity of the situation, but he turned it into a roar of determination and defiance.
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Extract from draft of “Finest Hour” speech by Winston Churchill, June 1940. Typescript with manuscript annotations. Churchill Papers, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, U.K. (104.1) © Crown copyright 1940, Archival Reference #9/172/152
Winston Churchill. “Finest Hour” speech, June 1940. Sound disc. Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (104.2)
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Churchill's inspirational wartime speeches rank among the greatest delivered by any leader in history. He carefully crafted the rhetorical flourishes in addresses that he broadcast to the nation over the radio, to members of Parliament, and to a wide variety of groups. Ten years after World War II ended, Churchill said of his wartime role that it was Britain that “had the lion's heart,” he merely “had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”
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September 1940 was a key month for Churchill as this schedule shows. The Royal Air Force had managed to hold its own against the powerful German Luftwaffe, winning the Battle of Britain. But Hitler now changed tactics and began the wholesale bombing of London and other civilian centers. Churchill's engagements included, numerous cabinet meetings, speeches before the House of Commons, a radio broadcast, and more.
Engagements card, September 1940. Churchill Papers, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, U.K. (105.2) © Crown copyright 1940, Archival Reference # CHAR 20/19/3
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In this caricature, Churchill, with cigar, is shown as a puffin, “Perpetually carrying a stump in its mouth.” A reference to recent defeats by British forces in Greece implies that it was drawn in 1941, when Churchill's attempt to stop the Nazis from overrunning that nation met with disaster. Other references are to Churchill's beloved British Empire—“Range: The sun never sets,—as we all jolly well know.”—and to the recently passed Lend-Lease Act, which provided American assistance to the United Kingdom.
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The German raid on the English city of Coventry (November 14-15, 1940) left 380 people dead, 865 were inured, and the center of the city was devastated. The attack shocked the American public. In later years Churchill would be accused—falsely, according to many scholars—of deliberately failing to protect Coventry in order to protect secret intelligence sources that had provided advance knowledge of the attack. This photograph shows Churchill walking through the ruins of Coventry's fourteenth-century cathedral.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill walks… through the ruins of Coventry Cathedral…, 1942. Photograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (106) LC-USZ62-16191 [Digital ID# cph 3a18421]
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The Ministry of Information distributed this poster in an effort to help the people of Coventry deal with the severe damage that resulted from the German bombing raid. One week after the attack residents were told how to obtain—and offer—assistance and warned against attempts to flee to neutral Ireland. They were also told that there was “no ground for believing that large numbers of bodies remain to be recovered.” Such tales were “pure rumor,” the notice stated, “and to believe it is playing Hitler's game.”
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Attempting to bomb Britain into submission, the German Luftwaffe attacked the city of Ramsgate while Churchill was visiting in August 1940. Taking cover in an underground shelter, he exchanged his trademark civilian hat for a steel helmet. The city's mayor forced him to discard his cigar, eliciting the rueful response, “There goes another good one.”
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Cartoonist Herbert Block (“Herblock”) summed up the year 1940 optimistically with implied hopes for victory under the leadership of Churchill and Roosevelt. Shown in this sketch are British successes in the Mediterranean at Oran (against the Vichy French fleet), at Taranto (against the Italian fleet), in the skies by the Royal Air Force, and in North Africa. Also depicted are Italy's failed attempted invade of Greece, the peacetime military conscription act passed by the U.S. Congress, and the supplies shipped to Britain from America.
Herbert Block. Herblock's Own History of the Year—The Worlds of 1940, ca. 1940. Ink and graphite drawing. Herb Block Foundation Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (109). Herblock © 1940. LC-USZ62-127197 [Digital ID# ppmsc 03402]
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An American Connection
The fall of France, in June 1940, left Britain in a desperate situation. Threatened with a Nazi invasion and with his country under savage attack, Churchill was determined to obtain assistance and eventually a declaration of war against Germany and its allies from the United States.
Churchill intensified his contacts with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had started corresponding with him even before Churchill became Prime Minister. Churchill also welcomed the American supplies, both military and civilian, that Roosevelt had provided through such measures as the Lend-Lease Act of March 1941. Many Americans, however, were reluctant to enter the conflict, and Roosevelt felt compelled to adopt a gradual approach toward full belligerency.
In June 1941 the immediate pressure on the British eased somewhat after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Two months later Churchill and Roosevelt met in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, to formulate a joint military strategy and a statement of war aims,—the Atlantic Charter. With less success, they tried to work out a plan to prevent Germany's ally, Japan, from entering the war.
In September 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt began one of the most remarkable correspondence in history by sending a personal letter to Churchill, then still First Lord of the Admiralty. Across the years the total number of messages would grow to 1,949. Although this cable was the second one that Churchill sent back to Roosevelt, its substance had been communicated in a telephone call made earlier. It concerned fears of a German plot to sink a ship filled with Americans and then to blame the incident on the British.
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President Roosevelt wrote this letter to Churchill in January 1941, quoting from the Longfellow poem “The Building of the Ship.” It was then hand-delivered to the British Prime Minister by Wendell Wilkie, Roosevelt's Republican opponent in the 1940 Presidential election. Churchill, desperate for U.S. support, found the letter “an inspiration” and told Roosevelt that he would have it framed. The letter hung for a long time at Chartwell, Churchill's home, hence it has faded from the original green of White House stationery to brown.
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In this famous speech broadcast over the BBC, Churchill recites the poem included in President Roosevelt's recent letter—Longfellow's “The Building of a Ship.” Churchill ends this broadcast with an explicit message to Roosevelt in the heartfelt plea, “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”
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Extract from speaking notes for broadcast by Winston Churchill, February 9, 1941. Churchill Papers, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, U.K. (113). © Crown copyright 1941, Archival Reference # CHAR 9/150A/51
Winston Churchill. Broadcast speech, February 9, 1941. Sound disc. Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (113.1)
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In 1941 President Roosevelt faced a dilemma: should the United States short change its own armed forces in order to help a nation that might capitulate to the Nazis? To answer that question, and to facilitate the flow of aid if (as it turned out) surrender seemed unlikely, he sent two personal representatives to Churchill—Harry Hopkins and W. Averell Harriman. In this letter, which shows the closeness of their relationship, Harriman argues that Britain is not adequately molding American public opinion. Churchill's handwritten reply invites him to draft a solution.
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Moved by the suffering, endurance, and courage displayed by the residents of Bristol during an air raid that took place while Churchill and Harriman were visiting there, Harriman made an anonymous donation to a relief fund. In this thank you note Clementine Churchill wrote of her hope that “all this pain and grief” might “bring our two countries permanently together.” “Anyhow,” she concluded, “whatever happens we do not feel alone any more.”
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Roosevelt had great difficulty persuading many Americans to provide assistance to the British. Isolationists, in particular, were quick to demand that the United States should avoid what they felt was a foreign entanglement that could lead to war. The Citizens National Keep America Out of War Committee distributed this flyer to raise funds and promote its cause. It urged people to apply political pressure on Congress and to demand that motion picture theater owners not show war films.
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In May 1941, during what turned out to be the last major attack of the Blitz, German bombs destroyed the debating chamber of the House of Commons. A member of Parliament told Churchill not to be distressed by the results stating, “Such ruins are good assets: all round the globe, and especially in America.” This photograph was republished shortly before Churchill's death.
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The German U-boat campaign and uncertain weather in the North Atlantic posed difficulties for sending American aircraft to the British forces fighting in the eastern Mediterranean. This letter concerns the routes available for shipment through neutral airspace to the jumping-off point for the South Atlantic route. Presidential advisor Averell Harriman solved the problem by arranging to have American pilots fly the planes to Natal, on the Brazilian coast, and from there to Bathurst, in Gambia, Africa—the shortest route across the ocean.
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The two photographs taken in the summer of 1941, displayed here, show Churchill's recognizable figure as he watches the arrival of the first B-17 “Flying Fortress” and as he inspects an American M-3 tank. Even though the U.S. was desperately trying to build up its military forces throughout 1941, Roosevelt decided to give the British models of the United States' most advanced weapons. Military aid to Britain was greatly facilitated by the Lend-Lease Act of March 11, 1941, in which Congress authorized the sale, lease, transfer, or exchange of arms and supplies to “any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.”
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Throughout 1940 and 1941 Churchill attempted to win the confidence of Americans by demonstrating his trust in them. As this secret record shows, he invited presidential advisors Averell Harriman and Harry Hopkins to meet with Britain's highest military leaders. Outlining his views on strategy, with an eye toward securing as much American participation as possible, Churchill reassured his guests “that the Japanese would not enter the war until they were sure that we were beaten. They did not want to fight the United States and the British Empire together.”
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In this letter King George VI grants permission for his Prime Minister to leave the country in order to attend a secret meeting with President Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland. The journey by sea to the Atlantic meeting was clearly dangerous, and measures had to be put in place to provide for continued government during Churchill's absence and in case of his failure to return.
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Churchill's trip to and from Newfoundland involved some risk. Submarines and German surface raiders prowled the Atlantic and, closer to Europe, there was always the possibility of long-range German air attack. Risking the wrath of isolationists in the United States, the Americans sent two U.S. destroyers to escort Churchill as far as Iceland on the return voyage. Roosevelt's son was aboard one of them. This photograph shows Churchill striding the deck of the British battleship Prince of Wales.
The Prime Minister's Return Journey Across the Atlantic, August, 1941. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (127)
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On August 9, 1941, Churchill met Roosevelt on board the U.S.S. Augusta, beginning the pattern of high-level personal collaboration that would prevail until the end of the war. The two had actually met once before in 1918, a meeting Churchill had since forgotten. In this photo Roosevelt stands unaided, relying on hidden leg braces. In later, more widely publicized photographs, he is seen supported by his son Elliott, an Air Force officer—a reminder that Roosevelt, like Churchill, had a personal, family stake in the conflict.
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Under the camouflage-striped guns of the British battleship Prince of Wales—soon to be sunk with heavy loss of life—Churchill and Roosevelt attended Sunday services during the Atlantic Conference. In one of the great symbolic moments of the war, military leaders and sailors of both nations mingled together to sing the hymns that Churchill had personally selected. He wrote later, “Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live.”
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The most publicized result of the Newfoundland meeting, the Atlantic Charter, set forth the war aims of the two nations. In addition to committing the U.S. and Britain against territorial aggrandizement, it also pledged their adherence to principles of peace, national self-determination, and freedom of the seas. It further outlined their obligation to freedom from “fear and want,” open access (within limits) to trade and raw materials, improved labor standards, disarmament of aggressor nations, and “a wider and permanent system of general security.” Churchill gave this next-to-last draft version to Averell Harriman as a souvenir.
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Germany went to war with the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, easing the pressure on the British and giving them renewed hope. In October 1941, Averell Harriman noted Churchill's opinion that “Hitler's revised plan undoubtedly is now, Poland '39, France '40, Russia '41, England '42, '43 (?)—maybe America.” Late in November, Churchill acknowledged the heavy demands made by the Soviets for American supplies but also asked for Harriman's assistance in providing him with additional ammunition. Churchill's postscript reads, “The razor is a joy diurnal,” a reference to a gift received from Harriman.
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W. Averell Harriman, October 15, 1941. Typed memorandum. W. Averell Harriman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (139)
Winston Churchill to W. Averell Harriman, November 27, 1941. Typewritten letter. W. Averell Harriman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (140). © Crown copyright 1941
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Britain set an example for the United States by mobilizing its women for war. This letter to Averell Harriman is from Churchill's daughter Mary, who had joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service and served with an antiaircraft unit: “Tomorrow I go back to my regiment—and I feel a little sad to leave Mummie and Papa; but I have no regrets—and I know now that (for once!) my first emotion about joining up was right.”
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