America’s longest serving, President, Franklin D Roosevelt, proved an absolutely crucial ally to Winston Churchill and Britain during the early years of World War Two. Later disagreements about strategy meant that the relationship between the two men cooled from 1943, and Churchill declined to attend Roosevelt’s funeral. They shared an understanding of the threat posed by Nazi Germany, although in Roosevelt’s case, operating in a society deeply isolationist in sentiment. Despite this, he facilitated American rearmament, lend-lease, and a robust naval policy towards Germany that came very close to war.
It was Roosevelt who struck up the personal correspondence with Churchill which proved so productive. In those years they had a strong rapport, sharing an interest in naval affairs. Like Churchill, Roosevelt had been responsible for naval policy prior to and during World War One. Hence, once he became Prime Minister, Churchill’s famous ‘former naval person’ sign-off. In fact, they were both former naval persons.
Roosevelt came from a wealthy New York family and was a lawyer by profession. Both he and his wife Eleanor were active Democrats. In 1910 he entered the New York Senate and in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary for the Navy. By 1920 he was on the vice-presidential ticket for the Democrats, though they lost the election. The following year he contracted the polio which was to partially paralyse him. Roosevelt tried to hide his condition whenever he could, yet it changed him psychologically as well as physically. Many around him noted a much more compassionate, less arrogant man.
As Governor of New York state during the Great Depression, Roosevelt was critical of the Hoover administration and introduced a raft of policies to actively tackle unemployment. Notwithstanding this, he fought the 1932 Presidential election on a platform of national deficit reduction. It was only once in office, as the 32nd US president, confronted with the enormity of the economic slump, that Roosevelt was persuaded by his advisors to change tack. His famous New Deal measures included employment programmes, bank reform and public works. He also scrapped the Prohibition laws.
Roosevelt easily won the 1936 election and began to turn his attention to the threat from Germany and Japan. As soon as World War Two broke out in Europe he began his correspondence with Churchill, then still at the Admiralty. Following America’s own entry into the war, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Roosevelt became central to Allied strategic planning. He acquiesced to the Europe First approach, but was later critical of Churchill’s Mediterranean emphasis. Roosevelt secured a record third term in 1940, and a fourth in 1944; but he would not serve it out. His health deteriorating, he succumbed to a stroke and died on 12 April 1945.
(Pictured: Roosevelt and Churchill, Casablanca Conference, 22 January 1943).
Surely one of America’s greatest ever presidents, Roosevelt was also known for his common touch. He developed the ‘fireside chat’ series of radio talks during the 1930s which were the forerunner of much modern political communication. Although the Roosevelt’s had six children, theirs was a difficult marriage. They stayed together, despite Roosevelt’s many affairs. Roosevelt was buried at the family estate in Hyde Park, New York. Like Churchill, he had crammed a great deal into his life – cut short at only 63.