Franklin Roosevelt – ‘Britain’s Greatest Friend’

“Do you like my hat?” Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt share a light moment
“Do you like my hat?” Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt share a light moment

by Ray Setterfield


July 18, 1940 — Although born 24 years apart, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt had much in common. As well as being distant cousins, they both had wealthy parents, they both went to Harvard University, they both went to Columbia Law School and they both became President of the United States.

But Franklin chalked up a record that no President has matched before or since: he served in office for four consecutive terms and on this day he was nominated by the Democratic Party for his unprecedented third occupancy of the White House.

Like Theodore, Franklin was a descendant of Dutch colonists who settled in America in the mid-17th century. He was born in 1882 at the family’s Hyde Park estate just outside the city of New York, the only child of very wealthy parents.

He was educated mainly by private tutors, then Harvard University before going to the law school at Columbia University. Early on, Franklin began to admire his distant cousin Theodore and their ties were strengthened in 1905 when he married the former President’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt.

He worked for several years as a clerk in a Wall Street law firm but wanted to enter politics and Theodore's vigorous leadership style with his reforming zeal made him Franklin's role model and hero. A chance came in 1910 when Democratic Party leaders urged Franklin to stand for a seemingly unwinnable State Senate seat.

His branch of the family had always been Democrats so, once he had made sure popular Republican Theodore would not speak against him he accepted the challenge, campaigned strenuously, won, and took his seat, aged just 29.

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Roosevelt Assistant Secretary of the US Navy and it seemed that his political star was rising brightly. But fate intervened.

In 1921, at the age of 39, Roosevelt was stricken with poliomyelitis and – in intense pain – he was almost completely paralysed. As he slowly (but never completely) recovered, the torch was taken up by Eleanor. Initially very shy, she turned into an effective public speaker and kept Franklin’s name alive in political circles until he could return.

A limping Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York in 1928 and he went on to win the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1932.

By the time he was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, America was deep into the Great Depression. Most banks had shut down, industrial production had fallen to 56 per cent of its 1929 level, at least 13 million people were unemployed, and farmers were in desperate straits.

But the new President exuded confidence. Millions of Americans listened on the radio to his inaugural address in which he told them: “This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and prosper. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Just as, years before, Theodore had offered the nation a Square Deal, Franklin was to produce the New Deal – a broad array of measures to achieve economic recovery, provide relief to the poor and unemployed, and reform aspects of the economy that Roosevelt believed had caused the collapse.

FDR, as he became known, ran for re-election in 1936 and received the solid backing of farmers, labourers and the poor with 27 million votes. His Republican rival managed fewer than 17 million.

And then came the Second World War . . .

Roosevelt’s second term was due to end in 1941, but with the war under way he wanted to remain as Commander-in-Chief and decided to go for a third term. He stood again in 1944 for the same reason.

(At the time it was traditional not to run for a third term but there was no constitutional law against it. However, in 1947 Congress passed the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution, which stated that no person could be elected to the office of President more than twice.)

By June 1940, Great Britain stood as the only barrier against total domination of Europe by the Nazis. In less than a year Hitler’s war machine had crushed Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and France.

As Britain stood alone, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous speech declaring: “We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight in the streets . . .” Afterwards, he reportedly muttered to a colleague: “And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!”

The truth is Churchill knew that the greatest hope for survival lay in the hands of his friend Franklin Roosevelt.

FDR had promised the American people that the country would be kept out of the war but he never stopped fighting against the forces of isolationism and he tried subtly to prepare Americans for the possibility of fighting Germany at some stage.

Less than two months after his re-election in 1940 he gave one of his famous radio “fireside chats”. In it he warned the American people that “if Great Britain goes down, [Hitler] will be in a position to bring enormous military and naval resources against this hemisphere.”

But knowing that a big majority of his countrymen wanted to keep out of the war, FDR instead stressed the importance of helping Britain as it struggled alone. “We are the Arsenal of Democracy,” he said.

And so it was that in March 1941, vast military supplies – including ships and planes – began to be sent to the UK under a Lend-Lease arrangement brokered by Roosevelt. 

The question of whether the United States should be directly involved in the conflict was settled nine months later when, on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. FDR famously described it as “a date which will live in infamy” and the US immediately declared war.

The end came for Franklin Roosevelt just three months into his fourth term. He suffered a massive cerebral haemorrhage and died on April 12, 1945 at the age of 63. The war in Europe ended a few weeks later.

Winston Churchill once said of his friend: “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of champagne. Knowing him was like drinking it.”

Writing at the time of FDR’s death, Churchill said: “It is cruel that he will not see the victory which he did so much to achieve.” The war with Japan concluded in August after Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman, decided to use the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill forged a bond that historians say saved the world. In his eulogy to the President, the British Prime Minister said: "In FDR there died the greatest American friend we have ever known.”

Published: April 20, 2020

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