tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Bush-Blair relationship reflective of WWII era

President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have forged a unique relationship since the 9-11 attack, three and a half years ago. Given the war on terrorism, the President would say we are in wartime, which makes it easy to think of another great Anglo-American relationship forged during wartime – the friendship between President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II.

Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek magazine, has chronicled the relationship between these two world leaders in a best selling book, “Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship.” Meacham spoke about two months ago -- on President’s Day -- at a business meeting I attended. His description of the friendship affirms a truly unique, long-standing relationship between the British and us Americans.

Meacham explained that Roosevelt and Churchill were unusually close during the early 1940s, spending 113 days together during World War II, and exchanging more than 2,000 letters. When Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940 it was not at all obvious that the United States should help out Great Britain in the war effort. U.S. Gen. George Marshall advised against it, as he was terrified that any weapons and armaments sent to England would be used against us if the country fell to Germany. Eighty percent of Americans at the time did not want the United States to get involved in the war. The U.S. army was only the 15th-largest in the world then.

Both men admired each other’s courage. Meacham said that in 1933, “Churchill wrote a speech in which he expressed admiration of Roosevelt for his courage to overcome polio. FDR was struck down at the age of 39. He woke up one morning after an active day with the children and he never walked again, except by forcing himself with braces. Churchill hugely admired courage. So Churchill felt that if he showed courage, Roosevelt would reciprocate. And he was right.”

Under siege of attack, Churchill kept saying England would fight until the end, that the country would never surrender. Even if its people had to starve, England would carry on.

“They exchanged a letter every day of the war,” Meacham said. “The emotion of these letters drips all over the page, with Churchill begging and begging. ‘England will never give in, but we need this, we need that.’ He was asserting his strength, but communicating the grave consequences of not getting what he needed.”

Roosevelt and Churchill were very divisive characters in their respective countries. “About 46 percent of the country hated Roosevelt,” Meacham reminded listeners. “Anytime you take a country to a place where it has not been, to a place where it is not comfortable, where people don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, there is a backlash.”

But Meacham said the two leaders were confident. They firmly believed they were the right people to lead their countries at that time, and they were resolute in their course. “Churchill and Roosevelt had clarity about their own roles, their nation’s roles and how to get there,” Meacham said.

Meacham quoted from an October 1944 speech FDR delivered, which sums up Roosevelt’s idea of the role of the United States on a world stage:

The power which this nation has obtained, the political, economic, the military and above all the moral power, has brought to us a responsibility and the opportunity for leadership in the community of nations. In our own best interest, in the name of peace and humanity, it cannot, must not and will not shirk that responsibility. But we should not swagger. The kind of world order that we, a peace-loving nation, must achieve must depend essentially on friendly human relations, on acquaintance, on tolerance, on unassailable sincerity, and goodwill and faith. Humility is essential. We are not fighting for, and we shall not obtain, a Utopia. Indeed in our own land, there is work to be done and we will never finish. We have yet to realize the full and equal enjoyment of our freedom. So embarking on a world fellowship, we have set ourselves a long and arduous task -- a task which will challenge our patience, intelligence, our imagination, as well as our faith.

About a year earlier, Churchill praised the United States as the world-leading power, and articulated the consequences of such a position:

Why has this responsibility fallen to America? I will offer you one explanation. The price of greatness is responsibility. The people of the United States that continue at a mediocre station -- struggling with wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs, and factor in no consequence in the movement of the world -- might remain forgotten behind their protecting oceans. But one cannot rise in many ways to the leading community of the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being involved in its agonies, and inspired by its causes. (Bold added for emphasis by me.)

Meacham commented that Churchill loved the United States and that he believed that Britain’s role in the new world would result in more power for the United States and Europe.

One cannot miss the point that Bush and Blair share many of the sentiments that their predecessors shared some 60 years ago.

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