New angle on the partnership of two great leaders

Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, 3 vols.: ``Alliance Emerging,'' 674 pp.; ``Alliance Forged,'' 773 pp.; ``Alliance Declining,'' 742 pp., edited with commentary by Warren F. Kimball. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. $150. The publication of this correspondence is truly an event. Warren Kimball, professor of history at Newark College of Rutgers University, began working on the project in 1972, when the British and American governments agreed to declassify the diplomatic and military documents of World War II. The result is a substantially revised picture of the partnership that was to prove so crucial to the survival of democracy and liberty in our time.

Contained in three sturdy, if undeniably fat, volumes is the entire wartime correspondence between the two famous statesmen, from the formal yet promising opening exchanges through the travails of informal cooperation to the final achievement of a difficult and glorious alliance against the Axis tyranny.

Apart from the communications conducted by telephone or in person when the two leaders met from time to time, we have here all that passed between them: letters, memoranda, cables, messages carried by go-betweens, even a couple of transcriptions of calls intercepted by the Germans despite the best efforts of scrambler telephones! And, indeed, because Professor Kimball has included not only the final documents, but also the drafts and revisions, many of which were not sent out, readers of this correspondence are in some respects in a better position to construct a complete picture of the relationship than either of its participants.

Although Winston Churchill would discourse in his memoirs on the uniqueness of the personal relationship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and himself, it would be misleading to imagine that their dealings with each other were characterized solely by harmony, warmth, and generosity. As this correspondence shows, up until the time the United States entered the war Churchill remained in the difficult position of being forced to woo America's support, even after Roosevelt had inaugurated the lend-lease policy and other forms of aid, symbolic and practical, to the Allied cause. Drafts of letters in which Churchill (a.k.a. ``Former Naval Person'') expressed his apprehension, exasperation, and sometimes near-desperation about the urgency of the situation -- the appalling condition of the ships being sent, the bad grace of America's insistence on despatching a boat to Cape Town to pick up payment for the ships in gold -- were set aside again and again to be rewritten in language ever more conciliatory. This practice went rather against the grain for Churchill, whose valiantly optimistic style of leadership was based, not on ignoring unpleasant realities, but on acknowledging them.

Roosevelt faced political pressures at home, where isolationist and anti-British sentiments did not abate until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It is nonetheless distressing to see Churchill, in some ways the greater man, in a position of continual supplication to the man who happened to lead the more powerful nation. Roosevelt's greatness had a paradoxical quality. Commonly, and with good reason, considered one of, if not the most, active and dynamic president in American history, he often approached difficult problems by a strategy of avoidance and ``creative procrastination.'' He had much confidence in his personal diplomacy. As his letters (and other testimony) would seem to indicate, he was a man who radiated warmth yet who was perhaps rather cold at heart.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, the balance of power between the two men began to shift. One of Kimball's invaluable notes tells of a War Cabinet meeting in which it was suggested that Britain continue the same gentle approach as before. Churchill's response: ``Oh! that is the way we talked to her while we were wooing her; now that she is in the harem, we talk to her quite differently.''

Yet, for all their differences, Churchill and Roosevelt managed to forge an alliance based on their abilities, as individuals, to recognize the paramount importance of the link between their nations and the dire seriousness of the common foe they faced. Contra Tolstoy's conclusions about the impotence of individuals, even of leaders caught in the coils of the historical process, there seems ample reason to believe that the progress and outcome of World War II would have been very different without the interaction of these two men.

Kimball's editing is truly outstanding. Not only is each document meticulously annotated as to time, place, and method of dispatch (not to mention time of arrival), but when the documents cease because the principals are meeting in person, he provides an admirably concise yet detailed account of the dynamics and results of the meeting. The most arcane references are clearly identified; even the significance of the jokes and banter exchanged by these exceptionally witty men is lucidly explained.

It is also gratifying to observe a scholar as hard-working and scrupulous as Professor Kimball avoiding the perils of pedantry and giving us comments that are crisp, vigorous, always to the point, yet never merely opinionated or quirky. The editing is never intrusive, ever helpful. And if occasionally Kimball does correct Roosevelt's sense of geography where, in fact, it needs little correction or chides Churchill for idiosyncracies of diction, one feels it is a familiarity his labors have earned him.

More than a handsomely packaged hunk of source materials for scholars, this correspondence is also an excellent and fascinating history of World War II which will be of considerable interest to the general reader. (The price may seem high, but it is an honest reflection of the value of these beautifully produced, superbly edited books, printed, of course, on acid-free paper.)

The documents themselves make for absorbing reading, while Kimball's fine commentary firmly places each document in context. Even readers with minimal background in the subject will be able to follow the political, diplomatic, and military maneuvers as they unfold on stages all over the world. And whoever reads these books will surely gain a clearer, more detailed understanding of the dynamics of those historical events which shaped the world we live in and whose reverberations are with us still.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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