It takes a bold man to invite himself to the White House and yet, if for nothing else, boldness was what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was known for.
Mere days after the Empire of Japan launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and almost a dozen Allied territories throughout the Pacific, Churchill cabled Franklin Roosevelt, insisting on an immediate summit.
“We could review the whole war plan in light of reality and new facts, as well as problems of production and distribution.”
The journey across the U-boat infested waters of the North Atlantic was a dangerous gamble but Churchill knew it was essential for the survival of his nation.
On December 8, FDR had immediately declared war on Japan, but he did not do so against the other Axis powers, nor had Hitler declared war on the U.S. This was concerning. While the country was unified in war against Japan, the U.S. declaring war on the rest of the Axis powers could cause division only days after the nation unified against Japan. Hitler needed to make the first move. While Hitler and Mussolini’s declaration would eventually come on December 11, this wasn’t enough for Churchill. He needed U.S. to adopt a “Europe first” a.k.a. “Germany First” strategy to win the war. U-Boats be dammed, “Winnie” was coming to Washington.
It had been almost a decade since Churchill’s last visit to America, and nearing 50 since his first visit as a 21-year-old officer on his way to Cuba, but it’s safe to say he had never seen the country as it was in those dark days following Pearl Harbor. America had changed radically in just three weeks. Pillboxes and troops lined the streets of the nation’s capital. Windows were blackened with heavy protective drapes. When the Army ran short of anti-air machine guns to mount on buildings, they began placing broomsticks on turrets in the hope that deterrent was a sufficient defense.
FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt fought most of the recommended defensive measures of the Executive Mansion but conceded on a few. Most notably, a safety bunker was built under the Treasury building with a tunnel that connected it to the White House. A Secret Service agent recalled that, as FDR refused to visit the cramped hideaway, they would run drills to see how fast they could get an agent in a wheelchair into the bunker, which they managed in just under a minute.
When Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. personally invited FDR to visit the bunkers, he replied “Henry I will not go down into the shelter unless you allow me to play poker with all the gold in your vaults.”
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, found out, on the day of his arrival, that Churchill would be their house guest. Irate as she was for not being told, FDR assured her he would be here “only a few days.” In fact Churchill would be in the White House for three weeks. On the evening of December 22, both Roosevelts, along with a small entourage, waited for Churchill’s arrival at the airport.
In Doris Kerns Goodwins’ “No Ordinary Time,” she records that the British personnel were instantly enchanted by D.C.
Churchill’s aide de-camp wrote “Washington represented something immensely precious. Freedom, hope, strength. We had not seen an illuminated city in five years. My heart filled.”
In the second floor of the White House — the private family quarters — became a makeshift British command center as Churchill settled in.
The day before Christmas Eve, both men held a joint press conference in the Oval Office as cigarette smoke filled the room. In an act of respect and unity with FDR, Churchill sat alongside his new ally until the press complained that they couldn’t see him. Churchill, one to never be outdone, not only stood up but jumped onto the seat of his chair to the applause of all. The press reported the visit in glowing reviews. While Americans had the might, Churchill had the mind. We were a nation anxious for battle and victory. Churchill knew if he could channel that passion and production, the free world would prevail.
Throughout the conference, when battle commanders would bristle at one another, it was the leadership and wisdom of both FDR and Churchill that ameliorated tension in the new Anglo-American army. Even as reports came of Japanese victories in the Pacific, FDR supported the Europe First policy. When American commanders demanded an immediate attack on Germany through a cross channel invasion of Nazi-occupied France, a plan to be codenamed SLEDGEHAMMER, it was FDR who superseded these plans by agreeing to the still developing British strategy of the “soft underbelly;” attacking peripheral locations to build the experience, manpower, and the machinery necessary to win an inevitable invasion of Nazi-occupied France.
The major victory FDR claimed was establishing a Joint Command structure, as opposed to one in London and one in the U.S. This would eventually put an American at the head of all Allied forces, a move that foreshadowed the advent of America joining the global stage.
Churchill reported back to London that “we live here as a big family,” overjoyed with the progress of the visit. He and FDR would stay up into the late hours, much to Eleanor’s chagrin, drinking scotch and smoking cigars. Perhaps Churchill’s presence took some of the sting out of the fact that none of the four Roosevelt boys would be home for Christmas; they were all in uniform.
On Christmas Eve, both men gathered for the Christmas tree lighting, a tradition of D.C. The Secret Service warned against it, FDR compromised by relocating it from Lafayette Park to the White House South Lawn. Fifteen thousand Americans braved the cold and omnipresent fear of air raids to see and hear these two men speak. Two men whose leadership would liberate the world. In the days to come Churchill would awe the country with a speech to Congress. The countries of the world would begin to come together in what Churchill would call the “united nations.”
He would later lay a wreath at the tomb of George Washington. They later attended Methodist church services as FDR was an Episcopalian and Churchill of course an Anglican. Other compromises were just over the horizon but on their unity and their desire to defeat Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, they never compromised.
In the years that followed, the world would be freed, but FDR would not live to see it. To save Britain, Churchill would set it on a course that would deny it the Empire he loved with all his heart. However, that night, that magical night, the two men came together under a crescent moon. As the tree lit with colorful lights, the crowd cheered, and the “President’s Own” played “Joy to the World.”
The crowd sang Christian hymns on the White House lawn, public property. When FDR introduced “his old and good friend,” Churchill to the stage, he said in a tenor that was resolved as it was reassuring: “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter…But now, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”
By the will of these two leaders, and the sacrifice of millions, those children would receive just that.
(This author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Jon Meacham’s “Franklin and Winston,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “No Ordinary Time” and my own “December 1941,” and the personal papers of Eleanor Roosevelt as well as the diaries of several White House officials.)
Craig Shirley is a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian. His books include, “Reagan’s Revolution, The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All,” “Rendezvous with Destiny, Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America,” "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years," and “ Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan." He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, “December, 1941” and his new 2019 book, “Mary Ball Washington,” a definitive biography of George Washington’s mother. Shirley lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and the Reagan Ranch. He has been named the First Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater and will teach a class this fall at the University of Virginia on Reagan. He appears regularly on Newsmax TV, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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