Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston S. Churchill were two of the most powerful and interesting men of the 20th century. Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston is the story of their relationship with one another. Usually an author has to speculate to describe the feelings of historical characters toward others, but these two characters left an extensive record in the form of correspondence and cables along with numerous letters to third parties describing their impressions and attitudes about each another.
Their mutual relationship is probably worth a book because their joint efforts were instrumental in ridding the world of Nazism. Stalin and many Soviet historians might dispute that conclusion, arguing that the Russians had pretty much won World War II before the British and the Americans finally landed in France. Nevertheless, nearly all Western historians agree that the Anglo-American contribution in matériel, if not in blood, was necessary to defeat Hitler.
Roosevelt met Churchill briefly in World War I. Roosevelt remembered Churchill as pompous, stand-offish, and a bit of a bore. Churchill did not remember the meeting at all. Their intercourse in World War II was far more extensive, cordial, and productive.
Churchill needed Roosevelt much more than Roosevelt needed him. After the fall of France in 1940, England stood alone against Germany. Strong isolationist sentiment in the United States made it difficult for Roosevelt to offer much help until the Japanese forced the Americans’ hand at Pearl Harbor. But once the U.S. entered the war, its vast preponderance in wealth and manpower made Roosevelt the dominant partner.
Meacham’s narrative seems a little like a novel of manners in which we learn many intimate personal details about the principle characters — when they arose, what they had for cocktails and dinner, how the table was set, and what they wore — all while momentous historical events were unfolding around them. Both men had colossal egos and were sensitive to relatively modest slights. Churchill was miffed that Roosevelt never replied to a warm telegram congratulating the President on his election victory in 1940. Roosevelt exhibited jealous behavior whenever others lavishly complemented Churchill on his eloquence, interpreting the praise as an implicit unfavorable comparison to his own style. Yet both clearly had a strong affection for the other, which carried them through some very trying times, including World War II and the onset of the Cold War. But those monumental events merely provide the background for the interpersonal drama between two men. Meacham even casts their dealings with Joseph Stalin as somewhat analogous to the interposition of a third party in a love triangle.
Evaluation: Franklin and Winston is a little book, not a grand historical treatise. Nonetheless, there is a place for such books, and this one meets its modest pretensions quite well. Meacham’s exposition is clear and unadorned. The narrative is enhanced by virtue of extensive quotes from Churchill’s grandiloquent speeches and writings. I listened to this audio book, competently read by Grover Gardner.
Published unabridged on 11 compact discs by Books on Tape, Inc., in arrangement with Random House Audio Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2003