Two of a kind.
"We were the only ones who had that experience of being Beatles. No one else knows what that's like."--Ringo Starr
World leader is a similarly exclusive club. And while leaders of nations might not always get along--adversary is just as natural a state for these types as colleague--they are the only ones who know what it is like to be one of that club: the first to be blamed, the first to be scorned, the first in line to be assassinated, the last one to make the final decision. They're all linked by that.
Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, though, were more than just men with similar jobs thrown together to defeat a common enemy. In Franklin and Winston, Jon Meacham writes that the two forged an unusually close friendship, and that that friendship played a crucial role in their defeat of the Axis powers in World War II.
(Yes, I know I just read another book by Meacham. I hate doing these two back to back like this; it makes me feel like some kind of weird literary fangirl. But sometimes interest in two different topics and the foibles of the NYPL reserve system bring together this kind of unhappy pairing.)
Roosevelt and Churchill had previously met in 1918 at a dinner in London while both were navy officials in their nations' governments. Neither thought much of each other at the time, and neither remembered the meeting particularly well. But in 1939, when Churchill became Prime Minister, he needed Roosevelt desperately; Britain was pretty much fighting Hitler alone and Churchilll knew that in order to survive, the US would have to come into the war somehow, despite the reluctance of an American public not anxious to get involved in a European war. Luckily for Churchill, Roosevelt was not an isolationist so the battle wasn't so much over if but when and how the US would help or come into the war on Britain's side. Even better, once they began to make contact with each other, they discovered they shared many of the same ideas about how to accomplish their common goal...more or less.
Luckily for everyone, I won't rehash Churchill and Roosevelt's maneuvers during World War II for you. There are plenty of people who can do a much better job of that than me, including Meacham in this book. The main question posed in this book, it would seem then, is whether the fact that Churchill and Roosevelt became so personally close made it easier to win the war.
It's a good question--obviously it's difficult to work with people you really dislike, but it's often just as easy to work with people whom you regard as neutral as it is to work with friends; in fact sometimes it's difficult to work with friends. Doing business with a friend is a good way to destroy a friendship, many will tell you. Obligations to others in both of your inner circles can sabotage the ability to work together; things you like about each other when just hanging out can turn into irritants when trying to put together a project. Knowing too much about each other can get in the way.
But friendship can certainly help, too--Meacham points out that the trust Churchill and Roosevelt had in each other allowed them to push through quickly decisions that might have taken too long if they had had to wend their way through other advisors and committees. So maybe we can't just generalize "friendship made victory possible," but rather look at the nature or balance of power in this particular friendship.
Churchill comes across as that little boy a teacher might find in his or her class who is a braggart, pushy, a leader, bright, well-informed, overly chatty, and capable of unexpected, sudden kindnesses. The one you love the most, have the highest hopes for, but who also drives you a little crazy. He was charming, a bit of a showman, and although confident, he had a need to be loved by everyone. His parents had been at best neglectful of him; at worst, downright disdainful (one contemporary of the elder Churchills said that even by the standards of absent Victorian parents, they were pretty bad). This can make people react in different ways. Some children would grow up to be wary and distrustful. Winston, ever imaginative and optimistic, somehow grew up still idolizing his parents and hoping for their love. He also developed an extremely helpful ability to both reconstruct any story with a happy spin and an endless willingness to forgive. A colleague noted that you could have a screaming argument with Churchill one night and he would greet you the next morning as if no cross words had ever been exchanged. Rather than make him a pushover, this enabled him to stand his ground and in many cases get his way; in times of crisis, shutting people out or carrying personal grudges wouldn't have advanced his cause.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, had grown up in an environment where he was endlessly adored, and therefore, never unsure of love, learned to return it carefully in order to gain power. It seemed he always managed to hold back part of himself as a caution, and as a charm to be held out to those who wanted more--like Churchill.
So there is the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship--two men, both similarly able to command the stage and command others, but one willing to give himself over endlessly and the other willing to give just enough to keep the other interested (though Churchill undoubtedly would have spun it that they were more equal). It's an oversimplification, no doubt, to say this, that Churchill was more personable, more open, more willing to give of himself while Roosevelt was cooler; when Stalin entered the picture, Roosevelt effortlessly sold out Churchill, making fun of him, excluding him, all part of what he considered to be the only way to win Stalin over. It's hard to imagine Churchill doing the same thing. But Roosevelt did manage to get Stalin to cooperate for a while, at least when he was most needed. Of course Roosevelt could also overrate his own ability to win over and control someone, telling people that Stalin was like a friend and someone he could trust, which is somewhat like saying I can trust that cobra not to attack me because I just fed it a rabbit. Then again, Roosevelt also overrated Chiang Kai-Shek and his ability to lead China, too. Roosevelt was confident, if nothing else, but not stupid confident; he could see when he was wrong and before he died, he had come around to Churchill's assessment of Stalin as untrustworthy. By then it didn't matter, though--they had gotten what they needed out of Stalin to win the war, and Churchill, though perhaps easily viewed as the junior partner in the relationship, got what he wanted when he set out on his courtship of Roosevelt: the survival of England, of Europe, and the defeat of fascism. This of course is due just as much to the rise of the US and decline of the British empire (something Churchill didn't willingly enjoy seeing) as Churchill's willingness to give in on the small things. But a man who was more stubborn or egotistical (not that Churchill was a minor leaguer in those areas) might not have been willing to give in, would have had to always win, would have seen Roosevelt more as a rival for the prize of savior than as a partner. Indeed, maybe if Churchill hadn't liked Roosevelt so much personally, ego might have gotten in the way. But he did. Friendship did matter.
Both men were prolific letter writers, which is helpful in understanding their personal closeness. Churchill, though, was a prolific writer of everything, which means that an author has to be careful not to let the man himself control the narrative (as Churchill famously said, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."). But Meacham had access to plenty of material by others who were there at the time; interviews with Churchill's daughter Mary were particularly interesting and helpful at putting a more neutral spin on things (as always, I became interested in some of the supporting characters in the story, such as Robert Sherwood, the playwright/screenwriter who became Roosevelt's speechwriter, and Nancy Astor, who only makes a cameo here, but was a great foil for Churchill--she was the one who said to him, "If you were my husband, I'd poison your tea," to which Churchill replied, "Madame, if I were your husband I'd drink it." Ah, the 1930s, when everyone seemed a little more clever...). If Churchill comes off as the more vivid, lively person here, it is really because he mostly was in real life. Not that Roosevelt was a shrinking violet, it's jsut that when it comes to big people striding on the world stage, Churchill took up an awful lot of the spotlight. Nor does that make Roosevelt uninteresting--we hear a little less from him, but that made me more curious. Opinion about Roosevelt is ever gyrating--most people rate him as one of the best presidents, but he had many detractors during his actual time in office. Look at what you see in newspapers now--some people writing about FDR as the savior of America during the Depression, others that his policies were a disaster only saved by other events. The subject bears more investigation. Meacham's book is a really fun read, and a good introduction to the main players (and he does make it clear that that is all it is intended to be), but it left me wanting more--which is good, and was the intention, as I said.
You may (or may not) notice that I use phrases and words like "comes across" and "seems" a lot when describing Churchill and Roosevelt and that is because of the always puzzling nature of reading books like this. No matter how many sources Meacham consulted while writing his book, inevitably some were missed, or left out, so his assessment is filtered through what he found, what he chose, filtered through him. It is subjective. And a person's own words--memoir, autobiography--are no better, in fact often worse (witness Churchill's willingness to control history noted above). So it seems that in order to know something you must endlessly read and read and read and hope someday you have found enough to understand the truth, but that's still never a sure thing. Sometimes I despair of ever knowing anything.