Christmas in the White House, December, 1941 - a meeting that saved Europe
Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill- ‘Stayed up until 2am or 3am drinking brandy and smoking’.
On December 7 1941 Japan launched a devastating surprise attack on the US naval base of Pearl Harbour. America declared war on Japan, and Germany declared war on the United States four days later. This was no longer just a war in Europe. It had leapt onto the worldwide stage
The British prime minister Winston Churchill feared, however, that Europe's war against Germany would be subordinated to an American war against Japan fought in the Pacific. He believed that the war in Europe must be fought and won as a matter of priority. Churchill was a very persuasive man, and was confident that if he met American president Franklin Roosevelt, face to face, he would win him round to a Europe First campaign.
What a strange Christmas that must have been. Europe was being battered to its knees, Japan was preparing for an all out strike in the East, and the world's two most powerful men met face to face in the comfort of the White House.
We get an interesting glimpse of the arrival of Churchill, striding into the White House, a hive of activity as America prepared for war, on December 22. Churchill arrived having endured the opening phase of the war, which included the devastating Nazi march through Europe, the Dunkirk retreat, the Battle of Britain, and the battle of the Atlantic which was still raging.
The president greeted Churchill on the tarmac, and together they drove to the White House, where he stayed for three weeks. An old friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Mrs Charles Hamlin, watched as Churchill arrived: “ He gripped a walking stick with an attached flashlight for the purpose of navigating London blackouts. He reminded me of a big English bulldog who had been taught to give his new paw.”
Many years later, Alonzo Fields, then the White House chief butler, recalled Churchill's first morning there on December 23. The prime minister, he wrote, summoned him to his bedroom and said: “We want to leave here as friends right?...I must have a tumbler of sherry in my room before breakfast, a couple of glasses of scotch and soda before lunch and French Champagne and a 90-year-old brandy before I go to sleep at night.”
Mrs. Nesbitt, then head housekeeper at the White House, remembered: “Mr. Churchill looked poor-coloured and hungry, though he was heavy-set and, one could tell, had enjoyed good living. But they had pared to the bone over there, holding Hitler at bay, so I tried to feed them up while we had the chance. Every time the Churchill group came, it seemed we couldn't fill them up for days. Once we cooked for guests who didn't come, and offered it to some of the Englishmen who had just risen from the table, and they sat right down and ate the whole meal through, straight over again.”
“ In the days that followed, the president and prime minister stayed up talking, drinking brandy and smoking until 2 or 3am. For the better part of three weeks, the late night sessions continued, much to Eleanor Roosevelt's annoyance.”
Christmas Eve speech
On Christmas Eve, the two men lit the Christmas tree on the South Lawn. “Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies- more than any other day or any other symbol,” Roosevelt told the waiting crowd, before he introduced Churchill.
“There was a vast crowd, the voices drifted across the keen night air, the carols, old and yet for ever new, were sung in an atmosphere mellowed by the lights and the shadows,” Inspector Thompson recalled. “The voices of the President and the Prime Minister rang out with a message of hope and courage to all who strove for freedom.”
Shivering, Churchill- whom Roosevelt introduced as “my associate, my old and good friend”- came to the microphones. The crowd was not disappointed by what Churchill had to say.
“I spend this anniversary and festival far from my country, far from my family, yet I cannot truthfully say that I feel far from home...,” Churchill said. “Here, in the midst of war, raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes, here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart. Therefore we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm. Here, then, for one night only, each home throughout the English speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace.”
Churchill evoked the hopes of a country, and a world, now living in fear. “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter,” he continued. “Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, 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.”
Roosevelt was visibly moved by these stirring words. Churchill concluded: “And so, by God's mercy, a happy Christmas to you all.”
Struck by the solemnity of the task before her husband and her guest, and perhaps thinking too of her absent sons in the US armed forces, Mrs Roosevelt recalled “there was little joy in our hearts. The cold gripped us all so intensely that we were glad of a cup of tea on our return to the house.” Churchill probably had something stronger than a cup of tea. But in fact later that night he had a mild heart attack which he persuaded his doctor and friend Charles Wilson (later Lord Moran), to keep secret in case it stalled his mission. He was under immense strain, but in gaining Roosevelt's agreement to fight Germany first, before turning with all the might and power of America on the Japanese, he had won a significant victory for Britain and Europe.