A new World War II history claims that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s overriding wartime aim was to destroy the British empire, paving the way for America to replace Britain in its former imperial domains. The book depicts the U.S. war leader as being at least as concerned with undermining his British ally as he was with defeating Nazi Germany and Japan.
The author, Oxford University historian John Charmley, accuses Britain’s wartime chief, Winston Churchill, of being Roosevelt’s dupe.
Charmley says Churchill closed his eyes to Roosevelt’s “Machiavellian” design to create a new world order led by, and mainly benefiting, the United States.
The historian goes further in his anti-American views than many others, but his book, “Churchill’s Grand Alliance,” is part of a wave of anti-U.S. revisionism that has swept Britain during this year’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the allies’ victory.
Doubts raised about America’s objectives during the war partially reflect the chill that has settled over Anglo-American relations as a result of more recent problems.
The British are miffed at the Clinton administration’s intervention in the negotiations to bring peace to Northern Ireland. There are longstanding differences between Washington and London over the war in Bosnia. The lack of personal rapport between President Clinton and Prime Minister John Major also has contributed to the current strain.
Underlying the specific issues is a growing British sense of hurt that the old Anglo-American “special relationship,” born of the wartime alliance, no longer figures highly in the thinking of U.S. officials.
Julian Pettifer, another British historian, while disagreeing with many of Charmley’s conclusions, says he finds his attitude understandable.
As long as the Cold War lasted, the British couldn’t vent their frustration over their national decline on the Americans, whose military power was essential to their national security.
“Now,” Pettifer points out, “that’s no longer a consideration.”
In his book, Charmley portrays Roosevelt as an inveterate intriguer who “saw the war as an occasion … to prepare the way for the United States to supersede Britain … “
The author says that before America entered the war following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. president seized every opportunity to weaken Britain with an eye on the post-war balance of power.
Charmley claims that in December 1940, when Britain fought alone against the might of Nazi Germany, Roosevelt demanded that Churchill send the last British gold reserves to the United States in exchange for arms and aircraft. This was meant to ensure Britain would be financially prostrate when peace came, Charmley suggests.
The British did, in fact, liquidate their financial reserves, including their gold, to pay for the weapons. At the time, U.S. law required that belligerents in a war must pay cash for American arms. When the United States entered World War II, Congress passed the so-called Lend-Lease Law, which allowed the shipment of arms without payment.
Charmley also contends that Britain was bilked in exchanging bases in the British West Indies for 50 U.S. destroyers, vitally needed in 1940 to fight German U-boats in the Atlantic.
The World-War-I-era destroyers that FDR sent were “overpriced” and “useless,” Charmley argues, while Churchill’s relinquishing of the island bases was “a grievous blow at our authority and, ultimately, our sovereignty.”
The military value of the destroyers in helping to sink German submarines has long been a matter of debate among historians.
Charmley describes Churchill as a victim of sentimental attachment to the United States stemming partly from the fact his mother was American. In contrast, he says Roosevelt was governed by “an abiding dislike of (British) imperialism.”
In a previous book, Charmley argued that Churchill should have made peace with Germany in 1940 after the fall of France. That way, he said, Britain would not have been decisively weakened by its subsequent war effort and might have been able to preserve the British empire.
Some British experts have accused Charmley of distorting history by failing to take into account the political conditions at the time.
Historian Michael Harrington, writing in the London Sunday Telegraph, said Charmley’s “wrongheaded” version of events overlooks the strong isolationist sentiment prevalent in America before Pearl Harbor.
“Any help that Roosevelt could give was (limited by) U.S. neutrality laws (as well as the fact that) 1940 was a presidential election year in the United States,” Harrington emphasized. “In practice, this meant Britain had to pay for what it needed, which led to a heavy drain on our reserves….”
Far from being tricked by Roosevelt, Churchill devised a strategy for fighting the war that prevailed once the United States entered the conflict, Harrington said.
He added that the U.S. decision to defeat Germany first - despite America’s fury at Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor - “was the fruit of Churchill’s diplomacy and his inspired public relations campaign in the United States.”