Just how special was the ‘special relationship’ in the Second World War? (Part 2, 1942–44)

The sources in this investigation have been carefully selected from the Churchill Archive to explore the relationship between the USA and UK in World War 2. As a collection of eight sources they can be used to build up a picture of the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt at three different levels: personal, operational and strategic. Teachers could ask students to work through the entire collection or get individuals, pairs or small groups to look at a smaller number of sources and then report back. However, ideally students should use the entire collection if possible. This way they can move beyond the sources as individual documents and use them more in the way a historian would, as a collection of documents which illustrate the past more effectively as a whole.

With this in mind, students who have looked at the collection might then be challenged with tasks which extend their thinking and understanding, such as the activities below.

Activity 1: Was the relationship between Britain and America special and if so in what way?

  • At a personal level between Churchill and Roosevelt?
  • At an operational level as allies in the war?
  • At a strategic level as joint authors of a future vision for the world?

You might ask students if the sources provide an answer to the question posed by this enquiry.

Source The ‘special relationship’ was only at the level of personal friendship

The ‘special relationship’ was ONLY at an operational level

The ‘special relationship’ was ONLY at the ‘future vision’ level
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Activity 2: What kind of picture do we get about the relationship between Britain and America during the Second World War from these sources?

Students can sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that documents represent ‘the whole’ of the story rather than being part of a puzzle which historians have to piece together. It might be useful to ask them to discuss the following assertions in groups:

  1. Letters and telegrams tell you about what is happening at the time
  2. Personal letters and telegrams tell you about what the letter writer thinks
  3. A British letter will tell you about public opinion in Britain
  4. An American letter will tell you about public opinion in America
  5. Personal letters are useless as sources because they only tell you about one person.

Activity 3: What factors influenced the relationship between Britain and America between 1942 and 1945?

As they look through the sources students might realise that the relationship between the two leaders changed and this altered the relationship between the two countries as well. This raises questions such as:

  • What changes occurred in the relationship between leaders and countries from 1942 to 1945?
  • Why did the changes take place? Was it because of the actions or experiences of the two leaders, events that were happening in the two countries, events that were happening elsewhere or a combination of these?
  • Was there a special relationship between Britain and America from 1942 to 1945? If so, what made it special?

Additional information

Some of the sources provide interesting starting points for students to investigate these questions further. Sources 1 and 7 show some aspects of the personal relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt.  Sources 2, 4, and 8 show some details of the operational relationship between the two countries and how America acted as the arsenal of Britain and her allies despite the official policy of neutrality. Sources 3 and 5 show more of the strategic features of the two countries and how they have common goals. Students could find much useful material to investigate these questions through further searches in the Churchill Archive. They might also want to look at the UK National Archives Cabinet Papers and also the British Pathé Collection. Relevant links to all of these resources can be found in the ‘Background’ section of this investigation.

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