Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_special relations

Just how special was the ‘special relationship’ in the Second World War? (Part 1, 1939–41)

The sources have been carefully selected from the Churchill Archive to explore the question of the relationship between the US and UK in the Second World War. As a collection of ten 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 or pairs or small groups to look at a smaller number of sources and then report back. However, it’s probably better to try to get students to use the entire collection if possible. This way they can move beyond the sources as a batch of individual documents and use them more in the way a historian would, as a grouping of documents which illustrate the past more effectively as a coherent collection.

With this basis in mind, students who have looked at the collection might then be challenged with tasks which extend their thinking and understanding. For example …

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 states with similar concerns and interests and later 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 ‘special relationship’ 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 the 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 definitely tell you about what is happening at the time.
  2. Personal letters and telegrams definitely tell you about what the letter writer thinks.
  3. A British letter will tell you about public opinion or the views of political leaders in Britain.
  4. An American letter will tell you about public opinion or the views of political leaders 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 1939 and 1941?

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

  • What changes occurred in the relationship between leaders and countries from 1939 to 1941?
  • Why did the changes take place? Was it because of things that the two leaders did; 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 1939 to 1941 and what made it special?

Some of the sources provide interesting starting points for students to investigate the questions further. Sources 1 and 7 show some aspects of the personal relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt. Sources 2, 4, 8 and 10 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. After that, they might want to look at the UK National Archives Cabinet Papers, the British Pathe Collection and the Archives of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. Relevant links to all of these resources can be found in the ‘Background’ section.

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