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)

Source 2

Letter from Winston Churchill to President Roosevelt, 8 December 1940


CHAR 23/4/11 (images 1 and 4)

We've highlighted the parts of the document which appear in the transcription below.

Simplified Transcript

My dear Mr President
As we reach the end of 1940, I feel you’d want me to tell you what I think will honestly happen in 1941. I do this because I think most Americans understand that their safety depends on the survival of Britain and its Empire and their control of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The control of the Pacific Ocean by the US Navy and the Atlantic by the British Navy is essential for our security and trade and it’s the best way to stop the war spreading to the US.

(Section 17). Finally, I need to discuss money. The more weapons and ships you send us, the faster our money is spent. We’ve already spent a lot so far… Very soon we won’t be able to pay for the shipping and supplies.

Original Transcript

Printed for the War Cabinet. December 1940.
W.P. (40) 466 (Final Revise).
December 8, 1940.
It is requested that special care may be taken to
ensure the secrecy of this document.
10 Downing Street, Whitehall,
December 8, 1940.
My dear Mr. President,
AS we reach the end of this year, I feel you will expect me to lay before you the prospects for 1941. I do so with candour and confidence, because it seems to me that the vast majority of American citizens have recorded their conviction that the safety of the United States as well as the future of our two democracies and the kind of civilization for which they stand, are bound up with the survival and independence of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Only thus can those bastions of sea power, upon which the control of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans depend, be preserved in faithful and friendly hands. The control of the Pacific by the United States Navy and of the Atlantic by the British Navy, is indispensable to the security and the trade routes of both our countries, and the surest means of preventing war from reaching the shores of the United States.

17. Last of all, I come to the question of Finance. The more rapid and abundant the flow of munitions and ships which you are able to send us, the sooner will our dollar credits be exhausted. They are already, as you know, very heavily drawn upon by the payments we have made to date…

…The moment approaches when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies.

What is this source?

This is a letter from Winston Churchill to President Roosevelt in December 1940.

Background to this source

Churchill had become Prime Minister in May 1940. This is an extract from a very long letter which he wrote to Roosevelt, with eighteen sections and a table to show how many British ships were being sunk. Britain needed a lot of ships to transport food and equipment but many were being sunk by German U-boats (submarines) in the Atlantic Ocean. Churchill was very worried that Britain was running out of money to pay for the weapons and ships which it was buying from America.

This letter was written after a very difficult year for Britain. Germany had successfully invaded many countries in Europe including France and was now attacking Britain very heavily. The Royal Air Force had prevented an invasion by winning the Battle of Britain against the Luftwaffe (the German air force) but Britain was now being heavily bombed in the ‘Blitz’. Its food supplies were under threat because of attacks by German submarines on merchant ships bringing food and weapons from countries in the British Empire and from America. America was a neutral country at this time but had agreed to a policy of ‘Cash and Carry’ which meant Britain could buy supplies and weapons but had to pay in cash for them and collect them in ships.

You’ll see that this doesn’t look like a letter at all. It’s not in the form it would have been sent to Roosevelt. What we see here is a printed copy which was circulated to the members of the War Cabinet to keep them up to date with Churchill’s dealings with President Roosevelt. During the Second World War, the War Cabinet was the key decision-making body in the UK government. You can also see that the top part of this document has been roughly scribbled out in crayon. This would have happened several years later, after the Second World War had ended: Churchill wrote a huge history of the Second World War and went back to his original letters and documents (his own primary sources!) to jog his memory and shape his account. Many of the crucial documents, like this one, were printed and included in his history.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember, we’re hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating what was special about the relationship between Britain and the US in the early years of the Second World War. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level

  1. Why is Churchill writing to Roosevelt?
  2. What arguments does he give for why America should support Britain?
  3. What problem does Churchill highlight at the end of the letter?
  4. What do you think Churchill is hoping Roosevelt’s response will be?

Deeper level

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference?

Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?

America was essential to help Britain win the war.

Britain was essential to stop the war spreading to America.

Britain and America’s interests were important for the whole world.

The relationship between Britain and the US was more like allies in war than friendship between two countries.

Download table (PDF)
Download table (Word document)

Need help interpreting the source?

  • What does this letter tell us about the help that America was already giving to Britain?
  • Churchill was really worried about how successfully Britain could defend itself against the Germans. How can we tell this from the letter?
  • What message is Churchill trying to give to Roosevelt and what answer do you think he is hoping for?

Explore the guide to interpreting letters

Source 3

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