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

Source 3

Churchill’s account of a speech made by President Roosevelt on 17 December 1940


CHUR 4/174 (image 16)

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

Simplified Transcript

The President presented his plan at a press conference on 17 December, using a simple illustration. ‘Suppose my neighbour’s house catches fire and I can lend him a hose to help put it out I don’t say I want $15 for the hose, I say I want the hose back when he has put out the fire. Most Americans agree that the best way to defend America is to help Britain defend itself. It is in our own interest to do everything we can to help Britain. We should not let money get in the way of this.’

Original Transcript

The President returned from the Caribbean on December 16 and broached his plan at his Press Conference next day. He used a simple illustration. “Suppose my neighbour’s house catches fire and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out the fire. Now what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, ‘Neighbour, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.’ No! What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15 – I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.” And again: “There is absolutely no doubt in the mind of a very overwhelming number of Americans that the best immediate defence of the United States is the success of Great Britain defending itself; and that therefore, quite aside from our historic and current interest in the survival of Democracy in the world as a whole, it is equally important from a selfish point of view and of American defence that we should do everything possible to help the British Empire to defend itself.” Finally: “What I am trying to do is to eliminate the dollar sign.”

What is this source?

This is a Churchill’s account, in his history of the Second World War (Volume 2), of the speech made by President Roosevelt in December 1940 when he’s introducing the idea of a new policy to help Britain get the equipment it needs to fight the war.

Background to this source

This speech by Roosevelt, which Churchill is writing about and quoting from some years later in his history of the Second World War, introduces the idea of ‘Lend-Lease’ as a new policy to help Britain. Churchill had written a long letter (Source 2) a few days before Roosevelt made this speech, explaining his concerns that Britain may not be able to keep fighting if it couldn’t get enough food and equipment from its Empire and from America. Britain was also running out of money to pay for these supplies. Roosevelt now proposed to lend Britain the weapons and equipment it needed to fight the war without the need to pay cash for them.

The speech Roosevelt made in December 1940 was a response to Churchill’s letter (Source 2) which the latter had 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’ and 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. Roosevelt now proposed a new policy of ‘Lend-Lease’ which meant Britain could borrow the equipment and weapons without having to pay cash or borrow loans for them.

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. When does Roosevelt make this speech? How many days after receiving the letter from Churchill (Source 2)?
  2. What is Roosevelt suggesting America should do to help Britain?
  3. What reasons does he give to get Americans to support this idea?
  4. How does he say this will help America?

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?

Roosevelt’s quick response shows he was influenced by Churchill’s letter.

Roosevelt understood the need for America to help Britain.

The American people supported Roosevelt’s idea.

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

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • Remember that this source isn’t the actual speech made by Roosevelt, but Churchill’s own account of it, written some years later, in his history of the Second World War. This raises the issue of whether we can rely on sources like these. Do we know if this is exactly what Roosevelt said at the time? As with all history, caution is needed when trying to draw conclusions about events from material not written or said at the time ...
  • What does the timing of the speech tell us about how much Roosevelt wanted to help Britain?
  • Why does Roosevelt use the story of the neighbours?
  • How does Roosevelt show that it’s in America’s own interests to help Britain?

Source 4

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