The Royal Air Force’s triumph in the 1940 Battle of Britain and Winston’s dogged will to win made a deep impression on US President Franklin Roosevelt.
Now, the President was willing to make a deal with Winston. In exchange for the British bases the United States needed in the Caribbean to protect American shipping, Roosevelt agreed to supply the fifty destroyers Winston wanted to counteract a threat that was making the Atlantic Ocean extremely dangerous.
Threat in the Atlantic
This was the threat presented by German submarines which were sinking US, British and other merchant ships at a rate that meant Britain could be starved of the food. armaments and other vital supplies it needed to survive.
Winston regarded the battle of the Atlantic as the most serious struggle of the entire war, for he recognized that if it were lost, that could be the end of British resistance to Hitler.
The “Destroyers for Bases” agreement was announced in September 1940. For Winston, this was a significant achievement: it symbolized the start of the alliance between Britain and the United States which he had been seeking since World War Two had begun a year earlier.
Roosevelt insisted on secrecy. The ambitions of the Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler and his widespread European conquests so far gave the war a global importance. However, the President believed that Congress and the American nation as a whole were still opposed to intervening in what seemed to them a purely European affair.
For this reason, the scheme for long term cooperation which developed was given a cryptic name: the Standardization of Arms Committee. Its purpose was to pinpoint and exploit strategic areas in which Britain and the USA could co operate.
Harry Hopkins in Britain
When Harry Hopkins, a New Dealer and Roosevelt’s special envoy arrived in Britain early in January 1941, he was informed that the United States needed to send a minimum of twenty-four million tons of arms and sixteen million tons of food to maintain the British war effort.
Problems arose, though, over how Britain was going to pay for the war supplies. After only fifteen months of war, Britain’s gold and dollar reserves were already seriously depleted. They totalled a little over half the cost of the arms supplies ordered for the first three months of 1941.
Roosevelt solved the problem with the Lend-Lease arrangement, which allowed the British to receive arms and other supplies from the US and delay payment until after the war was over.
Lend-Lease came with a hard bargain: Britain would have to pay some of her debts in gold and sell her commercial assets in the United States. But despite the harsh terms of the arrangement, it signalled to Winston a long-term American commitment to aid Britain in the struggle against Nazi Germany.
Cementing American Aid
The support of the United States was confirmed in talks held in Washington at the end of January 1941, which revealed that the Americans were willing to consider creating a unified military command for their own and British forces should they be forced into the war at some future time.
Hopkins also concluded two more agreements with Winston’s government in London. First, where the need was urgent, American aircraft carriers would be made available to transport aircraft to Britain. Secondly, British and American intelligence in Nazi-occupied countries would pool their resources.
Practical co operation began before the end of January when a Purple encoding machine, the Japanese version of the German Enigma machine, arrived at the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire north of London. Two American signals intelligence experts arrived with it.
The USA and Japan
The Americans had been keeping a careful watch on the Japanese, whose aggressions in China over the previous decade, coupled with their plans for economic dominance over the Pacific, looked as if they could escalate into war against the United States.
Now,with the Purple machine a their disposal, decoding experts at Bletchley Park could read the thousands of top secret radio signals sent out by Japanese diplomats, consular officials and naval and merchant ships.
Harry Hopkins returned to Washington at the end of January, considerably impressed by what he had seen. Churchill made sure that Roosevelt’s emissary learned as much about Britain at war as he could manage during his three-week stay.
What Harry Hopkins Saw
Churchill took Hopkins to Scotland, where he heard the Prime Minister tell a Glasgow audience, “”My one aim is to extirpate Hitlerism from Europe.” The two men also went to Dover on the south coast of England where they surveyed the gun batteries pointing across the English Channel towards the coast of Nazi-occupied France only twenty one miles away.
While in London, Hopkins was able to observe how the life of the city and the good humor of Londoners were maintained, despite the air raids and rationing of food, clothing and fuel.
Hopkins spent his last weekend in Britain before returning to the United States at Chequers, Winston’s country home in Kent, southeast England.
Hopkins brought along a box of American gramophone records and Winston took to the jazz, jive and Big Band tunes straight away. The records were still playing at well past midnight.
Winston’s Principal Private Secretary Eric Seal wrote that he had seen “the PM walking about, sometimes dancing by himself in time with the music. We all got a bit sentimental and Anglo-American under the influence of a good dinner and the music.”
An Anglo-American Friendship
While he was in Britain, Hopkins formed a strong and enduring friendship with Winston and his admiration for the Prime Minister helped to break down the remaining barriers that stood in the way of Anglo-American co operation.
“He has an amazing hold on the British people of all classes and groups,” Hopkins remarked. “He has particular strengths both with the military establishment and the working people.”
- Williams, Andrew: The Battle Of The Atlantic: The Allies’ Submarine Fight Against Hitler’s Gray Wolves Of The Sea )New York, NY: Basic B ooks 2004) ISBN-10: 0465091563/ISBN-13: 978-0465091560
- Hopkins, June: Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer (World of the Roosevelts) (Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) ISBN-10: 0230613659/ISBN-13: 978-0230613652