Churchill and America

Exhibit Chronicles Famed Prime Minister’s U.S. Encounters

Posted February 4, 2004 at 2:55pm

By now Winston Churchill’s words are so thoroughly etched into the American political and social fabric that when references to his oratory pop up in venues ranging from the floor of the House of Representatives to a “Simpsons” episode, the effect, while usually eloquent, is hardly extraordinary.

Indeed, in the nearly six decades since the end of World War II, the silver-tongued, cigar-chomping former British prime minister has been enshrined in the American consciousness as the embodiment of the power of one man’s resistance to the scourge of totalitarianism — hence, the copious Churchillian invocations in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

And yet, the public has remained largely uninformed about Churchill’s encounters with the United States beyond the confines of the much-touted wartime alliance. Until now.

A new exhibit, opening today at the Library of Congress and billed as “the first ever comprehensive display of Churchill material in the United States,” seeks to illuminate the long-standing personal and diplomatic relationship between Churchill and what he considered the “Great Republic.”

Organized chronologically, the exhibit’s six rooms — brimming with letters, notes, maps illustrations, photos, audio recordings and even a Churchill painting from the private collection of Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) — take the viewer on a trip down Churchill’s private memory lane as he makes his way from the height of the Victorian era through much of “The American Century.”

An Early Connection

The fascination with the nation he would affectionately refer to as a “boisterous boy” started at an early age for Churchill — the scion of an aristocratic British father and a well-heeled American mother — and is first glimpsed in a precocious missive in which he requests to be excused from school to attend Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, where the American showman known as “Buffalo Bill” would be performing. (“For Heavens sake Remember!!!” the 12-year-old urges his mother.)

Still, when he finally set foot in the United States nearly a decade hence, his initial impressions were far from uniformly sympathetic. Indeed, during his debut 1895 visit to the United States, he wrote to his brother Jack, that “the essence of American journalism is vulgarity divested of truth.” Five years later, after a disappointing U.S. lecture tour — Churchill had parlayed his heroics in the Boer War into widespread fame thanks in part to a disconcerting talent for simultaneously fighting in and reporting on a variety of British military colonial adventures — organized by an American, Churchill would deem his less-than-stellar Svengali “a vulgar Yankee impresario.”

(Americans also appear to have had a mixed reaction to the young Churchill after the lecture tour. Teddy Roosevelt later wrote that he found the Englishman to be “a rather cheap character”; and Churchill’s accounts of his exploits in the Boer War did not sit well with some U.S. audiences, who disapproved of British actions in South Africa.)

But for the most part, Churchill and the New World embraced one another, with the erstwhile British colony offering the ambitious English politician a welcome reprieve in time of political defeat. When his Conservative Party was turned out of power in May 1929, the former chancellor of the exchequer embarked on a grand West Coast tour of the United States, during which he traveled in steel magnate Charles Schwab’s private railway car, dined with publisher William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon, was entertained by Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, and chatted up film star Charlie Chaplin — who, he related to his wife, Clementine, in one letter, was “bolshy in politics & delightful in conversation.”

Forming a Partnership

These North American sojourns prior to his ascendancy to the British premiership in May 1940 also offered Churchill a chance to observe first-hand the breadth of U.S. capabilities.

“As he tours America more extensively, he sees the enormous potential of the U.S. and the enormous industrial strength of the U.S,” said Alan Packwood, director of Cambridge’s Churchill Archives Centre, which organized the exhibit in conjunction with the Library. “This reinforces his view that if you are going to have security and stability in the world … you need to have a partnership between the English-speaking peoples.”

And by 1938, with Hitler’s Wehrmacht threatening to subsume much of Europe, Churchill began to forcefully make his case to the United States in radio addresses aimed at sparking U.S. involvement in the war.

Even over the distance of the decades, there is something distinctly stirring about listening to an early broadcast — in which he exhorted the United States and Britain to arm against the Nazi menace — while at the same time reading his handwritten corrections and notes on an original copy of the speech.

Although Churchill established a friendship with President Franklin Roosevelt in the years leading up to the U.S. entry into World War II (samplings of their prolific correspondence — initiated by Roosevelt — is included in the exhibit) and is welcomed on Capitol Hill three weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to address Congress, several documents also make clear that for some Americans, Churchill’s proddings were viewed in an unwelcome light. Most poignant among these is a letter he received from one disgruntled Coloradan while visiting the White House in 1942. Here the sender has emblazoned an otherwise blank sheet of paper with the words “Go Home.”

Of course, nothing succeeds like success, and in the war’s aftermath, Churchill became something of an icon in the United States at a time when his own country, having ousted his Conservative Party in the 1945 parliamentary elections, indirectly removed him from power (at least until 1951, when the Conservatives regained power). And so, it’s hardly surprising that Churchill would return to the birthplace of his mother to deliver his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Mo. — a move which cemented his place as a patron saint of the early anti-communist movement in the United States. Adoring 1950s school children, reflecting the general cultural adulation of the time, would write him letters declaring “I hope you live to a hundred” and expressing solidarity with his anti-Soviet posture. President Kennedy and Congress would even bestow on Churchill the rare distinction of honorary citizenship.

Putting the Exhibit Together

Given the extent of Churchill’s post-war popularity in the United States, it seems somewhat odd, however, that a comprehensive showing of Churchill materials would be so long in coming.

Indeed, Churchill’s obsession with the written word would seem to have made him the ideal subject for a full-scale exhibit long before the dawn of the 21st century. His extensive collection of personal papers included 1 million items and filled 2,500 boxes. And he even saved the scribbled notes he exchanged with Averell Harriman while the two flew in a noisy B-24 bomber to a 1942 conference in Moscow with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

But as Packwood explained, postponements in the completion of Churchill’s official biography, the extensive conservation and cataloging required after the papers’ 1995 purchase from the Churchill family estate with U.K. lottery funds, as well as the necessity of first exhibiting them to the British public, contributed to the delay in any “substantial” showing of the papers in America.

Even after Packwood began discussing the possibility of such an exhibit with Library officials, LOC historical specialist Daun van Ee admitted he was skeptical the world’s largest library had the necessary Churchill resources on hand.

“After I began digging I realized there was far more than I had realized,” van Ee said.

Among his discoveries: 15 previously unknown letters signed by Churchill, in addition to a 1706 letter written by Churchill’s ancestor the Duke of Malborough, which van Ee called the “frosting on the cake.” (All in all, the Library contributed about 70 percent of the exhibit materials, with the remainder of the 200-some items coming from the Churchill Archives Centre and a handful from the Chartwell Trust.)

Once the project got under way, said van Ee, the American Library of Congress and British Churchill Archives Centre “worked together like the Allies” in completing the Herculean task of launching such an exhibit.

“No problem couldn’t be solved in two e-mails,” he said.

“Churchill and the Great Republic” runs through June 26 in the Northwest Gallery of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. The exhibit is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday.