Feature

Christmas at the White House with Winston Churchill

After Pearl Harbor, the British prime minister insisted on visiting President Roosevelt in Washington.

By Meredith Hindley | HUMANITIES, Fall 2016 | Volume 37, Number 4

Posted on December 21, 2016

On a cold December 22, 1941, an airplane carrying Winston Churchill touched down at an airfield near Washington, D.C. The prime minister had come to pay a visit to President Franklin Roosevelt and discuss how Britain and the United States could best coordinate strategy in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Two weeks earlier, Roosevelt had stood before Congress and delivered a scathing indictment of the Japanese assault that left the U.S. Pacific fleet in pieces. “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” Roosevelt told Congress. The attack had destroyed 188 aircraft, sunk four battleships and one minesweeper, and turned thirteen other ships into floating wreckage. The human cost was even greater, as almost 3,500 sailors and soldiers lay either dead or wounded.

Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan, which was quickly granted. On December 11, Nazi Germany, Japan’s ally, issued a declaration of war against the United States—and the United States responded in kind. After months of skirting the edge of neutrality, the United States had joined the Allies to fight the Axis in Europe and the Pacific.

Churchill welcomed American entry into the war but worried that pride and a desire for revenge would lead Roosevelt and his military chiefs to focus on Japan. Hoping to sway the president to prioritize the fight in Europe, where Nazi Germany continued its brutal assault on Britain and the Soviet Union, Churchill suggested he come for a visit to Washington.

“We could review the whole war plan in light of reality and new facts, as well as the problems of production and distribution,” he wrote Roosevelt. The president, knowing full well what the prime minister was up to, expressed concern that the voyage across the Atlantic, which crawled with German submarines, might be too hazardous. Churchill waved away Roosevelt’s fears about safety, arguing the bigger danger lay in not coordinating strategy immediately.

The global picture was harsh and threatening, with each new angle on the conflict giving way to another. Even the attack on Hawaii was part of a larger Japanese offensive that included assaults on Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, and Midway Island. Britain suffered ongoing losses from Japanese attacks on Hong Kong and Malaya. Churchill also worried about how American entry into the war would affect its relations with Vichy France. What would that mean for North Africa?

Knowing how tenacious Churchill could be, Roosevelt quickly relented. “Delighted to have you here at the White House,” the president wrote on December 10.

It is not really possible for a prime minister to disappear from London without anyone noticing. There is only so long that regrets can be given and excuses made before people begin to speculate.

As Churchill endured a turbulent ten-day trip aboard the British battleship Duke of York, Radio Berlin conjectured that he was in Washington, Moscow, or even the Middle East. Just four hours before Churchill arrived in Washington, a German radio broadcast noted that “diplomatic opinion is increasingly voiced that Churchill is in the Middle East.”

After the Duke of York docked at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on December 22, Churchill flew the last leg to Washington, where he was warmly received. “There was the President waiting in his car,” wrote Churchill. “I clasped his strong hand with comfort and pleasure.” They had not seen each other since their first meeting four months earlier in Newfoundland, although they had corresponded by telegram before that and with an increasing sense of comradery since.

At the White House, the two leaders paused long enough for the press corps to snap a few photos outside the front entrance, Churchill holding his cigar to the side. The fifty-nine-year-old Roosevelt, dressed in a patrician grey pinstripe suit, stands a full head taller than Churchill, who wore a double-breasted peacoat and a cap with the insignia of the Brotherhood of Trinity House, a royally chartered private corporation that cared for lighthouses and provided pilots for navigating the waterways for northern Europe. Churchill, who at age sixty-seven still loved a good uniform, had been a member since 1913. He also carried a walking stick outfitted with a light on the end, a necessity for navigating the nightly London blackouts. After the flashbulbs, Churchill popped his cigar back in his mouth and the two men headed inside.

Churchill stayed at the White House for the next three weeks, taking up residence in the Blue Room. The American newspapers couldn’t help but comment on the irony of the prime minister residing in the mansion that British troops burned during the War of 1812. The close quarters helped Churchill and Roosevelt cement their friendship. They started talking in the morning and didn’t stop until lights out, turning over ideas and weighing options. Both possessed lively minds that thrived on information. There were also some revealing moments. Roosevelt rolled his way over to Churchill’s room, to find the prime minister pink and pruned from his bath, dictating as he walked around, oblivious to the fact that his towel had fallen away.

The prime minister, of course, didn’t travel to Washington alone. The rest of his retinue—eighty-six members strong, ranging from Admiral Sir Dudley Pound and General Sir John Dill to stenographers, valets, detectives, private secretaries, and a code clerk—were lodged elsewhere.

The Washington that welcomed the British delegation had changed in the days since Pearl Harbor. Neon signs were dimmed. Black hoods covered the glow from fireboxes. Outdoor Christmas lights were rare, in keeping with regulations to avoid “unnecessary illumination of any kind.” Government agencies were being relocated to the Midwest to make room for military mobilization. Rationing, however, hadn’t yet reached the White House. When Churchill received two eggs at breakfast, he told First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, “Why, we only have one egg a week at home.”

The first meeting between Roosevelt, Churchill, and their military advisers was held on December 23 at 4:45 pm. The British received an early Christmas present—and the news for which they hoped. Roosevelt and his service chiefs were committed to a “Germany first” policy, which called for prioritizing the war in Europe over the Pacific. Disagreement, however, arose over where to strike first in Western Europe. The British favored an offensive in North Africa, which would provide a base for attacking southern France and Italy, while Americans wanted to take the fight to France directly across the English Channel.

Alongside discussions of strategy, there was also Christmas to attend to. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the president and the first lady distributed gifts to their 206 staff members. As they filed through the Oval Office, shaking hands with both Franklin and Eleanor, staff members received a photograph with the words “Christmas 1941” printed at the bottom. The picture featured the couple on the front porch at Hyde Park, the president in shirt sleeves and the first lady working her knitting needles.

After dusk, Churchill and part of the British delegation joined the president and the first lady on the South Portico of the White House for the lighting of the White House Christmas tree. Bundled up against the cold night air, the crowd pushed against the barricades to catch a glimpse of the world leaders. Multicolored lights soon came to life on the towering tree, and the president and prime minister delivered remarks.

“There are many men and women in America—sincere and faithful men and women—who asked themselves this Christmas: ‘How can we light our trees?” said Roosevelt, standing before radio microphones. “How can we meet and worship with love and with uplifted hearts in a world at war, a world of fighting and suffering and death?” Roosevelt believed that when people armed their hearts, the nation would endure and achieve victory. “Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas day signifies—more than any other day or any other symbol. Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them, we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere.” To encourage “the arming of our hearts,” he issued a proclamation, declaring January 1 a day of prayer.

Churchill also spoke, noting his mother’s American heritage and how he treasured his friendships with Americans. “I spend this anniversary and festival far from my country, far from my family, and yet I cannot truthfully say that I feel far from home,” he said. On this “strange Christmas eve,” he dedicated the night and holiday to children, giving them one night of wonder without the cares of war. “Make the children happy in a world of storm,” he told the American public. “Now, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance, or denied the right to live in a free and decent world.”

It was never going to be an especially joyful holiday for the Roosevelts. Franklin’s mother, Sara, a force of personality in her own right, died earlier in the year. All four of the Roosevelt sons were in uniform and stationed elsewhere. Their daughter, Anna, decided to stay in Seattle with her husband and children. Instead of hanging stockings for their grandchildren, Eleanor hung a stocking on the mantle in the presidential bedroom for Fala, their beloved Scottish terrier, tucking a rubber bone inside. Rather than Franklin continuing the holiday tradition of reading A Christmas Carol to a group of wide-eyed grandchildren at his feet, another meeting was held to discuss wartime strategy.

On Christmas morning, the president and prime minister, guarded by a phalanx of gun-toting Secret Service agents, traveled up 16th Street to attend church at Foundry Methodist, sitting together in the fourth pew. Members of the British delegation also attended, along with General George Marshall and General Hap Arnold. The Stars and Stripes and Union Jack hung side by side next to the altar, while a bouquet of Easter lilies honored the memory of the president’s mother. After the hymns were sung and tidings offered for the season, the British and Americans headed back to the White House. Before they tucked into Christmas dinner, there would be one more strategy session, a discussion of how to defend Singapore from the Japanese.

When the hour finally arrived, Churchill and the other guests dined on a slate of American classics, starting with oysters on the half shell with crackers, clear soup with sherry, celery, assorted olives, and thin toast. The main course featured roast turkey, chestnut dressing, sausage-giblet gravy, beans, cauliflower, casserole of sweet potatoes, cranberry jelly, grapefruit salad and cheese crescents, and rolls. The meal ended with plum pudding and hard sauce, ice cream, coffee, salted nuts, and assorted bonbons. Whether the food tasted good was another matter, as the White House kitchen was notorious for churning out bad fare, much to the dismay of the president, who had a sophisticated palate.

After dinner, the group adjourned for a showing of Oliver Twist. When the screening paused to change the film reel, Churchill excused himself, claiming he needed to do some “homework.” His assignment was to finish the speech he was scheduled to deliver the next day to a joint session of Congress.

On December 26, senators and representatives packed the floor of the Senate, with extra chairs brought in for the occasion. Lucky spectators crammed the galleries above, hanging over the railings to get a better look at the first British prime minister to address Congress.

Stationed behind the clerk’s desk arrayed with a thicket of microphones, Churchill exuded confidence and warmth, calling the speech “one of the most moving and thrilling moments of my life which is already long and has not been entirely uneventful.” As laughter echoed through the chamber, he kept going. “I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own. In that case, this would not have been the first time you would have heard my voice.”

Churchill’s tone turned serious when he spoke of the war, praising the “Olympian fortitude” he had encountered in Washington. He predicted “a long, hard war,” but one in which the Allies would assume “initiative upon an ample scale.” The supplies traversing the Atlantic, provided by the United States, would allow the British war effort to continue. “Sure I am that this day now, we are the masters of our fate; that the task which has been set us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance, as long as we have faith in our cause and unconquerable willpower, salvation will not be denied us,” he said.

He noted that twice in his lifetime “the long arm of fate has reached out to bring the United States into the forefront of the battle.” He lamented that if Britain and the United States had stuck together after the last war, the current war might never have happened. In response to his admonition about American isolationism, a few boos echoed through the chamber.

Churchill finished by praising the partnership and the possibilities of the Anglo-American alliance. “It is not given to us to peer into the mysteries of the future; yet, in the day to come, the British and American peoples will, for their own safety and for the good of all, walk together in majesty, in justice and in peace.”

Thunderous applause filled the chamber. Members of Congress and gallery occupants rose to their feet. Stepping off the rostrum, Churchill gave the “V” symbol for victory, prompting the chamber to roar again.

As he made his way out of the room, Churchill shook hands with the senators and representatives. Senator Ernest McFarland, a Democrat from Arizona, told Churchill his wife had to miss his speech because she was in the hospital. Later that day, the prime minister called her hospital room and wished her a “speedy recovery.”

Upon Churchill’s death 24 years later, his doctor revealed the prime minister had suffered a heart attack the night of his speech to Congress. Churchill ignored the common practice of bed rest for six weeks, and forged on with his meetings and memos. Now was not the time for weakness.

The First Washington Conference—also known by its code name ARCADIA—lasted through January 14. American and British planners laid out a plan for 1942. To fight Japan, they formed a joint command with the Dutch and Australians for the Far East. Plans were also made to send American bombers to bases in England and issue a declaration against making a separate peace with Germany. They also agreed to unify their military command structure, allowing for the coordination of land, air, and sea operations. The Combined Chiefs of Staff, based in Washington, became the body through which the Americans and British coordinated the execution of a global war. The decision to prioritize unity over parochialism played a key role in the success of the Anglo-American war effort during the next four years.

During discussions over where to strike first in Europe, the British argued for and won approval for an invasion of North Africa. The Americans, however, continued to resist the plan well into 1942, insisting that liberating France should be the focus. The Americans would ultimately lose that debate. In November 1942, American and British troops stormed the beaches at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers, seizing control of French Morocco and Algeria in 74 hours. Operation TORCH provided a badly needed victory in the European theater for both the British and Americans. By May 1943, they had cleared the Germans and Italians from North Africa and the Middle East. Now, it was just a question of Italy, France, and Germany.

About the Author

Meredith Hindley is senior writer for Humanities. Sources: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall: Volume 3: The Right Man for the Job; U.S. State Department, Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Washington, 1941–1942, and Casablanca, 1943; U.S. Congress, Report of the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack (GPO, 1946); Warren Kimball, Forged in War: Roosevelt, Churchill, and The Second World War (William Morrow, 1997); Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory, 1941–1945 (Volume VII) (Rosetta Books, 2015); Newspaper articles from Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and New York Tribune.

Funding Information

WETA received $750,000 from NEH to help support the production of Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. The George Marshall Research Foundation used $740,246 in NEH support to edit The Papers of George Catlett Marshall. The project, which started in 1982, recently published the final volume of the series. The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University has received $1.06 million to prepare print and digital versions of the first lady’s papers. The Washington, D.C.-based Churchill Centre has hosted two summer institutes for schoolteachers. David M. Kennedy received two NEH-supported fellowships to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. Robert Dallek also used an NEH-supported fellowship for Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945.