'In FDR there died the greatest American friend we have ever known'
It was this day in 1945 that Winston Churchill stood up in the House of Commons to move a bereavement resolution following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It's a masterful eulogy.
The speeches of Winston Churchill are always interesting to listen to and analyse, and one of our most popular podcast episodes is Richard Cohen discussing the speeches and rhetoric of Churchill:
There is no audio of the wartime Prime Minister’s parliamentary eulogy for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delivered 17th April 1945, five days after the passing in office of the American president. But the transcript is evidence of a typically magnificent speech, and we can imagine how it might have sounded in that famous bass tone, with its compelling musicality, complete with peculiar slurring pronunciations courtesy of a childhood speech impediment.
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I’ll go through the speech paragraph by paragraph to get a sense of structure and style:
After the parliamentary formalities, Churchill jumps straight into his personal friendship and connection to FDR. There’s a ‘how we met’ at the outset, and then a statistical ‘correspondence count’ at the end of the section to materially demonstrate to what extent the men relied upon each other. As always with Churchill, note the strong use of colourful adjectives — ‘gloomy winter’, ‘hideous fury’,
My friendship with the great man to whose work and fame we pay our tribute to-day began and ripened during this war. I had met him, but only for a few minutes, after the close of the last war and as soon as I went to the Admiralty in September, 1939, he telegraphed, inviting me to correspond with him direct on naval or other matters if at any time I felt inclined. Having obtained the permission of the Prime Minister, I did so. Knowing President Roosevelt's keen interest in sea warfare, I furnished him with a stream of information about our naval affairs and about the various actions, including especially the action of the Plate River, which lighted the first gloomy winter of the war.
When I became Prime Minister, and the war broke out in all its hideous fury, when our own life and survival hung in the balance, I was already in a position to telegraph to the President on terms of an association which had become most intimate and, to me, most agreeable. This continued through all the ups and downs of the world struggle until Thursday last, when I received my last messages from him. These messages showed no falling off in his accustomed clear vision and vigour upon perplexing and complicated matters. I may mention that this correspondence which, of course, was greatly increased after the United States entry into the war, comprises, to and fro between us, over 1,700 messages. Many of these were lengthy messages and the majority dealt with those more difficult points which come to be discussed upon the level of heads of Governments only after official solutions had not been reached at other stages. To this correspondence there must be added our nine meetings at Argentia, three in Washington, at Casablanca, at Teheran, two at Quebec and, last of all, at Yalta, comprising in all about 120 days of close personal contact, during a great part of which I stayed with him at the White House or at his home at Hyde Park or in his retreat in the Blue Mountains, which he called Shangri-La.
Roosevelt’s qualities as a great man
Having established his own ‘standing’, Churchill undertakes the most important task in the speech which is to pay tribute. It’s interesting to note how comfortable Churchill is with long, rolling sentences, but within the sentences the clauses are short and clean so the listener doesn’t get lost.
Churchill loves a word that repeats again in the next clause, with a little poetic elaboration. The device is called diacope, and you can see it below in, ‘it is, indeed, a loss, a bitter loss to humanity’ …
The stuff about disability here is of its era. Clearly, the ‘not one man in ten millions’ grossly undersells the presumed talents of people with physical disabilities, but this was 1945 and not 2023.
I conceived an admiration for him as a statesman, a man of affairs, and a war leader. I felt the utmost confidence in his upright, inspiring character and outlook and a personal regard-affection I must say-for him beyond my power to express to-day. His love of his own country, his respect for its constitution, his power of gauging the tides and currents of its mobile public opinion, were always evident, but, added to these, were the beatings of that generous heart which was always stirred to anger and to action by spectacles of aggression and oppression by the strong against the weak. It is, indeed, a loss, a bitter loss to humanity that those heart-beats are stilled for ever. President Roosevelt's physical affliction lay heavily upon him. It was a marvel that he bore up against it through all the many years of tumult-and storm. Not one man in ten millions, stricken and crippled as he was, would have attempted to plunge into a life of physical and mental exertion and of hard, ceaseless political controversy. Not one in ten millions would have tried, not one in a generation would have succeeded, not only in entering this sphere, not only in acting vehemently in it, but in becoming indisputable master of the scene.
One sentence for Eleanor
In this extraordinary effort of the spirit over the flesh, the will-power over physical infirmity, he was inspired and sustained by that noble woman his devoted wife, whose high ideals marched with his own, and to whom the deep and respectful sympathy of the House of Commons flows out to-day in all fullness.
A recount of FDR’s support during Britain’s ‘Darkest Hour’
The next section is lengthy and I’d recommend reading the whole speech to enjoy Churchill’s majesty with words, and at describing what really amounts to his own triumph. This part of the eulogy is a salute to FDR’s interventionist instincts, to the fact that he wasn’t an America First isolationist, to the fact he saw fascism for the evil it was (and is):
There is no doubt that the President foresaw the great dangers closing in upon the pre-war world with far more prescience than most well-informed people on either side of the Atlantic, and that he urged forward with all his power such precautionary military preparations as peace-time opinion in the United States could be brought to accept. There never was a moment's doubt, as the quarrel opened, upon which side his sympathies lay.
The fall of France, and what seemed to most people outside this Island, the impending destruction of Great Britain, were to him an agony, although he never lost faith in us. They were an agony to him not only on account of Europe, but because of the serious perils to which the United States herself would have been exposed had we been overwhelmed or the survivors cast down under the German yoke. The bearing of the British nation at that time of stress, when we were all alone, filled him and vast numbers of his countrymen with the warmest sentiments towards our people. He and they felt the blitz of the stern winter of 1940~1, when Hitler set himself to rub out the cities of our country, as much as any of us did, and perhaps more indeed, for imagination is often more torturing than reality. There is no doubt that the bearing of the British and, above all, of the Londoners kindled fires in American bosoms far harder to quench than the conflagrations from which we were suffering. There was also at that time, in spite of General Wavell's victories-all the more, indeed, because of the reinforcements which were sent from this country to him-the apprehension widespread in the United States that we should be invaded by Germany after the fullest preparation in the spring of 1941. It was in February that the President sent to England the late Mr. Wendell Willkie, who, although a political rival and an opposing candidate, felt, as he did on many important points. Mr. Willkie brought a letter from Mr. Roosevelt, which the President had written in his own hand, and this letter contained the famous lines of Longfellow:
". . . Sail on, O ship of State!
Sail on O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!"
The USA entering the war
If the previous section is devoted to FDR’s personal commitment to freedom, and political clarity, the next section is an expression of gratitude for what the Roosevelt led USA did to save ‘the old world’. Because the war story is so well known, and told, Churchill skips over it in a couple of lines — ‘I need not dwell upon the series of great operations’:
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