On April 12th Eisenhower and the senior US Army commanders in Europe had been shocked by the horrors of Buchenwald. Late that night there was even more momentous news, their Commander in Chief, the United States President, Franklin D. Roosevelt had died. His long struggle with the disabling consequences of polio, which he had triumphed over for so many years, had finally come to an end.
At the beginning of the war, when Churchill had been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the US President had personally asked to be kept appraised of British Naval developments by him. So began the long and close liaison between the two men. When war broke out in 1939 few would have anticipated that less than a year later Churchill would be Prime Minister and leading the only free country in the whole of Europe.
The two men would communicate on more than 1700 occasions and spend 120 days together in conference as the great drama of the war unfolded. With Roosevelt at the helm America had been transformed: from under half a million men in uniform in 1940, by 1945 she had more than 12 million serving all around the globe, supported by an equally transformed military-industrial powerhouse that armed the free world,
In the House of Commons on 17th April Winston Churchill paid tribute to his fellow statesman and friend:
…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 and affection for him beyond my power to express today.
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.
In this extraordinary effort of the spirit over the flesh, of 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 today in all fullness.
There is no doubt that the President foresaw the great dangers closing in upon the prewar 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.
As the saying goes, he died in harness, and we may well say in battle harness, like his soldiers, sailors, and airmen, who side by side with ours are carrying on their task to the end all over the world. What an enviable death was his!
He had brought his country through the worst of its perils and the heaviest of its toils. Victory had cast its sure and steady beam upon him. In the days of peace he had broadened and stabilised the foundations of American life and union. In war he had raised the strength, might and glory of the great Republic to a height never attained by any nation in history.
With her left hand she was leading the advance of the conquering Allied Armies into the heart of Germany, and with her right, on the other side of the globe, she was irresistibly and swiftly breaking up the power of Japan. And all the time ships, munitions, supplies and food of every kind were aiding on a gigantic scale her Allies, great and small, in the course of the long struggle.
For us, it remains only to say that in Franklin Roosevelt there died the greatest American friend we have ever known, and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old.
Read the whole speech at The Churchill Society.