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American History: A Friendship Helps Guide World War 2 Diplomacy

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, left, US President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin in Yalta, Crimea, on February 4, 1945
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, left, US President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin in Yalta, Crimea, on February 4, 1945

STEVE EMBER: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember


History is full of examples of leaders joining together to meet common goals. But rarely have two leaders worked together with as much friendship and cooperation as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did. Roosevelt was president of the United States; Churchill was prime minister of Britain. The two men had much in common. They were both born to wealthy families, and they were both active in politics for many years. Both leaders also shared a love of history and nature, and the sea.

Roosevelt and Churchill first met when they were lower-level officials during World War One. But neither man remembered much about that meeting. However, as they worked together during the Second World War, they came to like and trust each other.

Roosevelt and Churchill exchanged more than one thousand seven hundred letters and messages over a period of five and a half years. They met many times, at large international gatherings and in private talks. But the closeness of their friendship might be seen best in a story told by one of Roosevelt's close advisers, Harry Hopkins.

Hopkins remembered how Churchill was visiting Roosevelt at the White House one day. Roosevelt went into Churchill's room in the morning to say hello. But the president was shocked to see Churchill coming from the bathroom with no clothes on.

Roosevelt immediately apologized to the British leader. But Churchill reportedly answered, "The prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the president of the United States."

The United States and Great Britain were the most powerful of the nations that joined together as allies to resist Germany's Adolf Hitler and his Axis partners. In January of nineteen forty-two, twenty-six of the Allied nations signed an agreement promising to fight for the goals of peace, religious freedom, human rights and justice.

The three major Allies were the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union. The governments in Washington and London did not always agree. For example, they disagreed about when to attack Hitler’s forces in western Europe. And Churchill resisted Roosevelt's suggestions that Britain give up some of its colonies. But in general, the friendship between Roosevelt and Churchill, and between the United States and Britain, led the two nations to cooperate closely.

This was not true with the Soviets. The Soviet Union was a communist country. It did not share the same history or political system as the United States or Britain. And the Soviet Union had its own interests to protect along its borders and in other areas.


Relations between the Soviet Union and the western Allies were mixed. On the one hand, Hitler's invasion deep into the Soviet Union had forced Josef Stalin and other Soviet leaders to make victory over the Germans their most important goal.

On the other hand, shadows of future problems could already be seen. The Soviet Union was making clear its desire to keep political control over Poland. And it was supporting communist fighters in Yugoslavia and Greece.

These differences were not discussed much as the foreign ministers of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States gathered in Moscow in nineteen forty-three. Instead, they reached several agreements, including on a plan to establish a new organization called the United Nations.


Finally, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met together for the first time. They met in Tehran in late nineteen forty-three mainly to discuss the military situation. However, the three leaders also considered political questions such as the future of Germany, eastern Europe and East Asia.

Later, the Allies made further plans for the new United Nations. They arranged for new international economic organizations -- the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And the Allies agreed to divide Germany into different parts after the war for a temporary period. The Soviet Union would occupy the eastern part while Britain, France and the United States would occupy the west.

Washington, London and Moscow were united during the early years of the war because of military need. They knew they must fight together to defeat their common enemy.

But this unity faded as Allied troops marched toward the German border. Roosevelt continued to call on the world to wait until the last bullet was fired before deciding what would come next. But Churchill, Stalin and other leaders already were trying to shape the world that would follow the war. Now, differences between the Allies became more serious.


The most important question was Poland. Hitler's invasion of Poland in nineteen thirty-nine had started the war. Roosevelt and Churchill believed strongly that the Polish people should have the right to choose their own leaders after the war. Churchill supported a group of Polish resistance leaders who had an office in London. In nineteen forty, Polish fliers had taken part in the Battle of Britain, piloting British warplanes against the German Luftwaffe.

But Stalin had other ideas. He demanded that Poland's border be changed to give more land to the Soviet Union. And he refused to help the Polish resistance leaders in London. Instead, he supported a group of Polish communists and helped them establish a new government in Poland.

A lighter moment in Yalta as Churchill smokes a cigar
A lighter moment in Yalta as Churchill smokes a cigar

Churchill visited Stalin late in nineteen forty-four. The two leaders met with Roosevelt a few months later in Yalta, on the Crimean coast. All agreed that free elections should be held quickly in Poland. And they traded ideas about the future of eastern Europe, China and other areas of the world.

Roosevelt was in good spirits when he reported to Congress after his return from the Yalta conference.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: "I come from the Crimea conference with a firm belief that we have made a good start on the road to a world of peace. There were two main purposes in this Crimea conference. The first was to bring defeat to Germany with the greatest possible speed, and the smallest possible loss of Allied men.

"That purpose is now being carried out in great force. The German Army, and the German people, are feeling the ever-increasing might of our fighting men and of the Allied armies. Every hour gives us added pride in the heroic advance of our troops in Germany -- on German soil -- toward a meeting with the gallant Red Army.

"The second purpose was to continue to build the foundation for an international accord that would bring order and security after the chaos of the war, that would give some assurance of lasting peace among the nations of the world. Toward that goal, a tremendous stride was made.

Roosevelt went on to say that "the peace cannot be a completely perfect system, at first. But it can be a peace based on the idea of freedom.”

Churchill had the same high hopes. He told the British parliament after the conference that Stalin and other Soviet leaders wished to live in honorable friendship. "I also know that their word is honest," Churchill said.

But, as history proved, Roosevelt and Churchill were wrong about the Soviets. In the months after the Yalta conference, relations between Moscow and the western democracies grew steadily worse.

The Soviet Union moved to seize control of eastern Europe. Stalin began making strong speeches charging that Washington and London were holding secret peace negotiations with Germany. And the Soviet Union refused to discuss ways to bring democracy to Poland.

Churchill wrote later that he had always held the Russian people in high honor, but their shadow darkened the picture after the war. Britain and America had gone to war not just to defend the smaller countries, but also to fight for individual rights and freedoms.

Churchill went on to say that the Soviet Union had other goals. Its hold tightened on eastern Europe after the Soviet Army gained control. And Churchill said that after the long suffering and efforts of World War Two, it seemed that half of Europe had just exchanged one dictator for another.

Churchill and Roosevelt agreed in secret letters that they must try to oppose the Soviet effort. But before they could act, Roosevelt died. And the world began to live through a new war -- the Cold War -- in the years to follow.


Roosevelt's death, from bleeding in the brain, also ended a deep personal friendship between two world leaders.

Winston Churchill later wrote about hearing the news of the death of his close friend.

"I felt as if I had been struck with a physical blow," Churchill wrote. He said he was overpowered by a sense of deep and permanent loss.

The free world joined Churchill in mourning the loss of so strong a leader as Franklin Roosevelt. But it could not weep for long. War was giving way to peace. A new world was forming. And, as we will hear in future programs, it was a world that few people expected.

Our program was written by David Jarmul. You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.


This was program #196. For earlier programs, type "Making of a Nation" in quotation marks in the search box at the top of the page.