Christmas 1941: Churchill Rallies a Deflated America

Christmas 1941: Churchill Rallies a Deflated America

By Craig Shirley - December 24, 2014

In late December of 1941, there was no way Americans could look into the future and foresee the blood, toll, tears, and sweat that would be required of them—nor the ultimate outcome of what few were then calling World War II. Yet in time, American children would be writing to Santa Claus and asking for war bonds.

On December 26, 1941, the United States was losing the new great world war. Nearly 3,000 Americans had died in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 19 days earlier, most of them servicemen in the Army and Navy. In the sunken USS Arizona, faint tapping through the hull had been heard for days, but there was no way to get to the doomed men.

One luckier sailor aboard the USS Oklahoma, which was also capsized, found himself trapped for nearly two days, hanging by a pipe in the blackness and cold water, the sounds of dying men all around him. Finally, he heard an acetylene torch cutting through the hull, all the time wondering if it was Americans there to save him -- or Japanese to kill him.

Hundreds more were in military hospitals, many with limbs gone, all badly wounded.
Even more Americans were dying at Wake Island and in the Philippines and on the high seas of the North Atlantic, being hunted on the orders of Hitler. Japan was killing Americans and Germany was killing Americans, but the United States was still just getting off the mat.

Congress would later expand its draft of able-bodied young men. Most cities, especially Washington, D.C., had adopted a war footing. Curfews and air raid drills were instituted.
Back during World War I, an island of munitions in New Jersey known as “Black Tom” had been blown up by German espionage agents. President Franklin Roosevelt vowed to not let this happen again, much to the detriment of Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans who would be rounded up and incarcerated on the West Coast. Roosevelt was heard muttering, “Remember Black Tom.”

The news at Christmastime in 1941 was all bad for America. FDR, the master motivator, had done all he could, as had Eleanor Roosevelt, a first lady whom Americans felt they really knew via her avidly followed newspaper column, her radio talks, and her tireless speaking schedule. The media, including radio commentators and the Hollywood dream factories, were also doing what they could to buck up morale. But the daily drumbeat of bad news was battering the American psyche into the ground.

We needed to hear from a friend. We needed to hear from Winston Churchill, America’s greatest friend in December 1941. The Brits had borne the brunt of the war with the Axis powers for two years and had suffered severe military and civilian losses. The Battle of Britain -- the unending bombing of London and surrounding installations -- was winding down and was being chalked up as a win for England, but at a terrible cost.

Churchill was frightened for his nation, fears he never projected in public. He was the English Bulldog and The Last Lion rolled into one, a leader in whose veins British indomitability and American can-do spirit flowed naturally. (His mother, Jennie Jerome, was Brooklyn-born and –bred.) By train, plane and automobile, Churchill was secreted out of England and arrived, shockingly, in the United States two days before Christmas. The purpose of the trip was to meet with FDR and make war plans, but also to boost the morale of the American people.

It worked. Thousands of Washingtonians lined up along West Executive Avenue, patiently waiting to go onto the South Lawn of the White House for the lighting of the Christmas tree there, to sing carols, and to hear the remarks of the president of the United States and the prime minister of England. The irony was deep. The presidency, America, the White House would not have existed without the bloody American Revolution.

Thousands streamed onto the South Lawn, but only after being told by policemen to leave their packages and briefcases and umbrellas on the sidewalk along the newly installed fence outside the executive mansion. When they returned, their belongings were all there, unmolested.

Churchill was an honored guest in the House that his countrymen had once burned to the ground, and he feasted with the Roosevelt family on Christmas Day. FDR got more than he bargained for when he happened upon a naked Churchill, who often spent his private time in the buff. Still, they liked each other more than when they first met in 1918.

December 26, 1941 was proclaimed “Churchill Day” when the British leader addressed a joint session of Congress. It was held in the smaller Senate chamber because congressional leaders worried about the image of empty seats, given that Congress was in recess. It worked out, though: the acoustics were better, and the speech was broadcast to a grateful nation on all radio networks. Churchill did not disappoint. Indeed, he was “Churchillian.”

He opened by lightheartedly saying that if his mother been British and his father American, instead of the other way around, he might have made his appearance on the Washington political scene earlier, adding, “In that case, this would not have been the first time you would have heard my voice.” In that instance, he noted, his invitation no doubt would not have been “unanimous.”

He paid homage to the American system of government, which put its faith in people, as opposed to his own, which put it trust in institutions. He scorned “privilege and monopoly,” two hallmarks of British culture. Churchill spoke without a prepared text.

Then he hit the American people and Congress right between the eyes. Churchill said 1942 would be a very bad year and that good news may not arrive until 1943 -- or even later.
He said America had “drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the shadow.” Though he predicted difficult weather ahead, he did see a happy ending -- the result of American and British courage.

“Here in Washington, I have found an Olympian fortitude which, far from being based upon complacency, is only the mark of an inflexible purpose and the proof of a sure, well-grounded confidence in the final outcome,” he said.

Churchill concluded by invoking spirituality. He was a devoted member of the Church of England. FDR, typical of his social standing, was an Episcopalian, the very church created by those bolting the English state religion. No matter. “I will say,” he intoned in that growly and determined voice, “that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, for we have the honor to be the faithful servant.”

Then the Great British Lion sat down. 

Craig Shirley is the author of two best-selling books about Ronald Reagan, including “Rendezvous With Destiny” and “Reagan’s Revolution.” He is also the author of the best-selling “December 1941; 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World” and is the president of Shirley & Banister. He is now writing several more books about Reagan, including “Last Act.” He has lectured at the Reagan Library, is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch.

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