Churchill Archive Platform - The Century of the Special Relationship

For much of the twentieth century, Great Britain and the United States enjoyed what came to be known as the 'special relationship’— a unique bond of trust and cooperation on the world stage made manifest through the two countries’ battle against fascism in the 1940s, close cooperation in the decades-long struggle of the Cold War, and in more recent years by the two nations’ joint struggle against international terrorism.

Such was not always the case. Prior to the Second World War there was a great deal of mutual suspicion and mistrust between the two powers, exacerbated by the legacy of the First World War and by the global economic depression of the 1930s. As war clouds loomed on the horizon, the United States Congress passed a series of neutrality laws in the mid-1930s that were designed to distance the United States from Great Britain; making it nearly impossible for the American Government to offer much more than moral support as Hitler increased his power and the world descended into anarchy.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 would change all this. Soon, the two powers—and peoples—would realize that they needed each other, and it was this awareness, along with the enlightened leadership of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt that brought about the ‘special relationship’.

It was Winston Churchill who first coined the term ‘special relationship’ and whose name is most often associated with the phrase. But in many respects it was US President Franklin D. Roosevelt who initiated it. Roosevelt began this effort in June 1939, with a much-celebrated invitation to the King and Queen of England to the United States—the first time a reigning British Monarch had set foot on American soil. This was followed some months later by his initiation of the famous Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence, which began as Churchill was serving as First Lord of the Admiralty and would continue when Churchill became Prime Minister. As the war progressed, the links between Britain and the United States—like the links between Churchill and Roosevelt—became even stronger: through lend-lease; the creation of the Combined Chief of Staff; and the efforts of both powers to create a new post-war strategic and economic order with the establishment of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the creation of the United Nations.

Running a world war and trying to shape a more prosperous and peaceful future was, of course, no easy task. To facilitate the ability of the British and American governments to achieve these goals, Roosevelt and Churchill held numerous bi-lateral meetings; starting with their famous encounter off the coast of Newfoundland in 1941 where they crafted the Atlantic Charter, the document that in many respects gave birth to the United Nations. The two men also met in Washington, Quebec City, Casablanca, Cairo, Malta, and of course, on Roosevelt’s beloved estate in Hyde Park, New York. Their most famous wartime meetings, however, remain the two tripartite summit meetings they held with Joseph Stalin, at Tehran in late 1943, and finally at Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula in February 1945.

The military, economic and geo-political diplomacy that Churchill and Roosevelt engaged in during the war had an enormous impact on future generations. These efforts were not without their difficulties, as each leader also had to consider their respective country’s national interests. Yet, the level of cooperation achieved between Great Britain and the United States during the war remains unprecedented, and established the basis for the post-war strategic, economic and political order that is still with us to this day.

As we look back at the events of the past 70 years, it seems clear that Churchill’s assessment about a special relationship between the American and British peoples is correct. We have had and will continue to have our differences, but on balance the British and the American people share a remarkably similar worldview. Not just in our bonds of language, culture and history, but also in our shared belief in liberal democracy.

Where to Find Documents within the Churchill Archive

The collection contains documents relating to a range of themes within Anglo-US relations, from the ‘special relationship’ between Churchill and Roosevelt, to official papers on important decisions made about the Lend Lease agreement, the Atlantic Charter and the Big Three wartime conferences. There are also numerous documents relating to Churchill’s visits to the United States, such as broadcasts and speeches Churchill made whilst there, and Churchill’s public statements about Anglo-US relations.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but a suggestion for starting points, and should be used in conjunction with the search facilities that will enable you to search across files for people, places and topics relevant to your individual research interests.

CHAR 8: Churchill's literary works

  • CHAR 8/340: Drafts and proofs of Churchill’s articles for Collier’s Magazine, including ‘America and unemployment’, ‘Land of corn’, an article on Anglo-American economic relations and ‘The problem of liquor control’
  • For more documents on Churchill’s public statements about Anglo-US relations, search ‘CHAR 8’ and ‘united states’.

CHAR 20: Correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt during the Second World War

  • CHAR 20/15/13: Printed copies of telegrams and letters exchanged between Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939-40
  • CHAR 20/42A/35: Telegram from Churchill to Presidential Aid Harry Hopkins expressing concern over lack of US entry into the war
  • CHAR 20/48: Personal telegrams from the Atlantic Meeting. Includes telegrams from Churchill to the Foreign Office on discussions with Roosevelt, CHAR 20/48/8-10, and telegrams from Churchill to the Lord Privy Seal (Clement Attlee) on the Atlantic Charter Joint Declaration, CHAR 20/48/18-19
  • CHAR 20/69B/127-128: Telegram from Roosevelt to Churchill on help for the Lend-Lease Agreement, 5 February 1942
  • CHAR 20/77 and CHAR 20/78: Telegrams between Churchill and Roosevelt on the invasion of North Africa (codename ‘Torch’). Includes a telegram from 8 July 1942 on whether the Allied Invasion of France will have consequences on the operations in North Africa, CHAR 20/77/95, and another telegram three weeks later discussing battle in North African desert, CHAR 20/78/64-67
  • Telegrams from Churchill to Roosevelt about meeting with Stalin in 1942, CHAR 20/84/2-3, 1943, CHAR 20/113/119-20 and 1944, CHAR 20/172/59-60. Also includes a telegram from Churchill to Roosevelt on the cordial atmosphere during bi-lateral talks with Stalin about Eastern Europe and Balkans, 11 October 1944, CHAR 20/173/30-31
  • CHAR 20/210: Includes telegrams between Roosevelt and Churchill about arranging pre-summit meetings. See Churchill’s request to arrange these meetings, CHAR 20/210/67, and Roosevelt’s response CHAR 20/210/79

CHAR 23: Correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt during the Second World War

  • CHAR 23/4/11: Printed copy of a letter from Churchill to Roosevelt on the desperate plight of Britain, 8 December 1940
  • CHAR 23/13: Contains record of conversations at Anglo-America-Russian conference in Teheran, 28 November 1943 – 30 December 1944
  • CHAR 23/14: Contains correspondence between Roosevelt and Churchill over voting procedures in the United Nations, the Soviet attitude towards Poland, a record of conversation between Churchill and Stalin at Yalta, and other topics, 29 December 1944 – 17 July 1945

CHAR 20: Correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt during the Second World War

  • CHUR 2/158: Correspondence from Churchill’s second Premiership with Truman about atomic weapons

See also…