How Churchill Charmed America

REVIEW: ‘Churchill’s American Network: Winston Churchill and the Forging of the Special Relationship’ by Cita Stelzer

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill in Casablanca (Wikimedia Commons)
March 17, 2024

"We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be," Winston Churchill famously told Parliament after the successful evacuation from Dunkirk in the summer of 1940. Great Britain, he vowed, would hold out against the Nazi menace, "if necessary for years, if necessary alone," until "in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

This is precisely what happened. America’s entry into World War II saved Britain and the free world. Eventually, Churchill and his countrymen did not end up alone. In her charming new book, Churchill’s American Network: Winston Churchill and the Forging of the Special Relationship, author Cita Stelzer explains how this came to pass—in some respects, it was the culmination of decades of work.

The world doesn’t lack books on Churchill, whose long life spanned earth-shattering events, many of which he took part in. Born in 1874 at the height of the Victorian Empire, Churchill would take part in the last mounted calvary charge at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. He died in 1965, well into the nuclear age, nearly a year after the Beatles made their famous appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Churchill was that rare thing: a genuine genius. There are books on Churchill the painter, Churchill the writer, Churchill the military strategist, Churchill the Zionist, and so on. Yet, Churchill’s success in life—a life filled with remarkable highs and devastating lows—makes it easy to overlook another facet of the man.

Churchill was a consummate networker. And his successes were not just the result of luck or brilliance. Rather, they were the result of hard work and a magnanimous nature, both of which proved essential as Churchill slowly, but surely, built up ties in the New World.

He first came to America in 1895. And even at the age of 20, he was dead set on making a name for himself. Churchill’s father, the brilliant but erratic politician Randolph Churchill, had recently died. The young Winston was forced to rely on his mother, the American-born Jennie Jerome, for contacts in the United States.

Many Churchill biographies have correctly noted how cruel both Randolph and Jennie were to Winston as he was growing up. Both parents were largely absent for most of his adolescence, limiting their attention to the occasional denigrating letter. But as Stelzer highlights, Jennie played a key role in creating young Winston’s network, both American and otherwise. Social contacts, he learned, "should be used as a springboard, not as a sofa."

Jennie’s connections included a charismatic congressman named Bourke Cockran, who represented a district in New York. Cockran not only helped inspire Churchill to consider a political career—a direction he was already leaning in thanks to his father—but his oratorical prowess influenced Winston for the rest of his life. Churchill would later observe that Cockran had "the biggest and most original mind I had ever met. … I feel I owe the best things in my career to him."

The United States made quite the impression on Churchill, who was then still known as his late father’s son. After his first journey he wrote to his brother: "A great, crude, strong, young people are the Americans—like a boisterous healthy boy among enervated but well-bred ladies and gentlemen."

A glittering career as a soldier and war correspondent soon followed. In South Africa, Churchill was captured by the Boers. His daring escape catapulted him to fame and provided the basis for two speaking tours, one in Great Britain and the other in the United States.

Churchill used these tours to make both money and a name for himself. He also used them to network. As his son Randolph put it, Winston "set about assiduously collecting eminent men to preside at his lectures in the various cities … a local notable to suit every town."

Churchill met the American president, William McKinley, and had dinner with the governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, who took a "hearty and enduring dislike" to Winston. Roosevelt would later imply that Churchill wasn’t a gentleman.

Stelzer suggests that Roosevelt might have been motivated by a degree of jealousy—a not unlikely possibility. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, TR’s rambunctious daughter, thought that the two men, both adventurers and writers, were too similar. It did not, thankfully, prevent Winston from eventually forging a partnership with TR’s distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who himself initially disliked Churchill.

Churchill’s fame was growing. At one talk, he was even introduced by Mark Twain, who sharply criticized British policy in the Boer War. Churchill, displaying his lifelong gift for magnanimity, didn’t let it get to him. The young Briton continued to attract attention, including from American business and press leaders who recognized him as a rising star. These men and women proved key to developing Churchill’s budding American network.

And it is here that Stelzer’s book really shines. The author details how Churchill cultivated a wide cast of influential Americans, some of whom, like the press magnate William Randolph Hearst, are well known, while others, like William McAdoo, a Treasury Secretary and future senator, have largely been forgotten.

Hearst and another press baron that Winston courted, Robert McCormick, were fierce critics of the British Empire. Both hewed toward isolationism. Yet, Churchill was undeterred, working assiduously to forge good relations with both men. McAdoo supported Prohibition—an idea Churchill found anathema. But here too, he didn’t let policy differences become personal—a practice that served him well.

Perhaps the most important link in Churchill’s American chain was Bernard Baruch, a finance impresario who advised every Democratic president from Woodrow Wilson through Harry Truman. Baruch described Churchill as "the model of the honorable ally. … I was privileged to have the friendship of this extraordinary man—one of the greatest in history."

Yet, great men, like grand alliances, are not built in a day. As Cita Stelzer demonstrates, hard work is required. And magnanimity, charm, and champagne don’t hurt either.

Churchill’s American Network: Winston Churchill and the Forging of the Special Relationship
by Cita Stelzer
Pegasus Books, 296 pp., $29.95

Sean Durns is a senior research analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.