The day before, as Hitlers inner circle took the train out of Berlin, Churchill had his decisive encounter at 10 Downing Street with Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. Chamberlain, faced by a political rebellion in the House of Commons and unable to command the support of the Labour opposition for a national government, knew that his goose was cooked and he must resign. Halifax, the wily aristocratic diplomat, was the man the British establishment wanted to succeed him; but he realized that he was unsuited to be a war leader and let go his chance.
As the Blitzkrieg erupted on May 10, Chamberlain tried to renege at the last minute, arguing that crisis required continuity. But the Labour and Liberal opposition would have none of it and even his own ministers had lost confidence in him. At 6 p.m. Churchills ministerial car took him from the Admiralty to Buckingham Palace. The journey was less than a mile but the most significant of his life; for him, like Hitler, there was no return. "I suppose you dont know why I have sent for you?" the king asked. "Sir," Churchill replied, a playful sparkle in his eye, "I cant imagine why." King George VI laughed. "I want to ask you to form a government."
The billboards of the evening papers proclaimed the shocking news that Nazi forces were smashing into France, Holland and Belgium. "I hope that it is not too late," Churchill told his detective, W. H. Thompson, with a tear in his eye, as they returned to the Admiralty. "I am very much afraid that it is."
Churchill was British prime minister, and in the drawing rooms of London and the world beyond, a rainbow of reactions arced over the political world. "Churchill appears to be a godsend," wrote Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London, "but later on he could become a great obstacle if and when they desire to conclude peace." John Colville was immediately invited by Churchill to stay on at 10 Downing Street, but the young man was full of trepidation, consoled only by the thought that Chamberlain and Halifax were staying on under the new upstart regime. "There will at least be some restraint on our new War Lord," he noted in his diary that evening; "he may, of course, be the man of drive and energy the country believes him to be but it is a terrible risk." In Berlin Hitlers propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, who also kept a daily diary, concluded, "Churchill really has been made Prime Minister. The position is clear! Thats what we like." There is no record of Hitlers immediate reaction, but he had already formed his view of Churchill: he was an antique imperialist, a blusterer and, as Norway showed, a loser.
Three thousand miles across the Atlantic in Washington the new prime minister was regarded as a suspect character. President Franklin Roosevelt called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet in response to the shattering double strike of Hitlers Blitzkrieg and Churchills succession. The interior secretary, Harold Ickes, recorded Roosevelts verdict: "I suppose he is the best man England has even if he is drunk half of his time." Ickes mordantly added that Churchill was "apparently very unreliable when under the influence of drink."
Whether or not Churchill was an unreliable alcoholic, Roosevelt knew that he was now the front line against Hitler. Yet, as well as suspecting him of being a drunk, he harbored a dislike for him that stretched back more than 20 years. Its roots lay in Roosevelts memory of his one and only face-to-face meeting with Churchill when in 1918, as American under-secretary for the navy and before he was disabled, he had visited France and Britain. In London he gave a speech at a dinner at Grays Inn, bastion of the British legal establishment. Churchill, then a far more famous public figure, was in the audience. Roosevelt later remarked that he behaved like a "stinker lording it all over us."
Reprinted from Warlords, Copyright 2006. Reprinted by permission of Da Capo Press.
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