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Review: "The Third Man: Churchill, Roosevelt, Mackenzie King, and the Untold Friendships that Won WWII"

Canadian Prime Minister William Mackenzie King (r) with, from left, the Earl of Athlone (Governor General of Canada), Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Quebec City, 1944.

Neville Thompson’s The Third Man: Churchill, Roosevelt, Mackenzie King, and the Untold Friendships that Won WWII (2021) is a worthy addition to the books dealing with the two great victorious leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt (FDR). Thompson is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Western Ontario, and the chief value of his book is that it is primarily based on the relevant years of Canadian Prime Minister William Mackenzie King’s diary of mind-boggling length--the complete diary is 30,000 typewritten pages or the equivalent of thirty-five volumes of Thompson’s The Third Man, itself nearly 500 pages.

The diary is important because (in Thompson’s words);

No other national leader was so intimate with both Churchill and Roosevelt. Indeed, King arguably knew them both better than they knew each other. No one else had such a privileged view of the evolution and workings of their relationship. . . . Few were so perceptive about them and none left so detailed an account [in his diary] of their circumstances, policy, and interactions. In addition to closely observing the two individuals, King, as the leader of a country vital to their interests, used his position to actively participate in the transfer of global hegemony from Britain to the United States, an outcome not entirely apparent until a decade or more after the end of the Second World War. (p. 2)

After an introductory chapter on “The Atlantic Triumvirate,” Thompson’s next two chapters deal with the pre-WWII relations between “King and the ‘Great Genius’ [Churchill]” and “King and the Brave Neighbour [USA].” Mackenzie King became head of the Canadian Liberal party in 1919 and prime minister in 1921, and he continued as the Canadian leader for most of the next quarter century except for the early 1930s. Thus, he had plenty of pre-war opportunities to get to know both foreign leaders.

Even before 1919, King had met with Churchill several times, first in 1900.  After meeting with him in England in 1908, King noted that he did not seem as egotistic as earlier, but that his self-interest still seemed his main driving force. Months after again meeting with Churchill, in 1934 at his Chartwell estate in southeast England, King wrote in his diary, “a truly remarkable man, [a] great genius.” (p. 46)

King’s first recorded meeting with FDR occurred only in late 1935 at the White House. This was a few years after the latter had become president and just a few weeks after King had been reinstalled, along with a large Liberal parliamentary majority, as Canadian prime minister. Nevertheless, King’s diary had already recorded impressions of Roosevelt’s policies, which he thought too radical.  Although a liberal, King was more like a nineteenth-century British one, for example Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was less bold and sweeping than FDR regarding the government’s economic role.

The purpose of King’s trip to the White House was to firm up a trade deal between the U. S. and Canada. Both FDR and his wife, Eleanor, favorably impressed King, and after FDR’s state-of-the-union address in early 1936, King noted that he “was a brave man . . . with his voice the nation will believe a sincere and good man, determined to help his day and generation.” (p. 58)

In future days King was often impressed with the speeches of Roosevelt and Churchill. For example, after FDR’s State of the Union address in January 1939, King wrote in his diary, “It was the finest thing I have heard anywhere at any time, in the way of comprehensive constructiveness.” (p. 87) Perhaps King’s admiration stemmed partly from his own inability at speech-making. Thompson writes: “King’s greatest distinction was his failure as an orator. No great occasion was ever ennobled by one of his speeches. He had none of the rhetorical skill, the sensitivity to language, the gestures and ringing cadences of Roosevelt and Churchill, to say nothing of their distinct, resonant voices.” (p. 6)

Between 1935 and the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, King had a few more meetings each with Roosevelt and Churchill, and even went to Berlin in mid 1937 to meet with Hitler. Like several other foreign political leaders both before and after him--but not Churchill--King thought Hitler desired peace.

Thompson’s Chapter Three, entitled “A Visit in the Shadow of War,” runs from the Austrian annexation to the declarations of war on Germany by Britain and France on 3 September, 1939, two days after Germany’s invasion of Poland. During this year and a half, in his desire to prevent war, King was more sympathetic to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies than to the bellicose Churchill’s criticism of them--although holding some government positions earlier and being a prominent member of parliament, Churchill did not become prime minister until May 1940 and remained in office until mid 1945.

Chapters 4 to 12 of The Third Man deal with the wartime relations of the three leaders up through FDR’s death in April 1945. The first meeting of all three occurred at the White House the day after Christmas, 1941, several weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor had brought the U.S. into the war. From that first meeting until Roosevelt’s death there would be numerous other meetings, sometimes involving all three but more frequently without King participating. Nevertheless, he often communicated with each of the two significant leaders and occasionally met one of them without the other being present, either in their countries or Canada.

Continuously citing the diary, as well as occasional other sources, Thompson provides King’s observations about the personality and changing health of each leader. Often he commented on how much Churchill drank. For example, visiting London in August 1941, the abstemious King “was astonished at the quantity and variety of liquor that Churchill consumed.” (p. 177) During a visit to D. C. in March 1945 (a month after the FDR-Churchill-Stalin Yalta Conference), King jotted down in his diary, that Roosevelt has ”pretty well lost his spring. He is a very tired man. He is kindly, gentle and humorous, but I can see is hardly in shape to cope with problems.” (p. 391) Months later, in October 1945--with Churchill now no longer prime minister and FDR having been dead since April--King came to London and was told by Churchill that at Yalta Roosevelt was “gone, that there was not life there, that the man was exhausted.” (p. 415)

In regard to issues, King was a natural go-between between Churchill and FDR because Canada was part of the British Commonwealth but also shared an extended border with the USA. In the year and a half that the Churchill-led Britain was at war with Germany while the U. S. remained neutral, the British leader was desperate for U.S. assistance and thought King could facilitate that goal, which he was willing to do. Thompson cites King diary entries of August 17 and 18, 1940 to indicate that King “thought the purpose of his life was to bring Canada, the United States and Britain together.”  (p. 137) 

With Canada being part of the British Commonwealth, King was naturally concerned with the role that it would play in aiding Britain’s war effort.  And it did much: Thompson indicates that by the end of the war “over 47,000 [Canadians] had been killed, 54,000 wounded.” (p. 402) Proportionate to population (with the U.S. population being more than ten times that of Canada), Canadian casualties were similar to U. S. numbers. But King resisted Churchill’s efforts to pursue any Commonwealth policies that the Canadian feared might reduce his country’s independence, and he criticized (in his diary) Churchill’s determination to prevent British Empire countries like India from gaining more independence. Thompson quotes King as saying (in mid 1944), “The British Empire and Commonwealth is a religion to him [Churchill].” (p. 326)

Other issues that King comments on include the attitudes of FDR and Churchill towards China under Chiang Kai-shek (FDR was more favorable) and the French leader in exile, Charles de Gaulle (both FDR and Churchill found him difficult to deal with). More frequently mentioned were the differences between Churchill and Roosevelt (and Stalin) regarding the timing of the cross-channel invasion, which eventually occurred at Normandy Beach in June 1944. FDR and Stalin wanted it to come sooner, but, fearful of great casualties if it did, Churchill kept delaying it. Partly because of his concerns with Russian expansion into Eastern Europe, the British prime minister placed much more emphasis on attacking German forces in Italy and perhaps other areas reachable from the Mediterranean Sea.

King’s comments reinforce the standard historical view that in the latter stages of the war Churchill was much more suspicious and hostile toward Stalin than was FDR. Although King sometimes had his doubts about the wisdom of Churchill’s wartime distrust of Stalin, the Canadian prime minister greatly valued Churchill’s famous hardline “iron curtain” speech (March 5, 1946 at Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri) and telephoned him to say it was “the most courageous made by any man at any time.” (p. 423) By this time Churchill was no longer prime minister, his Conservative party having been voted out by the British people in July 1945.

The last two chapters of Thee Third Man, 13 and 14, cover the period from FDR’s death in April 1945 until King’s retirement in 1948 and subsequent death in 1950. Among the later topics touched by King in his diaries (and Thompson in his book) are why the British Labour party was able to defeat Churchill’s Conservatives in July 1945’s surprising victory, King’s dealing with the new U. S. president, Harry Truman, and King’s perspective on the new world order emerging out of the ashes of WWII.

Although Thompson relies mainly on the King diaries, he also considers important other books on the two leaders like those of Martin Gilbert and Nigel Hamilton--although, unfortunately, there is no mention (in the bibliography or index) of historian Lewis E. Lehrman’s Churchill, Roosevelt & Company: Studies in Character and Statecraft (2017).

One final point: although Thompson explains some of the political reasons why early in the century neither King nor Churchill were sympathetic toward more Asian immigration into Canada, nor King or FDR toward favoring more Jewish refugees into their countries in 1939, none of the three leaders demonstrated the type of heartfelt concern as expressed by the poet W. H. Auden in his haunting “Refugee Blues.”  About the refugee discussion between FDR and King in mid 1939, Thompson at least wrote that the topic was “far more tragic than acknowledged.” (p. 91)