- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

It may be common knowledge that Winston Churchill was half American by birth, but what is less well known is that a New York motorist came close to cutting short the great man’s career a decade before Britain faced its finest hour.

During a lecture tour in 1931, the future prime minister hailed a cab to take him to the Fifth Avenue home of his friend, Bernard Baruch. Thedriver somehow got lost on the short journey (some things, it seems, never change in Manhattan) and when Churchill finally crossed the street towards what he hoped was Baruch’s door, he was run over by another car.

His injuries, including cracked ribs, were serious enough to keep him in hospital for more than a week, followed by weeks of convalescence.

Always looking for ways to supplement his income, he decided to write anarticle about his accident, and fired off a transatlantic telegram to his favorite scientist, Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell). A copy of it turned up this week in the British Library, and was presented at a conference on Churchill and America organized by the University of London’s Institute of United States Studies.

The cable ran as follows: “Please calculate for me following — what is impact or shock to body of motor car weighing 2,400 lbs travelling 30 or 25 mph…Want figure for article.”

Back came a reply from Lindemann, explaining that the impact was equivalent to being dropped 30 feet onto a sidewalk or being hit by two charges of buckshot at point-blank range.

It was, then, a lucky escape. Churchill could have been forgiven for thinking that there was a star-spangled jinx on him, since his previous trip to the United States in 1929 coincided with the Wall Street crash.

Having invested heavily in the stock market, he managed to lose the modern equivalent of nearly $1 million in the aftermath of Black Thursday. (At one point, according to Roy Jenkins’ recent biography, he even claimed to have seen a suicidal businessman plunging past his window.)

When the statesman returned home to England, his finances were so precarious that he temporarily closed down his beloved country home at Chartwell. During the trip his mood had not been improved by his brush with the Prohibition laws. One of history’s great tipplers, he had been obliged to use his diplomatic status to smuggle in a bottle or two of his favourite liquor.

The tiny details round out the portrait of a great man. With America mourning the passing of a president, the British Library gathering could hardly have happened at a more appropriate moment.

As Allen Packwood, the director of Cambridge’s Churchill Archives Centre, observed at the beginning of the conference, admiration for Churchill is “probably the one thing that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush can agree upon.”

Yet one of the surprising lessons of the conference was that Churchill’s personal “special relationship” with the United States took an awfully long time to get into its stride.

American values barely impinged on the young adventurer’s life. Although his mother, Jennie Jerome, was American, she had long lived the life of an expatriate, as had several of her close relatives.

In the course of a genial talk at the London conference, the Churchill biographer Geoffrey Best informed us that Jennie’s mother died in the sedate and genteel town of Tunbridge Wells. “I can’t,” he added, “think of a more English thing to do than that.”

When Churchill made his first brief trip to America, in 1895, it was as part of a journey to observe the rebel conflict in Cuba. He returned to the United States again in 1901 for a lecture tour based on his reminiscences of the Boer War. It would be nearly three decades before he returned, by which time he was well into his fifties.

In his keynote speech in London, historian David Cannadine argued that Churchill’s early opinion of America was less than entirely positive: The self-made man in him certainly admired the openness and informality of American society, but he was ultimately too much of an “Old World” artistocrat to feel fully at home on the other side of the Atlantic.

In the 1920s, Churchill’s contempt for the high idealism of the Wilsonian worldview — coupled with his determination that Britain resist attempts to undermine its naval supremacy — further colored his view of America.

Mr. Cannadine went on to quote a letter from Churchill’s wife, Clementine, written just before the 1929 general election, in which she expressed her concern that his hostility to America would prevent him becoming foreign secretary in the next parliament. (In the event, the Conservatives lost power to Ramsay MacDonald’s Labor Party.)

By the early thirties, according to Mr. Cannadine, Churchill began to take a much more complimentary view of America and its people. Having traveled more extensively across the heartland, he came to admire the breadth and vigor of the country and its economy.

Increasingly, the romantic notion of a union of the English-speaking peoples filtered into his vision of the future. The great partnership with FDR lay ahead of him, paving the way for the Reagan-Thatcher era.

Still, it is always reassuring to be reminded that Anglo-American misunderstandings are not a new phenomenon. Even a figure as towering as Churchill could get it wrong sometimes.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London.

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