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An Eisenhower, a Roosevelt, a Churchill

For David Eisenhower, David Roosevelt and Arabella Churchill, the grandchildren of D-Day's three most important actors, the enormity of what their grandparents accomplished never fails to amaze. Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Sir Winston Churchill, respectively, planned and implemented the risky assault on Hitler's "Fortress Europe" 60 years ago this week.

David Eisenhower is an author and historian and currently a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.  He has made it his life’s work to study and know the intimate details of his grandfather’s history.

Although David Roosevelt was only four years old when his grandfather died, he has intimate family knowledge of the inner workings of the Roosevelt White House and the decisions his grandfather made.

Arabella Churchill was fifteen when Sir Winston Churchill died.  She grew up in his company and fondly remembers him as a caring soul.  She is the director of the Children’s World Charity and joins us today from her home in southern France.

Here's a transcript of Lester Holt's interview with these famous grandchildren. 

Were these great men afraid?
David Eisenhower,  we’ve learned throughout history  that a lot went right that day but a lot went wrong as well. Your grandfather anticipated that on some levels. He wrote that note we’ve heard so much about. He scribbled:  “Our lands have failed, the troops, the air and navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do.  If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” Were those the words of a man filled with doubt?

DAVID EISENHOWER:  No, they were not.  He was not filled with doubt.  In fact he believed it would succeed because he knew that D-Day had to succeed.  There was no way backwards.  But he was a commander, he was in touch with the realities on the front, and if something had gone wrong the effects that it would have been catastrophic. His effort in drafting a note like that would have been to place blame where it belonged, that is, with the military people.

They certainly had the resources to make this succeed, and had Overlord failed, or had the landings failed, I think he would have, appropriately, taken personal blame, and as we know from the coverage. Omaha, did threaten for several hours the tactical success of the landings themselves.

HOLT: We know that Prime Minister Churchill’s biggest worry was that German U-boats could somehow interrupt the landings. Do you know what your grandfather’s biggest worry was?  Did he ever really talk about the battle planning and, and his anxieties?

EISENHOWER:  I think his biggest worry was the weather, because we had to move so many troops ashore and so much material ashore, and we had to stake our claims well inland. The weather was going to determine whether the subsequent waves, and so forth, got to shore efficiently.

The problem in D-Day was not so much tactical surprise, because we had 3,000 miles of coastline to work with.  The problem was claiming a significant enough bridgehead that we could pour the 37 divisions, American divisions, and allied divisions that we had waiting to go in this operation, pour those 37 divisions into that bridgehead.  That, that’s lots of, people.  We needed space, and the entire plan of course depended not only on successful landings but speed and exploitation inland.

HOLT:  Arabella Churchill, did you grandfather talk much about the planning, the anxieties, the worries?  Did he carry that emotion to his grave?

ARABELLA CHURCHILL:  Not that I have personal knowledge of, but I know that having gone through the ghastly failure of Dardanelles in the First World War, which was actually not his fault, he must have felt very, very nervous before D-Day.

This was an immense operation, which could have gone wrong in so many ways.  It could have been a complete disaster. There was a lot of good things that happened for us, which made D-Day work.  But it could have been a complete disaster.

I imagine when he went to bed the night before, he must have been really very seriously worried.  We’d just had the capture of Rome, so he was feeling pretty good, and he knew that a fantastic allied force was heading towards France, that it was looking good.  But my goodness, the responsibility?  It must have been a huge responsibility, and the relief the next day, when he was able to report at noon to the House of Commons that all was going well, I think must have been a fantastic moment for him.

We’ve all marveled at the operational security, the fact that they were able to launch that armada, virtually unseen.  Yet historians now listen to FDR’s fireside chat of June 5th and wonder what was he trying to say or not say.   He said: “The victory still lies some distance ahead.  That distance will be covered in due time.  Have no fear of that.  But it will be tough and it will be costly.”  Mr. Roosevelt, was that part of the deception plan?

DAVID ROOSEVELT:  Oh, I think definitely so.  I think that, you know, FDR loved to communicate with the people, and I think it was, was very difficult, that particular speech. He was telling the people of the Allies’ success in taking Rome, and I think it must have been very difficult for him not to tell the American people that within just a few hours of that speech, in fact the Allies would be launching this major initiative, and on, on the coast of France.

I think he was not being terribly deceptive but he was wanted to give the people some indication that there was going to be a good deal more movement in the relatively near future. Of course he could not say when that would be.

Their friendships
Mr. Eisenhower, I know you’ve spent a lot of time studying these issues.  When you look at the relationship between FDR and Churchill, how did they ultimately resolve the difference over where to open the second front?  Should it be in France?  Should it come up from the Mediterranean?

EISENHOWER:  You know, I think that Churchill studied closely, and Roosevelt studied closely. I think they all agreed on practically all of the major principles of war strategy in World War II. When, when Churchill was advocating preparatory operations in North Africa and Italy, this conformed to FDR’s sense of the possible, and when the time came for Franklin Roosevelt, the architect of our strategy in northwest Europe to insist on Overlord, I believe that Churchill rendered the absolutely critical assistance at the key moments.

He was not only heartening toward the enterprise, as he said on May 15th, 1944, at a great big briefing just before the landing itself. He had always been a very ardent proponent that this is something that the allies had to do. They had to take on the Germans where they would fight. They had to claim a decisive role in the ultimate victory in Europe, and Overlord was the way to do that. Churchill, the greatest opponent that Nazism had, was somebody who recognized  that reality very profoundly, in my opinion.

HOLT:  And Ms. Churchill, we’ve talked a lot in the past about the friendship between your grandfather and FDR, but where they did cut that friendship off? How did they dealt with each other as two world leaders trying to win this war? Did they often find themselves at odds?

CHURCHILL:  I know that my grandfather loved FDR very, very much, and I have some nice stories about that. My grandfather had a great grasp of history and I’m sure he lived from history and he learned what worked. I’m sure they talked together, and that they worked it out together.

How their grandchildren knew them
I know, Ms. Churchill, that you only knew your grandfather in the year’s before his death.   He was ailing.  But tell me about the man of charisma, who essentially held his nation’s hand during those dark hours of World War II.  Was he that the same man you knew?

CHURCHILL:  In a way, yes. He was such a warm person.  And as a grandchild, I sensed very much his warmth.  And he loved the British people incredibly, not just historically, but in real life.  I think that his speeches during the war years emanated a huge amount of warmth. I think at the beginning of the war, Britain had a dreadful time, and his speeches must have made a huge difference in maintaining the courage of the British people.  He was an extraordinary man.  I feel very blessed to be his granddaughter.

HOLT:  But did he carry the emotion of the war, at the mention of Nazis, of Germany?

CHURCHILL:  You have to bear in mind that I was only 15 when he died.  But in actual fact, just shortly before his last illness, I suppose in about November or December, in 1964, I was sitting in the cinema at Hyde Park Gates, where he had a cinema, and we were holding hands during the film.  It was the “The Valiant Years” or “The Finest Hour,” I can’t remember which, and he grips my hand at one stage and said, “Bloody Nazis, bloody Hitler.”

He’d had a lot of strokes, and he was very deaf, and his life was on the wane, and I wish so often that I had actually been born earlier so that I had known him better.  But at that moment, I really sensed, oh, his total spirit and what he had been trying to do and what he did actually achieve.

HOLT:  Mr. Roosevelt, while Churchill was inspiring the British people, FDR brought us the Fireside Chats, the first media president, he was called.  He led the nation in prayer after the invasion.  Talk about his connection with the American people and how that got the country through the war and kept public support for the war.

ROOSEVELT: FDR realized the importance of having a dialogue with the American people, and he felt that they had to be involved and knowledgeable about what was happening not only in this country.  Of course, he started his Fireside Chats during the Great Depression.

I think the interesting thing is that my grandfather never felt that he was speaking to the people or at the people, but rather he was speaking with the people, and it was, it was very important for him. This was his way of establishing a direct connection with the people.

He, obviously, because of his disability, he was unable to be out in the public, if you will, as certainly the prime minister and others were.

HOLT:  David Eisenhower, we think of General Eisenhower, at the time, as a man who could inspire with his words, the words that the soldiers carried on the beaches with them that day.  And I look at that old film of him talking to the paratroopers before the invasion and trying to think what’s going through his mind? He probably knew that many of these men won’t be coming home. Give us a sense of his force of personality and how that was probably as big a part as a success in that day as anything else.

EISENHOWER:  Well, he had a tremendous force of personality, as you say. He could relate to everybody.  He had come from Abilene, Kansas, and so he was a commoner, as you would put it in England, and, as he had great political talent as well. 

HOLT:  Let me ask you about that political talent.  Why was he selected as Supreme Allied Commander?  There were a lot of other names that had been put in the hat for that job.

EISENHOWER:  We can all just guess.  I think that one quality that Eisenhower did bring to the task of command was his single-mindedness.  He was single-minded about the way this operation had to succeed and the subsequent campaign, and I think that’s a quality that you want in a commander.

It was also the key to something else that people remark about, and that is his diplomatic knack for getting colorful personalities within his own command and reconciling national traditions.  We’re talking Montgomery, Patton, ultimately.  Patton was not in the landings, but Patton assumes command of the 3rd Army August 1st. He had to reconcile very flamboyant personalities, and I think the secret to it is the quality that I believe that Franklin Roosevelt may have recognized in Dwight Eisenhower. As they worked together in early 1942 over the Philippine crisis, and that is this is an individual who was completely dedicated to the logic and the direction of Allied and American policy.

HOLT:  Why Ike?  Why General Eisenhower to lead this amazing mission?

ROOSEVELT:  Well, I think David just put his finger on it, but you know I think, also, my grandfather, because he knew General Eisenhower, they had worked together before, he had supreme confidence in the general’s not only military capacity, but, very importantly, he realized that this was a man who had a political capacity as well.   That was very important when you were dealing with all of the international players in this invasion—with the prime minister, obviously, and others, the Canadians, et cetera. I think that my grandfather realized that this was a man who had all of the necessary qualities of leadership to pull this off.

Some stories
Ms. Churchill, your grandfather, among his passions was painting, and it was a passion he didn’t have a lot of time to devote to during the war, but I understand he did share it with President Roosevelt.  Tell us about that story.

CHURCHILL:  He did, indeed.  This is after the Casablanca Conference in 1942.  They were there together in Morocco. David Roosevelt, I want you to know that my grandfather really loved your grandfather.

ROOSEVELT:  Thank you.

CHURCHILL:  He said, “You must, you cannot come this far and not come to Marrakech.”  So they drove four hours over the desert, and your grandfather was lifted up, up to the top of the roof of the Villa Taylor.  And grandpapa and President Roosevelt watched the sunset, the sun go down over the pink snow of the Atlas Mountains.

And then the next morning they all went back to bed then. The next morning, there was a fantastic thing.  Your grandpapa came down, and my grandpapa came down to embrace him and say goodbye.  And my grandpapa had only just got up, and he was wearing a rather skimpy silk dressing gown.  And he put your grandfather into the car and said goodbye, and he couldn’t bear to leave him.  So he rushed and got into the other side in the passenger seat, and he went with your grandfather to the airport.

And my grandpapa, who was quite a portly man, was actually on the runway of Marrakech airport waving goodbye to your grandpapa in a plane, in a very skimpy silk dressing gown. I love it.  It’s a real vision.

HOLT:  David, Had you heard that story before?

ROOSEVELT:  I have.  And, in fact, I read it in Jon Meacham’s book, “Franklin and Winston.”  And you know, Lester, the relationship between Arabella’s grandfather and mine was complex in ways.  They had a very, very intimate friendship, and yet they both, it was so intimate that they knew each other so well, they knew each other’s shortcomings, as well as their strengths.  And it’s interesting the dynamics of that relationship.

Political fortunes
Obviously, FDR did not live to see the end of World War II, but post-war, the popularity that Churchill had during the war did not stay with him, and his political fortunes ultimately did not last. What happened?

ROOSEVELT:  I can’t address what happened with the prime minister’s political fortune.  You know, I think my grandfather realized that he quite ill by this time.  He also realized that he really did not want—and this is my own personal opinion—that once the war was completed and once the path to recovery was begun, I think that my grandfather would have resigned the presidency because he really did not want the third or the fourth term.

Marking D-Day
David Eisenhower, let me ask you, as we mark this anniversary of D-Day, what do we overlook?  When we show the battle scenes and we talk to the survivors, what piece never seems to make it out there?

EISENHOWER:  Well, I think the pieces that you’re running are very interesting.  They capture the intensity of this moment.  I would think that maybe what you’re not covering is something that everybody implicitly understands, and that is really the miraculous aspects of D-Day.  After all, the United States here is talking about projecting 60 divisions of soldiers across the Atlantic Ocean and taking on probably the best-disciplined military force in the Continent of Europe and doing so in company with the British, who were making a similar-type commitment.

And these are not river crossings we’re talking about here, this is an ocean crossing to land in the British Isles and then a crossing of the English Channels, which is something that Napoleon could not do, something that Hitler did not dare do.  These are miraculous events.

Your coverage has emphasized the feelings in Moscow and Russia and all of the pressure that they brought to bear on the Allies’ for a second front and the insinuations that the second front was delayed and that the Russians had been allowed to bleed and so forth.

But an episode that I remember is that Avril Harriman, in describing the operation and presenting the news of it to Marshal Stalin in Stropkov, the Russian High Command and so forth, Stalin’s comment, he was forced to concede that this was the greatest military operation anybody’s ever conceived of.  And this is a great contribution that the Americans and the British together made to a world that came out of World War II a better world, in my opinion.

So I think that the courage has conveyed the intensity and the details in a terrific way.  This has really been fun.  And I think that the reason that you all are giving so much emphasis to it touches on the implicit understanding that we all have, that this is a miraculous passage in American and British history.

HOLT:  David Eisenhower, David Roosevelt and Arabella Churchill.  It was a real pleasure to have you all on.