George Will

     How ancient it now seems, 1941. The city of Washington had 15,000 outdoor privies. German U-boats sank 432 ships in the Atlantic. In August FDR could deceive everyone, including the Secret Service, for a really secret meeting with Churchill -- their only previous meeting had been at a London dinner in 1918 -- at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. In the days after Pearl Harbor, some of the antiaircraft guns on the White House were wooden fakes -- real ones were scarce. On his voyage, sometimes through 40-foot waves, to his Christmas visit with FDR, Churchill watched American movies, including ``Santa Fe Trail,'' starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan.

     FDR greeted Churchill in Washington in a black limousine the Treasury Department had confiscated from a tax evader named Al Capone. Churchill met here with Adm. Ernest King, commander in chief of the U.S. fleet, who had served in the Spanish-American War, and with Gen. Henry ``Hap'' Arnold, the head of the Army Air Forces, who in 1911 received flight training in Dayton, Ohio, from the Wright brothers.

     What could have been the most important event of Churchill's almost three weeks in America was not known until his doctor published his memoirs in 1966: Churchill suffered a heart attack while straining to open a stuck window in his White House bedroom. Had it been fatal, that could have changed the world.

     Eleanor Roosevelt disapproved of Churchill the imperialist, but on Christmas Day 1941 she, he and the president attended Washington's Foundry Methodist Church, the second iteration of a church founded by Henry Foxall, who in 1812 vowed that he would build a church as a thanksgiving offering if the British did not destroy his cannon foundry when they took Washington and burned the White House.

     Christmas Day was the birthday of Gen. Sir John Dill, chief of the Imperial General Staff, so a cake was found and adorned with a set of American and British flags which, Dill discovered when he removed them, were made in Japan. This occasioned laughter, at a time when that, like much else, was scarce.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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