Washington, D.C. · December 22, 1941

On this date in 1941 President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt, British Prime Minister Win­ston Chur­chill, and their respec­tive chiefs of staff assembled in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., for their first strategic confer­ence as com­ba­tants-in-arms. The First Wash­ing­ton Con­fer­ence, code­named Arcadia, was the second face-to-face meeting (there would be nine in all) between the two English-speaking leaders, the first having been a four-day meeting the previous August off the coast of New­found­land, Canada. August’s Placen­tia Bay Con­ference (or Atlan­tic Con­fer­ence as it was also known) produced a semi­nal agree­ment on war aims between a still-neutral America and Great Britain, which had been at war with Nazi Germany since September 1939.

Secretly leaving England on December 12, 1941, aboard the new British battle­ship HMS Duke of York, Chur­chill arrived as guest of the White House ten days later. Chur­chill’s absence in England had been noticed by an astute Washington-based news­paper correspon­dent, who hinted to readers back home in Toledo, Ohio, on Decem­ber 20 that a meeting of world leaders was in the works. (True.) Never­the­less, Churchill’s upcoming visit was kept mostly a secret until he and his entou­rage arrived off the Virginia coast on December 22.

Churchill’s American host had at first resisted the British prime minister’s cable requesting a bilateral meeting at “the highest execu­tive level.” Because the British cable arrived only a day after both the U.S. and Great Britain had declared war on Axis powers Japan, Ger­many, and Italy, Roose­velt worried that he and his staff needed more time to come up to speed on the rapidly unfolding global events; how­ever, the presi­dent abruptly changed his mind after learning the Japa­nese had sunk the battle­ship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse off the east coast of British Malaya.

A prime objective of Churchill during his stay in the U.S. capital was to have the Roose­velt admin­is­tration commit itself to a “Europe first” strategy; namely, a recog­ni­tion by poten­tially the most power­ful nation on earth that to win the war against the Axis meant defeating Nazi Ger­many first and fore­most. Out of three weeks of strate­gizing came the agree­ment to com­bine Allied mili­tary resources under one com­mand in the Euro­pean Theater of Opera­tions (ETO). Six months later, on June 8, 1942, the U.S. Depart­ment of War offi­cially estab­lished ETOUSA, placing U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower at its head, with responsibility for planning the eventual reconquest of Europe.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Advisers Strategize at the First Washington Conference, December 22, 1941, to January 14, 1942

December 23, 1941, press conference with Churchill and RooseveltLighting White House Christmas tree, December 24, 1941

Left: The day after his arrival in Washington, D.C., a Tuesday, Decem­ber 23, 1941, Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Chur­chill presided over a “war conference” attended by British Commonwealth repre­sen­tatives from Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Later in the after­noon Chur­chill joined Presi­dent Roose­velt in a joint press confer­ence for roughly 200 jour­nalists and broad­casters in the Oval Office of the White House. When Roose­velt intro­duced his guest, he suggested that Chur­chill rise from his seat to give his audi­ence a better view. Climbing on a chair to be seen better, Chur­chill was greeted with loud and spon­taneous applause and cheers, the first such out­pouring at a presi­dential news con­fer­ence. Chur­chill’s wit charmed every­one. Asked how long he thought it would take to win the war, he quipped, “If we manage it well, it will only take half as long as if we manage it badly.”

Right: After nightfall on Christmas Eve, December 24, Chur­chill (right in photo) and Roose­velt stepped onto the White House South Portico for a cere­monial lighting of the national Christ­mas tree on the White House lawn. Before a crowd of 20,000 on­lookers and a nation­wide radio audi­ence in the millions, the two statesmen made clear the prin­cipals for which they had now com­mitted their nations to a war that would engulf much of the world in the coming years. After break­fast the next morning the Presi­dent, the First Lady, and Chur­chill attended a Christ­mas service at nearby Foundry Metho­dist Church, where they sang Christmas carols, including “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a carol Churchill had never heard before.

Churchill addressing U.S. Congress, December 26, 1941Churchill addressing Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941

Above: The day after Christmas, December 26, a Friday, Churchill became the first British prime minister to address a joint session of the U.S. Con­gress (left photo), delighting its mem­bers when he remarked shortly into his speech: “I can­not help reflecting that if my father had been Ameri­can and my mother Brit­ish, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own.” Three days later he left by train for Ottawa, Canada, where he addressed the Cana­dian Parlia­ment in English and French on Decem­ber 30, 1941 (right photo, Chur­chill standing in center). After a stay of just over three weeks in North America, Chur­chill and his staff of mili­tary and civil­ian advisers em­barked for England, having spent much of their time making plans for pursuing the war against the Axis powers.

Winston Churchill’s Address to the U.S. Congress, December 26, 1941