It was the summer of 1940 and Winston Churchill was waiting patiently to hear back from President Roosevelt regarding his increasingly urgent requests for war time assistance.
Weeks earlier, France had formally surrendered to the Nazis, and now Britain was also hanging on for dear life. Determined to avoid becoming another one of Hitler’s recent victims, Churchill reached out to President Roosevelt immediately after becoming Prime Minister requesting a loan of 40-50 older US Destroyers. These seemed easy enough to spare, yet would be invaluable to the British during a time that reinforcements were still being built.
While he was waiting, Churchill learned that the United States had come to desire certain specific assurances regarding the future of the British fleet before they would grant any Destroyers. The fear of the United States was that in the unfortunate event of Britain succumbing to the Nazis, the powerful navies in the peripheries of their empire would be turned over to Hitler, or destroyed by the British themselves. (Instead, it was hoped they would promptly set sail for friendly countries in the event they needed to take matters against Hitler into their own hands…)
Anxious to get things moving, Churchill writing under the alias “Former Naval Person” informed Roosevelt that Britain was prepared to lease a group of military bases to the United States indefinitely. This presented an impressive new carrot that would allow the US to expand their defensive abilities well beyond their current capabilities.
With this enticing new offer on table, it seemed as though momentum was growing towards a deal for British bases in return for American Destroyers. However, one of Churchill’s conditions was that both the bases and the Destroyers should be presented publicly to their government as simultaneous gifts – not a connected bargain – as it could be difficult for him explain an incredibly one sided deal to his Parliament.
Everything seemed agreeable until an interesting new wrinkle developed: Upon reviewing the terms, the Unite States Attorney General determined there must be be a formal quid pro quo for the deal to occur. Why so? According to the Constitution, for the United States to justify providing the type of military assistance being requested they would need to receive something of equal or greater value to their own military defenses.
Responding to this development, Churchill expressed to Roosevelt that he empathized with his situation regarding the Constitution. But, due to the urgency of the situation, he proposed they maneuver around this slight roadblock, stating –
“If your law or your Admiral requires that any help you may choose to give us must be presented as a quid pro quo, I do not see why the British Government have to come into that at all. Could you not say that you did not feel able to accept this fine offer which we make, unless the United States matched in some way, and that therefore the Admiral would be able to link the one with the other?”
Further, just in case this was truly not possible, Churchill presented the following plan to navigate forward:
Britain would immediately grant a portion of the bases, since giving the bases to the United States was already considered “settled policy”. In regards to the rest of the bases, they would continue to negotiate a total package that was fair to both parties. Finally, in return, the United Stated would allow the Destroyers to be sent to Britain immediately, which Roosevelt proceed to do.
What both leaders wisely leveraged in their negotiation was the remarkable power of framing. By doing so, both created the ability to meet their nation’s overall interests, as well as a way to sell the deal publicly without too negative of repercussions. As for Roosevelt, he could go to Congress and say there was a Constitutionally ‘close enough’ exchange of valuable new military bases for old Destroyers, with even more bases on the way. As for Churchill, he could stand behind the fact that Britain already decided to gift the bases, and they would continue to negotiate the total package. Most importantly, with Hitler pressing on every front, much needed gifts to ease their struggle were now on the way.