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Churchill’s plan to draw the US into war – by giving them a copy of the Magna Carta

British Cabinet deliberated whether to present a priceless copy of the ancient manuscript to the American nation

Cahal Milmo
Wednesday 11 March 2015 01:25 GMT
Winston Churchill, pictured in June 1941
Winston Churchill, pictured in June 1941 (Getty Images)

It was the height of the Blitz and after nearly a year of holding out against Nazi Germany’s advance, Britain needed all the help it could get from America. What better way, therefore, to persuade Washington of London’s geo-political ardour than to gift it a copy of Magna Carta?

Documents detailing the British Cabinet’s deliberations over whether to present a priceless copy of the ancient manuscript to the American nation in 1941 in an attempt to sway US public opinion towards joining the Second World War are to go on display this week for the first time at the British Library.

The idea sprang from an accident of timing that meant that a copy of the 1215 document owned by Lincoln Cathedral had been stranded in America following the outbreak of the war while it was on display at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

By March 1941, Congress had signed the Lend-Lease Act, which sent vast amounts of aid across the Atlantic to a desperately cash-strapped Britain and other Allies. The cabinet spotted an opportunity to kill off Washington’s isolationist tendencies and cement American affection for its struggling ally by handing over the parchment by which King John ceded rights to his subjects – a document widely regarded by Americans to be the precursor to their sacrosanct Constitution.

The showpiece exhibition, which opens on Friday, details the history and significance of Magna Carta and includes a Foreign Office document setting out Whitehall’s thinking behind the move, which notes that the Americans consider the British a “cold-blooded, calculating people” with a consistent failure “to say it with flowers”.

The memo, written in Machiavellian terms which would have done little to change that perception, acknowledges an American craving for “tangible evidence of their European background”.

It added: “A friendly act, graciously performed, evokes a tremendous response; and when an American has had his emotions stirred, his generosity is quite unbounded. He will give his shirt off his back for friendship.”

The plan was so advanced that officials got as far as planning the timing of the announcement for 15 June 1941, to coincide with Magna Carta Day when Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was in favour of the plan, would make a transatlantic broadcast.

Ultimately the scheme foundered for unspecified reasons that are likely to have included the fact that the Magna Carta copy belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral and that an Act of Parliament was needed to bring the project to fruition.

Julian Harrison, the British Library’s curator of medieval manuscripts, said: “I think in the cold light of day that it may have been realised by the cabinet that it would have been difficult to expect such a gift to persuade another country to take the step of entering a war.”

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