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Ghost in the Attic (1): Churchill, the Soviets and the Special Relationship
Part 1: “All wisdom is not new wisdom” —WSC, 19381
In the past decade or so, we have been inundated with new scholarly and popular histories of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. The bulk of those studies have focused on the Second World War, some involving the Soviets, many on Churchill and Roosevelt together. The documentation for their relationship, joint actions, and international diplomacy for their era has been available, with a few exceptions, since the early 1970s, despite breathless dust-jacket claims of “new, secret” documents. Once John Costello failed to find the fabled cache of Hitler’s secrets at the bottom of a Swiss lake, it was clear we had it all.
Our understanding has recently been enhanced by The Churchill Documents and The Kremlin Letters. Yet Russian historians exploring Stalin’s correspondence with FDR and Churchill admit there are no revelations, although the documents do offer invaluable insights into their reasoning and reactions. Second World War historians are moving into the age of “nuance,” of rethinking its history. So interpretation (usually that of the author) is all that’s truly new. The cliché is that each generation writes its own history.
Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” or “Sinews of Peace” speech in Fulton on 6 March 1946 must be understood within the alliance politics of the Second World War. He had made differing assessments (somersaults, as one historian put it) regarding the Soviet Union since 1917. The longue durée of the Special Relationship that Churchill christened in that speech is essential to understanding that continuing, unique relationship. But it was the Second World War and its immediate aftermath that set the stage for his performance.
To repeat my own phrase, “the eternal triangle is as much a threat to statesmen as it is to lovers.”2
Throughout the Second World War, the ghost in the attic for the AASR was the Soviets and Josef Stalin. Can’t live with him; can’t live without him. Roosevelt and Churchill recognized that Hitler’s attack on Russia on 22 June 1941, offered the best chance to defeat him. Churchill famously offered “a favourable reference to the devil” even if Hitler had invaded hell. FDR quickly dispatched his key adviser, Harry Hopkins, to Moscow to assess Stalin’s mettle. Hopkins came back and reported that yes, Stalin was a dictator, but he and the Soviets would go the distance against Hitler.3
Churchill’s speech has a long background, but let us not make it more complex than it was. It was written in an atmosphere of what Churchill described as “poverty and privation.” The desperate situation was well known to any American who read a newspaper. He spoke of the “the awful ruin of Europe…the prevailing anxiety” over economic issues. Britain’s 46 million were “harassed about their food supply” and facing “difficulty in restarting our industries and export trade.” He closed with an appeal for Anglo-American cooperation.
“The gaunt marauders”
These were strong statements, but they were dwarfed by the length and power of his remarks on war and tyranny. He called these the “gaunt marauders.” He fell short of an appeal for actual help, however much that appeal was being made by the Attlee government.
Churchill’s condemnation of the Soviets in Eastern Europe garnered greater attention from his American audience than he expected. His speech will forever be known as the “Iron Curtain” speech, or by his own title, “The Sinews of Peace.”
The receptivity of America and its leaders to confronting the Soviets was not created by Churchill’s oration. It was there waiting for a champion.4 It is worth noting that Churchill specifically rejected the legitimacy of the Soviet Union acting as one of the world’s constables or sheriffs (FDR’s “four policemen”). Yet he, the Soviet leader Josef Stalin, and President Roosevelt had agreed to that at the Teheran and Yalta conferences.5
Churchill placed great emphasis on the Special Relationship as a tool, a means by which Britain and Europe could survive their economic crisis, while standing up to what he feared was expanding Bolshevism and, at the same time, Russian influence (and security). Ideology and geopolitics were mixed up together.
This was the same Churchill who had spent five years in alliance with the USSR to defeat Germany and Japan. Earlier, in the 1930s, he’d advocated allying with the “Russians,” as he referred to the Bolsheviks when he looked to get along with them.
The Soviets: a long, uneven history
His pro-Russian stance in those years was called Appeasement, practical power politics, prudence, and other loaded labels. It was a remarkable somersault for the man who had famously despised the Bolshevik revolution from the start.6
Churchill was initially angered by the Bolsheviks’ refusal to rejoin the fight against Imperial Germany in the First World War. Soon this gave way to a more ideological condemnation, as he called for military intervention. In 1920 he described the Bolsheviks as a “vile group of cosmopolitan fanatics…. The policy I will always advocate is the overthrow and destruction of that criminal regime.”
The criminal acts were, presumably, the execution of Russian royal family, for regicide was anathema to Churchill. His angry riffs on the Bolsheviks ran the gamut of animals and disease: They were “a pestilence,” “swarms of typhus-bearing vermin,” “ferocious baboons” and “vampires.” Yet he was eager to have them as allies in 1917-18. And he looked to make them allies from the 1930s through 1945.7
The reference to an Iron Curtain was, like many of his catch-phrases, well rehearsed. Whatever Stalin’s well-documented conviction that the capitalist nations were dedicated to the containment and/or destruction of the Soviet state and system (Churchill clearly advocated a restoration of the cordon sanitaire), the Soviets had ignored the spirit and sense of the Yalta agreements.9
His brutal installation of Soviet puppet states, under the guise of liberation, particularly in Poland, had ignored the façade that Churchill and Roosevelt had constructed.
Unwritten rule: the “right to guide”
Granted, Stalin acknowledged Churchill’s phrase, “the right to guide the course of history is the noblest prize of victory.” And that, according to Stalin, “everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.” Just before the Yalta talks, Churchill wrote: “It is understood that the Russians were to work their will in [the Balkans]. Anyhow we cannot prevent them.”10
The unwritten rule that Stalin ignored was that in return for acceptance of Soviet dominance in eastern Europe, the Anglo-Americans expected cosmetics that would make Soviet control politically tolerable in the UK and the USA. Stalin was hardly sensitive to the domestic pressures of a democratic society. He ignored unstated nuances and ploughed ahead to establish subservient states under Russian dominance. Churchill was predisposed to distrust socialism of any kind, Communism in particular. A few weeks after Yalta, he campaigned to get the USA to take the lead in confronting the Soviets. FDR, desperately ill, stuck to his guns, hoping to preserve what he called the “family circle” approach—his “four policemen.”11
Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt was entirely right. Stalin’s fatalism was set out bluntly after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. He instructed his bureaucracy to ignore American coercive hints about their super weapon, and to develop an atomic bomb. His logic was flawless given his belief that the West was unwavering in its commitment to destroy the Soviets. Ignore the hints and threats and build our own bomb, he instructed. If we do not develop a bomb, they will destroy us. If we do develop a bomb and they attack us, we are all destroyed. But having a bomb gives us a chance to preserve the Revolution. Such attitudes presaged MAD—mutual assured destruction.12
Churchill and Roosevelt consistently and firmly rejected proposals to “internationalize” the bomb. Sharing such information was not one of the “Sinews of Peace,” and Churchill flatly said so at Fulton. “God has willed” that the Anglo-Americans hold the atomic secret, he declared. It would be “criminal madness” to allow “some Communist or neo-Fascist State” to frighten other nations “with consequences appalling to human imagination.”13
This is not the place to berate or praise the Anglo-Americans, or the AASR. They had been conducting their own form of atomic diplomacy, which however failed to mitigate brutality of the Soviets in eastern Europe. What matters is that Churchill had somersaulted to his earliest nightmares about the Bolsheviks—“criminal madness” and unimaginable consequences constitute an unequivocal position statement. Churchill himself would interpret that another way. “My views are a harmonious process,” he said in 1952, “which keeps them in relation to the current movements of events.”14
In 2000 the historian David Carlton published a leading work, Churchill and the Soviet Union. He neatly traces Churchill’s reversals with his chapter titles. We go from “Irreconcilable Adversary” in 1917 to the 1920s to “Guarded Rapprochement” in the 1930s. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact ends hopes of working with the Soviets, followed by “Allied with Hell,” the Second World War. Then “Preaching Confrontation” (1945-49) gives way to “Summitry” during Churchill’s 1951-55 ministry.15
Obviously neither Churchill’s fulminations in the 1920s nor Fulton in 1946 were his final position. The “fanatical enemy of Marxism-Leninism” once again counseled for talks with the Soviets following Stalin’s death in 1953. Deeply worried about the possibility of thermonuclear war, he counseled that “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.” (The accurate version of that famous quip.)16 Then President Eisenhower dismissed Churchill’s plea as that of an old man. The inference was palpable.17
Concluded in Part 2.
N.B. This article was published with minor copyediting as “Prologue—The Ghost in the Attic: Churchill, the Soviet Union, and the Anglo-American Special Relationship,” in Churchill and the Special Relationship (London and New York: Routledge, 2017), 10-18.
1 Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill by Himself (London: Ebury Press, 2008), 29. My thanks to Richard Langworth, Lloyd Gardner, James Muller, Fred Pollock and the editors of Churchill and the Special Relationship for their indispensable help.
2 Portions of this essay have been borrowed and/or paraphrased from a number of my earlier pieces, particularly, “Principles and Compromises: Churchill, Roosevelt and Eastern Europe,” in Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill Proceedings, 1994-1995 (Washington: The Churchill Centre, 1998), 98-106; and my review of David Carlton, Churchill and the Soviet Union (New York: Manchester University Press, 2000), in Finest Hour 107, Summer 2000, 24-25. My thanks to Carlton for the somersault image. See also “The ‘Special’ Anglo-American Special Relationship: ‘A Fatter, Larger Underwater Cable’” in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies 3:1 (Spring 2005), 1-5; “‘Fighting With Allies,’” in D. Schmitz and T.C. Jesperson, eds., Architects of the American Century (Chicago: Imprint, 2000); and “Dangerously Contagious? The Anglo-American Special Relationship,” a debate with Alex Danchev, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 7:3 (2005), 437-41.
For the “eternal triangle” quote, see my introduction to Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence (3 vols.; Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984), I, 9. The title is genially lifted from my “The Ghost in the Attic: The Soviet Union as a Factor in Anglo-American Wartime Planning for Postwar Germany,1943-1945,” in Arthur L. Funk, ed., Politics and Strategy in the Second World War (International Committee for the History of the Second World War & Military Affairs/Aerospace Historian, 1976, 88-112.
3 For Churchill’s quip see Langworth, Churchill by Himself, 276. Warren F. Kimball, The Juggler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 31-36. Hopkins wrote of being “confident” that “There is unbounded determination to win”; as quoted in David Roll, The Hopkins Touch (New York: Oxford, 2013), 131. See also Christopher O’Sullivan, Harry Hopkins: FDR’s Envoy to Churchill and Roosevelt (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), ch. 4.
4 For the origins of the “iron curtain” phrase see John Ramsden, “Mr. Churchill Goes to Fulton,” in Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech Fifty Years Later, James W. Muller, ed. (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 15, n. 1. Also Richard M. Langworth, “Origins of Churchill Phrases: ‘Special Relationship’ and ‘Iron Curtain.’”
5 Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), VII, 7287 [hereinafter “Sinews of Peace”]. For the “Four Policemen” see Warren F. Kimball, “The Sheriffs: FDR’s Postwar World,” in David Woolner et al, eds., FDR’s World: War Peace, and Legacies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 91-121.
6 For a vigorous defense of Churchill’s principled prudence see Larry P. Arnn, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Survival of Free Government (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016).
7 David Carlton, Churchill and the Soviet Union, 26 (italics added). The riff of insults is on page 20.
8 Langworth, Churchill by Himself, 374.
9 For documentary evidence of Stalin’s firm belief in Western intentions, see Oleg Rzheshevsky, ed., War and Diplomacy: The Making of the Grand Alliance: Documents from Stalin’s Archives (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic & Overseas Publishers Association, 1996).
10 “Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach,” is one version of Stalin’s observation. “Whoever occupies a territory imposes on it his own social system” is another.The minor differences are likely due to different translations of the original source, Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin (1961). For Churchill on the Balkans see Carlton, Churchill and the Soviet Union, 121(quoting from Martin Gilbert, Road to Victory).
11 Kimball, The Juggler, 159-83, and “Sheriffs and Constables: Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s Postwar World,” Finest Hour 141 (Winter 2008-09), 36-42). I argue the “cosmetics” thesis in The Juggler, ch. 8.
12 While these are not direct quotations, Stalin’s views comport with David Holloway’s extensive research in Soviet and Western sources. See for example Holloway, “The Atomic Bomb and the End of the Wartime Alliance,” in Ann Lane & Howard Temperley, eds., The Rise and Fall of the Grand Alliance, 1941-45 (London: Macmillan, 1995), 207-25.
13 Churchill, “Sinews of Peace,” 7287-88.
14 Langworth, Churchill by Himself, 513.
15 David Carlton and I have some interpretive disagreements, but in my opinion his summary of Churchill’s statements and actions over the Soviets is spot-on.
16 Quotations from Carlton, Churchill and the Soviet Union, 142, and Langworth, Churchill By Himself, 19.
17 Warren F. Kimball, “Churchill and Eisenhower: Sentiment and Politics,” in Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill Proceedings, 1998-2000 (Washington: Churchill Centre, 2004), 64-74. See also Klaus Larres, Churchill’s Cold War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).
Warren F. Kimball is Robert Treat Professor (emeritus) at Rutgers University. The author of Forged in War and The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman, he edited the three-volume annotated collection of Churchill-Roosevelt Correspondence. He has published over 50 essays on Churchill, Roosevelt and the era of the Second World War. His institutional history, The United States Tennis Association: Raising the Game, was published in December 2017. Most recently he was Jones Distinguished Professor at Wofford College, Spartanburg, S.C., in spring 2019.
Video: Martin Gilbert, “The Enduring Importance of the Iron Curtain Speech”
Jacob R. Weaver, “The Rhetoric of the Cold War: Churchill’s 1946 Fulton Speech”
Richard M. Langworth, “Churchill’s Steady Adherence to His 1946 ‘Iron Curtain’ Speech”
Paul H. Courtenay, “Churchill’s Fulton and Zürich Speeches in Context”