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Did Churchill “Bid to Nuke Russia”?
In late 2014, London’s Daily Mail produced a shock headline: “Winston Churchill’s ‘bid to nuke Russia’ to win Cold War uncovered.”
The Mail’s claim was based on a new book by Thomas Maier, When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys,which reports a 1947 conversation Churchill had with Senator Styles Bridges (R-N.H.). In it, Churchill said “that if an atomic bomb could be dropped on the Kremlin wiping it out, it would be a very easy problem to handle the balance of Russia, which would be without direction.”
While the conversation is undoubtedly true, it is hardly new. It’s been known for decades that Churchill voiced such a thought several times in private conversation in 1946-47. What is not true is that Churchill ever “bid to nuke Russia.”
Churchill’s private thoughts about attacking the Soviets were first revealed in his doctor’s diaries in 1966, reporting a conversation twenty years earlier, when Churchill told Lord Moran: “America knows that fifty-two per cent of Russia’s motor industry is in Moscow and could be wiped out by a single bomb. It might mean wiping out three million people, but they would think nothing of that….They think more of erasing an historical building like the Kremlin”1
We tried to inform the Mail’s writer that the story was neither new nor dispositive. Churchill also said something similar to Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King, known since 1970: “The West should make it clear that the Soviet Union must not extend its regime any further in Western Europe, Churchill argued. He added that if the Soviets did not accept the ultimatum, a Western leader should tell them straight ‘We will attack Moscow and your other cities and destroy them with atomic bombs from the air.’”2
Here are the facts, and the context:
- Churchill often voiced apocalyptic or off-the-wall notions to visitors or staff so as to observe their reaction. It has been known for 50 years that one of these ideas was attacking the Soviets before Stalin could get the atomic bomb.
- But Churchill, as William Manchester wrote in his biography, The Last Lion, “always had second and third thoughts, and they usually improved as he went along. It was part of his pattern of response to any political issue that while his early reactions were often emotional, and even unworthy of him, they were usually succeeded by reason and generosity.”
- That certainly applies in this case. Graham Farmelo reported that Churchill reassessed his thoughts only six months later, telling Parliament in January 1948 that the best chance of avoiding war was “to bring matters to a head with the Soviet Government…to arrive at a lasting settlement.” Mr. Maier doesn’t acknowledge Churchill’s change of view until 1952, when he adds that Churchill “would drop the bomb if he could.” That is simply not so.
- It should be noted that Churchill never made his bombing proposal to any plenary American authority, such as President Truman or the State Department, officially or otherwise, as prime minister (through July 1945) or as leader of the opposition (1945-51). Indeed, as Graham Farmelo wrote, his 1946-47 remarks were “the zenith of Churchill’s nuclear bellicosity.”
1 Sir Charles Watson Moran, Churchill: The Struggle for Survival 1945-60 (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2006), Conversation of 8 August 1946.
2 Pickersgill, John Whitney and Dondald Frederick Forster, ed. The MacKenzie King Record, Volume 4, 1947-1948 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970) quoted in Graham Farmelo, Churchill’s Bomb (Basic Books, 2013), 339.
Featured Image: The atomic bombing of Hiroshima, 6 August 1945 (U.S. Navy photo).