Given their distrust of Stalin, why did two such brilliant politicians as Churchill and Roosevelt remain so loyal to an ideological enemy who for almost twenty years had terrorized his own people while declaring capitalism to be his mortal foe?
– Paul Reid
This post is divided into three parts: 1) some brief thoughts on the book; 2) a very long digression on the very interesting question that Reid raises above; and 3) some thoughts on what to make of Churchill.
William Manchester wrote two volumes of a planned three volume biography of Churchill. He suffered a stroke during his research for the third. He asked Paul Reid to write the last volume.
Manchester was a protege of H. L. Mencken. I very much enjoyed Manchester’s biography of MacArthur and I very much enjoyed the first two volumes of this book.
Churchill leaps off the page and slaps the reader in the face. I remember laughing out loud – a not impressive feat for a massive, multi-volume biography.
Reid’s book is not nearly as good as a biography – frankly, it’s not even close. His Churchill is at times, almost an afterthought to the war narrative, as opposed to the shaper of events that Manchester described.
However, Reid makes up for his less-than-stellar biography skills by being a rather decent military historian (though he does make one absolutely unforgivable omission).
The book sucked me in, not as a biography of Churchill but as a meditation on the question that opens this post – how did Stalin win the peace? Indeed, Reid seems to lose himself (and his subject) in this question. How did FDR and Churchill get pwned by Stalin?
How Did the Soviets Win?
Churchill fought the war to save the empire. Alas, his only strategy for winning the war consisted in getting the US to join the war on his side. The price the US would ultimately demand was the end of the empire.
Churchill once said that if hell would fight Hitler, he’d find something nice to say about the devil. I’m sure he meant it in jest – but it ended up being all too true. A fact Churchill saw well before the war ended and decades before the most brilliant minds in US diplomacy figured it out.
In the end, the story of Churchill is a tragedy. The very values he fought for were compromised by the Allies he ultimately chose. Far from delivering the world into the sun-lit uplands of liberty, his victory delivered most of the world into hands of horrors at least bad – likely worse – than the ones he fought. (Admirers of Manchester – and Mencken – can’t help but think but think Manchester would have delivered something more concrete on this subject at the end of the book).
Thank you, gentle reader, for allowing me such a long preamble. Anyway . . .
The story of the war – in Reid’s telling – is almost nicely split into thirds. In the first third, Britain fights alone. In the second third, Russia does 90% of the fighting. In the last third, the US joins (though Russia still does the vast majority of the fighting and dictates the strategy for all powers combined).
In each third, it’s worth considering why Churchill kept wanting to fight Hitler . . . and whether (in hindsight) he made the right decision considering his original objectives.
The First Third
The mystery of the first third is why Churchill didn’t even consider seeking terms with Hitler during the years Britain fought alone.
Others – Lord Halifax, for example – suggested negotiating peace with Hitler to facilitate “safeguarding the independence of our Empire.” At the time, Churchill viewed these men as appeasers.
Years later, after starvation, bombing, cruelty, death, destitution, the end of the empire, and the deliverance to the Soviets of the very nations Churchill fought to protect, Lord Halifax’s suggestion doesn’t seem so crazy.
On the contrary, statements from Churchill like, “If this Long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground” seem a bit crazy. (Especially since, after an initial scare, there was no prospect of this happening).
Take a moment and imagine the situation for the next few years. France is gone. The Soviets and Hitler have carved up Eastern Europe and are allied. The US has no interest in joining the war, and even if it does it won’t be effective for years. German submarines control the Atlantic and English cities are under bombardment.
To fight is crazy. To fight without even considering some sort of truce is crazier. The Germans were baffled – they had no plans to invade. Hitler was prepared to offer generous terms (no demands of unconditional surrender were made, as was the case in France) to the British.
Yet many, including Jack Colville (who shuddered at the idea of a Nazi victory), thought the prospects afforded by a compromise peach preferable to the prospect of “western Europe racked by warfare and economic hardship; the legacy of centuries, in art and culture, swept away; the health of the nation dangerously impaired by malnutrition, nervous strain and epidemics; Russia and the U.S. profiting from our exhaustion; and at the end of it all compromise or Pyrrhic victory.”
Churchill’s crazy desire to fight was balanced by his absurd prescience. Soon after the French surrendered, he said, “Hitler must invade [England] or fail. If he fails, he is bound to go East [to Russia], and fail he will.”
So he fought on. He had no strategy to win the war, other than to wait for the Soviets and the Americans to be drawn to his side.
Churchill did all he could to milk fears of invasion, which he basically used to build himself an offensive army. His strategy – while he waited – was to harass Hitler and force him to spread out.
Churchill was obsessed with invading Norway – forcing Hitler to keep (and waste) troops there for the entirety of the war. But Churchill’s real obsession was the Mediterranean. Fighting here would keep open the route to India (and keep the empire together), spread Hitler’s forces out, allow his troops to fight Italians and not Germans, maintain access to Middle Eastern oil, and – one suspects – allow him a short route to German soil, if one was ever needed.
All this must be placed against the background of what the British people were suffering. And the peace terms actually achieved at the end of the war.
The Second Third
It would be a measureless disaster if Russian barbarism overlaid the culture and independence of the ancient states of Europe.
– Winston Churchill
And yet it was for this measureless disaster that the war was ultimately fought.
When the Soviets entered the war, it becomes a bit easier to see why the British continued to fight. The bombings slowed dramatically, for example.
It’s worth noting that Churchill tried to warn Stalin several times of German invasion (as did some of the Soviets’ incredibly successful spies). The warnings were unheeded. Stalin would prove to be far more skillful than Churchill, and infinitely more skillful than FDR, in winning the peace (it’s worth how tactically brilliant Stalin was in this regard), however Stalin was caught unprepared by Hitler’s invasion.
Though the Russians seemed vulnerable (Churchill was not among the majority that thought the Soviets would soon be overrun), one can’t help but wonder in retrospect if it would have been better had the Soviets lost.
Churchill had been a long time critic of Communism. I certainly can’t improve upon this: “‘Communism,’ Churchill declared . . ., was ‘Christianity with a tomahawk.'”
We’re left with a confused picture. On one hand, Churchill says,”No one has been a more consistent opponent of communism that I have for the last twenty-five years,” but “all this fades away before the spectacle that is unfolding.” On the other hand, he would later write that, “from 1942 on, he put every strategic decision in the war against Hitler under two lenses: ‘How will it shorten the war, and how will it prevent the Bear from stealing the peace.'”
If this was true, he was smart in 1942, but he lost the peace. Surely, it’s fair to judge a man against his own standards?
He also continued to say, things like, “And in that morning of hope and freedom . . . all that is noble and fearless in the New World as well as in the Old, will salute the rise of Poland to be a nation again.”
Nay nay, but far otherwise, all that is now considered noble allied with the oppressor of Poland.
The Third Third
Churchill did not rise to the bait until Stalin [at Yalta] proposed to shoot at least 50,000 German officers after the surrender in order to ensure Germany’s docility well into the future. “I would rather,” Churchill replied, “be taken out to the garden here and now and be shot myself than sully my own and my country’s honor by such infamy.” Roosevelt then chimed in with a compromise; he suggested that only 49,000 officers be shot. [Whether FDR was joking at the time, or not, both he and Churchill knew of Katyn at the time].
[Later at the conference, FDR]: “Poland has been a source of trouble for over five hundred years.”
So much for America’s best President. At Yalta, he proves himself an ass. Has any other President ever been so absolutely dominated in foreign policy as FDR was at Yalta?
When the US finally joins the war, it does so with – as best as one can decipher – only a few clear war aims: 1) demanding unconditional surrender (of Germany and Japan – aka the only bulwarks against Soviet domination of post-war Europe and Asia); 2) establishing the United Nations; and 3) ending European (excluding Soviet) colonialism.
If you, gentle reader, can come up with a list of war aims that would be more destructive to mankind at the time than those, the next round is on me. Perhaps entirely coincidentally (or perhaps not) these aims would seem to all work towards the direct benefit of the Soviets. It’s almost like Soviets were making US foreign policy.
At this point the book chronicles a huge number of strategic disagreements between the Allies. The Soviets want a big Western Front as soon as possible, preferably in France. The Americans . . . wait for it . . . want a big Western Front as soon as possible, preferably in France. Churchill preferred operations around the periphery of Nazi-occupied areas, culminating in an invasion of the Balkans. (He did briefly support an immediate invasion of France when he thought the Soviets were winning ground very quickly).
As I read it, Churchill was objectively correct during the first couple years of American involvement in the war. American troops would have been crushed if they’d immediately invaded France.
As time wore on, the Soviets and Americans got more impatient and the troops got battle-hardened. At this point, the best action depends on your aims.
If the goal in ’44 was to defeat the Germans as quickly as possible, the Americans and the Soviets were right. If, however, the goal was defeating the Nazis while ensuring the Soviets paid the maximum possible price, Churchill was undoubtedly correct.
What to make of the man?
You can’t help but admire certain aspects of the guy. He would have been a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with, he was right about so many things a long time before anyone else was, and his will included a provision inviting Ian Smith to his funeral (much to the chagrin of the establishment at the time – which Churchill undoubtedly planned).
Churchill was an ardent supporter of British colonialism. For him, “the fact that more than a million Hindu and Muslim men volunteered to serve in defense of India, trumped all criticisms of HMG’s imperial policy.” (While Ghandi was advising them to prostrate themselves before the Japanese invader (and advising Jews to do the same for the Germans)).
Churchill was incredible – old but energetic, worked ridiculously, drank, smoked, flew around the world (“asked the RAF ground crew to customize his oxygen mask in order to allow him to smoke his cigars. The request was dutifully carried out.”)
“When, during his second premiership, his cabinet debated the adoption of new laws limiting West Indian immigration, Churchill proposed his suggestion for a national motto: ‘Keep England White.'”
He believed that “the British alone had managed to combine Empire and Liberty.”
“Churchill believed that had the victors in the Great War fished a Hohenzollern or Hapsburg heir out of oblivion and put him back on the German or Austrian throne to lead a constitutional monarchy, there would have been no Hitler.”
Churchill to an American feminist who criticized British colonialism in India: “Before we proceed further let us get one thing clear. Are we talking about the brown Indians in India, who have multiplied alarmingly under benevolent British rule? Or are we talking about the Red Indians in America, who, I understand, are almost extinct?”
In the House of Commons, Churchill: “I think the Communist Members and fellow travelers have a pretty good run in this House.” Reid notes that this statement goes further than anything Joe McCarthy ever said.
Churchill: “I read with great interest all you have written me about what is colonialism; namely, bringing forth backward races and opening up the jungles.” In India, “with all its history, religion, and ancient forms of despotic rule, Britain has a story to tell which will look quite well against the background of the coming hundred years.”
In a world of pseudo-multiculturalism, it’s worth pausing to marvel at the real thing: “In the Imperial Army: Britons, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Newfoundlanders, Indians, Ceylonese, Swazi, Mauritians, and Caribbeans.” And, of course, Rhodesians.
On the other hand, it’s really difficult to understand why he fought at the beginning and why he had so much faith in FDR – so much so that one can’t help but wonder if at some point, in his darkest thoughts, he wondered if he’d made a mistake. Churchill did title the last volume of his war memoirs: “Triumph and Tragedy.”
What would a non-propaganda-filled history of WWII look like?
As Reid puts it:
Why did Churchill and Roosevelt during the next three years fail, utterly, to hatch any plans between themselves that addressed the possible – probable, even – consequences to Europe of their alliance with the Soviet dictator? . . . The wonder is not that in late 1941 Churchill foresaw future problems with Stalin, but why he ever could have thought otherwise.
Part of the explanation surely lies with Stalin and FDR. Stalin outsmarted FDR and Chruchill. “He was perhaps the most politically adroit of all the principals, Allied and Axis.”
It was pretty easy to outsmart FDR, who said stuff like, “I think you will not mind me being brutally frank when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department.” Probably true – but not saying much.
FDR is a very odd ally for a guy who wanted to defend the empire – indeed, the Empire didn’t survive very long after the American alliance. Besides tactical differences of opinion, there were numerous post-war differences of opinion. For example, Roosevelt wanted to absolutely dis-aggregate Germany (his vision included five separate states) – Churchill was of the opposite belief. Roosevelt would have gone further and disarmed all of Europe other than England and Russia (even breaking up France). “Churchill’s France, unlike Roosevelt’s France, would reclaim its glory.”
Roosevelt overruled Eisenhower and Churchill and demanded unconditional surrender – prolonging war in Germany and Italy. Churchill desperately wanted to get to Vienna before the Russians, again overruled.
The Germans never seemed to figure out what the heck Churchill was thinking. In the end, it appears that Churchill fought to preserve empire, Roosevelt for financial gain, and Stalin fought for territory. Churchill lost.
Brooke perhaps best sums up the British view of the American strategy: “All right, if you insist on being damned fools, sooner than falling out with you, which would be fatal, we should be damned fools with you, and we shall see that we perform the role of damned fools damned well.”
After Churchill and FDR heard of mass killings in Warsaw: “Churchill proposed cutting off convoys to Russia” . . . “Days later, Moran told his diary, ‘Winston never talks of Hitler these days; he is always harping on the dangers of communism.'”
Churchill had to argue with Eisenhower and FDR about extremely obvious points, for example Churchill actually had to explain the strategic importance of getting to Berlin and not letting Soviets get there alone. FDR replied, “I do not get the point.” Indeed – truer words are hard to come by.
(Before concluding, I must parenthetically note that Reid commits an act of historical malpractice by failing to mention that Harry Hopkins was quite possibly a Soviet agent.
Hopkins was Churchill’s main contact with FDR’s aides – they really spoke more than Churchill and FDR. Surely, the fact Hopkins was potentially a Soviet agent deserves a mention. Arguably, it changes everything).
Of course, you can always go a bit further down the rabbit hole of real WWII history:
Similarly, American historians overlook the obvious fact that Alger Hiss could have done nothing without FDR’s personal permission, and mistake the Hiss-Hopkins backchannel to the KGB for a case of “espionage” – not even considering the idea that FDR, the New Deal, or America as a whole could be seen as generally guilty for our collaboration, concealment, and general complicity with Stalin’s enormous crimes.
It’s hard to blame to Churchill for not figuring that out.