History

A Defence of Churchill, and Andrew Roberts

IN THE December issue of Quadrant Adrian Williams used his review of the recent Andrew Roberts book Churchill: Walking with Destiny as a platform to accuse Winston Churchill of “hypocrisy”. It must be a coincidence that the lead article in the December edition was “Casualties of an Age of Character Assassination”.

The launching pad for Williams is an accusation by the professional “arch-contrarian” Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens charges Churchill with hypocrisy but does not apparently feel the need to provide actual examples. Absent evidence, or at least a constructed argument, such an accusation might come under the general heading of a “smear”.

But Williams, in his review of Roberts’s book, helpfully fills in details. “Surely”, says Williams, Britain’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union lies at the root of Churchill’s “hypocrisy”?

Williams then proceeds to support his thesis. He observes that Churchill’s conscience was “tormented by moral compromises” in his dealings with Stalin during the course of the Second World War.

It would come as no surprise to students of history, least of all to Churchill himself, that Britain’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union involved troubling trade-offs. Everyone knows because Churchill has told us that he wrestled with his decisions. Perhaps this is because, in contrast to the ex-choir boy and theological scholar Joseph Stalin, and the dying, manipulative and distant Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill had seen dead men in frontline wars in all four hemispheres, as well as participating in negotiations in conference rooms. 

At the outset Churchill laid out his personal conflicts explicitly. In announcing the alliance with the Soviet Union, Churchill had this to say in a wireless broadcast to the British nation on June 22, 1941:

The Nazi regime is indistinguishable from the worst features of Communism. It is devoid of all theme and principle except appetite and racial domination. It excels all forms of human wickedness in the efficiency of its cruelty and ferocious aggression. No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the last twenty-five years. I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding.

This is surely a fair summary of Churchill’s dilemma. But it hardly squares with Williams’s assertion that Churchill believed “the world would be safe and secured if the destruction of Nazism were effected”.

What modern political leader has come even close to such clarity through the inevitable filter of a hair-trigger media department and virtuoso speech writers? Tony Blair? Theresa May? Malcolm Turnbull? George W. Bush? It is hard to imagine a more frank and honest statement of personal values at a time of extreme national peril; but “hypocrisy”? Perhaps not.

From the twenty-twenty hindsight perspective afforded by Williams’s (or perhaps, since he calls on his support, George Orwell’s) comfortable armchair, should Churchill have spurned the benefits (and the associated heavy costs) of an alliance with the Soviet Union in 1941, with all that might have followed from it? After all, as Churchill made clear in his broadcast, military defeat of the Soviet Union—a very probable outcome from the perspective of June 1941—would have unleashed the full force of German arms on the western front exactly as it had after the collapse of Russia in 1917, and as Hitler certainly intended; the important differences being that in 1941 France was defeated and disarmed, Italy was an enemy, not an ally, Belgium and Holland were now occupied by Germany so that U-boats had ready access to the Atlantic, and the United States was a pressing creditor but not yet a wartime ally.

Williams’s heavy artillery however is directed to the events of 1944-45. He asserts that Churchill, in his relationship with Stalin, “exhibited naivety, hypocrisy and denial”.

Churchill’s History of the Second World War is remarkably explicit about the many dilemmas faced by the British government in the closing months of the war in Europe. Has any major political actor, engaged at the highest levels of diplomacy, come close to such detailed exposition—Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Metternich, Bismarck, Talleyrand, Kissinger?

What alternative policies does Williams suggest that Churchill should have adopted in respect of Russia’s oppressive but ill-defined claims on Eastern Europe in 1945?

Let’s consider just one of the choices. In May 1945, when the shooting stopped in Europe, the American and British armies lay along the Elbe hundreds of miles from Berlin, which had been captured and occupied by the Russians at high cost to themselves. Churchill had earnestly advocated a more aggressive thrust towards Berlin to counter the Russian advance, but the Americans, Eisenhower in particular, had opposed this strategy.

We cannot know now who was right and Churchill himself came close to admitting that he may have been wrong (hardly the action of a hypocrite); but it is a fact that at the conclusion of the war in Europe thousands of British and American prisoners of war (including Free French and Poles fighting with the British forces) had fallen into the hands of the advancing Russian armies, as well as millions of civilians and slave labourers of all European nations. They were effectively, and potentially, Russian hostages.

Meanwhile thousands of military and civilian prisoners languished in Japan’s POW camps, many close to death. The war was not yet over. Estimates for an Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland predicted casualties in the hundreds of thousands. The atom bomb was untested and it was expected that the Soviet Union would now commence hostilities against Japan. Russian military support in the Pacific war was not to be lightly dismissed, but nor was it guaranteed.

Given these facts, should Britain have challenged the Soviet Union and fought on alone or perhaps with the United States, this time against the Soviet Union, to secure Poland? This seems to be Williams’s preferred option. In fact on Churchill’s instructions a detailed plan for just such an eventuality was prepared—Operation Unthinkable—but probably wisely it never got off the drawing board.

To suggest, as Williams does, that the incoming British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, provided the steel that Churchill lacked in negotiations with Stalin adds novelty if not substance to his critique of Churchill’s performance. It is a surprising omission that Williams does not include in his charge sheet against Churchill the shameful, but perhaps inevitable, British and American decision to hand over Russian prisoners of war and other civilians to the Soviet authorities as agreed at Yalta—the so-called “Victims of Yalta”. Perhaps this is because the hand-overs continued under the Labour government into 1947 under Attlee, whom Williams wishes to champion as a counter-weight to Churchill?

Consider further: following the peace agreement in Europe, Russia allowed the British, US and French permanently to occupy sectors of Berlin, well inside the Russian sector. Stalin did not have to do this; the Russian army surely had the resources to block the Allied occupation of West Berlin in 1945 and indeed came close to doing this in 1948. Perhaps the freedom enjoyed by West Berliners for forty years from 1946 to the 1990s was at least in part due to Churchill’s alleged “hypocrisy” in negotiating with Uncle Joe? Was this too high a price to pay?

Where Churchill is open to challenge, is not in what he did or said at the time, but in his subsequent account of his actions in his six-volume account, The Second World War. Churchill’s selective use of source materials has recently been explored in detail by David Reynolds (In Command of History). But then Churchill never claimed to be writing the definitive account of the war. “For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself,” he said, candidly, in the House of Commons (January 23, 1948). What historian is not open to the charge of selective use of source materials? And Churchill was no academic historian—indeed he was Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, soon to be Prime Minister for a second term.

Arriving in Britain as a university student in the 1970s I was surprised to find that Churchill was a target of ridicule and abuse in the media and by such radical proto-politicians as Jack Straw and Peter Hain on university campuses. Allegedly Churchill was a right-wing Tory to be distinguished from Hitler in detail but not in substance. Churchill, it seemed, hated the working man. After all, had he not sent in the army to crush the Welsh miners at Tonypandy in 1910, followed by the bloodbath of working-class soldiers at Gallipoli and interventions to block agreements that might have avoided the 1924 General Strike?

But now it seems that my 1970s student contemporaries were 180 degrees wrong. According to Williams’s revisionist analysis, Churchill was no hard-line Conservative. He was a naive apologist for the socialists and an ally, if not a secret admirer, of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin in particular. After all, as Williams points out, Churchill knew about the cold-blooded massacre of 50,000 Polish officers at Katyn by the Russians in May 1940 but did nothing (what?) to stop it in advance, or subsequently at Yalta to bring to justice (how?) the perpetrators. Perhaps he should have stormed out of the Yalta conference on a point of high moral principle?

The choices available to the British and American governments in 1945 were unpalatable; the uncertainties were immense. The atom bomb was just one of the complexities; the actively engaged, but dying, Roosevelt was another. Churchill makes little attempt to hide this in his own account of these confusing times. The sixth volume of his history of the war is titled Triumph and Tragedy.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Reynolds has argued that Churchill’s own extensive writings are carefully constructed, not always successfully, to support his case. At the same time, his fifty-year career, conducted very publicly in the political arena, offers a comprehensive profile of human failings and political misjudgments. He is therefore open to challenge and re-assessment by anyone with a serious case to advance. But it takes a long bow to pin the arrow of “hypocrisy” on the large target that Churchill’s legacy provides.

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