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Churchill and the Soviet Union

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Reviewed by Warren F. Kimball,  Treat Professor of History at Rutgers University and a Churchill Center academic adviser.

Churchill and the Soviet Union, by David Carlton. Manchester and New
York: Manchester University Press, 234 pages. Hardback published at $69.96, member price $58; trade paperback published at $19.95, member price $16.

    On 15 September 1919, Winston Churchill penned a caustic warning about the Bolsheviks: "It is a delusion to suppose that all this year we have been fighting the battles of the anti-Bolshevik Russians. On the contrary, they have been fighting ours; and this truth will become painfully apparent from the moment that they are exterminated and the Bolshevik armies are supreme over the whole vast territories of the Russian Empire."

    Twenty-five years later, in the aftermath of the Yalta Conference, Churchill commented that "poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don't think I'm wrong about [trusting] Stalin."

    About a year later, on 5 March 1946, Churchill condemned the Soviet Union for dropping "an iron curtain...across the continent," and for allowing Eastern Europe to be ruled by "police government." "God has willed," he declaimed, that the United States, not "some Communist or neo-Fascist state" should have atomic bombs.

    During Churchill's last ministry in the early 1950s, he steadily plumped for a summit meeting with Stalin and then with Stalin's successors. Just as he was leaving office for the last time,Churchill--Britain's greatest war leader--seemed to have opted for geopolitical peace over ideological war.

    Will the real Winston Spencer Churchill please stand up!

    David Carlton, a lecturer at the University of Warwick and author of a critical but solid biography of Anthony Eden, has examined these and a raft of similar "somersaults" (to quote the back-cover blurb) and given us much to ponder. This book is a great deal more than a chronological survey of Churchill and the Soviet Union, although that provides the narrative thread. In each chapter, beginning with the Bolshevik Revolution and ending with Churchill's last ministry, Carlton outlines Churchill's position toward the Soviet Union, then summarizes the various theories and interpretations as to why he advocated that policy.

    Some themes and questions repeatedly appear: fear and loathing for Bolshevism is one, the influence of domestic politics--both personal and party--is another. Is Churchill simply a flexible geostrategist? Is he an ideologue? Is he just an opportunistic politician? Or is he a little of all three? Carlton uses his own considerable historical imagination, discusses past and current scholarship, and presents or cites the documentary evidence. Most important of all, he raises difficult, awkward questions about Churchill's motives and actions.  Those who want to understand Churchill and not merely praise him should make a note here and now to read this book, regardless of what comes in the rest of this review.

    This study does not masquerade as an "objective" academic survey of various interpretive schools of history, even if it summarizes them.  Carlton does not sit on the fence. He is sympathetic to the "Tory revisionism" offered long ago by Maurice Cowling (The Impact of Hitler), but much too sensible and restrained to accept the superficial and foolish Churchill depicted by John Charmley. Carlton's Churchill is subtle and clever, whatever the bombast of his rhetoric. And so is Carlton.

    His Churchill consistently operates from domestic political imperatives. He had to curry support within the Conservative Party, since he was an ex Liberal with no base in his new political home. At the same time, he needed to soften the anti-worker image he gained during the 1926 General Strike/ Churchill "courted" Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky and the Soviet Union in the summer to 1939, to no effect internationally. But, speculates Carlton, that gave him "unexpected respectability on the British Left which served to strengthen his chance of obtaining the Premiership...Had he perhaps foreseen this all along?"

    Churchill uses language that was, for Carlton, comparatively more gentle on Hitler and Mussolini than were the Englishman's harsh, emotional words about the Bolsheviks. But most of all, Carlton's Churchill is an "appeaser," perhaps the most value-laden word in British political history. Following a discussion of the points of agreement between Churchill and Chamberlain during the 1930s (rearmament, working with fascist Italy, a preference for victory by the anti communist Franco in the Spanish Civil War, no thought of an alliance with the Soviet Union), Carlton wonders, is it "too far-fetched to speculate that had Chamberlain, on becoming Prime Minister in May 1937, made Churchill his Foreign Secretary the two men might have easily worked in as close a partnership during the late 1930s as they were actually to do in the summer of 1940?" (Carlton later claims that Franco became an asset to American and British leaders during the Vietnam War!)

    But "appeasement" seems more a method than a policy, since Carlton uses the same word to describe Churchill's policies toward the Soviet Union during his premiership. This prompts some curious and dubious comments. Carlton claims that Churchill's inclination to "appease" Stalin was "decisively reinforced" by Franklin Roosevelt at the Teheran Conference in November 1943, a time when FDR was "in weakening health and increasingly under the influence of his pro-Soviet adviser [Harry] Hopkins..." (106). Granted, Hopkins was the President's "alter ego" until early 1944 when both illness and personal considerations forced Hopkins to move out of the White House, where he had lived since May 1940. But during the Teheran meeting, FDR's health was reasonably good. He had high blood pressure, but the first report of a "heart attack" (congestive heart failure) came after the conference. And Roosevelt's policy of using the wartime Grand Alliance to promote long-term cooperation with the USSR was most evidently his own, and had been adopted since at least summer 1941.

    For those who find consistency the "hobgoblin of small minds," Churchill-on-Russia would qualify for the large-mind award. Certainly that is where Carlton comes out. In a somersault worthy of Churchill himself, Carlton manages to rescue his protagonist by condemning him for hypocrisy and political sail-trimming. Carlton's Churchill may waffle a bit for practical and political reasons, but he never loses his bedrock distrust and contempt, even hatred, for the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union--despite what he said about Stalin after Yalta.

    Carlton may be right, but he is answering the wrong question. Whatever Churchill's personal attitude toward the Soviet Union, it is his behavior as a leader that is historically important. There it comes out a bit different. The two periods when he promoted cooperation with the USSR--"Allied with Hell" is Carlton's chapter title for the Second World War era--were precisely the two periods when he was Great Britain's Prime Minister. That high office breeds a sense of responsibility is a near-cliche. In charge, Churchill acted more responsibly and repeatedly searched for ways to promote trust, confidence, and cooperation between the West and the Soviet leadership. Out of office, he could rant and rave (play to the crowd?) without affecting British interests.

    One last observation. Perhaps Churchill did not become dizzy with all his somersaults. This is impressionistic--but my sense is that when Churchill as Prime Minister referred to the "Bolsheviks," he was thinking of ideology. When he referred to the Russians, he was thinking of geopolitics. His ideology certainly affected his policies as Prime Minister, but his geopolitical assessments of British interests routinely prevailed. Whether or not those assessments were wise is a different question that requires a different book.

Author's Response:

To the Editor:
    It was very kind of you to send me a copy of Warren Kimball's thoughtful review of my book, Churchill and the Soviet Union (FH 107, p. 24). Professor Kimball may be right to emphasise the distinction between Winston in Opposition and Winston in the Premiership, an approach to which I did not maybe give enough attention. I think, however, he did not take sufficiently into account that Churchill in 1941 expected the Soviets to be defeated and was "playing to the crowd" in wishing them well. I would be pleased in principle to join a discussion panel held under the auspices of the Churchill Center and Societies. I feel honoured to be asked.
    DAVID CARLTON,
    UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK, COVENTRY

    Prof. Kimball replies:
    I'm pleased that David Carlton has agreed to participate in a CC/ICS discussion panel. As always, a general comment is more complex than it appears. When in 1941 did Churchill expect the Soviets to be defeated? There's a big difference between the situation in March versus July versus December. I think Churchill, listening to his military advisers, was until mid-Autumn 1941 very skeptical about the ability of the Soviet Union to survive Hitler's attack. I'm not persuaded that WSC was, therefore, merely "playing to the crowd," but I would not quarrel with the notion that, until Autumn '41, Churchill doubted he would ever have to deliver the goods to Moscow. I append some material my book, The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (1992), Chapter II.

    Even though the U.S. State Department and British Foreign Office were already busy debating issues that would become postwar problems in relations with the Soviet Union, both Roosevelt and Churchill were strangely silent about the Nazi-Soviet war in their usually all encompassing correspondence. On the eve of the war, the Prime Minister, knowing that Operation BARBAROSSA was due to begin any day, observed that Hitler was wrong to think that "capitalist and right-wing sympathies" would be with Germany. Instead, commented Churchill, we "will go all out to help Russia." A façade of humor did not hide the sharp edge to the remark made by Jock Colville, the Prime Minister's Private Secretary, after hearing the promise: " [Colville] said that for him, the arch anti-Communist, this was bowing down in the House of Rimmon." Churchill's now famous reply put ideology in the perspective of crisis‹"If Hitler invaded Hell I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil." There is a certain irony in Churchill's treatment of Soviet actions in 1939 as a sort of "Eastern Front" against Germany, and Stalin's desire to see Hitler bogged down in wars in western and southern Europe‹thus leaving the Soviet Union alone.

    But the ideological issue bothered, and continued to bother, many British leaders. When Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information, asked Walter Citrine of the Trades Union Congress to put together a speech saying that an alliance with the Soviet Union was in "the cause of all free people," Citrine responded that the USSR was not fighting for any principles cherished by Great Britain. That caught the feeling of many. The tone of Churchill's private and even public messages was never "Russia must survive," but rather "Russia must resist as long as possible‹for that will help England survive." And what else should a national statesman say? Neither Stalin nor any other Soviet leader had argued that Britain's survival was "essential" to the USSR. In fact, they had acted in precisely the opposite manner by signing the pact with Nazi Germany. Perhaps Soviet leaders saw no other choice in 1939, or perhaps Stalin could not resist the dangerous gamble for territory over security, but that does not change the fact that the treaty facilitated, if not guaranteed, a German attack on Western Europe.

    For the British, Soviet requests for assistance posed a dilemma. Rejecting a second front was easy, and proposals for sending armed forces to fight in the Soviet Union were never practical, given world-wide British commitments. Even more serious thinking about sending troops and/or aircraft to the Caucasus had the purpose of defending the Middle East, not aiding the Soviets. Promising all possible logistical aid to the Soviet Union cost little. But actually sharing war supplies with them was a vastly different matter. The British War Office and Chiefs of Staff were uniformly pessimistic about Soviet military chances and assumed that, if the Germans pushed the Red Army east of the Urals, effective Soviet resistance would end. To agree to any long-term sharing of supplies made no sense, an argument ironically similar to that made by the American military about aid to Britain back in June 1940. Still, if the Americans insisted, then the British had to work with the United States or risk being left holding an empty bag, or at least a less-full one.

    Throughout 1941 and on into early 1942, Churchill and his advisers invariably found reasons to restrict aid to Russia in order to use it elsewhere, often in the Middle East, but those arguments usually were rejected by the Americans. Only rarely during the war did Churchill permit an open dispute to develop with Roosevelt‹and those instances were ones which triggered emotional responses, like India and Greece. Aid to Russia, particularly in this early phase of the war, was not such an emotional issue. Churchill's promise to aid the Soviets was, from all outward appearances, made in good faith. But with Churchill, bombast was strongest when he was least able, or willing, to deliver. As delivery dates drew near, some more immediate problem‹a German threat in North Africa, the fear of a Soviet collapse in the Caucasus, the continued expansion of Japan‹always took priority. British officials worried that Churchill's "sentimental and florid" style would "have the worst effect on Stalin who will think guff no substitute for guns." Anthony Eden complained that "it is...entirely due to [Churchill] that we cannot now do more for Soviet Russia....P.M. and Chiefs of Staff are entirely negative‹no effort is being made to help Russia elsewhere." As late as October that year, Churchill still spoke of the Soviet Union as a liability; he would send supplies, but British forces would go no further than the Middle East.