‘Kill the Bolshie. Kiss the Hun.’ This was Winston Churchill’s message as Secretary of War in 1919. He suggested being lenient to Germany, the defeated power in the Great War, while doing all that was possible to bring down the new Bolshevik government in Russia.
Churchill had a tumultuous relationship with the Soviet Union that continued for more than 40 years of his political career. And it started badly.
It is not surprising that Churchill, a member of one of the leading aristocratic families of Britain and naturally conservative in his thinking, was diametrically opposed to Communism. The Bolsheviks had launched a revolutionary programme of workers’ control over industry and peasant control over land. All private property was seized by the state, including the country houses and estates of the aristocracy and the rich.
If Bolsheviks had come to power in Britain, they would no doubt would have taken over Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace, and used it to rehouse the poor.
Churchill was intellectually and emotionally horrified by the collectivist principles of Communism, and he sent an army of 14,000 men to support the White Russians, or anti-Bolsheviks, in their fierce Civil War against the Communists. The war ravaged Russia for several years, and caused many more deaths than the Great War.
Churchill’s attempt – supported by many others – to strangle the Soviet state at birth failed. Peasants and workers across Russia rallied behind the call for peace, bread, and land. The Red Flag of a new state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was successfully raised in 1922, and the Bolsheviks renamed themselves the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
But the ideal of the rule of the people and the collective sharing of wealth proved to be a chimera. In a society torn apart by war, poverty, and famine, the revolutionary movement disintegrated. Lenin himself had sowed the seeds for an all-powerful centralised state, but under Stalin this grew into a monstrous totalitarian dictatorship.
It became one of the most despotic police states in history, suppressing all criticism and dissent, and forcing the industrialisation of the country in a series of centrally controlled Five-Year Plans.
Stalin ordered the execution of hundreds of thousands of those declared ‘enemies of the people’ during the Great Terror. Millions were thrown into prison or sent to labour camps, where life was extremely harsh. Millions died of famine in the chaos unleashed by the forced collectivisation of agriculture.
Fast forward to 1941 and Britain, supported by the Commonwealth, was fighting on against the might of Nazi Germany. Now, Churchill was Prime Minister. Ultra Intelligence picked up at Bletchley Park indicated that Hitler was about to attack the Soviet Union. Churchill ordered that the intelligence be passed to the Kremlin. But Stalin, certain that Hitler would not betray his 1939 Pact with the Soviet Union, did nothing.
On 22 June 1941, the largest invasion in history took place when 3 million German troops, with more than 3,000 tanks, smashed through the Soviet border, almost wiped out the Soviet air force, and began its rapid advance into Russian territory.
Churchill was at Chequers that Sunday and decided to pledge his support for the Soviet Union. On a walk in the garden, Churchill’s private secretary John Colville asked him if it might not appear rather awkward to come out on the side of the Soviet Union after his long and well-known hostility to the state. Churchill replied that if Hitler invaded Hell, he would at the least make a favourable reference to the Devil!
Churchill knew that, with Hitler at war with the Soviet Union, the pressure would at long last be lifted from Britain. The possibility of ultimate victory had come a dramatic step nearer. In the world of realpolitik, it was a lifeline he could not fail to pick up.
On the evening of the invasion, Churchill made an emotional broadcast on BBC radio. He foresaw the noble defence of their beloved homeland by the Russian people, struggling against ‘Hitler’s blood lust’. Churchill declared that ‘Any man or state who fights on against Nazidom will have our aid.’
Despite all he had done to undermine the Communist state in its infancy, the Soviet Union was now Britain’s ally. And that was official.
In the months that followed, it looked as though Hitler might destroy the USSR. His armies advanced hundreds of miles. Tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers were killed or captured – more than 600,000 in the battle for Kiev alone.
But at the end of the year, the German advance ran out of steam, and within sight of Moscow it came to a halt as the winter snows set in.
As fighting resumed the following year, it was clear that the battles on the Eastern Front were on a gargantuan scale. While the British Army was facing a few divisions of the Afrika Corps and the Italians in North Africa, Stalin’s Red Army was battling it out with about 120 German divisions.
Stalin called for the opening of a Second Front in the west to assist the Soviets in their titanic struggle. But the Allies were not yet ready. In August 1942, Churchill decided he must visit Stalin in Moscow and explain why in person.
In a series of four, mostly late-night meetings, Churchill and Stalin talked face to face for the first time. In some of the meetings, Churchill found Stalin was friendly. He was pleased to hear about the Bombing Offensive and the first Thousand Bomber Raid on Germany. In other sessions, Stalin was openly hostile, and at one point he accused the British Army of cowardice in the face of the Germans.
Churchill erupted in anger, but Stalin responded even before the interpreter had translated his outburst, saying he liked the tone of Churchill’s response. It was as though he was goading him.
At a banquet, and after many vodka toasts, Churchill openly admitted he had been hostile to the Soviet state at its birth. Churchill asked, ‘Have you forgiven me?’ Stalin smiled and replied, ‘All that is in the past and the past belongs to God.’
Overall, Churchill acquired a grudging admiration for the Soviet leader. He realised how tense the situation was, with German troops only 50 miles from Moscow. And he knew he was not bringing Stalin the news he wanted of a Second Front in Europe.
On the other hand, he found him unpredictable and, at times, deeply unfriendly as an ally. After the last set of discussions, Stalin invited the British leader back to his private Kremlin apartment. Huge amounts of drink were consumed, and at 1.30am a suckling pig was produced.
When he departed at dawn that morning, Churchill felt his mission was accomplished. He had built up a rapport with the Soviet leader – even if the effort had left him with a rare splitting headache.
When he returned to London, Churchill ordered a vast increase in RAF Bomber Command from 32 to 50 operational squadrons and gave Air Marshal Harris the go-ahead to step up his offensive. The bombing campaign now took on a political role for Churchill, who realised it was the principal way in which he could demonstrate to Stalin that Britain and the Allies were doing their bit, striking at the very heart of the German war-machine.
The first ‘Big Three’ summit between President Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin took place at the end of November 1943 at Tehran. Military issues dominated the meeting.
Again, Stalin pushed for a Second Front, and this time Roosevelt and Churchill guaranteed there would be an invasion of northern France the following spring.
There was a general agreement to divide Germany at the end of the war, but when Churchill pressed Stalin about his post-war territorial plans, Stalin replied, ‘There is no need at the present time to speak about Soviet desires. But when the time comes we will speak.’
As the war moved towards its final phase in the autumn of 1944 and the Red Army rolled relentlessly westwards, Churchill grew more concerned about Stalin’s ambitions in Eastern Europe.
With backing from the Polish government in exile in London, the Poles rose up in Warsaw. Stalin refused to give them any help, instead standing aside while the Nazis massacred 200,000 Poles and turned the city to ruins. Then Stalin placed his own stooges in control of the devastated country. Churchill was outraged.
In October, he again flew to Moscow to meet the Soviet leader. Stalin talked of needing security in Europe from future assaults. In one late-night meeting, Churchill produced a piece of paper on which he had sketched out respective spheres of influence in the post-war Balkans.
Romania would be 90% Soviet and 10% Western; Greece would be 90% British and 10% Soviet; Yugoslavia and Hungary would be 50/50. Stalin studied the document and put a large tick on it. When Churchill suggested they should destroy the piece of paper, Stalin replied, ‘No, you keep it.’
After the Germans abandoned Greece, Churchill tried to enforce the agreement he had reached with Stalin. When the Communists attempted to seize power in Athens, Churchill ordered the occupying British troops to open fire on them.
Churchill flew to Athens over Christmas and tried to harness support for restoring the King, who would be tied to the West. But Greece declined into civil war – between Communist guerrillas, backed by neighbouring Soviet-dominated states, and supporters of the King. Only after years of fighting did Greece unequivocally emerge into the Western camp.
The end of the war
By the time the next Big Three summit was held at Yalta in February 1945, Churchill had grown deeply suspicious of Stalin. But by now Britain’s role in the war was becoming marginal. The Americans dominated the Allied forces, and Roosevelt was determined to get on with Stalin. He did not share Churchill’s concerns about the post-war settlement. Churchill felt alienated from his friend, the President, and increasingly ignored by Stalin. It was not a good time for him.
By the German surrender in May, Roosevelt was dead and a new President, Harry Truman, was struggling to come to terms with the complexities of the situation.
It was clear that Soviet intransigence annoyed Truman intensely. Although at the Potsdam conference in July he managed to get along with Stalin, Truman was preoccupied with the test of his new atom bomb. When he told Stalin of the successful trial in New Mexico, the Soviet leader looked uninterested and said simply, ‘Good, I hope you will use it [against Japan].’
Truman thought Stalin had not understood. But he knew all about the atom bomb and the destructive power it could unleash – his spies on the Manhattan Project had kept the Soviets well informed.
After Labour’s landslide victory in the summer General Election of 1945, Churchill found himself out of office. With the Red Army now in the heart of Europe and already occupying eastern Germany, Churchill played no part in the carve-up of the continent that followed.
But without the responsibilities of office, he felt he could speak out, and he wanted to warn the Americans of the sinister plot he saw being directed from the Kremlin. Having defeated Fascism together, he now believed the British and Americans should stand up to the threat from Communism.
In March 1946, Churchill visited Truman his home town of Fulton, Missouri, and issued his gravest warning about what he now saw as the Soviet threat to Europe. ‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,’ he proclaimed, ‘an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent.’ It was a phrase that would stick.
Most Americans were stunned by Churchill’s words. The press denounced him. The Soviets were their ally. As the GIs came home from Europe in vast numbers, they left the Red Army to take control of much of Eastern Europe.
But if Churchill had failed to generate American concern, the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia and Stalin’s blockade of Berlin in 1948 set alarm bells ringing. As Stalin created a set of buffer states along his border, so Europe divided. Churchill had been right. He had predicted the Cold War before others had seen it coming.
The Cold War
By the time of his return to Downing Street in 1951, the Cold War had turned hot. An American-led UN force was fighting the Chinese Communists and the Russian-backed regime in Pyongyang, in a bloody and horrific war in Korea. British soldiers were fighting in Korea too, although only in small numbers.
When Churchill’s wartime friend, Dwight D Eisenhower, was elected President in 1952, he threatened to use the atomic bomb against the North Koreans. After three years of war, an armistice was finally signed in July 1953. The Americans were sure that their threat to use nuclear weapons was behind it.
In fact, the death of Stalin, in March of that year, had led Moscow and Beijing to review their policy in Korea. They had decided it was time to end the war, and after two years of negotiations agreed to the signing of an armistice.
Churchill suggested that, with Stalin gone, there should be a new summit between himself, Eisenhower, and Malenkov, who was identified then as Stalin’s successor. He hoped this would bring about the reunification of Germany.
But Ike was not interested. Churchill might be remembered as a bulldog, but now his bark had little bite. America was the superpower leading the West in its military, political, economic, and ideological crusade against Communism. Britain was only a minor player. Stalin’s death did not lead to the end of the Cold War. The division of Europe would last for another three-and-a-half decades.
Churchill, Stalin, and Communism
Despite lack of support for Churchill at the time, in the United States today he is still revered for his attitude towards Communism. President Obama was widely attacked for removing his bust from the Oval Office. Donald Trump has returned it to pride of place.
Partly this is down to respect for a wartime ally who stood with America and jointly led the alliance that brought victory in Europe and Asia. But many Americans remember Churchill even more strongly for his warnings against the threat posed by the Soviet Union post-1945.
When America was turning away from war, Churchill foretold conflict in Europe. That turned out to be real, with the Berlin crisis and the creation of Soviet satellite states across Eastern Europe. And it turned out to be real in Asia when the US faced a dreadful war it had not prepared for in Korea.
Churchill’s relationship with the Soviet state was a long one, from outright enmity at its birth, to wartime collaboration, to post- war hostility. He warned of its expansionist nature when others failed to spot the signs. The Cold War dominated global politics for nearly half a century. Churchill’s prediction had come true. And in the US he will always be remembered for that. •
Taylor Downing is an historian who has written on the World Wars and the Cold War. His latest book, 1983 – the World at the Brink, tells of a dramatic but little-known Cold War crisis. He also writes on the history of film and television, and contributes ‘War on Film’ to MHM.
Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, seize power in Moscow
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between new Bolshevik state and Germany takes Russia out of Great War
Civil War in Russia between Reds and Whites; British, French, American, and Japanese forces support Whites
Lenin dies after two years of mounting incapacity
Stalin smashes the Left Opposition, emerges as Soviet leader, and constructs totalitarian dictatorship
First Five-Year Plan to force industrialisation of USSR – followed by two more
Great Terror sees more than 600,000 so-called ‘enemies of the people’ executed
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany
Hitler invades Poland from west; Stalin invades from east
Operation Barbarossa: Hitler invades Soviet Union with largest invasion force ever assembled
German forces advance to suburbs of Moscow but are forced to retreat
Churchill visits Stalin in Moscow
German forces surrender after months of intense fighting at Stalingrad – a turning point in the war on Eastern Front
First ‘Big Three’ summit with Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at Tehran
Churchill again visits Stalin and agrees post-war division of Balkans
Second ‘Big Three’ summit at Yalta
Russian forces capture Berlin and Third Reich surrenders
Third summit at Potsdam; Truman replaces Roosevelt and Attlee replaces Churchill
Churchill delivers his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in Truman’s home town
Communists take power in Czechoslovakia
June 1948-May 1949
Soviet blockade of Berlin
North Atlantic Treaty signed and NATO military alliance created
June 1950-July 1953
Death of Stalin
Churchill resigns as Prime Minister
Warsaw Pact military alliance signed between USSR and its East European allies