[This essay originally appears in The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, edited with an introduction by John V. Denson.]
Churchill as Icon
When, in a very few years, the pundits start to pontificate on the great question: “Who was the Man of the Century?” there is little doubt that they will reach virtually instant consensus. Inevitably, the answer will be: Winston Churchill. Indeed, Professor Harry Jaffa has already informed us that Churchill was not only the Man of the Twentieth Century, but the Man of Many Centuries.
In a way, Churchill as Man of the Century will be appropriate. This has been the century of the State — of the rise and hypertrophic growth of the welfare-warfare state — and Churchill was from first to last a Man of the State, of the welfare state and of the warfare state. War, of course, was his lifelong passion; and, as an admiring historian has written: “Among his other claims to fame, Winston Churchill ranks as one of the founders of the welfare state.” Thus, while Churchill never had a principle he did not in the end betray, this does not mean that there was no slant to his actions, no systematic bias. There was, and that bias was towards lowering the barriers to state power.
To gain any understanding of Churchill, we must go beyond the heroic images propagated for over half a century. The conventional picture of Churchill, especially of his role in World War II, was first of all the work of Churchill himself, through the distorted histories he composed and rushed into print as soon as the war was over. In more recent decades, the Churchill legend has been adopted by an internationalist establishment for which it furnishes the perfect symbol and an inexhaustible vein of high-toned blather. Churchill has become, in Christopher Hitchens’s phrase, a “totem” of the American establishment, not only the scions of the New Deal, but the neo-conservative apparatus as well — politicians like Newt Gingrich and Dan Quayle, corporate “knights” and other denizens of the Reagan and Bush Cabinets, the editors and writers of the Wall Street Journal, and a legion of “conservative” columnists led by William Safire and William Buckley. Churchill was, as Hitchens writes, “the human bridge across which the transition was made” between a noninterventionist and a globalist America. In the next century, it is not impossible that his bulldog likeness will feature in the logo of the New World Order.
Let it be freely conceded that in 1940 Churchill played his role superbly. As the military historian, Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, a sharp critic of Churchill’s wartime policies, wrote: “Churchill was a man cast in the heroic mould, a berserker ever ready to lead a forlorn hope or storm a breach, and at his best when things were at their worst. His glamorous rhetoric, his pugnacity, and his insistence on annihilating the enemy appealed to human instincts, and made him an outstanding war leader.” History outdid herself when she cast Churchill as the adversary in the duel with Hitler. It matters not at all that in his most famous speech — “we shall fight them on the beaches … we shall fight them in the fields and in the streets” — he plagiarized Clemenceau at the time of the Ludendorff offensive, that there was little real threat of a German invasion or, that, perhaps, there was no reason for the duel to have occurred in the first place. For a few months in 1940, Churchill played his part magnificently and unforgettably.
Opportunism and Rhetoric
Yet before 1940, the word most closely associated with Churchill was “opportunist.” He had twice changed his party affiliation — from Conservative to Liberal, and then back again. His move to the Liberals was allegedly on the issue of free trade. But in 1930, he sold out on free trade as well, even tariffs on food, and proclaimed that he had cast off “Cobdenism” forever. As head of the Board of Trade before World War I, he opposed increased armaments; after he became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, he pushed for bigger and bigger budgets, spreading wild rumors of the growing strength of the German Navy, just as he did in the 1930s about the buildup of the German Air Force. He attacked socialism before and after World War I, while during the War he promoted war-socialism, calling for nationalization of the railroads, and declaring in a speech: “Our whole nation must be organized, must be socialized if you like the word.” Churchill’sopportunism continued to the end. In the 1945 election, he briefly latched on to Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, and tried to paint the Labour Party as totalitarian, while it was Churchill himself who, in 1943, had accepted the Beveridge plans for the post-war welfare state and Keynesian management of the economy. Throughout his career his one guiding rule was to climb to power and stay there.
“This has been the century of the State — of the rise and hypertrophic growth of the welfare-warfare state — and Churchill was from first to last a Man of the State, of the welfare state and of the warfare state.”
There were two principles that for a long while seemed dear to Churchill’s heart. One was anti-Communism: he was an early and fervent opponent of Bolshevism. For years, he — very correctly — decried the “bloody baboons” and “foul murderers of Moscow.” His deep early admiration of Benito Mussolini was rooted in his shrewd appreciation of what Mussolini had accomplished (or so he thought). In an Italy teetering on the brink of Leninist revolution, Il Duce had discovered the one formula that could counteract the Leninist appeal: hypernationalism with a social slant. Churchill lauded “Fascismo’s triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism,” claiming that “it proved the necessary antidote to the Communist poison.”
Yet the time came when Churchill made his peace with Communism. In 1941, he gave unconditional support to Stalin, welcomed him as an ally, embraced him as a friend. Churchill, as well as Roosevelt, used the affectionate nickname, “Uncle Joe”; as late as the Potsdam conference, he repeatedly announced, of Stalin: “I like that man.” In suppressing the evidence that the Polish officers at Katyn had been murdered by the Soviets, he remarked: “There is no use prowling round the three year old graves of Smolensk.”Obsessed not only with defeating Hitler, but with destroying Germany, Churchill was oblivious to the danger of a Soviet inundation of Europe until it was far too late. The climax of his infatuation came at the November, 1943, Tehran conference, when Churchill presented Stalin with a Crusader’s sword. Those who are concerned to define the word “obscenity” may wish to ponder that episode.
Finally, there was what appeared to be the abiding love of his life, the British Empire. If Churchill stood for anything at all, it was the Empire; he famously said that he had not become Prime Minister in order to preside over its liquidation. But that, of course, is precisely what he did, selling out the Empire and everything else for the sake of total victory over Germany.
Besides his opportunism, Churchill was noted for his remarkable rhetorical skill. This talent helped him wield power over men, but it pointed to a fateful failing as well. Throughout his life, many who observed Churchill closely noted a peculiar trait. In 1917, Lord Esher described it in this way:
He handles great subjects in rhythmical language, and becomes quickly enslaved to his own phrases. He deceives himself into the belief that he takes broad views, when his mind is fixed upon one comparatively small aspect of the question.
During World War II, Robert Menzies, who was the Prime Minister of Australia, said of Churchill: “His real tyrant is the glittering phrase — so attractive to his mind that awkward facts have to give way.” Another associate wrote: “He is … the slave of the words which his mind forms about ideas…. And he can convince himself of almost every truth if it is once allowed thus to start on its wild career through his rhetorical machinery.”
“While Churchill never had a principle he did not in the end betray, this does not mean that there was no slant to his actions, no systematic bias. There was, and that bias was towards lowering the barriers to state power.”
But while Winston had no principles, there was one constant in his life: the love of war. It began early. As a child, he had a huge collection of toy soldiers, 1500 of them, and he played with them for many years after most boys turn to other things. They were “all British,” he tells us, and he fought battles with his brother Jack, who “was only allowed to have colored troops; and they were not allowed to have artillery.” He attended Sandhurst, the military academy, instead of the universities, and “from the moment that Churchill left Sandhurst … he did his utmost to get into a fight, wherever a war was going on.” All his life he was most excited — on the evidence, only really excited — by war. He loved war as few modern men ever have — he even “loved the bangs,” as he called them, and he was very brave under fire.
In 1925, Churchill wrote: “The story of the human race is war.” This, however, is untrue; potentially, it is disastrously untrue. Churchill lacked any grasp of the fundamentals of the social philosophy of classical liberalism. In particular, he never understood that, as Ludwig von Mises explained, the true story of the human race is the extension of social cooperation and the division of labor. Peace, not war, is the father of all things. For Churchill, the years without war offered nothing to him but “the bland skies of peace and platitude.” This was a man, as we shall see, who wished for more wars than actually happened.
When he was posted to India and began to read avidly, to make up for lost time, Churchill was profoundly impressed by Darwinism. He lost whatever religious faith he may have had — through reading Gibbon, he said — and took a particular dislike, for some reason, to the Catholic Church, as well as Christian missions. He became, in his own words, “a materialist — to the tips of my fingers,” and he fervently upheld the worldview that human life is a struggle for existence, with the outcome the survival of the fittest. This philosophy of life and history Churchill expressed in his one novel, Savrola. That Churchill was a racist goes without saying, yet his racism went deeper than with most of his contemporaries. It is curious how, with his stark Darwinian outlook, his elevation of war to the central place in human history, and his racism, as well as his fixation on “great leaders,” Churchill’s worldview resembled that of his antagonist, Hitler.
When Churchill was not actually engaged in war, he was reporting on it. He early made a reputation for himself as a war correspondent, in Kitchener’s campaign in the Sudan and in the Boer War. In December, 1900, a dinner was given at the Waldorf-Astoria in honor of the young journalist, recently returned from his well-publicized adventures in South Africa. Mark Twain, who introduced him, had already, it seems, caught on to Churchill. In a brief satirical speech, Twain slyly suggested that, with his English father and American mother, Churchill was the perfect representative of Anglo-American cant.
Churchill and the “New Liberalism”
In 1900 Churchill began the career he was evidently fated for. His background — the grandson of a duke and son of a famous Tory politician — got him into the House of Commons as a Conservative. At first he seemed to be distinguished only by his restless ambition, remarkable even in parliamentary ranks. But in 1904, he crossed the floor to the Liberals, supposedly on account of his free-trade convictions. However, Robert Rhodes James, one of Churchill’s admirers, wrote: “It was believed [at the time], probably rightly, that if Arthur Balfour had given him office in 1902, Churchill would not have developed such a burning interest in free trade and joined the Liberals.” Clive Ponting notes that: “as he had already admitted to Rosebery, he was looking for an excuse to defect from a party that seemed reluctant to recognise his talents,” and the Liberals would not accept a protectionist.
“All his life he was most excited — on the evidence, only really excited — by war.”
Tossed by the tides of faddish opinion, with no principles of his own and hungry for power, Churchill soon became an adherent of the “New Liberalism,” an updated version of his father’s “Tory Democracy.” The “new” liberalism differed from the “old” only in the small matter of substituting incessant state activism for laissez-faire.
Although his conservative idolaters seem blithely unaware of the fact — for them it is always 1940 — Churchill was one of the chief architects of the welfare state in Britain. The modern welfare state, successor to the welfare state of 18th-century absolutism, began in the 1880s in Germany, under Bismarck. In England, the legislative turning point came when Asquith succeeded Campbell-Bannerman as Prime Minister in 1908; his reorganized cabinet included David Lloyd George at the Exchequer and Churchill at the Board of Trade.
Of course, “the electoral dimension of social policy was well to the fore in Churchill’s thinking,” writes a sympathetic historian — meaning that Churchill understood it as the way to win votes. He wrote to a friend:
No legislation at present in view interests the democracy. All their minds are turning more and more to the social and economic issue. This revolution is irresistible. They will not tolerate the existing system by which wealth is acquired, shared and employed…. They will set their faces like flint against the money power — heir of all other powers and tyrannies overthrown — and its obvious injustices. And this theoretical repulsion will ultimately extend to any party associated in maintaining the status quo…. Minimum standards of wages and comfort, insurance in some effective form or other against sickness, unemployment, old age, these are the questions and the only questions by which parties are going to live in the future. Woe to Liberalism, if they slip through its fingers.
Churchill “had already announced his conversion to a collectivist social policy” before his move to the Board of Trade. His constant theme became “the just precedence” of public over private interests. He took up the fashionable social-engineering clichés of the time, asserting that: “Science, physical and political alike, revolts at the disorganisation which glares at us in so many aspects of modern life,” and that “the nation demands the application of drastic corrective and curative processes.” The state was to acquire canals and railroads, develop certain national industries, provide vastly augmented education, introduce the eight-hour work day, levy progressive taxes, and guarantee a national minimum living standard. It is no wonder that Beatrice Webb noted that Churchill was “definitely casting in his lot with the constructive state action.”
“It is curious how, with his stark Darwinian outlook, his elevation of war to the central place in human history, and his racism, as well as his fixation on “great leaders,” Churchill’s worldview resembled that of his antagonist, Hitler.”
Following a visit to Germany, Lloyd George and Churchill were both converted to the Bismarckian model of social insurance schemes. As Churchill told his constituents: “My heart was filled with admiration of the patient genius which had added these social bulwarks to the many glories of the German race.” He set out, in his words, to “thrust a big slice of Bismarckianism over the whole underside of our industrial system.” In 1908, Churchill announced in a speech in Dundee: “I am on the side of those who think that a greater collective sentiment should be introduced into the State and the municipalities. I should like to see the State undertaking new functions.” Still, individualism must be respected: “No man can be a collectivist alone or an individualist alone. He must be both an individualist and a collectivist. The nature of man is a dual nature. The character of the organisation of human society is dual.” This, by the way, is a good sample of Churchill as political philosopher: it never gets much better.
But while both “collective organisation” and “individual incentive” must be given their due, Churchill was certain which had gained the upper hand:
The whole tendency of civilisation is, however, towards the multiplication of the collective functions of society. The ever-growing complications of civilisation create for us new services which have to be undertaken by the State, and create for us an expansion of existing services. … There is a pretty steady determination … to intercept all future unearned increment which may arise from the increase in the speculative value of the land. There will be an ever-widening area of municipal enterprise.
The statist trend met with Churchill’s complete approval. As he added:
I go farther; I should like to see the State embark on various novel and adventurous experiments…. I am very sorry we have not got the railways of this country in our hands. We may do something better with the canals.
This grandson of a duke and glorifier of his ancestor, the arch-corruptionist Marlborough, was not above pandering to lower-class resentments. Churchill claimed that “the cause of the Liberal Party is the cause of the left-out millions,” while he attacked the Conservatives as “the Party of the rich against the poor, the classes and their dependents against the masses, of the lucky, the wealthy, the happy, and the strong, against the left-out and the shut-out millions of the weak and poor.” Churchill became the perfect hustling political entrepreneur, eager to politicize one area of social life after the other. He berated the Conservatives for lacking even a “single plan of social reform or reconstruction,” while boasting that he and his associates intended to propose “a wide, comprehensive, interdependent scheme of social organisation,” incorporated in “a massive series of legislative proposals and administrative acts.”
At this time, Churchill fell under the influence of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the leaders of the Fabian Society. At one of her famous strategic dinner parties, Beatrice Webb introduced Churchill to a young protégé, William — later Lord — Beveridge. Churchill brought Beveridge into the Board of Trade as his advisor on social questions, thus starting him on his illustrious career. Besides pushing for a variety of social insurance schemes, Churchill created the system of national labor exchanges: he wrote to Prime Minister Asquith of the need to “spread … a sort of Germanized network of state intervention and regulation” over the British labor market. But Churchill entertained much more ambitious goals for the Board of Trade. He proposed a plan whereby:
The Board of Trade was to act as the “intelligence department” of the Government, forecasting trade and employment in the regions so that the Government could allocate contracts to the most deserving areas. At the summit … would be a Committee of National Organisation, chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to supervise the economy.
Finally, well aware of the electoral potential of organized labor, Churchill became a champion of the labor unions. He was a leading supporter, for instance, of the Trades Disputes Act of 1906. This Act reversed the Taff Vale and other judicial decisions, which had held unions responsible for torts and wrongs committed on their behalf by their agents. The Act outraged the great liberal legal historian and theorist of the rule of law, A.V. Dicey, who charged that it
confers upon a trade union a freedom from civil liability for the commission of even the most heinous wrong by the union or its servants, and in short confers upon every trade union a privilege and protection not possessed by any other person or body of persons, whether corporate or unincorporate, throughout the United Kingdom … . It makes a trade union a privileged body exempted from the ordinary law of the land. No such privileged body has ever before been deliberately created by an English Parliament.
It is ironic that the immense power of the British labor unions, the bête noire of Margaret Thatcher, was brought into being with the enthusiastic help of her great hero, Winston Churchill.
World War I
In 1911, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty, and now was truly in his element. Naturally, he quickly allied himself with the war party, and, during the crises that followed, fanned the flames of war. When the final crisis came, in the summer of 1914, Churchill was the only member of the cabinet who backed war from the start, with all of his accustomed energy. Asquith, his own Prime Minister, wrote of him: “Winston very bellicose and demanding immediate mobilization…. Winston, who has got all his war paint on, is longing for a sea fight in the early hours of the morning to result in the sinking of the Goeben. The whole thing fills me with sadness.”
On the afternoon of July 28, three days before the German invasion of Belgium, he mobilized the British Home Fleet, the greatest assemblage of naval power in the history of the world to that time. As Sidney Fay wrote, Churchill ordered that:
The fleet was to proceed during the night at high speed and without lights through the Straits of Dover from Portland to its fighting base at Scapa Flow. Fearing to bring this order before the Cabinet, lest it should be considered a provocative action likely to damage the chances of peace, Mr. Churchill had only informed Mr. Asquith, who at once gave his approval.
No wonder that, when war with Germany broke out, Churchill, in contrast even to the other chiefs of the war party, was all smiles, filled with a “glowing zest.”
From the outset of hostilities, Churchill, as head of the Admiralty, was instrumental in establishing the hunger blockade of Germany. This was probably the most effective weapon employed on either side in the whole conflict. The only problem was that, according to everyone’s interpretation of international law except Britain’s, it was illegal. The blockade was not “close-in,” but depended on scattering mines, and many of the goods deemed contraband — for instance, food for civilians — had never been so classified before. But, throughout his career, international law and the conventions by which men have tried to limit the horrors of war meant nothing to Churchill. As a German historian has dryly commented, Churchill was ready to break the rules whenever the very existence of his country was at stake, and “for him this was very often the case.”
“Churchill was one of the chief architects of the welfare state in Britain.”
The hunger blockade had certain rather unpleasant consequences. About 750,000 German civilians succumbed to hunger and diseases caused by malnutrition. The effect on those who survived was perhaps just as frightful in its own way. A historian of the blockade concluded: “the victimized youth [of World War I] were to become the most radical adherents of National Socialism.” It was also complications arising from the British blockade that eventually provided the pretext for Wilson’s decision to go to war in 1917.
Whether Churchill actually arranged for the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, is still unclear. A week before the disaster, he wrote to Walter Runciman, president of the Board of Trade that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.” Many highly-placed persons in Britain and America believed that the German sinking of theLusitania would bring the United States into the war.
The most recent student of the subject is Patrick Beesly, whose Room 40 is a history of British Naval Intelligence in World War I. Beesly’s careful account is all the more persuasive for going against the grain of his own sentiments. He points out that the British Admiralty was aware that German U-boat Command had informed U-boat captains at sea of the sailings of the Lusitania, and that the U-boat responsible for the sinking of two ships in recent days was present in the vicinity of Queenstown, off the southern coast of Ireland, in the path theLusitania was scheduled to take. There is no surviving record of any specific warning to the Lusitania. No destroyer escort was sent to accompany the ship to port, nor were any of the readily available destroyers instructed to hunt for the submarine. In fact, “no effective steps were taken to protect the Lusitania.” Beesly concludes:
unless and until fresh information comes to light, I am reluctantly driven to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy deliberately to put the Lusitania at risk in the hope that even an abortive attack on her would bring the United States into the war. Such a conspiracy could not have been put into effect without Winston Churchill’s express permission and approval.
In any case, what is certain is that Churchill’s policies made the sinking very likely. TheLusitania was a passenger liner loaded with munitions of war; Churchill had given orders to the captains of merchant ships, including liners, to ram German submarines if they encountered them, and the Germans were aware of this. And, as Churchill stressed in his memoirs of World War I, embroiling neutral countries in hostilities with the enemy was a crucial part of warfare: “There are many kinds of maneuvres in war, some only of which take place on the battlefield…. The maneuvre which brings an ally into the field is as serviceable as that which wins a great battle.”
In the midst of bloody conflict, Churchill was energy personified, the source of one brainstorm after another. Sometimes his hunches worked out well — he was the chief promoter of the tank in World War I — sometimes not so well, as at Gallipoli. The notoriety of that disaster, which blackened his name for years, caused him to be temporarily dropped from the Cabinet in 1915. His reaction was typical: To one visitor, he said, pointing to the maps on the wall: “This is what I live for … Yes, I am finished in respect of all I care for — the waging of war, the defeat of the Germans.”
Between the Wars
For the next few years, Churchill was shuttled from one ministerial post to another. As Minister of War — of Churchill in this position one may say what the revisionist historian Charles Tansill said of Henry Stimson as Secretary of War: no one ever deserved the title more — Churchill promoted a crusade to crush Bolshevism in Russia. As Colonial Secretary, he was ready to involve Britain in war with Turkey over the Chanak incident, but the British envoy to Turkey did not deliver Churchill’s ultimatum, and in the end cooler heads prevailed.
“But what of the American Republic? What does it mean for us that a president collaborated with a foreign head of government to entangle us in a world war? The question would have mattered little to Churchill.”
In 1924, Churchill rejoined the Conservatives and was made Chancellor of the Exchequer. His father, in the same office, was noted for having been puzzled by the decimals: what were “those damned dots”? Winston’s most famous act was to return Britain to the gold standard at the unrealistic pre-war parity, thus severely damaging the export trade and ruining the good name of gold, as was pointed out by Murray N. Rothbard.Hardly anyone today would disagree with the judgment of A.J.P. Taylor: Churchill “did not grasp the economic arguments one way or the other. What determined him was again a devotion to British greatness. The pound would once more ‘look the dollar in the face'; the days of Queen Victoria would be restored.”
So far Churchill had been engaged in politics for 30 years, with not much to show for it except a certain notoriety. His great claim to fame in the modern mythology begins with his hard line against Hitler in the 1930s. But it is important to realize that Churchill had maintained a hard line against Weimar Germany, as well. He denounced all calls for Allied disarmament, even before Hitler came to power. Like other Allied leaders, Churchill was living a protracted fantasy: that Germany would submit forever to what it viewed as the shackles of Versailles. In the end, what Britain and France refused to grant to a democratic Germany they were forced to concede to Hitler. Moreover, if most did not bother to listen when Churchill fulminated on the impending German threat, they had good reason. He had tried to whip up hysteria too often before: for a crusade against Bolshevik Russia, during the General Strike of 1926, on the mortal dangers of Indian independence, in the abdication crisis. Why pay any heed to his latest delusion?
Churchill had been a strong Zionist practically from the start, holding that Zionism would deflect European Jews from social revolution to partnership with European imperialism in the Arab world. Now, in 1936, he forged links with the informal London pressure group known as The Focus, whose purpose was to open the eyes of the British public to the one great menace, Nazi Germany. “The great bulk of its finance came from rich British Jews such as Sir Robert Mond (a director of several chemical firms) and Sir Robert Waley-Cohn, the managing director of Shell, the latter contributing £50,000.” The Focus was to be useful in expanding Churchill’s network of contacts and in pushing for his entry into the Cabinet.
Though a Conservative MP, Churchill began berating the Conservative governments, first Baldwin’s and then Chamberlain’s, for their alleged blindness to the Nazi threat. He vastly exaggerated the extent of German rearmament, formidable as it was, and distorted its purpose by harping on German production of heavy-bombers. This was never a German priority, and Churchill’s fabrications were meant to demonstrate a German design to attack Britain, which was never Hitler’s intention. At this time, Churchill busily promoted the Grand Alliance that was to include Britain, France, Russia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Since the Poles, having nearly been conquered by the Red Army in 1920, rejected any coalition with the Soviet Union, and since the Soviets’ only access to Germany was through Poland, Churchill’s plan was worthless.
Ironically — considering that it was a pillar of his future fame — his drumbeating about the German danger was yet another position on which Churchill reneged. In the fall of 1937, he stated:
Three or four years ago I was myself a loud alarmist…. In spite of the risks which wait on prophecy, I declare my belief that a major war is not imminent, and I still believe that there is a good chance of no major war taking place in our lifetime…. I will not pretend that, if I had to choose between Communism and Nazism, I would choose Communism.
For all the claptrap about Churchill’s “farsightedness” during the 30s in opposing the “appeasers,” in the end the policy of the Chamberlain government — to rearm as quickly as possible, while testing the chances for peace with Germany — was more realistic than Churchill’s.
The common mythology is so far from historical truth that even an ardent Churchill sympathizer, Gordon Craig, feels obliged to write:
The time is long past when it was possible to see the protracted debate over British foreign policy in the 1930s as a struggle between Churchill, an angel of light, fighting against the velleities of uncomprehending and feeble men in high places. It is reasonably well-known today that Churchill was often ill-informed, that his claims about German strength were exaggerated and his prescriptions impractical, that his emphasis on air power was misplaced.
Moreover, as a British historian has recently noted: “For the record, it is worth recalling that in the 1930s Churchill did not oppose the appeasement of either Italy or Japan.” It is also worth recalling that it was the pre-Churchill British governments that furnished the material with which Churchill was able to win the Battle of Britain. Clive Ponting has observed:
the Baldwin and Chamberlain Governments … had ensured that Britain was the first country in the world to deploy a fully integrated system of air defence based on radar detection of incoming aircraft and ground control of fighters … Churchill’s contribution had been to pour scorn on radar when he was in opposition in the 1930s.
Embroiling America in War — Again
In September, 1939, Britain went to war with Germany, pursuant to the guarantee which Chamberlain had been panicked into extending to Poland in March. Lloyd George had termed the guarantee “hare-brained,” while Churchill had supported it. Nonetheless, in his history of the war Churchill wrote: “Here was decision at last, taken at the worst possible moment and on the least satisfactory ground which must surely lead to the slaughter of tens of millions of people.” With the war on, Winston was recalled to his old job as First Lord of the Admiralty. Then, in the first month of the war, an astonishing thing happened: the president of the United States initiated a personal correspondence not with the Prime Minister, but with the head of the British Admiralty, by-passing all the ordinary diplomatic channels.
“Just like Roosevelt, Churchill heaped fulsome praise on the Communist murderer, and was anxious for Stalin’s personal friendship.”
The messages that passed between the president and the First Lord were surrounded by a frantic secrecy, culminating in the affair of Tyler Kent, the American cipher clerk at the US London embassy who was tried and imprisoned by the British authorities. The problem was that some of the messages contained allusions to Roosevelt’s agreement — even before the war began — to a blatantly unneutral cooperation with a belligerent Britain.
On June 10, 1939, George VI and his wife, Queen Mary, visited the Roosevelts at Hyde Park. In private conversations with the King, Roosevelt promised full support for Britain in case of war. He intended to set up a zone in the Atlantic to be patrolled by the US Navy, and, according to the King’s notes, the president stated that “if he saw a U boat he would sink her at once & wait for the consequences.” The biographer of George VI, Wheeler-Bennett, considered that these conversations “contained the germ of the future Bases-for-Destroyers deal, and also of the Lend-Lease Agreement itself.” In communicating with the First Lord of the Admiralty, Roosevelt was aware that he was in touch with the one member of Chamberlain’s cabinet whose belligerence matched his own.
In 1940, Churchill at last became Prime Minister, ironically enough when the Chamberlain government resigned because of the Norwegian fiasco — which Churchill, more than anyone else, had helped to bring about. As he had fought against a negotiated peace after the fall of Poland, so he continued to resist any suggestion of negotiations with Hitler. Many of the relevant documents are still sealed — after all these years — but it is clear that a strong peace party existed in the country and the government. It included Lloyd George in the House of Commons, and Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, in the Cabinet. Even after the fall of France, Churchill rejected Hitler’s renewed peace overtures. This, more than anything else, is supposed to be the foundation of his greatness. The British historian John Charmley raised a storm of outraged protest when he suggested that a negotiated peace in 1940 might have been to the advantage of Britain and Europe. A Yale historian, writing in the New York Times Book Review, referred to Charmley’s thesis as “morally sickening.” Yet Charmley’s scholarly and detailed work makes the crucial point that Churchill’s adamant refusal even to listen to peace terms in 1940 doomed what he claimed was dearest to him — the Empire and a Britain that was non-socialist and independent in world affairs. One may add that it probably also doomed European Jewry.It is amazing that half a century after the fact, there are critical theses concerning World War II that are off-limits to historical debate.
Lloyd George, Halifax, and the others were open to a compromise peace because they understood that Britain and the Dominions alone could not defeat Germany. After the fall of France, Churchill’s aim of total victory could be realized only under one condition: that the United States become embroiled in another world war. No wonder that Churchill put his heart and soul into ensuring precisely that.
“By his intransigence and refusal to countenance talks with dissident Germans, Churchill threw away an opportunity to end the war in July 1944.” – Richard Lamb, Churchill As War Leader
To add infamy to stupidity, Churchill and his crowd had only words of scorn for the valiant German officers even as they were being slaughtered by the Gestapo.
After a talk with Churchill, Joseph Kennedy, American ambassador to Britain, noted: “Every hour will be spent by the British in trying to figure out how we can be gotten in.” When he left from Lisbon on a ship to New York, Kennedy pleaded with the State Department to announce that if the ship should happen to blow up mysteriously in the mid-Atlantic, the United States would not consider it a cause for war with Germany. In his unpublished memoirs, Kennedy wrote: “I thought that would give me some protection against Churchill’s placing a bomb on the ship.”
Kennedy’s fears were perhaps not exaggerated. For, while it had been important for British policy in World War I, involving America was the sine qua non of Churchill’s policy in World War II. In Franklin Roosevelt, he found a ready accomplice.
That Roosevelt, through his actions and private words, evinced a clear design for war before December 7, 1941, has never really been in dispute. Arguments have raged over such questions as his possible foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack. In 1948, Thomas A. Bailey, diplomatic historian at Stanford, already put the real pro-Roosevelt case:
Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor…. He was like a physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good…. The country was overwhelmingly noninterventionist to the very day of Pearl Harbor, and an overt attempt to lead the people into war would have resulted in certain failure and an almost certain ousting of Roosevelt in 1940, with a complete defeat of his ultimate aims.
Churchill himself never bothered to conceal Roosevelt’s role as co-conspirator. In January, 1941, Harry Hopkins visited London. Churchill described him as “the most faithful and perfect channel of communication between the President and me … the main prop and animator of Roosevelt himself”:
I soon comprehended [Hopkins’s] personal dynamism and the outstanding importance of his mission … here was an envoy from the President of supreme importance to our life. With gleaming eye and quiet, constrained passion he said: “The President is determined that we shall win the war together. Make no mistake about it. He has sent me here to tell you that all costs and by all means he will carry you through, no matter what happens to him — there is nothing that he will not do so far as he has human power.” There he sat, slim, frail, ill, but absolutely glowing with refined comprehension of the Cause. It was to be the defeat, ruin, and slaughter of Hitler, to the exclusion of all other purposes, loyalties and aims.
In 1976, the public finally learned the story of William Stephenson, the British agent code named “Intrepid,” sent by Churchill to the United States in 1940. Stephenson set up headquarters in Rockefeller Center, with orders to use any means necessary to help bring the United States into the war. With the full knowledge and cooperation of Roosevelt and the collaboration of federal agencies, Stephenson and his 300 or so agents “intercepted mail, tapped wires, cracked safes, kidnapped, … rumor mongered” and incessantly smeared their favorite targets, the “isolationists.” Through Stephenson, Churchill was virtually in control of William Donovan’s organization, the embryonic US intelligence service.
Churchill even had a hand in the barrage of pro-British, anti-German propaganda that issued from Hollywood in the years before the United States entered the war. Gore Vidal, inScreening History, perceptively notes that starting around 1937, Americans were subjected to one film after another glorifying England and the warrior heroes who built the Empire. As spectators of these productions, Vidal says: “We served neither Lincoln nor Jefferson Davis; we served the Crown.” A key Hollywood figure in generating the movies that “were making us all weirdly English” was the Hungarian émigré and friend of Churchill, Alexander Korda. Vidal very aptly writes:
For those who find disagreeable today’s Zionist propaganda, I can only say that gallant little Israel of today must have learned a great deal from the gallant little Englanders of the 1930s. The English kept up a propaganda barrage that was to permeate our entire culture … Hollywood was subtly and not so subtly infiltrated by British propagandists.
While the Americans were being worked on, the two confederates consulted on how to arrange for direct hostilities between the United States and Germany. In August, 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill met at the Atlantic conference. Here they produced the Atlantic Charter, with its “four freedoms,” including “the freedom from want” — a blank-check to spread Anglo-American Sozialpolitik around the globe. When Churchill returned to London, he informed the Cabinet of what had been agreed to. Thirty years later, the British documents were released. Here is how the New York Times reported the revelations:
Formerly top secret British Government papers made public today said that President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August, 1941, that he was looking for an incident to justify opening hostilities against Nazi Germany…. On August 19 Churchill reported to the War Cabinet in London on other aspects of the Newfoundland [Atlantic Charter] meeting that were not made public. … “He [Roosevelt] obviously was determined that they should come in. If he were to put the issue of peace and war to Congress, they would debate it for months,” the Cabinet minutes added. “The President had said he would wage war but not declare it and that he would become more and more provocative. If the Germans did not like it, they could attack American forces…. Everything was to be done to force an incident.”
On July 15, 1941, Admiral Little, of the British naval delegation in Washington, wrote to Admiral Pound, the First Sea Lord: “the brightest hope for getting America into the war lies in the escorting arrangements to Iceland, and let us hope the Germans will not be slow in attacking them.” Little added, perhaps jokingly: “Otherwise I think it would be best for us to organise an attack by our own submarines and preferably on the escort!” A few weeks earlier, Churchill, looking for a chance to bring America into the war, wrote to Pound regarding the German warship, Prinz Eugen: “It would be better for instance that she should be located by a US ship as this might tempt her to fire on that ship, thus providing the incident for which the US government would be so grateful.” Incidents in the North Atlantic did occur, increasingly, as the United States approached war with Germany.
But Churchill did not neglect the “back door to war” — embroiling the United States with Japan — as a way of bringing America into the conflict with Hitler. Sir Robert Craigie, the British ambassador to Tokyo, like the American ambassador Joseph Grew, was working feverishly to avoid war. Churchill directed his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, to whip Craigie into line:
He should surely be told forthwith that the entry of the United States into war either with Germany and Italy or with Japan, is fully conformable with British interests. Nothing in the munitions sphere can compare with the importance of the British Empire and the United States being co-belligerent.
Churchill threw his influence into the balance to harden American policy towards Japan, especially in the last days before the Pearl Harbor attack. A sympathetic critic of Churchill, Richard Lamb, has recently written:
Was [Churchill] justified in trying to provoke Japan to attack the United States? … in 1941 Britain had no prospect of defeating Germany without the aid of the USA as an active ally. Churchill believed Congress would never authorize Roosevelt to declare war on Germany … . In war, decisions by national leaders must be made according to their effect on the war effort. There is truth in the old adage: “All’s fair in love and war.”
No wonder that, in the House of Commons, on February 15, 1942, Churchill declared, of America’s entry into the war: “This is what I have dreamed of, aimed at, worked for, and now it has come to pass.”
Churchill’s devotees by no means hold his role in bringing America into World War II against him. On the contrary, they count it in his favor. Harry Jaffa, in his uninformed and frantic apology, seems to be the last person alive who refuses to believe that the Man of Many Centuries was responsible to any degree for America’s entry into the war: after all, wasn’t it the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor?
“The great war crime which will be forever linked to Churchill’s name is the terror-bombing of the cities of Germany that in the end cost the lives of around 600,000 civilians and left some 800,000 seriously injured…”
But what of the American Republic? What does it mean for us that a president collaborated with a foreign head of government to entangle us in a world war? The question would have mattered little to Churchill. He had no concern with the United States as a sovereign, independent nation, with its own character and place in the scheme of things. For him, Americans were one of “the English-speaking peoples.” He looked forward to a common citizenship for Britons and Americans, a “mixing together,” on the road to Anglo-American world hegemony.
But the Churchill-Roosevelt intrigue should, one might think, matter to Americans. Here, however, criticism is halted before it starts. A moral postulate of our time is that in pursuit of the destruction of Hitler, all things were permissible. Yet why is it self-evident that morality required a crusade against Hitler in 1939 and 1940, and not against Stalin? At that point, Hitler had slain his thousands, but Stalin had already slain his millions. In fact, up to June, 1941, the Soviets behaved far more murderously toward the Poles in their zone of occupation than the Nazis did in theirs. Around 1,500,000 Poles were deported to the Gulag, with about half of them dying within the first two years. As Norman Davies writes: “Stalin was outpacing Hitler in his desire to reduce the Poles to the condition of a slave nation.” Of course, there were balance-of-power considerations that created distinctions between the two dictators. But it has yet to be explained why there should exist a double standard ordaining that compromise with one dictator would have been “morally sickening,” while collaboration with the other was morally irreproachable.
“First Catch Your Hare”
Early in the war, Churchill, declared: “I have only one aim in life, the defeat of Hitler, and this makes things very simple for me.” “Victory — victory at all costs,” understood literally, was his policy practically to the end. This points to Churchill’s fundamental and fatal mistake in World War II: his separation of operational from political strategy. To the first — the planning and direction of military campaigns — he devoted all of his time and energy; after all, he did so enjoy it. To the second, the fitting of military operations to the larger and much more significant political aims they were supposed to serve, he devoted no effort at all.
Stalin, on the other hand, understood perfectly that the entire purpose of war is to enforce certain political claims. This is the meaning of Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war is the continuation of policy by other means. On Eden’s visit to Moscow in December, 1941, with the Wehrmacht in the Moscow suburbs, Stalin was ready with his demands: British recognition of Soviet rule over the Baltic states and the territories he had just seized from Finland, Poland, and Romania. (They were eventually granted.) Throughout the war he never lost sight of these and other crucial political goals. But Churchill, despite frequent prodding from Eden, never gave a thought to his, whatever they might be. His approach, he explained, was that of Mrs. Glass’s recipe for Jugged Hare: “First catch your hare.” First beat Hitler, then start thinking of the future of Britain and Europe. Churchill put in so many words: “the defeat, ruin, and slaughter of Hitler, to the exclusion of all other purposes, loyalties and aims.”
Tuvia Ben-Moshe has shrewdly pinpointed one of the sources of this grotesque indifference:
Thirty years earlier, Churchill had told Asquith that … his life’s ambition was “to command great victorious armies in battle.” During World War II he was determined to take nothing less than full advantage of the opportunity given him — the almost unhampered military management of the great conflict. He was prone to ignore or postpone the treatment of matters likely to detract from that pleasure … . In so doing, he deferred, or even shelved altogether, treatment of the issues that he should have dealt with in his capacity as Prime Minister.
Churchill’s policy of all-out support of Stalin foreclosed other, potentially more favorable approaches. The military expert Hanson Baldwin, for instance, stated:
There is no doubt whatsoever that it would have been in the interest of Britain, the United States, and the world to have allowed — and indeed, to have encouraged — the world’s two great dictatorships to fight each other to a frazzle. Such a struggle, with its resultant weakening of both Communism and Nazism, could not but have aided in the establishment of a more stable peace.
Instead of adopting this approach, or, for example, promoting the overthrow of Hitler by anti-Nazi Germans — instead of even considering such alternatives — Churchill from the start threw all of his support to Soviet Russia.
Franklin Roosevelt’s fatuousness towards Joseph Stalin is well-known. He looked on Stalin as a fellow “progressive” and an invaluable collaborator in creating the future New World Order. But the neo-conservatives and others who counterpose to Roosevelt’s inanity in this matter Churchill’s Old World cunning and sagacity are sadly in error. Roosevelt’s nauseating flattery of Stalin is easily matched by Churchill’s. Just like Roosevelt, Churchill heaped fulsome praise on the Communist murderer, and was anxious for Stalin’s personal friendship. Moreover, his adulation of Stalin and his version of Communism — so different from the repellent “Trotskyite” kind — was no different in private than in public. In January, 1944, he was still speaking to Eden of the “deep-seated changes which have taken place in the character of the Russian state and government, the new confidence which has grown in our hearts towards Stalin.” In a letter to his wife, Clementine, Churchill wrote, following the October, 1944 conference in Moscow: “I have had very nice talks with the old Bear. I like him the more I see him. Now they respect us & I am sure they wish to work with us.” Writers like Isaiah Berlin, who try to give the impression that Churchill hated or despised all dictators, including Stalin, are either ignorant or dishonest.
“Churchill even undertook to make up for ‘deficiencies’ in the welfare programs of the previous Labour government…”
Churchill’s supporters often claim that, unlike the Americans, the seasoned and crafty British statesman foresaw the danger from the Soviet Union and worked doggedly to thwart it. Churchill’s famous “Mediterranean” strategy — to attack Europe through its “soft underbelly,” rather than concentrating on an invasion of northern France — is supposed to be the proof of this. But this was an ex post facto defense, concocted by Churchill once the Cold War had started: there is little, if any, contemporary evidence that the desire to beat the Russians to Vienna and Budapest formed any part of Churchill’s motivation in advocating the “soft underbelly” strategy. At the time, Churchill gave purely military reasons for it. As Ben-Moshe states: “The official British historians have ascertained that not until the second half of 1944 and after the Channel crossing did Churchill first begin to consider preempting the Russians in southeastern Europe by military means.” By then, such a move would have been impossible for several reasons. It was another of Churchill’s bizarre military notions, like invading Fortress Europe through Norway, or putting off the invasion of northern France until 1945 — by which time the Russians would have reached the Rhine.
Moreover, the American opposition to Churchill’s southern strategy did not stem from blindness to the Communist danger. As General Albert C. Wedemeyer, one of the firmest anti-Communists in the American military, wrote:
if we had invaded the Balkans through the Ljubljana Gap, we might theoretically have beaten the Russians to Vienna and Budapest. But logistics would have been against us there: it would have been next to impossible to supply more than two divisions through the Adriatic ports. … The proposal to save the Balkans from communism could never have been made good by a “soft underbelly” invasion, for Churchill himself had already cleared the way for the success of Tito . . . [who] had been firmly ensconced in Yugoslavia with British aid long before Italy itself was conquered.
Wedemeyer’s remarks about Yugoslavia were on the mark. On this issue, Churchill rejected the advice of his own Foreign Office, depending instead on information provided especially by the head of the Cairo office of the SOE — the Special Operations branch — headed by a Communist agent named James Klugman. Churchill withdrew British support from the Loyalist guerrilla army of General Mihailovic and threw it to the Communist Partisan leader Tito. What a victory for Tito would mean was no secret to Churchill. When Fitzroy Maclean was interviewed by Churchill before being sent as liaison to Tito, Maclean observed that, under Communist leadership, the Partisans’
ultimate aim would undoubtedly be to establish in Jugoslavia a Communist regime closely linked to Moscow. How did His Majesty’s Government view such an eventuality? … Mr. Churchill’s reply left me in no doubt as to the answer to my problem. So long, he said, as the whole of Western civilization was threatened by the Nazi menace, we could not afford to let our attention be diverted from the immediate issue by considerations of long-term policy … . Politics must be a secondary consideration.
It would be difficult to think of a more frivolous attitude to waging war than considering “politics” to be a “secondary consideration.” As for the “human costs” of Churchill’s policy, when an aide pointed out that Tito intended to transform Yugoslavia into a Communist dictatorship on the Soviet model, Churchill retorted: “Do you intend to live there?”
Churchill’s benign view of Stalin and Russia contrasts sharply with his view of Germany. Behind Hitler, Churchill discerned the old specter of Prussianism, which had caused, allegedly, not only the two world wars, but the Franco Prussian War as well. What he was battling now was “Nazi tyranny and Prussian militarism,” the “two main elements in German life which must be absolutely destroyed.” In October, 1944, Churchill was still explaining to Stalin that: “The problem was how to prevent Germany getting on her feet in the lifetime of our grandchildren.” Churchill harbored a “confusion of mind on the subject of the Prussian aristocracy, Nazism, and the sources of German militarist expansionism … [his view] was remarkably similar to that entertained by Sir Robert Vansittart and Sir Warren Fisher; that is to say, it arose from a combination of almost racialist antipathy and balance of power calculations.” Churchill’s aim was not simply to save world civilization from the Nazis, but, in his words, the “indefinite prevention of their [the Germans’] rising again as an Armed Power.”
“Most insidiously of all, he directed his leftist labor minister to appease the unions at all costs.”
Little wonder, then, that Churchill refused even to listen to the pleas of the anti-Hitler German opposition, which tried repeatedly to establish liaison with the British government. Instead of making every effort to encourage and assist an anti-Nazi coup in Germany, Churchill responded to the feelers sent out by the German resistance with cold silence.Reiterated warnings from Adam von Trott and other resistance leaders of the impending “bolshevization” of Europe made no impression at all on Churchill. A recent historian has written, “by his intransigence and refusal to countenance talks with dissident Germans, Churchill threw away an opportunity to end the war in July 1944.” To add infamy to stupidity, Churchill and his crowd had only words of scorn for the valiant German officers even as they were being slaughtered by the Gestapo.
In place of help, all Churchill offered Germans looking for a way to end the war before the Red Army flooded into central Europe was the slogan of unconditional surrender. Afterwards, Churchill lied in the House of Commons about his role at Casablanca in connection with Roosevelt’s announcement of the policy of unconditional surrender, and was forced to retract his statements. Eisenhower, among others, strenuously and persistently objected to the unconditional surrender formula as hampering the war effort by raising the morale of the Wehrmacht. In fact, the slogan was seized on by Goebbels, and contributed to the Germans’ holding out to the bitter end.
The pernicious effect of the policy was immeasurably bolstered by the Morgenthau Plan, which gave the Germans a terrifying picture of what “unconditional surrender” would mean. This plan, initialed by Roosevelt and Churchill at Quebec, called for turning Germany into an agricultural and pastoral country; even the coal mines of the Ruhr were to be wrecked. The fact that it would have led to the deaths of tens of millions of Germans made it a perfect analog to Hitler’s schemes for dealing with Russia and the Ukraine.
Churchill was initially averse to the plan. However, he was won over by Professor Lindemann, as maniacal a German-hater as Morgenthau himself. Lindemann stated to Lord Moran, Churchill’s personal physician: “I explained to Winston that the plan would save Britain from bankruptcy by eliminating a dangerous competitor…. Winston had not thought of it in that way, and he said no more about a cruel threat to the German people.” According to Morgenthau, the wording of the scheme was drafted entirely by Churchill. When Roosevelt returned to Washington, Hull and Stimson expressed their horror, and quickly disabused the president. Churchill, on the other hand, was unrepentant. When it came time to mention the Morgenthau Plan in his history of the war, he distorted its provisions and, by implication, lied about his role in supporting it.
Beyond the issue of the plan itself, Lord Moran wondered how it had been possible for Churchill to appear at the Quebec conference “without any thought out views on the future of Germany, although she seemed to be on the point of surrender.” The answer was that “he had become so engrossed in the conduct of the war that little time was left to plan for the future”:
Military detail had long fascinated him, while he was frankly bored by the kind of problem which might take up the time of the Peace Conference…. The P. M. was frittering away his waning strength on matters which rightly belonged to soldiers. My diary in the autumn of 1942 tells how I talked to Sir Stafford Cripps and found that he shared my cares. He wanted the P. M. to concentrate on the broad strategy of the war and on high policy…. No one could make [Churchill] see his errors.
War Crimes Discreetly Veiled
There are a number of episodes during the war revealing of Churchill’s character that deserve to be mentioned. A relatively minor incident was the British attack on the French fleet, at Mers-el-Kebir (Oran), off the coast of Algeria. After the fall of France, Churchill demanded that the French surrender their fleet to Britain. The French declined, promising that they would scuttle the ships before allowing them to fall into German hands. Against the advice of his naval officers, Churchill ordered British ships off the Algerian coast to open fire. About 1500 French sailors were killed. This was obviously a war crime, by anyone’s definition: an unprovoked attack on the forces of an ally without a declaration of war. At Nuremberg, German officers were sentenced to prison for less. Realizing this, Churchill lied about Mers-el-Kebir in his history, and suppressed evidence concerning it in the official British histories of the war. With the attack on the French fleet, Churchill confirmed his position as the prime subverter through two world wars of the system of rules of warfare that had evolved in the West over centuries.
“Churchill’s surrender to the unions, ‘dictated by sheer political expediency,’ set the stage for the quagmire in labor relations that prevailed in Britain for the next two decades.”
But the great war crime which will be forever linked to Churchill’s name is the terror-bombing of the cities of Germany that in the end cost the lives of around 600,000 civilians and left some 800,000 seriously injured.(Compare this to the roughly 70,000 British lives lost to German air attacks. In fact, there were nearly as many Frenchmen killed by Allied air attacks as there were Englishmen killed by Germans.) The plan was conceived mainly by Churchill’s friend and scientific advisor, Professor Lindemann, and carried out by the head of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris (“Bomber Harris”). Harris stated: “In Bomber Command we have always worked on the assumption that bombing anything in Germany is better than bombing nothing.” Harris and other British airforce leaders boasted that Britain had been the pioneer in the massive use of strategic bombing. J.M. Spaight, former Principal Assistant Secretary of the Air Ministry, noted that while the Germans (and the French) looked on air power as largely an extension of artillery, a support to the armies in the field, the British understood its capacity to destroy the enemy’s home-base. They built their bombers and established Bomber Command accordingly.
Brazenly lying to the House of Commons and the public, Churchill claimed that only military and industrial installations were targeted. In fact, the aim was to kill as many civilians as possible — thus, “area” bombing, or “carpet” bombing — and in this way to break the morale of the Germans and terrorize them into surrendering.
Harris at least had the courage of his convictions. He urged that the government openly announce that:
the aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive … should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany.
The campaign of murder from the air leveled Germany. A thousand-year-old urban culture was annihilated, as great cities, famed in the annals of science and art, were reduced to heaps of smoldering ruins. There were high points: the bombing of Lübeck, when that ancient Hanseatic town “burned like kindling”; the 1000-bomber raid over Cologne, and the following raids that somehow, miraculously, mostly spared the great Cathedral but destroyed the rest of the city, including thirteen Romanesque churches; the firestorm that consumed Hamburg and killed some 42,000 people. No wonder that, learning of this, a civilized European man like Joseph Schumpeter, at Harvard, was driven to telling “anyone who would listen” that Churchill and Roosevelt were destroying more than Genghis Khan.
The most infamous act was the destruction of Dresden, in February, 1945. According to the official history of the Royal Air Force: “The destruction of Germany was by then on a scale which might have appalled Attila or Genghis Khan.” Dresden, which was the capital of the old kingdom of Saxony, was an indispensable stop on the Grand Tour, the baroque gem of Europe. The war was practically over, the city filled with masses of helpless refugees escaping the advancing Red Army. Still, for three days and nights, from February 13 to 15, Dresden was pounded with bombs. At least 30,000 people were killed, perhaps as many as 135,000 or more. The Zwinger Palace; Our Lady’s Church (die Frauenkirche); the Bruhl Terrace, overlooking the Elbe where, in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Uncle Pavel went to spend his last years; the Semper Opera House, where Richard Strauss conducted the premiere of Rosenkavalier; and practically everything else was incinerated. Churchill had fomented it. But he was shaken by the outcry that followed. While in Georgetown and Hollywood, few had ever heard of Dresden, the city meant something in Stockholm, Zurich, and the Vatican, and even in London. What did our hero do? He sent a memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff:
It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise, we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land…. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing…. I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives … rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.
The military chiefs saw through Churchill’s contemptible ploy: realizing that they were being set up, they refused to accept the memorandum. After the war, Churchill casually disclaimed any knowledge of the Dresden bombing, saying: “I thought the Americans did it.”
And still the bombing continued. On March 16, in a period of 20 minutes, Würzburg was razed to the ground. As late as the middle of April, Berlin and Potsdam were bombed yet again, killing another 5,000 civilians. Finally, it stopped; as Bomber Harris noted, there were essentially no more targets to be bombed in Germany. It need hardly be recorded that Churchill supported the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which resulted in the deaths of another 100,000, or more, civilians. When Truman fabricated the myth of the “500,000 U.S. lives saved” by avoiding an invasion of the Home Islands — the highest military estimate had been 46,000 — Churchill topped his lie: the atom-bombings had saved 1,200,000 lives, including 1,000,000 Americans, he fantasized.
The eagerness with which Churchill directed or applauded the destruction of cities from the air should raise questions for those who still consider him the great “conservative” of his — or perhaps of all — time. They would do well to consider the judgment of an authentic conservative like Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, who wrote: “Non-Britishers did not matter to Mr. Churchill, who sacrificed human beings — their lives, their welfare, their liberty — with the same elegant disdain as his colleague in the White House.”
1945: The Dark Side
And so we come to 1945 and the ever-radiant triumph of Absolute Good over Absolute Evil. So potent is the mystique of that year that the insipid welfare states of today’s Europe clutch at it at every opportunity, in search of a few much-needed shreds of glory.
The dark side of that triumph, however, has been all but suppressed. It is the story of the crimes and atrocities of the victors and their protégés. Since Winston Churchill played a central role in the Allied victory, it is the story also of the crimes and atrocities in which Churchill was implicated. These include the forced repatriation of some two million Soviet subjects to the Soviet Union. Among these were tens of thousands who had fought with the Germans against Stalin, under the sponsorship of General Vlasov and his “Russian Army of Liberation.” This is what Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, in The Gulag Archipelago:
In their own country, Roosevelt and Churchill are honored as embodiments of statesmanlike wisdom. To us, in our Russian prison conversations, their consistent shortsightedness and stupidity stood out as astonishingly obvious … what was the military or political sense in their surrendering to destruction at Stalin’s hands hundreds of thousands of armed Soviet citizens determined not to surrender.
Most shameful of all was the handing over of the Cossacks. They had never been Soviet citizens, since they had fought against the Red Army in the Civil War and then emigrated. Stalin, understandably, was particularly keen to get hold of them, and the British obliged. Solzhenitsyn wrote, of Winston Churchill:
He turned over to the Soviet command the Cossack corps of 90,000 men. Along with them he also handed over many wagonloads of old people, women, and children…. This great hero, monuments to whom will in time cover all England, ordered that they, too, be surrendered to their deaths.
The “purge” of alleged collaborators in France was a blood-bath that claimed more victims than the Reign of Terror in the Great Revolution — and not just among those who in one way or other had aided the Germans: included were any right-wingers the Communist resistance groups wished to liquidate.
The massacres carried out by Churchill’s protégé, Tito, must be added to this list: tens of thousands of Croats, not simply the Ustasha, but any “class-enemies,” in classical Communist style. There was also the murder of some 20,000 Slovene anti-Communist fighters by Tito and his killing squads. When Tito’s Partisans rampaged in Trieste, which he was attempting to grab in 1945, additional thousands of Italian anti-Communists were massacred.
As the troops of Churchill’s Soviet ally swept through central Europe and the Balkans, the mass deportations began. Some in the British government had qualms, feeling a certain responsibility. Churchill would have none of it. In January, 1945, for instance, he noted to the Foreign Office: “Why are we making a fuss about the Russian deportations in Rumania of Saxons [Germans] and others? … I cannot see the Russians are wrong in making 100 or 150 thousand of these people work their passage…. I cannot myself consider that it is wrong of the Russians to take Rumanians of any origin they like to work in the Russian coal-fields.” About 500,000 German civilians were deported to work in Soviet Russia, in accordance with Churchill and Roosevelt’s agreement at Yalta that such slave labor constituted a proper form of “reparations.”
“Winston Churchill was a Man of Blood and a politico without principle, whose apotheosis serves to corrupt every standard of honesty and morality in politics and history.”
Worst of all was the expulsion of some 15 million Germans from their ancestral homelands in East and West Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania, and the Sudetenland. This was done pursuant to the agreements at Tehran, where Churchill proposed that Poland be “moved west,” and to Churchill’s acquiescence in the Czech leader Eduard Benes’s plan for the “ethnic cleansing” of Bohemia and Moravia. Around one-and-a-half to two million German civilians died in this process. As the Hungarian liberal Gaspar Tamas wrote, in driving out the Germans of east-central Europe, “whose ancestors built our cathedrals, monasteries, universities, and railroad stations,” a whole ancient culture was effaced. But why should that mean anything to the Churchill devotees who call themselves “conservatives” in America today?
Then, to top it all, came the Nuremberg Trials, a travesty of justice condemned by the great Senator Robert Taft, where Stalin’s judges and prosecutors — seasoned veterans of the purges of the 30s — participated in another great show-trial.
By 1946, Churchill was complaining in a voice of outrage of the happenings in eastern Europe: “From Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended over Europe.” Goebbels had popularized the phrase “iron curtain,” but it was accurate enough.
The European continent now contained a single, hegemonic power. “As the blinkers of war were removed,” John Charmley writes, “Churchill began to perceive the magnitude of the mistake which had been made.”In fact, Churchill’s own expressions of profound self-doubt consort oddly with his admirers’ retrospective triumphalism. After the war, he told Robert Boothby: “Historians are apt to judge war ministers less by the victories achieved under their direction than by the political results which flowed from them. Judged by that standard, I am not sure that I shall be held to have done very well.” In the preface to the first volume of his history of World War II, Churchill explained why he was so troubled:
The human tragedy reaches its climax in the fact that after all the exertions and sacrifices of hundreds of millions of people and of the victories of the Righteous Cause, we have still not found Peace or Security, and that we lie in the grip of even worse perils than those we have surmounted.
On V-E Day, he had announced the victory of “the cause of freedom in every land.” But to his private secretary, he mused: “What will lie between the white snows of Russia and the white cliffs of Dover?” It was a bit late to raise the question. Really, what are we to make of a statesman who for years ignored the fact that the extinction of Germany as a power in Europe entailed … certain consequences? Is this another Bismarck or Metternich we are dealing with here? Or is it a case of a Woodrow Wilson redivivus — of another Prince of Fools?
With the balance of power in Europe wrecked by his own policy, there was only one recourse open to Churchill: to bring America into Europe permanently. Thus, his anxious expostulations to the Americans, including his Fulton, Missouri “Iron Curtain” speech. Having destroyed Germany as the natural balance to Russia on the continent, he was now forced to try to embroil the United States in yet another war — this time a Cold War, that would last 45 years, and change America fundamentally, and perhaps irrevocably.
The Triumph of the Welfare State
In 1945, general elections were held in Britain, and the Labour Party won a landslide victory. Clement Attlee, and his colleagues took power and created the socialist welfare state. But the socializing of Britain was probably inevitable, given the war. It was a natural outgrowth of the wartime sense of solidarity and collectivist emotion, of the feeling that the experience of war had somehow rendered class structure and hierarchy — normal features of any advanced society — obsolete and indecent. And there was a second factor — British society had already been to a large extent socialized in the war years, under Churchill himself. As Ludwig von Mises wrote:
Marching ever further on the way of interventionism, first Germany, then Great Britain and many other European countries have adopted central planning, the Hindenburg pattern of socialism. It is noteworthy that in Germany the deciding measures were not resorted to by the Nazis, but some time before Hitler seized power by Bruning … and in Great Britain not by the Labour Party but by the Tory Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill.
While Churchill waged war, he allowed Attlee to head various Cabinet committees on domestic policy and devise proposals on health, unemployment, education, etc.Churchill himself had already accepted the master-blueprint for the welfare state, the Beveridge Report. As he put it in a radio speech:
You must rank me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave.
That Mises was correct in his judgment on Churchill’s role is indicated by the conclusion of W. H. Greenleaf, in his monumental study of individualism and collectivism in modern Britain. Greenleaf states that it was Churchill who
during the war years, instructed R. A. Butler to improve the education of the people and who accepted and sponsored the idea of a four-year plan for national development and the commitment to sustain full employment in the post-war period. As well he approved proposals to establish a national insurance scheme, services for housing and health, and was prepared to accept a broadening field of state enterprises. It was because of this coalition policy that Enoch Powell referred to the veritable social revolution which occurred in the years 1942–44. Aims of this kind were embodied in the Conservative declaration of policy issued by the Premier before the 1945 election.
When the Tories returned to power in 1951, “Churchill chose a Government which was the least recognizably Conservative in history.” There was no attempt to roll back the welfare state, and the only industry that was really reprivatized was road haulage. Churchill “left the core of its [the Labour government’s] work inviolate.” The “Conservative” victory functioned like Republican victories in the United States, from Eisenhower on — to consolidate socialism. Churchill even undertook to make up for “deficiencies” in the welfare programs of the previous Labour government, in housing and public works. Most insidiously of all, he directed his leftist Labour Minister, Walter Monckton, to appease the unions at all costs. Churchill’s surrender to the unions, “dictated by sheer political expediency,” set the stage for the quagmire in labor relations that prevailed in Britain for the next two decades.
What Churchill loved was power, and the opportunities power provided to live a life of drama and struggle and endless war.
Yet, in truth, Churchill never cared a great deal about domestic affairs, even welfarism, except as a means of attaining and keeping office. What he loved was power, and the opportunities power provided to live a life of drama and struggle and endless war.
There is a way of looking at Winston Churchill that is very tempting: that he was a deeply flawed creature, who was summoned at a critical moment to do battle with a uniquely appalling evil, and whose very flaws contributed to a glorious victory — in a way, like Merlin, in C.S. Lewis’s great Christian novel, That Hideous Strength. Such a judgment would, I believe, be superficial. A candid examination of his career, I suggest, yields a different conclusion: that, when all is said and done, Winston Churchill was a Man of Blood and a politico without principle, whose apotheosis serves to corrupt every standard of honesty and morality in politics and history.
This essay, which originally appears in The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Henry Regnery, who was, of course, not responsible for its content.