Surprisingly voted out of office after World War II, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill privately became an advocate for an Anglo-American first strike atom bomb attack against the Soviet Union, as once secret FBI records indicate. Churchill’s 1946 speech at Fulton, Missouri, warning against his former Communist ally during World War II, set the stage for a new conflict known as the Cold War, which lasted for decades and still haunts international relations today. This excerpt is from When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys by ICIJ member Thomas Maier.
Old Glory and the Union Jack draped the streets of Jefferson City, Missouri—the perfect symbolism for a visit by President Harry Truman and the man who Truman said had saved Western civilization.
In an open-air limousine convertible, Winston Churchill sat beside Roosevelt’s successor while thousands of Missourians waved and greeted them at the train station. The two grinning politicians were surrounded by dour security agents (standing guard on the running boards) as the limo drove through the state capital on March 6, 1946. After a long train ride from Washington, the seventy-one-year-old former British prime minister was careful not to exert himself too much. When asked that year about his secret of success, the old warhorse advised, “Conservation of energy—never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”
Only months after being turned out of high office, Churchill journeyed to a college gym in nearby Fulton to give one of the most significant speeches of his career. With the American president’s blessing, his clarion call for Anglo-American resistance to the Soviet Union’s “Iron Curtain” (his metaphor for the spread of communism dividing up Europe) would launch the decades-long Cold War. But this address in Fulton, entitled “The Sinews of Peace,” also provided another turning point in Churchill’s long life. Instead of retirement, he chose vigorous, almost defiant engagement. Rather than fade away with his glorious victories of the past, he decided to embrace, almost prophetically, the future of the postwar world with its atomic dangers. He would reinvent himself once again as a world statesman, his voice both familiar and brand new.
At Fulton, Churchill rewarded Truman’s confidence with a stellar performance. Winston wanted to wake up America, content with victory in World War II and ready to return to its isolationist slumber. He warned that if the West didn’t act swiftly and with determination, another conflict, with the totalitarian Communist regime looming in Moscow, awaited them.
“An iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” Churchill lectured, wearing the honorary cap and robes of an Oxford don before a nationally broadcast audience. “This is certainly not the Liberated Europe we fought to build up. Nor is it one which contains the essentials of permanent peace.”
Truman, who appeared next to Churchill onstage, had reviewed and approved the speech beforehand. Plainspoken Harry indicated its important message needed to be heard.
Churchill argued that Stalin’s unchecked expansion in Central and Eastern Europe posed the same risk for world conflict as Hitler’s aggressive Germany once did in the 1930s, when Winston was a lonely voice in the political wilderness. “Last time, I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention,” Churchill recalled, almost melodramatically. “There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely actions than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented in my belief without the firing of a single shot . . .”
Now, one by one, Churchill called off the names of European capitals lost to the “Soviet sphere.” He worried that this growing Communist bloc of nations would expand in the world unless a “fraternal association” (the United States, Great Britain, and the rest of “English-speaking world”) stopped its Cold War appeasement. He urged a negotiated settlement with the Soviets, to prevent tensions from bursting into an active war neither side wanted. “From what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness,” he said, as if reciting lessons from history as he experienced it. “If these all-important years are allowed to slip away,” he concluded, “then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all.”
Truman stood and applauded, appearing pleased. Unlike his tempestuous relationship with Roosevelt, Churchill appreciated Truman’s frank, direct manner and the bold way he’d brought World War II to an end. He supported Truman’s use of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaski (killing some two hundred thousand civilians) in order to avoid an estimated quarter of million Allied casualties that would taken place by an invasion of Japan. The decision to drop the bomb had been “unanimous, automatic, unquestioned,” and made with barely a moment’s thought, Churchill later recalled. Earlier in the war, the British agreed to work cooperatively with the Americans on the bomb’s development, but said they wouldn’t use it unless both sides agreed.
“Let me know whether it is a flop or a plop,” Churchill wrote to Truman in July 1945 about the first atomic test in the New Mexico desert.
“It’s a plop—Truman,” the message came back. That same year, when Stalin’s expansion plans became clear, Churchill first used the term Iron Curtain, in a private message to Truman.
Public reaction to Churchill’s Fulton speech, however, swiftly turned negative. Newspaper editorials condemned his speech as rogue bluster, and columnist Walter Lippmann called Truman’s invitation an “almost catastrophic blunder.” The new president soon learned his nation wasn’t ready for another war against its recent ally Stalin and his Russian army. Going after the Soviets in peacetime was far different from finishing off Japan in war. Truman “pulled back into his shell, even declared that he had not known in advance what Churchill was going to say,” Time magazine reported. Backpedaling away from Churchill’s comments, Truman eventually offered to send the battleship Missouri to pick up Stalin so he could come to America and refute the charges.
Winston didn’t waver, however, for his true feelings against the Soviets were even stronger than his Fulton rhetoric. Since the 1917 Russian Revolution, he felt Lenin’s Bolsheviks were extremists, intent on a dictatorship that did not recognize God , property rights, or human freedom. “The strangling of Bolshevism at its birth would have been an untold blessing to the human race,” Churchill declared. He’d made similar comments throughout his career. “Bolshevism is not a policy; it is a disease,” he railed. “It is not a creed; it is a pestilence.” In comparing Stalin’s Soviet Empire to the defeated Axis powers, Churchill wondered if the Anglo-American alliance had simply replaced one great evil with another.
Although his own empire’s resources were depleted, Churchill wanted the United States to control the Soviets in Europe through the use of nuclear weapons. No longer a backwater colony of the Crown, America was now “at the highest point of majesty and power ever attained by any community since the fall of the Roman Empire,” Churchill judged with a historian’s eye. Possessing the most deadly device ever seen, the United States would “dominate the world for the next five years,” he predicted, providing an opportunity for America to act swiftly to set a course for future peace.
The Soviets still appeared far away from developing their own atomic weapons, and would respect American dominance if exerted. Dropping the bomb—or at least “a showdown” with the implied threat of doing so—must be a vital tool in curbing Soviet communism, Churchill argued. He expressed these views on his own, certainly without approval of Labour Party leaders running the British government. Letting the isolationists, pacifists, and appeasers prevail would only ensure another world war, he contended. “The argument is now put forward that we must never use the atomic bomb until, or unless, it has been used against us first,” Churchill said. “In other words, you must never fire until you have been shot dead. That seems to me a silly thing to say and a still more imprudent position to adopt.”
Privately, Churchill suggested that America strike first, before it was too late. According to FBI records, he urged Sen. Styles Bridges, a conservative Republican from New Hampshire active in foreign affairs, to back a preemptory and devastating attack on Moscow. “He [Churchill] pointed out that if an atomic bomb could be dropped on the Kremlin wiping it out, it would be a very easy problem to handle the balance of Russia, which would be without direction,” Bridges told the FBI.
During a “private conference with Churchill” while visiting Europe in the summer of 1947, Bridges claimed the former prime minister had “stated that the only salvation for the civilization of the world would be if the President of the United States would declare Russia to be imperiling world peace and attack Russia.” If this wasn’t done, according to the FBI report dated December 5, 1947, Churchill predicted “Russia will attack the United States in the next two or three years when she gets the atomic bomb and civilization will be wiped out or set back many years.”
A full-fledged nuclear attack on the Kremlin didn’t seem to faze Bridges, who’d been a sharp policy critic of Roosevelt and Truman. Bridges mentioned this conversation with Churchill only while talking to a G-man about “other matters,” according to the agent who compiled the report. It noted that Bridges “concurs in Churchill’s views and that he sincerely hopes that our next President will do just that before Russia attacks the United States.”
Others close to Churchill heard similar bellicose sentiments. His personal physician, Lord Moran, recalled that Winston advocated a nuclear knockout blow against the Soviets during a conversation in 1946. “We ought not to wait until Russia is ready,” Churchill said. “America knows that fifty-two percent of Russia’s motor industry is in Moscow and could be wiped out by a single bomb. It might mean wiping out three million people, but they [the Soviets ] would think nothing of that.” Winston paused and smiled as he thought of this grotesque. “They think more of erasing an historical building like the Kremlin,” he added.
A few years later, before Churchill gave a Boston speech, Averell Harriman warned U.S. State Department officials that his old friend might make “politically embarrassing statements,” urging aggressive use of the atomic bomb as a negotiating stance against the Soviets. Undoubtedly remembering Truman’s retreat at Fulton, Harriman suggested that the administration get an advance look at Churchill’s address. Inside a crowded Boston Garden, Churchill didn’t call for an attack on the Kremlin but condemned the Soviet Politburo as “something quite as wicked but in some ways more formidable than Hitler.” He reprised his “Iron Curtain” warnings and portrayed the atom bomb as Western democracy’s most potent weapon. “I must not conceal from you the truth as I see it,” he said in a speech offered on television as well as a radio. “It is certain that Europe would have been communized, like Czechoslovakia and London under bombardment sometime ago, but for the deterrent of the atomic bomb in the hands of the United States.”
Since his days watching the sword-wielding Dervish warriors slaughtered on the hills, Churchill had understood the supremacy of machinery in war, over the courage and glory of individual soldiers. Some were surprised by his callousness about such butchery. “War has always fascinated him; he knows in surprising detail about the campaigns of the past captains; he has visited nearly all the battlefields and he can pick out, in a particular battle, the decisive move that turned the day,” Lord Moran wrote in his diary. “But he has never given a thought to what was happening in the soldier’s mind, he has not tried to share his fears. If a soldier does not do his duty, the P.M. says that he ought to be shot. It is as simple as that.”
At Boston’s Ritz-Carlton before that night’s speech, Winston chatted about the atomic bomb with his longtime American friend Bernard Baruch—who later introduced him to the crowd as “the greatest living Englishman”—and with family friend Kay Halle. By his side were his wife, Clementine, and son, Randolph, seated at a circular table holding teas, buttered scones, sandwiches, and Scotch whiskey. Winston mentioned that in the New Mexico desert site, where the first Trinity bomb had been ignited, a monument was being built in memory of those who died at Hiroshima.
“Do the Americans have a bad conscience because the atom bomb was dropped?” he asked.
Kay Halle remembered Winston’s “unblinking X-ray eyes” as he stared at her, looking for an answer. Kay was now an accomplished woman in her midforties and far different from the fun-loving blonde-haired department store heiress from Cleveland whom Randolph wanted to marry nearly two decades earlier. Since then, she had worked as a broadcaster, a newspaper feature writer, and for the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime predecessor to the CIA. Though Kay revered the former prime minister, she was confident enough to give an answer he might not want.
“Very many,” Halle replied, about the number of Americans who felt guilty about this nuclear holocaust.
Winston dismissed such claptrap, arguing that the A-bomb posed “the only deterrent to the Soviets.” He showed little patience with those who asked if he worried what God might say about the atom bomb. “I shall defend myself with resolution and vigour,” he argued, as if the Gates of Heaven might resemble the well of the House. “I shall say to the Almighty, why when nations were warring in this way did You release dangerous knowledge to mankind? The fault is Yours—not mine!” Yet in private, Churchill seemed disturbed by the moral consequences of this new warfare and wondered if its true meaning might be beyond his grasp. “Do you think that the atomic bomb means that the architect of the universe has got tired of writing his non-stop scenario?” he wrote George Bernard Shaw. “The release of the bomb seems to be his next turning point.”
Publicly, Randolph supported his father’s Fulton speech about the Soviet “Iron Curtain” and his firm resolve against communism in Eastern Europe. But in their private conversation in Boston, Randolph, always able to find his father’s weak spot, suggested that British “saturation bombing” of Germany during the war “was an almost equal horror” to Hiroshima, Halle recalled. Aerial bombs from Allied planes obliterated cities such as Dresden, Hamburg, and Cologne, reducing them to rubble and flames. To his family and friends at this Boston hotel, Winston recalled his moral reservations about these raids in which “tens of thousands of lives were extinguished in one night . . . old men, old women, little children, yes, yes, children about to be born.” Kay watched her hero speak with true humanity, “with tears brimming in his extraordinary eyes.”
From his own experience, however, Randolph knew the Russians didn’t fear that the Americans would strike first with the atom bomb. During a November 1945 visit to Moscow, he heard Soviet officials complain that the United States didn’t share its nuclear technology, but didn’t seem overly alarmed by the “imperialistic purposes” of Uncle Sam. “I asked them chaffingly whether in fact anyone in the Kremlin has lost a single minute’s sleep worrying about whether the Americans were about to drop an atomic bomb on Red Square,” Randolph recalled. “They were all too honest to pretend they had.”
Little did they know his father would drop the bomb if he could.
'Let documents be your guide:' A Q&A with author and ICIJ member Thomas Maier
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