Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill; drawing by David Levine


“This volume, the first of several about the Cold War, is a picture of the world in early 1946 insofar as it was a battleground in an undeclared war between the two new great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, and their allies.”

Thus the preface to Armed Truce. A lordly undertaking. Book One, entitled “Despotism and Ideology,” opens with Stalin’s February 1946 “election” speech to the Supreme Soviet and depicts the Soviet Union in early 1946. Book Two portrays “The West”—meaning the United States and the United Kingdom. Book Three, “Disputed Lands,” takes us magisterially across the whole European continent, country by country, from Poland to Spain and from Finland to Greece, then down through Turkey into Persia and so to “The East: China, Japan, Korea and Indo-China.” Book Four deals with the first steps in nuclear diplomacy.

The battleground having thus been painted, in some 480 pages, battle can commence, which it does with Western reaction to Stalin’s “election” speech, Kennan’s Long Telegram, Churchill’s Fulton speech, and the “dénouement in Persia.” After just two months and sixty pages the narrative abruptly stops. But the reader is assured in an italicized coda that “the future of the characters and subjects in this study will be treated in another volume, it is hoped, of this history.” This volume is thus to be seen as a heroic mise en scène, its scale and grandeur justified by the enormous narrative vistas ahead: the portico of some great public building which has, however, yet to be built.

There is much to admire in both the spirit and the execution of this grand design. We now have a superabundance of interesting recent specialist works on many aspects of the early history of the cold war (though still with a disproportionate concentration on the Western side). It was high time someone tried to put it all together again in a balanced, comprehensive, and readable narrative history. Lord Thomas makes the attempt with tremendous verve, breadth, and appetite. He has assembled a gargantuan banquet of sources, and, like a gourmet host, takes almost audible delight in proffering us the choicest morsels. He is neither reductionist nor determinist, and has no particular ax to grind (though there are a few rhetorical echoes of first-term “Iron Lady” Thatcherism). While he emphasizes the role of individuals, the contingent, and the unforeseen, he is far from dismissing the significance of underlying social and economic forces; nor does he underrate (as Roosevelt and Churchill did) the importance of ideology. He has some excellent biographical sketches: his account of Roosevelt seems to me particularly good. His prose is often vivid and arresting.

Unfortunately, the high standard is not always sustained, and the editing seems slapdash. Such stylistic solecisms as “I have naturally laid special attention on the personality of Stalin” should not have passed a first proofreading. The deployment of accents on Polish and Czech names approximates to a random scatter. Some of the minor vignettes of Soviet and American figures come close to being caricatures. Yet these are minor flaws of execution. What makes this book frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying to read is the design itself.

In his conclusion the author poses two familiar “if” questions. Might the Soviet Union have behaved differently in 1945–1946 if the Western allies had “been more friendly”? Or, alternatively, if “greater Western firmness” had been “embarked upon earlier”? Lord Thomas suggests that it would have been difficult for the American or British governments to be either much more or much less friendly than they were.

Churchill and Roosevelt might, it is true, have launched a second front in Western Europe in 1943. But it could easily have failed. The United States could in theory have earlier recognised the dominance of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. But Americans, like many Englishmen, believed in Polish freedom.

Yet “the great nations of the West in 1945 or early 1946…took elaborate steps to remain on good terms with Russia.” They failed to grasp “the essential point…that Stalin, and Communism, needed an enemy; capitalism had to be ‘menacing’; imperialism had to be ‘on the march’; a ‘Cold War’ was in short not so much inevitable as essential.” Greater Western toughness during the war, however, would have risked “a Soviet volte-face with Germany,” much larger Western casualties, Soviet nonparticipation in the war in the Far East—and anyway a tougher policy would have been very difficult to sell to British and American public opinion “profoundly grateful for the work of the Red Army.” Nonetheless, in 1945 and 1946 a clearer and firmer policy, more closely coordinated between the United States and the United Kingdom, “would have been both more wise and more just.”

The reason why such Western plans were not even considered was the fault of the United States, both of whose presidents in the period concerned believed that they had a chance of achieving their ends by a conscious policy of distancing themselves from the British.

This analysis is interesting and arguable. But it takes the author irresistibly—and rightly—back into the Second World War. Here is the basic problem of design. The events of 1945–1946 were not, as implied in the subtitle of Armed Force, “the beginnings of the Cold War.” They were the end of the beginnings. It is impossible to understand the conflicts which then emerged without constant reference back to the military and political history of the earlier period. The author sees this, and therefore as he paints his still-life picture of the world in early 1946 he repeatedly sketches in the wartime background of each subject: Chapter 6 discusses Stalin’s wartime diplomacy, Chapter 10 considers Roosevelt’s role, Chapter 12 gives us something of the Czech and Polish experience, while for a sketch of Churchill’s part we have to wait until Chapter 23. But this is to treat separately what belongs together.



What we really need is a narrative history of the kind that Lord Thomas begins in early 1946, but commencing rather in 1941. Such a narrative, to be convincing, would have to interweave not merely three different wools, but three different kinds of wool, each containing a hundred individual skeins. First, there is the actual and so to speak “objective” military history of the war: the basic dispositions of men and arms on land and sea, without which none of the political decisions is comprehensible.

Secondly, there are the political maneuvers, aims, and attitudes of the “Big Three,” Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill. Here it is essential to keep in view the whole range of interests and considerations present in the great actors’ minds at any one time, and particularly their domestic political concerns. Thirdly, there are the “lesser” actors, and social and political conditions “on the ground” in the disputed lands. This last element is important in two ways. On the one hand the real intentions and interests of the Big Three are often more clearly revealed in what they said and did to “lesser” parties than in what they said and did to each other. On the other hand, local conditions were important in determining the choices open to them. The history of this subject is still too often discussed as if the Big Three were omnipotent, Olympian gods, capable of creating whatever order they desired in their allotted spheres, limited only by the interference of the other gods.

A convincing historical explanation must take into account all three levels, and the dynamic interplay between them. Consider, for example, the beginnings of communist rule in Poland and Hungary. First, the military background is essential. As Vojtech Mastny convincingly demonstrates in his excellent narrative history, Russia’s Road to the Cold War, Stalin’s decisive moves forward in Poland west of the 1939 Hitler–Stalin line of partition followed closely on the successful Allied opening of the second front in France in June 1944. Before D-day the Red Army occupied the eastern territories of prewar Poland roughly up to the Hitler–Stalin partition line, but they had not gone far beyond it. Politically, Stalin seems still to have been looking for a Polish Benes. But with the Western Allies finally committed in France, the Red Army surged forward again, and just six weeks after D-day Stalin organized in Moscow the “Polish Committee of National Liberation” (PKWN), whose official birthday—July 22—is now Communist Poland’s “national day.”

In October there was a sharp hardening of the line taken by this de facto provisional government.1 The Polish communists now effectively declared war on the noncommunist majority of the Polish resistance, organized in the “Home Army” (AK). From this period comes an unforgotten poster describing the AK as the “accursed offspring of reaction.” The Polish communists also hurriedly pressed ahead with the expropriation and redistribution of agricultural land in tiny parcels of one or two acres—a fragmentation which plagues Polish agriculture to this day.

What lay behind this fateful “October policy turn”? Here the essential causes are to be found in local conditions “on the ground.” Despite the promise of land reform, the peasants, still an absolute majority of the population, were sullen or openly hostile to the new puppet government. Despite the shattering defeat of the Warsaw rising, despite the fact that the SS had done much of Stalin’s work for him, the noncommunist resistance yet seemed—to the Polish communists and to Stalin—to be recovering to an alarming degree. Its patriotic legitimacy and popular support were overwhelming. It still had arms and men and spirit enough to harry the Soviet–Polish security forces. The Red Army’s failure to bring relief to the Warsaw insurgents had hardly made Soviet liberation more attractive in Polish eyes. Stalin and Poland’s new communist rulers were even afraid that the Polish army they themselves had created might turn against them—“become an instrument of the reactionaries,” as Gomulka put it at the time—despite the fact that more than 11,500 Soviet officers had been sent by the Soviet high command to serve in it. The communist leaders knew themselves to be a tiny minority sitting on bayonets. If they were to achieve political control, indeed if they were to be sure of preserving their own skins, there appeared to be only one answer: terror.


Terror may not have seemed to some Polish communists, as it seemed to Stalin, a generally desirable form of human activity. There were differences of sensibility on this point. But at that moment, in those circumstances, almost all of them agreed that terror was essential. If the circumstances had been different—if Stalin had found a Polish Benes, with a plausible cabinet behind him, or if the old ruling class had really been compromised by collaboration with Nazi Germany, if there had been no Home Army, or if historical experience had inclined more of the population to smile on their liberators—then, indeed, there might have been other options. Soviet vital interests—even as that concept was understood by Stalin—might just possibly have been secured in other ways. But in the autumn of 1944 no such options were visible. Local conditions were therefore of the first importance in determining the timing and the methods of the establishment of Soviet domination over Poland. The timing and the methods were then an important factor in changing Western leaders’ attitudes to Stalin and the Soviet Union, and precipitating the cold war.

But what of Western leaders’ interventions at the time? The Polish minutes of a meeting of a PKWN delegation with Stalin on October 9, 1944, record his judgment: “The alliance will not break up over Poland. When the delegates reminded Comrade Stalin of Churchill’s speech [to the House of Commons], he replied that serious politicians should ignore parliamentary gobbledygook.” This impression was reinforced by Churchill’s visit to Moscow which began that same day. The minutes of the October 22 meeting of the Politburo of the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) noted, “In spite of press opinions, the Polish question was of secondary importance at the Moscow conference. The fundamental problem was the Balkans, the British fears for Greece and the Adriatic.” Whatever Churchill’s intentions, this was the impression he gave to Stalin. However, it was at precisely this time that Stalin started telling the Hungarian Communists to “go slow.” Their takeover, he said, must be expected to take ten to fifteen years. “More flexible formulations,” and “state with particular clarity that private property will remain untouched,” he commented on the Hungarian Communist party’s draft policy declaration in December 1944. The Hungarian Communists are plainly given to understand that their role is to lull Western fears that Stalin knew would be aroused by a rapid and brutal takeover in Poland. They called it the “Polish trade-off.”2

Of course this Polish-Hungarian autumn is just one scene in a much larger picture. But it does neatly illustrate the intricate interplay of military conquest, alliance politics, and local conditions. To reconstruct the whole tapestry is a task for a master weaver—such as the author of The Spanish Civil War has proved himself to be. If, in subsequent volumes, Lord Thomas can weave such a narrative of the cold war after April 1946, he will give us an important work; and we may come to regard Armed Truce, with affection, as a somewhat eccentric portico leading into a great building. Meanwhile, the narrative history of the origins of the cold war remains to be written.


The question “What should ‘the West’ have done differently?” underlies virtually all discussions of cold war origins. We can hardly avoid the counterfactual “ifs” of Lord Thomas’s conclusion. In this position, virtue is perhaps to be found not in ignoring the list of hypothetical “missed opportunities” but in trying to ensure that the list is as fair and complete as possible—for cold war historiography vividly illustrates how the selection of the counterfactual question to be asked generally anticipates the desired answer. Since we are condemned to play the “if” game, let us at least play it fairly. A minimum list of the historically significant counterfactual questions about cold war origins would have to begin with the question: If “the West” (then meaning primarily the United States, France, and Britain) had acted otherwise in 1917–1919, or in different ways throughout the 1920s, could it have prevented the rise of Hitler and Nazism or that of Stalin and Stalinism? In respect to both Russia (from 1917) and Germany (from 1918) various alternatives of greater “softness” and greater “toughness” might be retrospectively considered.

A second, even more directly relevant, question would be: What could “the West” (here meaning primarily France and Britain) have done to prevent the partial combination of those two forces in the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which allowed Hitler to begin the war? “Collective security” as proposed by Moscow, armed resistance to the remilitarization of the Rhineland, and an earlier American engagement in the defense of democracy in Europe are among the many more or less “real” options to be debated here.

A third significant cluster of counterfactuals arises from the period after the German invasion of the Soviet Union (and, to some extent, from the intervening period). Hypothetical options here range from, at one extreme, a separate peace with Hitler (a Ribbentrop-Simon Pact), to, at the other, a full and swift recognition of Soviet claims to the Baltic states and the Polish eastern territories, and a determined effort at a full alliance with the Soviet Union, both in the conduct of the war and in postwar planning (a Molotov-Cripps Pact).

Within this third cluster, the most important “real” option is the opening of a cross-Channel second front in 1943 instead of 1944. This nonevent is “real” in the sense that British and American leaders devoted an immense amount of serious consideration to it at the time. It is important because the fact that it didn’t happen crucially affected the extent, justification, and character of the Soviet liberation/subjugation of Eastern and Central Europe. If Britain and the United States had singlemindedly concentrated every ounce of their resources on preparing for landings in France in 1943, if no troops or landing craft had been siphoned off to the Mediterranean on the one side and the Pacific on the other, if the landings had been successful and if Western armies had then pushed forward as remorselessly toward the heart of Europe from the west as the Red Army did from the east, if Soviet and American soldiers had shaken hands, not on the Elbe, but on the Oder, the Vistula, or even on the Bug, then the balance of power in Central Europe would have been very different—and another 100 million Europeans might today be free.

If, if, if. The military case for the feasibility of a cross-Channel invasion in 1943—in numbers of available men, landing craft, etc.—is at least arguable, although no responsible military historian would dispute Lord Thomas’s lapidary judgment that “it could easily have failed.” But we who muse on the mountains above Marathon—and dream that Prague might still be free—have to recall something else as well. Even if a D-day in 1943 had been successful, even if Western armies had fought their way to the heart of Europe, it is scarcely imaginable (given the remarkable fighting prowess of the German armies) that this success could have been achieved without British and American casualties two, three, perhaps five or ten times greater than those actually incurred.

The war might have been ended sooner. Millions of lives might have been saved. Jewish lives. Polish lives. Russian lives. But British and American lives would surely have been given in their stead. Hundreds of thousands in the place of millions, perhaps. Who can possibly tell? Central Europe might today be a place where Jewish and Polish, Czech and German history could still be written side by side, peacefully, in freedom. Britain, however, might have lost not merely an empire but a whole generation—another “lost generation,” as Churchill feared, leaving a nation decapitated, utterly exhausted, prostrate,

some third-rate isle,
half lost among her northern seas.

Of course this fear was only one of many reasons why the cross-Channel second front was not opened in 1943. And of course Stalin never dreamed of opening a second front to save British lives. Quite the reverse. Nonetheless, the fact is that the Somme and Passchendaele of the Second World War are called Stalingrad and Kursk. The war against Hitler was decided on the eastern front. From much earlier, Stalin was plainly resolved to extend the frontiers of the Soviet Union to what he was pleased to call the “Curzon line.” This is what he got from Hitler in August 1939. This is what he demanded from the West in July 1941, with almost lunatic consistency, even as Hitler’s armies swept toward Moscow. Perhaps he already had larger ambitions regarding the rest of East, Central, and indeed Western Europe, although to ask what exactly those ambitions were is probably not very useful. (Ideology would justify any and all of them.)

What can be historically demonstrated is the way in which his designs for (or “on”) Eastern and Central Europe develop and take concrete shape in the year between the D-day-that-wasn’t and the D-day-that-was, as it becomes clear that the Red Army, having turned the tide at Stalingrad and Kursk, is now bound to advance beyond the Hitler–Stalin partition line. The opening of the western second front in the summer of 1944 then precipitates the developments in Central and Eastern Europe that the opening of a western second front in the summer of 1943 might just conceivably have prevented.

Now Stalin and Soviet Russia move forward to claim their prize…only their just reward, they say, for the sacrifice of so many million lives. And anyway, who will stop them? No answer to that. As a recent (officially published) Soviet historian drily puts it:

The actual potentialities of Soviet diplomacy as well as the role and place of the USSR in international relations and in the resolution of world problems were directly dependent on developments on the Soviet-German front.

Or as two exiled Soviet historians even more drily comment: “The presence of 6.5 million Soviet soldiers buttressed Soviet claims.”3

The great “if” argument about the partition of Europe has concentrated on this last period. Above all, of course, on Yalta. Yalta as a quasi-biblical myth for East Central Europeans: in the beginning was Yalta—three weary old heathen gods divided up the world between them—Creation and the Fall rolled into one. Yalta as British myth: all the Americans’ fault—naive and gaga Roosevelt gave the game away—nothing we could do. Yalta as French myth: all the Anglo-Saxons’ fault—if De Gaulle had been invited everything would have been different. Yalta as American myth: in 1955 the British journalist James Cameron found “Washington grappling with a sort of new Crimean War…. My taxi-driver…said all he knew about Yalta was it was somewheres in Poland, but it was sure a sell-out, and just watch for the next one, that’s all.”

In more sober analyses, attention shifts back to Churchill’s “percentages agreement” with Stalin in October 1944 and to what Mastny calls the “crucial conferences” of autumn 1943: the meeting of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in Tehran and the Moscow meeting of foreign ministers that preceded it. On the military front, the debate over “Yalta” then revolves around Churchill’s Balkan ideas and the old military-political chestnuts: Vienna, Prague, Berlin…. But perhaps the conferences that were really crucial for the future shape of Central and Eastern Europe were those at which the future of Central and Eastern Europe was not discussed: above all, the Anglo-American strategic conferences of 1941–1943. Arguably, Poland was lost not at Yalta, Moscow, and Tehran but at Casablanca, London, and Washington. A few British and American military planners considered the wisdom of preempting the Russians in Central Europe. In a strange alliance, General Sikorski, the leader of the Polish government in exile in London, passionately argued Stalin’s case.

With hindsight, his logic is compelling. Only by doing what Stalin wanted—launching a second front in Western Europe in 1942–1943—could the Western allies prevent Stalin doing what he wanted—in Eastern Europe in 1944–1945. But Churchill and Roosevelt did not know then what we know now. The chances of failure were great. So was the almost certain cost in human life. The interests of Central and Eastern Europeans were never the first interest of the British and the Americans. Other priorities prevailed.

None of this is to suggest that Western diplomacy from Tehran to Potsdam (and beyond) was unimportant in determining the shape of the postwar world. That would be plainly absurd. But it is to suggest a slightly different hierarchy of causes. In this larger perspective, the “if” questions which have traditionally been central to these debates, the “ifs” from Tehran to Potsdam, are all, so to speak, lesser ifs. The greater ifs concern, first, the period from 1917, secondly, the 1930s, and thirdly, the period from 1941 to 1943. To explain a partition which has lasted for more than forty years one has to go back more than one year or two. Europe was not demolished in a day.


From the decisive victories of Soviet armies in 1943 to what Lord Thomas convincingly identifies as the decisive turn in American policy toward “cold war,” in February/March 1946, is, of course, still a long road—with lesser ifs at every turn. By leaving the “liberation” of East Central Europe to the Red Army, the West made the partition of Europe a near certainty.4 Given the nature of the Soviet system under Stalin, and the nature of the war which the Soviet Union had fought, it was always probable that this “liberation” would be nasty, brutish, and long. However, the available evidence does not suggest that Churchill and Roosevelt saw this clearly at the time. They certainly did not present it clearly to their colleagues, Parliament or Congress, or public opinion. Moreover, in their wartime conferences and correspondence with Stalin they never told him clearly, let alone consistently or in unison, what they hoped or feared, what the West could accept, and what it could not accept.

Roosevelt’s motives and behavior I am not qualified to assess. But three recent books, added to a mountain of already published work, tell us almost more than we want to know about Churchill’s attitudes and behavior toward Stalin, the Soviet Union, and East Central Europe. The latest volume of Martin Gilbert’s biography is full of it.5 Martin Kitchen has written a lucid, enjoyable book based on the wartime official papers at the Public Record Office, with the particular merit of showing us Churchill and Stalin through Foreign Office eyes. Fraser Harbutt’s rather portentous and overschematic monograph draws on a wide range of sources and has the virtue of concentrating on the transition from world war to cold war.

For a start, Churchill clearly had no understanding of the Soviet system. Not, of course, that he ever thought it liberal or humane. As Isaiah Berlin has written, he “always looked on the Russians as a formless, quasi-Asiatic mass beyond the walls of European civilization.” His rabid hostility to Bolshevism in the 1920s was based on the most superficial knowledge. Harbutt quotes a little of his vaporous guff about Lenin:

Implacable vengeance, rising from a frozen pity in a tranquil, sensible, matter-of-fact, good-humoured integument! His weapon logic; his mood opportunistic. His sympathies cold and wide as the Arctic Ocean; his hatreds tight as the hangman’s noose. His purpose to save the world: his method to blow it up…. [H]appy, his biographers assure us, to wash up the dishes or dandle the baby; as mildly amused to stalk a capercailzie as to butcher an Emperor.

In wartime, the metaphors were zoological: mainly crocodiles and bears. Even when Churchill thought they were getting on famously together, Stalin remained for him “the Bear”—the traditional nineteenth-century British image of Russia, as in Kipling’s “The Truce of the Bear.” However, he displayed no comprehension of the way this distinctly twentieth-century system worked, or the terms of Stalin’s personal supremacy within it. (The same might be said, incidentally, of Nazism, which Churchill habitually described with the essentially irrelevant First World War concept of “Prussian militarism.”)

To explain Stalin’s intransigence, for example, Churchill had frequent recourse to the idea that Stalin was under strong pressure from within his own government. In March 1943 he wrote to Eden that “there are two forces to be reckoned with in Russia: (a) Stalin himself, personally cordial to me. (b) Stalin in council, a grim thing behind him.” And in 1944, writing to Attlee, he quoted Horace: “Behind the horseman sits dull care.” Sometimes the grim councilors were thought to be civilian politicians. (An unconscious echo of his own experience with the Cabinet and the Commons?) At others, it was the generals who were pushing Stalin about. (In Stalin and his Generals Seweryn Bialer observes that “the Soviet generals feared Stalin more than they feared the Germans.”)

His overall assessments were wildly erratic. In early 1942 he drew Eden’s attention to “the deep-seated changes which have taken place in the character of the Russian State and Government.” Two years later it was: “Never forget that Bolsheviks are crocodiles.” But a few months after that, reflecting on a book that he had planned to write about “Europe since the Russian Revolution”: “Am I to bring up the horrors of the Russian Revolution? My whole outlook is changed…. Twenty Years’ Alliance with Russia.”

Of course he was not alone in this confusion. After all, even Russians felt something important might have changed. The idea of Stalin as a dove amid hawks was common in the West. Harry Truman thought Stalin had “a Politburo on his hands like the 80th congress.” And Martin Kitchen gives a fine sampling of the incredible farrago of British official advice on offer, from Fitzroy Maclean’s “we are solely concerned with the mental processes of a middle-aged Georgian brigand” to the reports of the Foreign Office Research Department (FORD) whose “undoubted star” was, according to Kitchen, “the young Marxist historian, Christopher Hill, who skilfully recycled Soviet propaganda into position papers acceptable to the Foreign Office.” (The FORD team gave credence to the Soviet version of the Katyn affair with the sublimely jesuitical argument that “the Soviet evidence is not conclusive in certain important respects. This fact tells against the accusation that the evidence was simply manufactured by the G. P. U.”) Kitchen has bitter fun with the pro-Soviet excesses of public, political, and intellectual opinion. Warmly commended to the Foreign Office for his “special understanding of Russian political matters” was one Guy Burgess—considered an “ideal man” for the post of press attaché at the British Embassy in Moscow.

Churchill’s particular faible was an exaggerated belief in the value of his personal relations with Stalin. “If only I could dine with Stalin once a week,” he told his dining club friends in January 1944, “there would be no trouble at all. We get on like a house on fire,” Given his matchless ability to charm, bamboozle, or canoodle most of his political associates, rivals, or even opponents in personal contact, perhaps this vain overconfidence is unsurprising. But his magician’s wand—the English language—lost most of its power through interpretation into Russian. This was one case, it seems, when he was more charmed against than charming. His personal assessments of Stalin also fluctuated wildly. But it is startling to find him writing in a private note to his wife from Moscow in October 1944:

I have had vy nice talks with the Old Bear. I like him the more I see him. Now they respect us here & I am sure they wish to work w us. I have to keep the President in constant touch and this is the delicate side.

And as late as April 1945—so Colville noted in his diary—one relatively friendly telegram from Stalin

quite fascinated him (he was not altogether sober to begin with) and…he talked of nothing else, first of all to Brendan [Bracken] for 1 1/2 hours and then to me for another 1 1/2. His vanity was astonishing and I am glad UJ does not know what effect a few kind words…might well have on our policy towards Russia.

In order to reach a personal understanding with the Bear Churchill spoke what he supposed was the language of the Bear: that is, the language of old-fashioned, immoral, undemocratic, cynical, even brutal “realism.” At those “vy nice talks” in Moscow in October 1944—just one week after the final crushing of the Warsaw rising—he began by remarking to Stalin that “as for General Bor [who had commanded the rising] the Germans were looking after him.” He had two leaders of the Polish government in London “tied up in an aircraft” ready to fly to Moscow if the Bear so desired.

A little later, as the original British minutes record, the Prime Minister

produced what he called a “naughty document” showing a list of Balkan countries and the proportion of interest in them of the Great Powers. He said that the Americans would be shocked if they saw how crudely he had put it. Marshal Stalin was a realist. He himself was not sentimental while Mr. Eden was a bad man. He had not consulted his Cabinet or Parliament.

Here was the famous “percentages agreement” giving “Russia” 90 percent in Romania, “Great Britain (in accord with the USA)” 90 percent in Greece, 50–50 in Yugoslavia and Hungary, and 75 percent “Russia” to 25 percent “the others” in Bulgaria. Stalin approved it with a tick from his blue pencil. Next day, Molotov and Eden haggled over the percentages.6

Churchill assured the War Cabinet that this was not an attempt “to set up a rigid system of more than spheres of influence” (my italics). In other words, it was a (flexible?) system of spheres of influence. Churchill seems personally to have conceived this agreement in traditional, nineteenth-century terms. Imperial Russia had vital interests in the Black Sea. Imperial Britain had vital interests in the Mediterranean. Greece for Romania was the crucial deal. When Churchill moved to crush what he called the “Trotskyists” in Greece he noted with careful approval the “aloofness” of Russia. Stalin, he said, was “playing the game.” When Stalin moved to establish a client government in Romania, Churchill urged British aloofness—although he now, in March 1945, added the argument that this would make it easier to keep Russia to her word over Poland.

It is, however, wrong, misleading, and anachronistic to say that the “percentages agreement” divided up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. For Churchill these were “the arrangements made about the Balkans” (with Hungary somewhat awkwardly included). The time scale was unclear. “Eastern Europe” did not yet exist. The agreement did not cover Poland or Czechoslovakia. He made a sharp and natural distinction between allies of Britain and former allies of Hitler—who he felt, to some extent, deserved what they got. Poland was different. Yet he hardly made this plain to Stalin. On the contrary, given the offhand, cynical, and domineering tone in which he referred to the Poles just days after the crushing of the Warsaw rising, it was hardly surprising that Stalin should conclude that even a rapid terroristic communist takeover in Poland need not destroy the alliance. Had not Churchill personally assured him that he, Churchill, was “not sentimental”? Had he not acted without consulting his Cabinet or Parliament? Of course there would be whining from the West. Let the Hungarian communists go slow, to placate Western fears. Of course Churchill would make angry speeches in parliament. Well, Stalin could make angry speeches to the Supreme Soviet. But—as he told his Polish communists—“serious politicians should ignore parliamentary gobbledygook.”

Oh no they shouldn’t. In Tehran and Moscow, Churchill gave Stalin a false picture even of his own attitudes, let alone of the overall attitudes, principles, and internal dynamics of the democratic “West” with which Stalin would have to deal after 1945. To be sure, Poland and Czechoslovakia were faraway countries of which he knew little. But unlike Russia, they were at least inside the walls of European civilization. In Fulton, Missouri in March 1946 he talked of “all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe, Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia.” Poles and Czechs were European human beings (not bears or crocodiles), but marginal, remote, troublesome, peculiar Europeans with unpronounceable names. Benes he called “Beans.” Sosnkowski, the Polish commander-in-chief in London, was “sozzle-something.”

Good old Beans and the Czechs were doing the sensible thing by making their own peace with Stalin. The sozzle-somethings, by contrast, were being unbelievably bloody-minded, pigheaded, and shortsighted by insisting on their prewar eastern territories. (It was perhaps the Poles’ misfortune that Marlborough fought no campaigns in those eastern marches. Churchill might then have felt differently about the issue.) Yet with his sweep of imaginative sympathy he could but be moved by the horrors of Polish suffering under Nazi occupation—of which he spoke eloquently in one of his superb BBC broadcasts—and the heroism of Polish resistance. Britain had gone to war over Poland; Polish forces had fought bravely in the Battle of Britain and in Italy; he genuinely felt a debt of honor.

By 1943 he was personally convinced that the Poles should give up the lands east of the Curzon line (being compensated to some extent in the West), in return for sovereignty and internal freedom. “Independence—yes, territorial integrity—no!” as he bluntly told Polish leaders in London in early 1944. The main reason he did not unilaterally press ahead with recognition of the new western frontier of the Soviet Union was fear of the domestic political repercussions for Roosevelt in the United States, and for himself in the House of Commons. (It “would split H of C,” he minuted to Eden in October 1943). Poland, he thought, should emerge from the war as a medium to small-sized Central European state, preferably in some sort of confederation with Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Within these reduced territorial confines, however, she should be “mistress in her own house and captain of her own soul.” This was his prescription for Poland.

Yet the essential point is that Churchill rarely thought about Poland as Poland, or, indeed, about the rest of East Central Europe as a region in and for itself. This part of the world was low on his list of priorities, and featured in his thinking mainly as a means, or an obstacle, to other ends. It was a sideshow—which obstinately kept thrusting itself center-stage.

His great strategic priorities were, first, to win the war against Hitler, and, secondly, to do this while preserving as much as possible of British national and imperial power, whose inner decay he saw so clearly and denied so valiantly. Primary British interests did include, in his very traditional view, a protective eastern Mediterranean/Middle Eastern carapace running from Greece through Turkey to Persia. They also included a “balance of power” on the Continent. Of the need for the latter he was always conscious—“I do not want to be left alone in Europe with the Bear,” he told the editor of The Times in March 1943. Unlike Roosevelt, he was therefore constant in his advocacy of a restored, strong France, despite his frequent exasperation with De Gaulle—who was, in sheer stubborn reality-defying arrogance, a match for twenty sozzle-somethings.7 And the reacceptance of France as a great power—with a seat in the Allied Control Commission for Germany—was perhaps his one major achievement at Yalta, little though De Gaulle would thank him for it.

To keep the Soviet Union fighting with all its might was essential for his first great strategic goal. In this respect, he had a strong sense of weakness and obligation, particularly at Tehran in 1943, when the cross-Channel second front had not been opened and his own favored Italian campaign was so bogged down that Hitler had been able to transfer several divisions back to the eastern front. To achieve the second goal, some kind of modus vivendi with the Soviet Union seemed scarcely less important. If a modus vivendi with Stalin’s Russia could not be reached because Russia would turn out to be “a new Nazi Germany ideologically inverted”—as Churchill put it in a February 1944 memo—then this would mean the rehabilitation of a “chastised Germany” to join France in preserving the continental balance of power, which is precisely what British military planners began to anticipate toward the end of the war.

Understandably, Churchill did not warm to that prospect. For him, French military power was to be restored mainly for the task of “holding down Germany.” And anyway, how could he then possibly defend British interests in the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle and Far East, against an expansionist Soviet Union? Too awful to contemplate. Poland was the largest single obstacle to this putative modus vivendi. From Churchill’s embattled point of view there just had to be a compromise which could plausibly be said to satisfy both Polish and Soviet interests. With scant previous knowledge of the region, no understanding of the Soviet system, an erratic flow of information and analysis, and a deal of desperate wishful thinking, he half fooled himself—until Yalta, and just a little thereafter.

The closest imaginable cooperation with the United States was, in his view, essential to achieve both his great goals. Unlike the alliance with Russia, this “fraternal association” came close to being an end in itself. At one point in early 1944 he thought the Polish question might be a means to this end. “Every effort must be made to reach complete understanding with the United States,” he wrote to Eden, “and Poland is an extremely good hook” (my italics).

But the Rooseveltian fish was not to be caught with any East European bait. At Tehran, while confiding in Stalin his problems with ethnic voters, Roosevelt had hardly given the impression that Eastern Europe was a prime concern. Indeed, he virtually put Stalin up to the legitimating device of a plebiscite in the Baltic states.8 At Yalta he too had other priorities: the UN, the war in the Pacific, a swift and orderly occupation of Germany allowing American troops to come home. Churchill—and this is the element of truth in British Yalta mythology—was essentially left to fight the verbal rearguard action over Poland on his own. The result was a monumental fudge, both in the concluding communiqué section on Poland and in the grandiloquent Declaration on Liberated Europe—a small anthology of terminological inexactitude.

Returning to London, he told the House of Commons: “I know of no Government which stands to its obligations, even in its own despite, more solidly than the Russian Soviet Government.” Of “Stalin and the Soviet leaders” he said: “Their word is their bond.” (“I felt bound to proclaim my confidence in Soviet good faith,” he defensively comments in the memoirs, “in the hope of procuring it.”) Over a drink in the Commons smoking room he peddled the same view, inspiring Harold Nicolson to inform the House that Stalin was “about the most reliable man in Europe.” Yet the Conservative benches also produced several critical and agonized speeches—notably from Lord Dunglass (later Sir Alec Douglas-Home).

Gilbert shows us how desperately uneasy Churchill himself was. “I have not the slightest intention of being cheated over Poland,” he told Jock Colville, “not even if we go to the verge of war with Russia.” As further news of mass arrests and deportations came flooding in, and as the Russians declined to implement even the agreed, minimal, face-saving compromises over the composition of the “new” Polish government and Western diplomatic representation in Poland, Churchill’s own doubts and anger grew, and he felt the doubts and anger growing around him in Parliament. The word “appeasement,” which Churchill himself had used about British dealings with the Soviet Union over Poland as far back as March 1944, was now in the air.

In a long telegram to Roosevelt on March 8, Churchill wrote of “the liquidations and deportations [in Poland]…and all the rest of the game of setting up a totalitarian regime…. If we do not get things right now, it will soon be seen by the world that you and I by putting our signatures to the Crimea settlement have under-written a fraudulent prospectus.” As indeed they had. Poland, he went on, was “the test case between us and the Russians of the meaning which is to be attached to such terms as Democracy, Sovereignty, Independence, Representative Government and free and unfettered elections.” But how on earth could he or Roosevelt ever have imagined that they and Stalin attached compatible meanings to those terms? Churchill now wanted a showdown over Poland. Roosevelt and the State Department preferred a more emollient approach (suggesting the not very realistic idea of a “general political truce” in Poland), but the wording of identical British and American démarches was agreed within a fortnight.

Then, on April 29, Churchill sent off one of his noble, sweeping, personal appeals to Moscow, concluding: “Do not, I beg you, my friend Stalin, under-rate the divergencies which are opening up about matters which you may think are small to us but which are symbolic of the way the English-speaking democracies look at life.” But how much had Churchill himself done at Tehran and Moscow to convince Stalin that this was indeed how English-speaking democracies look at life? Had he not rather given the distinct impression that this was merely how English-speaking democracies pretended to look at life? “Parliamentary gobbledygook,” not serious politics.

We shall have to wait for Gilbert’s next volume to follow in precise chronological detail the evolution of Churchill’s attitudes and behavior toward Stalin, the Soviet Union, and East Central Europe after May 1945. But the rough outlines are clear, and Harbutt gives us a provocative sketch-map. The record of the Potsdam conference shows Churchill still trying at least occasional, verbal “appeasement” of Stalin, although without much conviction. At one point he says that the establishment of the new government in Poland is “a splendid example of the collaboration of the great powers.” Out of office after the election, Churchill saw some of his worst fears being realized. All around was evidence of the decline in British wealth and power. The Soviet Union was not merely imposing its own type of domination over Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. That alone might just have been tolerable—and after all, things were not yet so crystal clear in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. But now the Soviet Union started to probe and challenge what Churchill did see as primary British interests, above all in Turkey and Persia. Definitely, Stalin was no longer “playing the game.”

Worse still, at this very moment the “fraternal association” with the United States seemed to be fading. Lend-lease had been abruptly terminated. Washington gave the impression that it might yet find its own separate modus vivendi with Moscow. “Between the Soviet Union and the United States,” Charles Bohlen could declare in October 1945, “there is no material concrete dispute of any character.” Washington showed no inclination to pull any British irons out of the fire. With revisionist overstatement, Harbutt characterizes this period as one of “Anglo-Soviet Cold War, United States–Soviet Rapprochement.” It is a commonplace to observe that what Churchill grandiloquently called the “Grand Alliance” was held together only by the common enemy. (As Harbutt notes, the preferred Soviet phraseology—“anti-Hitler coalition”—is more apposite.) But to a lesser degree that was also true of the Anglo-American alliance or “special relationship.”9 How then was the “special relationship” to be reforged? Why, by identifying a new common enemy. Only in war was the relationship sure to be special. If not in hot war then in cold war. In his speech at Fulton, Missouri, Churchill pulled off the trick. This time he did catch the fish. Once again Britain managed, in Harbutt’s phrase, “to entice the United States across the Atlantic.” America took up the white man’s burden.

Harbutt overstates his case for Churchill’s personal impact on American policy, and therefore understates some of the obvious factors more traditionally adduced in American historiography of cold war origins. Truman, Byrnes, and Marshall did not take up the defense of some traditional British interests because Churchill asked them to. They did so because they thought some of those interests had become American interests. Soviet behavior was not merely a pretext. It was a cause. They did not need Winston Churchill to tell them about that behavior. They had George Kennan. But Harbutt does usefully remind us how Churchill, by combining in his Fulton speech the two great themes of the “special relationship” and the cold war, plucked a kind of victory out of what had looked awfully like defeat. It also seems fair to observe that even in this speech, which has gone down in history for the phrase “the iron curtain,” the fate of the hundred million Europeans who actually found themselves behind the iron curtain remained, for the speaker, but a secondary concern.


The record of Churchill’s relationship with Stalin, the Soviet Union, and East Central Europe from 1943 to 1946 is thus a checkered one. The greater “ifs,” I repeat, lie before this period. One of the greatest lies in the fundamental Anglo-American strategic decisions of 1941–1943, which Churchill influenced more than any other single person. He pushed those decisions in the direction he did for reasons that had very little to do with any vision of the place of East Central Europe in the world, but a great deal to do with a vision of the place of Britain and the Empire in the world. After Kursk, and in the absence of a cross-Channel second front until 1944, the Soviet Union was almost certain to dominate large areas of Europe west of the “Molotov-Ribbentrop” or “Curzon” line. To say that the eastern front became the iron curtain is, of course, too simple. The exact line of partition was the result of political decisions made by all three Allies in the anti-Hitler coalition—although those decisions, in turn, are incomprehensible without a full appreciation of the great disparity in numbers and deployment of Soviet as against Western forces, and the incomparably greater ease with which Soviet commanders could and did demand much higher sacrifices from their fighting men. Churchill was pursuing with dwindling resources a grand agenda on which control of East Central Europe stood very low. Stalin was pursuing with growing resources an agenda on which control of East Central Europe stood very high.

In surveying the long catalog of lesser “ifs,” moreover, one must be careful to look fairly at both sides of every case. If one questions Churchill’s handling of the Polish question then one must also ask whether the Polish leaders would not, in fact, have been wiser in early 1944 to adopt the position Churchill urged upon them: yielding on the frontiers (agonizing as that would have been, especially since most of their army came from the eastern territories) and instead devoting all their energies to securing the greatest possible measure of sovereignty and internal freedom inside the new territory. If one criticizes the spirit and terms of the “percentages agreement” then one must also ask whether Greece would today be a free country, had Stalin not then remained “aloof” from the Greek comrades’ struggle.

Yet when “the other hand” has done its utmost, one is still bound to conclude that Churchill’s dealings with Stalin over Eastern Europe constitute some of the weakest and shabbiest passages in a great life story. There can be few sights more depressing than that of a democratic statesman using the language of brutal and cynical “realism” to justify a policy which is not even realistic. This was Churchill’s case: for he was unrealistic about Stalin personally, and about the system of which Stalin was both creature and controller.10 For a long time, for far too long, he closed his eyes to such glimpses of reality as he was offered, partly because the alternative was so awful to contemplate: for Britain and for the Empire, for the immediate conduct of the war, and for the postwar world. Just consider, for example, the long- as well as the short-term implications of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn. Consider for a moment what is the nature of a regime that issues such an order, and what the systematic killing might suggest about that regime’s future attitude to Poland. No! Too ghastly to consider. Sweep them back under the conifers.

It is, of course, impossible to prove that Churchill’s language and behavior led Stalin to do anything that he would not otherwise have done; or that Stalin would have acted otherwise if Churchill had spoken and acted differently. Yet the little evidence we have does suggest that Stalin was encouraged to press forward with Sovietizing Romania and Bulgaria by Churchill’s “spheres of influence” dealing, and with Sovietizing Poland by Churchill’s seeming indifference and readiness to accept minimal face-saving compromises. The evidence also suggests that he was led to underestimate the forces of parliamentary and public revulsion latent in both English-speaking democracies; and, more generally and speculatively, that the overall impression of “softness” given by the weakness, inconstancy, and disunity of Anglo-American diplomacy encouraged him to press forward beyond the “iron curtain” in the ways which ultimately provoked the American reaction of February/March 1946 and what would subsequently be called the Cold War.

In Churchill’s case the period immediately after Yalta does seem to have been a turning point in his personal trajectory from the “detente” of Tehran to the “cold war” of Fulton. In most subsequent political discussions of these issues Yalta has been treated as the most important conference of the war. Diplomats and diplomatic historians have argued, by contrast, that Yalta was the least important conference of the war. In truth it was both. It was the least important conference because, as Charles Bohlen later observed, “the map of Europe would look very much the same if there had never been a Yalta conference at all.” It was the most important conference because it was here that “the West” came the closest it has ever come to publicly joining hands with the Soviet Union in a ceremonious blessing of that partition of Europe which, in itself, was the already almost foregone conclusion of the way in which the war had been fought. The West did not perform the crime, but here if anywhere it became an accomplice. Soviet deeds were the injury; Western words the added insult. And the words did matter.

The peoples of “liberated” East Central Europe were not merely to be compelled to abandon their hopes of Democracy, Sovereignty, Independence, Representative Government—to use Churchill’s own list. No, in accordance with the solemn terms of the Declaration on Liberated Europe they were to be compelled to abandon their hopes of Democracy in the name of Democracy; to lose Sovereignty and Independence in the name of Sovereignty and Independence; to see a mockery made of Representative Government in the name of Representative Government.

Churchill himself recognized within a very few weeks after Yalta that the language of this “fraudulent prospectus” was a useless weapon in the hands of the West. In fact, as Stalin doubtless understood, it was a powerful weapon added to the Soviet political armory. This is why the Soviet Union has ever since constantly referred to “Yalta” to legitimate its domination over East Central Europe.11 And this is why the name of the least important of the wartime conferences still stands in the mind of most East Central Europeans as the central symbolic code word for their historical predicament. It is an apt one too, because the kind of turning-inside-out of the most vital, hallowed concepts and ideals of the Western political tradition which occurred in the Soviet application of the Declaration on Liberated Europe—the pursuit of subjugation as liberation, repression as emancipation; war as peace—is the feature that most sharply distinguishes Soviet imperialism from that old-fashioned imperialism of “the Bear” with which Churchill wrongly imagined he had to deal.

There is much, very much, that can be said in explanation—even in exculpation—of Churchill’s part in these gloomy affairs. In the light of his personal history, his priorities, the predicament of a waning great power between two waxing superpowers and the terrible choices which such a war inevitably forces on the leader of a democracy—in the light of all this his conduct is understandable, all too understandable. The critical case may best be summed up in two quotations from the time. The first comes from Churchill himself, just a few weeks after Yalta: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.” The second comes from a British diplomat, Owen O’Malley, who concluded his protest against Britain’s deliberate blindness to Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre with a sentence from Headlam Morley: “What in international affairs is morally indefensible generally turns out in the long run to have been politically inept.” A truth still far from universally acknowledged.

This Issue

June 11, 1987