Churchill's Realism: Reflections on the Fulton Speech

Churchill's Realism: Reflections on the Fulton Speech

Mini Teaser: The speech is remembered today as a seminal pronouncement on behalf of the Atlantic solidarity and clearheaded realism. What is less remembered is that at the time the address brought down on Churchill a torrent of controversy.

by Author(s): Spencer Warren

Leading liberal newspapers and magazines also attacked Churchill for
relying on the old power politics, endangering the UN, and wrongly
blaming the Russians. Norman Cousins wrote in the Saturday Review
that "Russian unilateralism today is not the disease; it is a product
of the disease." The danger "is the centuries-old problem of
competitive national sovereignties. . .the race for security, each
nation deciding for itself what is necessary for its own security."
Proclaimed The New Republic: "Security is found in the hatred of all
peoples for war, and the demand of all peoples that all issues
between nations be resolved through the U.N.O. . . . .One standard
must be raised now. . .Stand by the Charter."

For their part, conservative critics were more agitated by
Churchill's proposal of a peacetime Anglo-American alliance than by
his attacks on Soviet policy. Senator Taft (R-Ohio) agreed with much
of Churchill's criticism of Russia, but opposed his proposed
solution, maintaining that "it would be very unfortunate for the U.S.
to enter into any military alliance with England, Russia, or any
other country in time of peace." Similarly, Senator Aiken (R-Vt.)
commented, "I'm not ready to enter a military alliance with anyone.
Britain, the United States and Russia should pull together to make
the United Nations work."

Others, like Walter Lippmann, expressed concern about placing the
United States in the position of backing British imperialism. He
favored Western rearmament, but in private regarded Churchill's call
for an alliance as "a direct incitement to a preventive war" and an
"almost catastrophic blunder." The British embassy in Washington
found in its mail that the main criticism was not Churchill's warning
against Soviet Russia, but his call for what was seen as American
support of British imperialism.

While support for Churchill came from the New York Times, the
Christian Science Monitor, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time, and from
columnists such as Ernest K. Lindley of Newsweek and George Fielding
Eliot of the New York Herald Tribune, the speech ignited so much
controversy that Newsweek described it as the "worst diplomatic storm
of the postwar period."

At a press conference three days after the speech was given,
President Truman refused to endorse it and wrongly denied that he
knew its contents in advance. Prime Minister Attlee refused to
comment on the speech in the House of Commons. When Churchill visited
New York for Churchill Day and a Broadway ticker tape parade on March
15, he was greeted by hundreds of protesters. Undersecretary of State
Dean Acheson abruptly bowed out as the U.S. representative at an
address Churchill was to give at the Waldorf Astoria--an address
which, in the event, was characteristically unrepentant.

A Philosophy of International Politics

Churchill's speech at Fulton was not something pulled together from
the headlines and opinion pages of the hour, but the product of
mature reflection and an impressive consistency of outlook dating
back to his youth. In 1897, at age twenty-two and serving with the
British Army in India, he wrote to his mother of his efforts to
"build up a scaffolding of logical and consistent views" to be
constructed of facts and "muscles", or principles. Nearly forty years
later, in 1936, in the midst of controversy about the Nazi danger, he

"Those who are possessed of a definite body of doctrine and of deeply
rooted convictions. . .will be in a much better position to deal with
the shifts and surprises of daily affairs than those who are merely
taking short views, and indulging their natural impulses as they are
evoked by what they read from day to day."

And near the end of his political career, in 1953, he maintained that:

"True wisdom is to cultivate a sense of proportion which may help one
to pick out the three or four things that govern all the rest and as
it were write one's own headlines and not change them very often."

Among the beliefs governing Churchill's outlook were that unchanging
human nature uneasily joins a lust for power with an impulse for
liberty; that superior power in the hands of civilized countries is
the best guarantee of peace and freedom; and that politics is a
natural, evolutionary process, best learned through careful attention
to history.

On human nature

Churchill was persuaded of man's inherent moral and intellectual
limitations, and skeptical of rationalistic utopian solutions to
age-old problems. Like Edmund Burke and others in the empirical
conservative tradition, he saw politics as an organic process in
which concrete facts and human nature--as embodied in custom,
tradition, and experience--counted for far more than man-made
theories, ideological constructions, and legalistic formulae.

Churchill's philosophy in this respect is illustrated by his
confidently repeated predictions of communism's failure. As early as
January 1920, he asserted that Bolshevism would fail in Russia
because it was "fundamentally opposed to the needs and dictates of
the human heart, and of human nature itself." He denounced it as a:

"[R]ule of men who in their insane vanity and conceit believe they
are entitled to give a government to apeople which the people loathe
and detest. . .the attempt to carry into practice those wild theories
can only be attended with universal confusion, corruption, disorder,
and civil war."

In 1931 he wrote that Bolshevism would never work because it was at
war with "intractable" human nature and would be unable to control
"the explosive variations of its phenomena." In the midst of the
Great Depression, when many in the West looked longingly at the
promise of rationalist central planning, Churchill wrote that not
only had communism "lost the distinction of individuals", it had "not
even made the nationalisation of life and industry pay. We have not
much to learn from them, except what to avoid."

Later, in January 1952, at the height of the Cold War, he told a
joint session of Congress, "I am by no means sure that China will
remain for generations in the Communist grip. The Chinese said of
themselves several thousand years ago: 'China is a sea that salts all
the waters that flow into it.'" Similarly, of the subjugated states
of Eastern Europe, Churchill predicted in February 1954:

"Time may find remedies that this generation cannot command. The
forces of the human spirit and of national character alive in those
countries cannot be speedily extinguished, even by large-scale
movements of populations and mass education of children."

Finally, in the 1957 epilogue to the one-volume edition of his World
War II memoirs, Churchill wrote that in Russia:

"[P]eople experience every day. . .those complications and
palliatives of human life that will render the schemes of Karl Marx
more out of date and smaller in relation to world problems than they
have ever been before. The natural forces are working with greater
freedom and greater opportunity to fertilise and vary the thoughts
and the power of individual men and women. They are far bigger and
more pliant in the vast structure of a mighty empire than could ever
have been conceived by Marx in his hovel."

Churchill's philosophy thus enabled him to foretell the collapse of
communism when it was at its zenith (and even at its birth), whereas
most academic specialists, with all their detailed study, failed even
to conceive of this as late as the mid-1980s.

On international organization

Churchill viewed the UN, as he had its predecessor, the League of
Nations, with skepticism, seeing each as a supplement to national
power, a means of organizing and legitimizing the collective power of
states, but not as an alternative to it. He differed sharply from
those who saw first the League and then the UN as ushering in a new
age of cooperation and harmony that would eliminate the requirements
of national power.

From the start, Churchill emphasized that the League did not alter
the traditional practices of power politics. Two weeks after the end
of the First World War, in November 1918, he told his Dundee
constituents that he was all for the League but that it was "no
substitute for the supremacy of the British Fleet." As chancellor of
the exchequer, in December 1924 he told the Committee of Imperial
Defence that he "had never considered that the League of Nations...
was in a position to preserve peace", something that "could only be
obtained by the maintenance of good understandings between various
groups of Powers, possibly arrived at under the auspices of the

During the 1930s Churchill naturally turned to the League, and those
of its supporters who favored rearmament, as allies in his resistance
to Hitler. He began to speak more strongly in favor of the world
body, stressing that with force behind it, the League could buttress
national power. Contrarily, many League supporters, including most of
the Labour Party, saw the League's multilateralism as a substitute
for force and national strength, and opposed rearmament.

Essentially, Churchill saw the League as a kind of twentieth-century
Concert of Europe. He viewed the crises of the 1930s through the
prism of the power balance, advocating collective security insofar as
it advanced British security, not as an abstract principle. Thus, in
the Abyssinian crisis of 1935-6, he favored League sanctions against
Italy as a means of strengthening the League against Hitler, but he
had misgivings about alienating Mussolini, who at the time was not
yet in Hitler's camp. Hitler, not Mussolini's African aggression, was
the danger.

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