The Importance of Being Winston

The Importance of Being Winston

Mini Teaser: The British Bulldog's unique ability to win Stalin's respect and trust in August 1942 proved that great national leadership matters.

by Author(s): John Lukacs

IN AUGUST 1942, Churchill and Stalin met for the first time. That event was the least discussed and yet perhaps the most important among the many “summits” of the Second World War.

 The entire history of World War II proves the then-supreme importance of great national leaders and of their relationships. How contrary this is to the widely accepted and trusted idea: that history and politics and societies are governed by economic and “material factors,” that the primary importance of individual persons belongs (if it ever belonged) to earlier ages. The entire history of the Second World War denies this. Its course was set by Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Without Churchill: Hitler may have won. Without Roosevelt: Churchill may not have prevailed. Without Stalin: Churchill and Roosevelt may not have been capable of entirely conquering Hitler.

As the war dragged on, summit followed summit. From 1934 to 1944, Hitler and Mussolini met ten times, but none of their meetings was very consequential—mostly because after 1937 Hitler had the upper hand; Mussolini could not sway him. Churchill and Roosevelt had met first in 1918, neither of them heads of their governments then; Churchill forgot that encounter (this disappointed Roosevelt in 1940). They met twice in 1941, 1942 and 1943, and in 1944 once, almost always in the United States. They sat down together with Stalin two times (the so-called three-man conferences), in 1943 (Tehran) and in 1945 (Yalta). In July 1945, Stalin met Churchill and Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, in Potsdam.


THE EMPLOYMENT of the word “summit” to conferences of heads of state was probably Churchill’s choice. It had been, on occasion, applied to a monarch (in 1707 to Queen Anne of Great Britain). There were meetings and conferences of monarchs in the eighteenth, nineteenth, even in the twentieth centuries, and many such gatherings of their chancellors or prime ministers. One of these was the Munich “conference” in September 1938, with Hitler and Mussolini and Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier (the British and French prime ministers), a “summit” where important decisions were made (and of which Churchill disapproved, to say the least). Yet he was often in favor of personal meetings with other heads of government when he thought them useful. (In 1932, Hitler declined a chance to meet Churchill, who a few years later preferred not to meet Hitler.) Unlike in the case of that non-event, Churchill, by and large, trusted his ability to impress other important men. In such instances he was more often right than wrong. That is why his “summits” during the Second World War were important, sometimes dramatic and almost always consequential.

The most important of these meetings between Churchill and Roosevelt were those in June 1942 and January 1943, for these were the meetings that first delayed a second front in Europe (so desperately desired by Stalin), then allowed for an invasion of North Africa that increased the pressure on Germany. In 1942, Churchill was able to convince Roosevelt and the American military leaders that their plan for a landing in western France in November 1942 would be a disaster. In January 1943, he persuaded them that after eliminating all German (and Italian) forces from North Africa, the Western Allies should go on to invade Sicily and force Italy out of the war. That was the last time the British prime minister had his way with Roosevelt. For many reasons—military, financial, political—Roosevelt soon was in the position of power. Except for on minor issues, Churchill could no longer convince him and other Americans of his strategical ideas.

Other meetings of heads of state, innumerable nowadays, amounted and amount to largely ceremonial occasions, with agreements and documents signed there but prepared and agreed to before by respective experts. This was not quite so with Churchill. Of course he brought his experts and advisers with him; but it was he who mattered then and there. This was especially true of his meetings with Stalin. In 1942, as the Russians struggled with very great German forces and the Western Allies suffered stunning defeats, almost everything hinged on Churchill’s relations with the then-new Russian czar.

Churchill had his faults. But he could think far ahead: he was a visionary about many things. His understanding of history may have been even more profound than his insight into human nature—often the latter was not only inseparable from the former but a result of it. (With Hitler—and Stalin—the opposite seems to have been the case.) But then these two operative nouns may be interchangeable: his insight into history and his understanding of human nature. Both were high qualities of his mind. And—attempting to assuage Stalin—how he needed them in August 1942!


IN DECEMBER 1941, Churchill’s spirits had risen high. The prospect of World War II shone with new colors. The United States had—finally—entered the fray, and it was within the same week that a Russian army pushed back a German army a few miles before Moscow. At night on December 7, 1941, Churchill went to bed, relieved. He recalled this within his Memoirs of the Second World War. Britain would now live; the empire would live; Hitler would be conquered; the Japanese would be ground down to dust. Indeed, that was to happen. But it was not to be easy; and the prospects of the war would come to seem grim again.

Hitler knew that he could no longer win this world war through the lightning campaigns with which his armies conquered one part of Europe after another—and a large portion of the Russian empire. But he also knew that he was not bound to lose it. Now his entire strategy changed: from short wars to a long war, in which his Germany would prevail, strong enough so that the strange coalition of his enemy powers would sooner or later break apart. Well before that, his armed forces, victoriously, could advance further. And this was so. In the first months of 1942, his submarines disrupted the American and British avenue of the sea across the Atlantic (“A measureless peril,” as Churchill once put it). In North Africa, the British suffered defeats, and the German Desert Fox, General Erwin Rommel, came close to Alexandria and Cairo, gates of the entire Near and Middle East. In Russia, Hitler’s armies, unlike Napoléon’s 130 years before, defied the winter and then resumed their advance, now in the south, reaching the Volga River around Stalingrad and thrusting into the Caucasus.

Defeats, at times amounting to disgrace, clouded the British record and the outlook for the following year. Though America was now side-by-side with Britain, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor the two towering British battleships the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk by Japanese airplanes—all within a matter of three hours. Three weeks later, most of Britain’s imperial outposts in the Far East were given up. Another six weeks later, Singapore, the crown jewel of the empire in the region, surrendered to a Japanese army half the size of the British and Commonwealth forces there. In June, yet another British attempt to push Rommel back in Libya failed. Worse, immediately thereafter, the considerable military enclave of Tobruk, near Libya’s eastern border (and holding almost thirty thousand British and Allied troops), caved in, whereafter the German African army entered western Egypt. Even before that, Churchill’s wife, Clementine, said to Roosevelt’s messenger, Harry Hopkins: “We are indeed walking through the Valley of Humiliation.”

Her husband was well aware of that. At the news of Tobruk’s surrender he mumbled that defeat was one thing, disgrace another. Earlier that year he mused to confidants: it seemed that British soldiers during this war were not what British soldiers in World War I were. The problem was neither equipment nor direction, but morale. That appeared within England and the English as well. The British people’s resolute bravery of 1940, when they resisted the German air force’s repeated attacks on the United Kingdom, was no longer dominant: 1942 was not their Finest Hour. What still prevailed was their discipline, rather than their self-confidence. There was no need for public-opinion surveys to note this. It involved too the question of Churchill’s leadership. Criticisms of that appeared in the newspapers, here and there; and then even in Parliament. A motion for a vote of censure, of no confidence—not in his prime ministership but in his leadership as minister of defence—was brought up on July 1, soon after Churchill had returned from Washington. It was defeated by the large margin of 475 to 25.

Above all, acute in Churchill’s mind (but also in Roosevelt’s) was the question: Would Stalin stay in the war? Would Stalin keep on fighting Hitler, in spite of his dissatisfaction with his Anglo-American allies? Only three years before he had made a deal with Hitler. Would he attempt something like that again? He had had some reasons not to trust the Western powers in 1938 when France and Britain signed away part of Czechoslovakia to Germany. He had perhaps even weightier reasons now. More than two hundred Russian divisions were facing and fighting the Germans, while hardly more than six British divisions were skirmishing with a German expeditionary corps in Africa. Stalin also suspected (and rightly so) that now there would be no second front opening against the Germans in Western Europe, despite his repeated entreaties for Allied relief. Churchill knew that he had to tell Stalin that the Allies would not be coming to ease the pressure by landing in Europe soon. They would focus on the Mediterranean. There they would open up an easier route to the sea, and provide the Allies a front against Italy and the remainder of the Axis-held Continent. About his early proposition of an Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa in the fall of 1942 he wrote: “I am sure . . . that [this] is . . . the best chance for effecting relief to the Russian front in 1942.” He had to deliver the news in person. Churchill knew what that was to be like, “carrying a large lump of ice to the North Pole,” he said.

Image: Pullquote: The most important, nay, the decisive matter we can state about Churchill in Moscow, about Churchill and Stalin: it is impossible to imagine that any other British public figure could have appeared in Moscow and impressed Stalin as he did.Essay Types: Essay