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

There began a very disagreeable discussion, indeed the low point of Churchill’s four days in Moscow. Churchill suspected that his and Stalin’s amiable good-bye the previous evening was not the end of the matter. He warned Molotov at noon: “Stalin will make a great mistake to treat us roughly when we have come so far.” (Molotov: “I will tell him what you say.”) Did Churchill know the old Russian practice of bargaining, which was to impress or stun or shock the opposite side by stating the maximum Russian aims or demands soon after the beginning of the conference, and then negotiate some kind of compromise later? Certainly this session began with Stalin harsh and demanding. He produced a document, handing it to Churchill, who said that he would read, study and respond to it later. The memorandum employed a standard Soviet habit of stating things that were at least arguable with their habitual phrases of surety: “As is well known . . .” “It is known . . .” And so on. “It is easy to grasp that the refusal of the Government of Great Britain to create a Second Front in 1942 in Europe inflicts a mortal blow to the whole of Soviet public opinion.” The gist: “We are of the opinion therefore that it is particularly in 1942 that the creation of a Second Front in Europe is possible and should be effective. I was however unfortunately unsuccessful in convincing Mr. Prime Minister of Great Britain thereof.” Even while this was being translated, Churchill broke in to say that he would answer it in writing, but also that the British (and American) decisions had been taken, and that there was no use arguing about them now. This did not deter Stalin, who continued to insist that the making of a second front in western France was possible; that the British were going back on their earlier promises; and that they, unlike the Russians, were afraid to fight the Germans.

During these two hours Churchill gave as good as he got, which impressed the Russian, who proposed a dinner meeting the next night, August 14. Churchill said that he had planned to leave early in the morning on the fifteenth. Stalin was stunned by this, and proposed that the prime minister remain a day longer. Churchill said yes, but that there ought to be a real spirit of reciprocal understanding and of the appreciation of their mutual alliance by the Russians. Stalin now retreated somewhat, and they went on talking about some military details. Then Churchill began asking Stalin about the Caucasus, at that very moment already penetrated by German forces. Churchill knew that if the Germans broke the Russians in the Caucasus, there loomed the prospect of a German descent into the Near and the Middle East, with the direst of consequences. Stalin said that the Caucasus would be held. Thereupon, Churchill, assisted by Harriman, suggested that British and American air units could be ferried to Russia if needed, to south of the Caucasus but also to Siberia over Vladivostok. Then Stalin made one last sardonic remark: “Wars are not won with plans.” But when they left, Stalin put his arm out and gave Churchill a warm handshake.


THAT WAS another long day for the latter. Churchill had a long and good night’s sleep. Then he composed his answer to Stalin’s memorandum, and drafted other telegrams and letters, to the War Cabinet and to Roosevelt. He lunched with General Alan Brooke, the chief of the Imperial General Staff. He complained of a headache, but then he rested. He was taken to the official dinner in the Kremlin, at eight in the evening.

This was a ceremonious event including almost one hundred people. Churchill was seated at Stalin’s right. (Harriman at Stalin’s left.) Stalin was amiable, at times jovial. Their conversations were somewhat hampered; the English of Stalin’s interpreter, Vladimir Pavlov, was far from perfect (which was not so with the Russian of Churchill’s now-summoned translator, Major Arthur Birse). Among other matters, Stalin attempted to please Churchill with a recollection, true or not. He said that when many years before the playwright George Bernard Shaw and MP Lady Nancy Astor visited Moscow, the name of Churchill had come up. The latter had said that Churchill was “finished,” whereupon Stalin had said (or said that he had said) that in a great crisis, the English people might turn to Churchill again.2 Lady Astor had also said that the prime promoter of Allied intervention against the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war of 1918–21 was not then–Prime Minister David Lloyd George but Churchill. That was so, Churchill agreed. As the prime minister recounted in his memoirs, Stalin “smiled amicably, so I said, ‘Have you forgiven me?’ ‘Premier Stalin, he say,’ said Interpreter Pavlov, ‘all that is in the past, and the past belongs to God.’” That was one of many occasions when Stalin (the once-Orthodox seminarian and now supposedly atheist Communist) invoked God during the four days of talking with Churchill, who thought that remarkable.

That dinner stretched on and on. Churchill was tired but also angry. He was impatient with the endless sequence of toasts and what he thought was Stalin’s insufficient attention to him. It was now beyond one in the morning, with a film about to be shown. Abruptly Churchill got up and then marched down a long corridor with his staff toward the exit. Stalin unexpectedly clumped and trotted after them. Catching up with Churchill finally, they shook hands. (He also said that their differences were but disagreements about methods.)


THE NEXT day, Saturday the fifteenth, was taken up by long conferences between the Soviet and British military authorities. They were largely inconsequential, the Russians again complaining about an as-yet-nonexistent second front. The British were still worried about whether the Russians could hold on to the Caucasus. Churchill was a tad more confident about this than was Brooke. At seven he was driven to the Kremlin to say good-bye to Stalin. He brought up the Caucasus again. Stalin was reassuring. They talked for an hour or less. Churchill was about to leave; he would fly off very early the next morning. Suddenly Stalin moved close to Churchill and proposed that they repair to his home for drinks. Churchill assented. They went across the empty Kremlin courtyards to Stalin’s apartment. There appeared Stalin’s daughter, briefly; and then a substantial dinner, including a roasted suckling pig which, not at all briefly, Stalin enjoyed. They now stayed together for another six hours, talking about a great variety of things. These included Stalin’s account of how difficult (and inevitable) was the forcing of the Russian peasantry into collective farms. Churchill brought up Operation Jupiter, another second-front plan involving a British invasion, perhaps with Soviet support, of northernmost Norway (this was a pet plan of his for at least another two years, scotched by the chief of the Imperial General Staff and other military and naval authorities). Before Churchill departed they read and approved a joint communiqué. Churchill came back to his residence after three in the morning on Sunday, August 16. He was to be driven to the airport less than two hours later.

Then he slept in the plane for long hours, flying over the vast gray and green tracts and fields and steppes of central and eastern Russia. When he woke up they were almost beyond the Caspian Sea, soon beginning their descent to Tehran. There, refreshed on the cool residence of the British Legation, he wrote a cordial thank-you message to Stalin, and two long accounts, to Roosevelt and the War Cabinet. His four days and nights in Moscow now slipped into the past, which, at least in the words of Stalin, “belonged to God.”


EIGHT YEARS after his journey to Moscow, Churchill wrote its lengthy and fairly detailed story in his history of World War II. In his account of August 1942 he suggested that this was the crucial “summit”; perhaps the most important of his five encounters with Stalin during the war. We may gather this from the very extent he chose to devote to it: almost thirty pages and two chapters, longer than any other description of his wartime meetings, except for the three-man conferences in Tehran and Yalta. They are not contradicted by other sources, including the records of those who came with him to Moscow, by his leading wartime adviser Alexander Cadogan, General Brooke, Major Birse and Churchill’s personal physician, Lord Moran. It is telling to compare the two entries in the diaries of the reserved and skeptical Brooke, who on August 13, 1942, wrote that Churchill and Stalin “are poles apart as human beings. . . . [Churchill] appealed to sentiments in Stalin which I do not think exist there.” Yet he later wrote about the visit: “Looking back on it I feel that it fulfilled a very useful purpose, that of creating the beginnings of a strange understanding between Winston and Stalin.”

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