Endless Churchill

December 1, 2002 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: SpiesSuez Crisis

Endless Churchill

Mini Teaser: Churchill remains a figure of fascination, especially for Americans. Five new books should sate our appetites for awhile.

by Author(s): Harvey Sicherman

Larres is persuasive on this and other themes. His book (though thickly invested with archival research and not the easiest read) corrects the idea that after World War II Churchill had somehow levitated into an international statesman whose gaze ranged far beyond his own country's interests. Not so: his gaze, no matter how far-reaching, was firmly linked to Britain's destiny. Churchill's problem, the same one that bedeviled him after 1943 when the American war effort surpassed Britain's, could be called "relative weakness." By any measure, postwar Britain was a powerful state; but it was no longer the pivotal state whose power, if moved this way or that, would be decisive. The outcome of World War II was Europe in eclipse, Soviet Russia on the move, and America, well, Roosevelt had said the Americans would leave within two years. Churchill thus saw Britain, and by extension Europe, in danger of Soviet expansion. For the longer term, the Great Powers might "tear themselves to pieces" through an eventual clash between the Americans and the Russians made all the more ominous by the development of nuclear weapons.

While recognizing Britain's relative weakness, Churchill thought his country still held unique advantages. British foreign policy operated in three circles: empire/commonwealth; special relationship with America; and continental Europe. Britain-and Churchill, himself unique-were therefore specially fitted to influence events. And so he did, even when out of power between 1945 and 1951. Churchill's themes were "Iron Curtain", English-speaking peoples, and a United Europe. In Truman's presence he warned in 1946 that only a revived Anglo-American combination could thwart Soviet ambitions already evident behind the "Iron Curtain." Almost simultaneously he renewed his patronage of European unity to be built upon what he called an "astonishing" idea: the integration of France and Germany. Thus, Britain's role would be to nurture the new European grouping that would fill the vacuum created by the war's devastation and (thus) block the communist advance. Britain would also work to bind America to the defense of Europe. Yet, it was never Churchill's intention that his country should become either an indistinct appendage of the United States or merely a middle-size European power.

After becoming prime minister once again in 1951, the aging statesman concluded that Britain needed above all a period of peace and recuperation. This made him a "wet" in domestic politics; no Thatcher or Reagan, Churchill (like Eisenhower) secured much of the welfare state bequeathed by his predecessors, guaranteeing a social peace especially important in class-divided Britain. But this cost money, and the country's financial troubles were a constant burden. The need to develop new weapons, the costs of sustaining new commitments (the British Army of the Rhine) and old ones, such as the Suez base, the Korean War, rearmament-all these pressures bore down on an England just freeing itself of rationing.

After a year's effort, the economy began to expand, and Churchill could then focus on matters of state. An intensified Cold War could only reinforce Britain's weakness and Europe's eclipse-and further strain Britain's finances. So Churchill proposed a repeat of the wartime formula. The "Big Three" (in reality, two and a half) should explore the points dividing them. A first summit among the leaders ("jaw-jaw is better than war-war") would dispel the blinding fog of suspicion and look for common ground; later meetings at different expert levels would secure agreement in detail. This would in no way disarm the West. Rather, in Churchill's phrase, "we rearm to parley." Essentially, he wished to do in the 1950s what the democracies had failed to do in the 1930s: confront a would-be aggressor from a position of strength and use that strength to sustain a tension-easing diplomacy.

Such an approach was adopted eventually by all American administrations (including Reagan's), and it was reinforced by another Churchillian concept, "the balance of terror." But from 1951 to the end of Churchill's term in office it had few takers. Larres' narrative explains how the old man persisted against a Foreign Office he loathed (they loathed him, too); an uncomprehending or slow-moving Washington; Adenauer's resistance; French disorder; and a largely concealed post-Stalin succession struggle in Moscow. Age and illness also caught up to Churchill, weakening his hand at critical moments. Ultimately, he ran out of time.

Larres' conclusion, that in 1953 Churchill was willing to trade a united but neutral Germany for a "general settlement" of the Cold War, is arguable. Churchill's European policy was to bind the Germans to the West in every way possible, including rearmament through nato, a position he reaffirmed in 1954. His reason for not excluding neutralization at the outset of discussions about a summit may have been a ploy so as not to scare off the Russians. Perhaps Larres accepts too readily the Foreign Office view that Churchill was some kind of wrecker who did not realize his own contradictions.

Churchill retired very reluctantly on April 5, 1955, after a brilliant speech on nuclear arms still worth the read, predicting that "safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation."2 He had the grim satisfaction of seeing the Geneva Summit take place not long thereafter, although without him. The next year was grimmer still when, at Suez, Eden proved Churchill's fears that he was not up to the job. Anglo-American relations were sundered when Eisenhower committed the biggest blunder of the 1950s, sparing Gamel Abdel Nasser for another decade of troublemaking. Churchill lived long enough to see some of this damage repaired, but after a few years of honors and literary activity, he could only wait patiently for the inevitable, dying in 1965 in his ninetieth year on the same date as his father. His funeral, beautifully described in Lukacs' last chapter, ended an age.

Does the Churchill saga say anything to us today? Of course, a war against an evil tyrant always reminds us of Churchill. We can say with considerable assurance what he might have advised about the current crisis with Iraq. He would tell us that the country had been invented by the British after World War I and that he, as Colonial Secretary, had selected a Hashemite prince to rule it in payment of services rendered the Crown during the campaign against the Turks. If Iraq has not worked out, he would counsel, then reinvent it. And then with an airy puff on his cigar, he would urge us to do as he had done to protect the pipeline to Haifa: use the air force as the primary weapon. He would certainly have approved British support for the United States even if led by a Labour Prime Minister. Finally, with a sway of his hand over a map, Churchill would give the Kurds the autonomous region he thought they deserved eighty years ago. (As for the other Arabs, especially the Al-Saud, once on London's payroll, we need not explore Churchill's rather robust views here.)

Still, by Churchill's scale, Saddam is a third-rate bully and Iraq an ugly sideshow. He would have sought his own relevance in larger themes, one of which may be found in a neglected part of the Iron Curtain speech. Churchill had never been fond of the United Nations, a Rooseveltian contraption unworkable except in that rare event when the five veto-bearing powers agreed. Instead, he argued for regional alliances in concert with those powers possessing a broader reach. Surely this has been the lesson of the 1990s, which began with great ambitions for the United Nations and ended with U.S. and nato action on the ground, if there was to be action at all. These were the true "Sinews of Strength." If Churchill opposed a crippling multilateralism, he was nevertheless no great fan of fighting alone. As he once said, "When one has reached the summit of power . . . there is a danger of being convinced that one can do anything one likes." To which he would add, "The only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them."

Finally, Churchill's last bout of statesmanship, his ultimately futile effort to ease the Cold War from Britain's position of relative weakness, has its lesson for today's manifestly frustrated Europeans. As the old man would have put it, if you can't put the big divisions in the field then you had better try to settle the problem when it is still at the battalion level. As matters stand today, it is clear that the major European states will not assemble the big divisions by themselves; the European Union, that bureaucratic miasma, will not act swiftly to prevent a crisis. But, he would continue, if you will not change the situation, then there is no use complaining about your destiny being in the hands of others. Fifty years ago, Britain's problem was overstretch; today, Europe's problem is underreach. This can be changed. The potential is there; it is the will that is wanting. Churchill would know what to do.

Essay Types: Book Review