BY DAVID BOLER
20TH INTERNATIONAL CHURCHILL CONFERENCE PREVIEW: WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 5TH-8TH
“Summitry and The Special Relationship” is the theme of the 20th International Churchill Conference in Bermuda. There could be no more exciting or relevant location: half a century ago here, President Eisenhower, Prime Minister Churchill and Prime Minister Laniel of France met in the first postwar “summit” to discuss weighty issues of peace and war.
In January 1953, with the Cold War increasing in intensity, Dwight Eisenhower took the oath of office as President of the United States. Two months later Stalin died, and new, unknown leaders took control of the Kremlin, just as the Soviets successfully tested their first hydrogen bomb. An uneasy truce divided Korea, with Communist China on one side and United Nations forces on the other. In Germany, inadequate in numbers, American, British and French soldiers faced overwhelmingly powerful Soviet armies across the Elbe. In the Middle East the nascent state of Israel was surrounded by hostile, aggressive Arab nations bent on its destruction, while the Egyptians exerted increasing pressure to force the stretched British contingent from the Suez Canal zone. In the Far East, French appeals to America for help against Communist insurgents in Indo-China fell on deaf ears.
It was against this sombre background that Churchill persuaded Eisenhower to meet in Bermuda. The Americans requested French attendance, to which Churchill rather poutingly acquiesced. French politics was in its traditional chaos, and there was considerable doubt about whom the French would send. The French Premier du jour turned out to be Joseph Laniel.
Churchill and foreign secretary Anthony Eden flew to Bermuda on December 1st. Despite the gravity of world affairs, Churchill approached the journey with his usual alacrity, and immersed himself during the flight in an interesting choice of reading matter: C.S. Forester’s Death to the French.
Met at Kindley Airport by a guard of honour of Royal Welch Fusiliers, complete with their famous mascot in the form of a white goat, Churchill telegraphed his wife: “Excellent journey. All well. Goat splendid. Love. W.”
Taking no questions, Churchill and Eden went immediately to the Mid Ocean Club to await the arrival of Eisenhower and Laniel. In all, they spent ten days on the island, four at the conference itself. At the first joint plenary meeting on December 4th, Churchill proposed “a double dealing policy of strength towards the Soviet Union combined with holding out the hand of friendship,” and requested a resumption of the full wartime cooperation between the United States and Great Britain.
Nuclear weapons and the threat of war dominated the proceedings. Eisenhower’s suggestion that, in the event of China breaking the Korean ceasefire, the U.S. would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons greatly alarmed Churchill and Eden. Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Colville, wrote in his diary: “Whereas Winston looked on the atomic weapon as something entirely new and terrible, Eisenhower looked upon it as just the latest improvement in conventional weapons….Ike said there was in fact no distinction between ‘conventional’ and atomic weapons, which in due course become conventional weapons.”
As the Conference progressed, the other main talking point was the need to persuade France to accept a German military contingent as an integral part of the defence of Western Europe; as Churchill said to the people of Germany: “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Churchill and Eden unsuccessfully asked the Americans to agree to participate with Britain in the defence of the Suez Canal. This was, as it proved, the most unfortunate failure of the Bermuda conference, since it led to the debacle that would see the United States side with the Soviets in opposing (and in due course ending), the Anglo-French invasion of Suez after it had been nationalized by Egyptian leader Gamal Nasser.
The Bermuda Summit, a blip in the history of international affairs, was more a model than an accomplishment. Churchill’s idea of plenary sessions between top leaders, which had worked reasonably well in the war, was no longer in vogue; yet Churchill thought it was the key to the vexed problems of the Cold War. Sir Martin Gilbert wrote: “At Bermuda, Churchill tried to build a path to the Summit which, as he had envisaged it, would also have been a path to world peace.”
Yet Bermuda was the first postwar summit conference between the leaders of the two great English-speaking nations, a practice that continues to this day. Its legacy is illustrated by the fact that the first world leader to visit the President of the United States after September 11th, 2001 was the British Prime Minister.
Five years ago The Churchill Centre named Bermuda as the site of its the 2003 conference. An outstanding programme has now been planned. Speakers and guests include our patron, Lady Soames; Sir Martin Gilbert; Bermuda Governor Sir John Vereker; Bermuda Premier Jennifer F. Smith; Warren Kimball, editor of the Roosevelt-Churchill Correspondence; John Ramsden, author of the new Churchill: Man of the Century, David Reynolds of the University of Cambridge; William Roger Louis of the University of Texas.
The book discussion this year, suitably enough, will be Churchill’s The Grand Alliance. The Churchill Archives Centre will have a large display of relevant documents. We are sponsoring a high school seniors program on the Bermuda Summit, culminating in an essay contest. The top fifty essayists will attend the Government House tea; the winner will be introduced and will receive a summer scholarship to Experience Europe in England.
Events include a Board of Governors reception; book launches for Curt Zoller’s Annotated Bibliography of Works about Sir Winston Churchill and James Muller’s new edition of Churchill’s The River War, sessions on wartime and postwar summits; discussions of the “special relationship” from Churchill’s time to the present; tea at Government House in front of the tree planted by Churchill; lunch at the Mid Ocean Club where the Bermuda summit was held; and a walking tour of historic Hamilton.
In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Bermuda Summit and the 20th International Churchill Conference, the Bermuda Post Office will use a special franking during the month of November which reads, “The Churchill Centre Commemorates 50th Anniversary 1953 Bermuda Summit.”
The Fairmont Hamilton Princess, a favourite of Mark Twain’s and the former headquarters of wartime Bermuda’s censorship operations, is located in the middle of Hamilton, Bermuda’s beautiful capital. Built in 1884 this ‘Grand Dame’ was inspired by Princess Louise, a daughter of Queen Victoria, after a royal visit to the island. Duty free shopping is less than a block away. Ferry service to other interesting and historic locations on the island is available at the hotel’s dock.
Activities in Bermuda include golf, an aquarium, glass bottom boat tours, Crystal Caves, botanical gardens, nature preserves, a perfumery, Fort St. Catherine, the historic and quaint Town of St. George, and the Royal Naval Dockyard historic harbor and shops. Many airlines have flights to Bermuda. Check here for connecting flights in and out of Bermuda from the U.S., Canada and London. Taxis to the hotel are $20. U.S. currency is accepted everywhere on the island. Tipping is 15%. November weather averages 70 degrees and is after hurricane season. Coats and ties are worn evenings in Bermuda’s restaurants; “Bermuda shorts” are usually not worn after November 1st.
The conference fees will be very reasonable. You are responsible for booking your own hotel rooms. For reservations, call the Fairmont Hamilton Princess, (441) 295-3000, fax (411) 295-1914. Or call the Fairmont Hotels general toll-free reservations number: (800) 866-5577. Ask for the Churchill Conference rate. Watch our website for postings of all further details. Registration forms will be posted on the website and will be posted in late June. For further information, contact Judy Kambestad, (714) 838-4741.
Mr. Boler is a former chairman of the International Churchill Society UK and chaired the 1996 International Churchill Conference. With Randy Barber he is co-chairing the 2003 International Conference.
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