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Wartime Questions to Postwar Answers: Riddles of War

Finest Hour 129, Winter 2005-06

Page 14

Wartime Questions to Postwar Answers: Riddles of War

By Christopher C. Harmon

Professor Harmon is a Churchill Centre academic adviser who for four years offered a course based on Churchill’s memoirs, The Second World War, at the Marines’ Command & Staff College, Quantico, Virginia. The author thanks Charles Robert Harmon, Professor Emeritus of History at Seattle University, for reviewing his draft manuscript.

THE WINSTONIAN IDEAL: Churchill did not believe that war could be used freely as raw power might permit. Justice concerned him…he did not confuse justice with winning. While he had a true sense for when the war would end, he went on to say that force would be required to preserve peace after the victory. Because he held such power in Britain, and in the Grand Alliance, his insight was a great asset for the coalition at war and the peace to come. Had he been badly wrong, it would have had equal but negative impact.

The 60th anniversaries of World War II’s final year have been flowing past us. We com-memorated the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, the crossing of the Rhine, the liberation of Berlin, and Victory in Europe Day on May 8th. As these milestones passed, we have been engrossed in Iraq. Combat operations carried the country and the capital more quickly than expected, yet the aftermath’s agonies seemed endless. Triumph and tragedy in Iraq sparked criticism of the alliance effort, but also much sober thinking about war termination.

Winston Churchill knew an immense amount about that arcane subject, war termination. The study of his policies and strategies of 1943-45 shows that he and his coalition government continuously planned for war’s end, and planned well. Moreover, published and unpublished records—hardly ever mined on this narrow matter—prove that Churchill had a remarkable sense for when the war in Europe would end. That was important, given his concurrent positions of Minister of Defence and Prime Minister.

Churchill’s Views

Sixty-five years of age and experienced at war, Winston Churchill already possessed views on war termination by 1939. There can be peace, but no peace too comfortable; one must keep dry powder close at hand; war recurs in human affairs.

But that military part of the human story is a tragedy, as he wrote to his wife Clementine in 1909, while in Germany observing maneuvers: “Much as war attracts me and fascinates my mind with its tremendous situations-I feel more deeply every year… what vile and wicked folly and barbarism it all is.” For Churchill, statesmen in peacetime have much to do with ameliorating hatreds and nipping conflicts in the bud.

Once engaged in war, however, Churchill often sounded like Clausewitz, calling for the maximum use of force. He could be ruthless. He used, advocated, or at least considered fearsome weapons: gas, area bombing, the atomic bomb. When he believed a war was just, his strategy was to break the enemy will and produce complete and decisive victory.

Yet Churchill did not believe that war could be used freely as a state policy tool, as raw power might permit. Justice concerned him deeply, and he did not confuse justice with winning. His views on peacemaking were not predictable, but complex. He was esteemed by the Irish Republican Army’s Michael Collins, who said that without Churchill as a Minister after World War I there would not have been the Irish-English treaty creating Home Rule for southern Ireland.

Justice has a counterpart: magnanimity. Churchill admired a Roman adage: “War down the strong; bear up the weak.” He advocated harsh war against Imperial Germany in 1914, but after victory he opposed popular demands to “squeeze Germany until the pips squeaked.” Generosity towards the weak or defeated helps distinguish man from the animals; it might create peace and prevent wars. The theme of his six volumes of World War II memoirs was actually drawn from a motto he had proposed to the French after World War I: “In war, resolution. In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnanimity. In peace, good will.

And Churchill was an advocate of collective security. He had supported the League of Nations between the wars and the United Nations afterward. Many other regional security alliances also won his endorsement.

Churchill’s “End State” for WW2

What does Churchill see, peering through the smoke of war towards the future? We may discern nine pillars of his postwar architecture: (1) The character of this war is a fight against unmitigated evil; it justifies and even demands total war by the Allies. (2) There must be complete surrender of the Axis powers. (3) The defeated will be punished and disarmed, while the victors remain armed. (4) The victorious powers seek no new territories. (5) Postwar relations between states will be guided by a spirit of equality and non-aggression. (6) Occupied Europe will be reborn in democratic forms, including constitutional monarchies, parliaments, congresses, or other legitimate representative institutions. There is no room for totalitarianism. (7) Europe must reunite; France and Germany must be friends—even military partners. (8) Britain would retain a leading postwar role with Commonwealth and Empire, and a special relationship with the Americans. (9) There would be a new world body, a security system, with the idealism of the League of Nations but without its faults. It would not destroy state sovereignty, but it would keep the peace between sovereign states. The three key members would be the UK, USSR and USA.


As early as 1942 came public Allied statements ordaining punishment of Axis war criminals. Initial concern was on breaches of international agreements against aggression. Soon enough, officials added related subjects: mass murder of prisoners of war and genocide. Citizens still ask, of the Holocaust, “Did the Allies know?”

Governing circles did. Churchill’s early denunciations of persecution of the Jews include a November 1935 article in a popular magazine (The Strand); Hitler read this in translation and literally threw a fit. During World War II, state terrorism of the Jews was periodically reported in world newspapers, and officials were briefed by escapees and others. Some systematic murders behind the Werhmacht’s eastward advance were chronicled by Germans themselves and transmitted to the rear in Enigma cipher; Bletchley Park read certain documents almost as quickly as Hitler.

Nine of the Allies published their collective opposition in January 1942. That October Churchill followed with a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, calling these “systematic cruelties…amongst the most terrible events of history.” He looked towards war’s successful end, the “enthronement of human rights,” and the end of “racial persecution.” One year later, in October 1943, foreign ministers met and published over the signatures of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill a declaration with such a Biblical ring that historian John W. Wheeler-Bennett later judged it obviously authored by WSC. It warned those who had not yet soaked “their hands with innocent blood” to “beware lest they join the ranks of the guilty, for most assuredly the three allied powers will pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth and will deliver them to their accusers in order that justice may be done.”

When the Big Three met in Teheran a month later, there ensued a famous conversation about what to do with the German war criminals, retold in Churchill’s Closing the Ring. Stalin suggested executing 50,000 of the German officer corps. Roosevelt, enigmatically, replied that merely 49,000 would do. Churchill walked out. His steady position in the war years was that the worst fifty to 100 individuals should face justice swiftly, and then the world should move forward. Other leaders were less decisive: meetings at Tehran and Yalta renewed conviction about the need for punishment without settling the number or types of war crime trials, how and where to conduct them, etc. These matters would roil through 8 May 1945.


When President Roosevelt pronounced the words “unconditional surrender” in public, it caused consternation. Adding to the confusion later was Churchill, whose recollections about it proved mixed. Sir Martin Gilbert has written that both principals came to Casablanca in Morocco with at least one briefing paper on which appeared the words “unconditional surrender.” Certainly Roosevelt is the man who publicly called it policy. Its great advantage was that it assured Washington that even after Germany lost, Britain would stay in the war against Japan. For similar reasons it was a guarantee to Moscow, an absolutely key ally.

Churchill liked the phrase. But, beginning a good argument over grand strategy, he wanted to exclude Italy and thus unwind the Axis. Churchill’s request was to require “unconditional surrender” only from Germany and Japan. FDR disagreed, and in London so did the British War Cabinet. Italy was included. Italian negotiations, while messy, yielded a complete surrender, growing confidence in the new Italian government, and a special status of “co-belligerent” that recognized the role of Italians in driving out the Germans. Italy was also given to expect early entry into the post-war ”World Organization,” although Soviet opposition would delay that reward for a decade.

The worry over Germany was of another kind. The Allies recognized the argument that a public policy of “unconditional surrender” might make Berlin fight harder. Prime Minister Churchill’s mild reply was that there was no evidence for it. More pithily, he wrote to Harry Hopkins in 1945 that it was “false” to say the demand for ‘Unconditional Surrender’ prolonged the war: “Negotiation with Hitler was impossible. He was a maniac with supreme power to play his hand out to the end, which he did….”

War termination issues of 1943 also include something usually ignored in our history books: the May 22nd conference in Washington D.C., at the British Embassy. Vice President Henry Wallace, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Tom Connally were all present. Churchill elaborated his postwar goals. He wanted a “Supreme World Council,” guided by three principal powers—the UK, the US, and the USSR—which he invariably called “Russia.” For the moment, he did not push French candidacy. He did mention China, explicitly recognizing the US insistence upon China’s status in the post war. Churchill’s papers show that he did not believe that China would be of comparable great power stature after the war. His staff agreed. So in the embassy he mentioned the country as a favor to the US, probably. When Vice President Wallace replied that all the other states of the world might oppose a Council being run by only four states, Churchill agreed and answered that there should be a rotation on the supreme council, bringing in other powers (for set terms). How familiar all this sounds after 1945.

Churchill foresaw that Europe should form its own “United States” (see page 42. —Ed.) He admired Bohemian Count Coudenhove-Kalergi’s ideas on a United States of Europe and would, after the war, speak vigorously on the subject; and entitle a book of speeches Europe Unite. It is sad that the Maastricht era of the early 1990s paid little heed to Churchill’s direct contributions to the early movement to unify the continent.

He went on in this May 1943 conference to say that force would be required to preserve the peace after war. He suggested something stunning for a Tory: “an international police force,” made up by contingents from member states. This was no slip of the tongue; he would restate the idea forcefully in March 1946 in the “Sinews of Peace” speech at Fulton, Missouri.

As the luncheon closed, the PM spoke of the central pier in Britain’s postwar security architecture: the relationship with the United States. In Churchill’s words that day, “Proposals for a world security organization did not exclude special friendships devoid of sinister purpose against others,” including a “fraternal association” of the Americans and the British. There might even be common citizenship, or a common passport. The military might continue the wartime bilateral “Combined Staff” arrangement. Having displayed such surprises, he then said, of course, “he was expressing only personal views.”

His American interlocutors were pleased, including Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, a former appeaser whose contempt for Churchill had been undisguised as late as 1940. Welles now let slip that it was important to get all this written down before the war ended: “After the war relaxation would set in, and a tendency towards isolationism.” Roosevelt himself would make a similar remark, surely frightening Churchill about the defense of Europe against Soviet encroachments. This may be why, in October 1944 in Moscow, Churchill cut the “percentages agreement” so suggestive of the spheres of influence he knew Roosevelt opposed.

And yet this disagreement about a longterm Western troop presence in Europe helped shape an allied conviction: both Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that the system of world security must be agreed upon before war’s end. Ten weeks after D-Day in France, conferees gathered in northern Washington, D.C., at Dumbarton Oaks, to lay down parameters of what would become the United Nations. Its charter would be crafted in San Francisco by delegates from over four dozen countries. All that occurred before victory over Japan.


What of the fate of Germany? The War Cabinet had a “Post Hostilities Planning Committee” meeting many  months before D-Day. International wartime conferences addressed the problem. Much was done at the level of the European Advisory Committee, created in 1943, staffed by foreign ministers, and meeting in Lancaster House, London. Through the next year, these officials worked out the details of how Germany would be occupied. Three zones were planned; one would later be shifted for strategic reasons; a fourth zone would be added for France, increasingly influential, and the beneficiary of WSC’s lobbying. The results were largely practical. More intriguing is what was not done with Germany. Many statesmen of the early 1940s wished to divide or demilitarize Germany to avoid a third world war in the 20th century. Churchill often favored detaching Prussia. Other Allied leaders and foreign affairs specialists had different ideas. And almost all leaders changed their minds.

The stiffest plan for impairing Germany in the long term was typed out, double-spaced, on one and a half small sheets of paper. Prepared by American Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury, it actually was initialed by FDR and Churchill on 15 September 1944. It read in part: “This programme for eliminating the war-making industries on the Ruhr and in the Saar is looking forward to converting Germany into a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in its character.” Churchill quickly reconsidered, and withdrew his support. The document died.


Winning was causing its own problems. Chief among these, for Churchill personally, was the fate of Poland. That country had seen little but tragedy since 1939. By mid-1944, Auschwitz alone was swallowing 12,000 lives a day, and Churchill knew about it. Poland’s fate was no mere postwar question; it was a vivid weekly problem during 1944 and 1945.

The Prime Minister and government worked, agonized, and nearly despaired. Poland’s case vividly showed how statesmen live in tension between their visions and what is actually possible. On paper, the idea of an independent and democratic Poland was agreed upon—even by Stalin. But off the paper’s edge, and around the table, and all over the room, Polish affairs were a shambles.

There were two exile parties, each hoping to form the Polish government. There were two nascent conventional armies, growing up under Western and Red Army wings. There were conflicting guarantees by the Poles’ friends. Many charge Roosevelt with double-dealing, but Churchill also disappointed the Poles by agreeing early to an amazing Soviet request—to physically shift the state westward, to notable Soviet advantage and German disadvantage.

Churchill acceded for three reasons. He could not afford to lose Soviet help, in that early-war period. Second, he knew that rejecting Moscow’s gambit, in combination with ongoing Axis success in the East, could let Russia make a separate peace, as in 1917. Third, Stalin had a political ace to play. After the Great War, and the subsequent Soviet-Polish war, Lord Curzon had recommended settlement of the Polish-Soviet border along an ethnic and cultural line. This Curzon Line lay well west of the actual border between the two countries before 1939. All Stalin had to do, in World War II, was revive the idea. How could British diplomats call unreasonable what they had recommended?

Hard-line Poles in London, their countrymens’ eyes upon them, refused to accept new boundaries, and so drove Churchill to distraction. Their meetings became overheated. But Churchill and Stalin were as stubborn as these Poles, and held more power, in the end Poland was shifted westward. The Soviets’ war termination planning of 1944 hurt Poland in two other ways. Both destroyed potential leaders of a postwar political renaissance. In August 1944, the Red Army was within reach of Warsaw, and broadcast a message to the residents to rise up. Only too ready to do so, they were shot to pieces by German forces—15,000 in the underground army died, as did tens of thousands of other Poles. The second tragedy concerned only 16 people—but they were London-based leaders of a future Polish democracy. Moscow invited them eastward to confer with other Polish exiles the Communists were readying for the takeover. They went, were kidnapped, and never returned. Churchill’s moral indignation at this is impossible to overstate. (See “Apologize for What?,” FH 125:7.) By Spring 1945 he had only declining hopes for central and Eastern Europe in the postwar world.


The last year of the war opened with disappointments, including Germany’s new “vengeance” weapons. The Yalta conference proved yet another. Although the Soviets did pledge to declare war against Japan almost as soon as Germany surrendered, much else went poorly at Yalta. President Roosevelt’s physical weakness was as apparent as Marshal Stalin’s confidence and the Red Army gains signified on staff maps.

There was no resolution of questions over the amount of reparations to be demanded by the USSR. The Soviets declined to promise to vacate northern Iran, and this would lead to the first post-1945 crisis— resolved largely by the strength of President Truman. The two sides at Yalta exchanged promises on POW releases, and on this the Soviets generally delivered, but later the NKVD executed ten thousand souls returned by the West from German prison camps. In military strategy, Churchill made a last pitch for his famous, divisive proposal to land in the northern Adriatic Sea, and drive north, bringing Western troops  from the Adriatic up to Vienna. His concept was again rejected, and Vienna would spend ten years in Soviet hands until an Austrian State Treaty of peace was signed.

Churchill hurried away from the Crimea and refreshed himself in Greece. There he addressed a thrilled crowd, the largest he’d ever seen, 40,000 people in a square in Athens. Greece was a country he had done much for, and his “deal” for its freedom in Moscow in October 1944 (part of the percentages agreement) may have deterred Stalin from giving more than minimal aid to Communist rebels in the post-1945 civil war. In later years Churchill always showed pleasure in his controversial decisions about Greece, believing he’d helped save the country’s future.

Spring 1945 brought questions over the line of march. The most vital came as a surprise, which Stephen Ambrose described in Eisenhower and Berlin, 1945. Ike announced that instead of driving on at Berlin, he would turn most armies southward, towards Leipzig and Dresden. The British were stunned. This opened up a new strategic question. What was more important: to crush remaining German armies, or to take their capital? General Eisenhower took the former view. He said the Soviets were better poised to take Berlin, the German forces had migrated southward, and reports came of Nazi plans for a last stand in an Alpine “redoubt.”

The British answer was on the political value of Western soldiers’ boots in Berlin. But while Churchill protested openly, Eisenhower was unmoved, and Washington left the decision largely to the general in the field. In the end, four of the places closest to Hitler’s heart fell about the same time. The Soviets took the German capital. The American Seventh Army swept up Munich and Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, while the US Third Army took Linz in Austria. Unconditional surrender of the Germans came May 7th.

Churchill received the news from a loyal aid, Captain Pym, who had charge of the all-important map room. Teasing, the Prime Minister said to Pym: “For five years you’ve brought me bad news, sometimes worse than others. Now you’ve redeemed yourself.”

Victory created new problems. Two of them were closely connected: the Soviet ally was unmanageable, and the Americans’ postwar occupation duty would be short—Roosevelt had said “two years.” When the Soviets had been poised to take over the capitals of Central and Eastern Europe, Churchill had cabled FDR: “March as far east into Germany as possible.” When Roosevelt had died in April 1945, his successor Harry Truman received a similar Churchillian telegram: “Shake hands [with the Russians] as far east as possible.”

Summer did find US forces well to the east of lines prepared at earlier conferences for post-war occupation, but after VE Day, Eisenhower proposed to draw them back. Churchill begged the US to see them as a bargaining bit, while prodding the Soviets on concerns such as Poland. Again Churchill lost the debate. The long narrow zone in Germany was vacated by the GIs, an event Churchill identified at the time as “one of the most melancholy in history.” The Western allies continued to hold to intra-war agreements, while their Eastern comrade continued to violate many of them.

Peace was formalized in five treaties, made in Paris, and signed in February 1947. These covered the lesser powers: Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Finland. Years of interest in a formal peace treaty for Germany withered away amidst the problems of the four-power occupation and cold war rivalries, and the last American effort died in 1951.

Three Conclusions

There can never be certainty about how long a war will run. What is certain is that planning for war termination bears directly upon the making of policy and its supporting strategies, and is therefore vital throughout the course of the war. In the UK, planning for the “end state”—as it is now called—was up and running, by fits and starts, in 1942, and 1943. But that is not to pretend that the silver cup held everything Churchill had hoped for. He had reason to title the last of his six WW2 volumes, Triumph and Tragedy.

Secondly, it must be admitted that some questions are better postponed than fully answered before victory. FDR was known for postponing the divisive or merely unpleasant, and sometimes Churchill took this route too. In 1944 he avoided a few postwar issues rising in the Commons, lest it undercut the total war effort. As late as January 1945 the Prime Minister slapped at his hard-working Foreign Minister, Anthony Eden, for presuming too much about the moods in Europe and Germany after victory: “It is a mistake to try to write out on little pieces of paper what the vast emotions of an out-raged and quivering world will be either immediately after the struggle is over or when the inevitable cold fit follows the hot….there is therefore wisdom in reserving one’s decisions as long as possible and until all the facts and forces that will be potent at the moment are revealed.”

If Churchill occasionally found wisdom in reserving decisions, more often than not he decided. The need for a wide and permanent “system of general security” after war was recognized formally as early as 1941, by the Atlantic Charter. No later than mid-1943, Churchill was in official talks on the shape of the future “World Organization.” Which postwar riddles can be solved during the fighting, and which cannot? Much depends upon prudence, timing, and opportunity.

Third, this contest revealed Churchill as a man with a true sense for when war would end in Europe. If we look, and on this narrow matter very few historians have—we find his predictions about the pace of the war and its end-date to be very good. In the Commons on 31 October 1944, after initial cautious words about when war would end, he ventured a projection: “Let us assume, however, that the German war ends in March, April, or May…” Over and over, he proved better at estimating the end-date than high officials and military commanders, allied or British—including Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, John Dill, Alexander Cadogan, Alan Brooke and other British service chiefs.

Deservedly famous for prewar predictions, Churchill also deserves plaudits for his estimates and plans related to war’s end. Because he held such power in Britain, and in the Grand Alliance, his insight was a great asset for the coalition at war and the peace to come. Had he been badly wrong, it would have had equal but negative impact. Unfortunately, the old war horse was not as focused on his own prospects, or those of his Conservative Party. The Tories were thrown out in elections during the Potsdam Conference. This was a near-total surprise to Churchill. But he declined all obvious opportunities to criticize the British electorate. His magnanimity, so visible in victory, could also be seen after his party’s defeat in the balloting. Churchill accepted the advice he himself had offered the House of Commons in a speech of 1944: “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy, is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper…”

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