Finest Hour 135, Summer 2007
Glimpses – Troubled Triumvirate: The Big Three at the Summit
No one had a better view of Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and Truman at the conferences that remade the world than the interpreters.
By Hugh Lunghi
Hugh Lunghi was born August 1920 and read Greats (Classics) at Oxford. In June 1943, then a Captain in the Royal Artillery, he was appointed aide-de-camp (ADC) and Russian language interpreter to the Head of the British Military Mission in Moscow, Lt. Gen. Sir Gifford Le Q. Martel. After the war he served as a diplomat and interpreter. He had the unusual experience of interpreting at meetings with the first two Soviet dictators following Lenin: Stalin and Khrushchev. He is one of the few, if any, survivors of those present at most of the plenary sessions of the wartime conferences in Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam. There he was Russian language interpreter for the British Chiefs of Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke (later Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke), Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham and Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal. He interpreted for Prime Ministers Churchill and Attlee and Foreign Secretaries Eden and Bevin. Joining the BBC in 1954, Mr. Lunghi was editor of broadcasts to central Europe and chief commentator covering the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968—the first contemporary international subject commented upon by Finest Hour. On retiring from the BBC in 1980 he was appointed Director of the Writers’ and Scholars’ Educational Trust and editor of its magazine Index on Censorship. Subsequently he was elected Vice Chairman of Common Cause UK. He has lectured widely on Soviet and East European affairs. His text is from his remarks at the Annual General Meeting, International Churchill Society (UK), 29 April 2006.
Let me preface my remarks with some thoughts about the Americans. They are friends. The United States in its public and private giving, is the most generous nation in the whole of history, and perhaps the most idealistic in the causes of human rights and freedom. Yet this generosity seems to bring about the perverse result that the U.S. is denounced widely. I have often to remind my young listeners that it was the U.S. which put Europe back on its feet when it was struggling to recover from the devastation of World War II. Having served alongside Americans in wartime and after, I’ve found them among the most helpful and brightest of colleagues and friends. I feel constrained to put this on record because my account of those distant wartime events might seem to lean in a contrary direction. But to put a dark gloss on those historic events is far from my intention.
My first sight of any of the Big Three was, of course, of Winston Churchill, from the Public Gallery in the House of Commons a couple of years or so before the outbreak of war. Out of office, Churchill was yet again castigating his government’s and party’s appalling record of failure to meet the Nazi rearmament threat. In my schoolboy ignorance I thought his gadfly antics were simply letting his own side down. After that Churchill faded from my mind until he became Prime Minister in 1940. We had been at war for nine months. By then even Oxford students began to take notice of his stirring speeches on the wireless.
Not many months after being posted from my artillery regiment to our military mission in Moscow in 1943, its chief, General Martel, said I was to accompany him to Teheran at the end of November. There, with no previous warning, I was ordered to interpret for the Chiefs of Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, Admiral Andrew Cunningham and Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal at what turned out to be the first of the so-called “Big Three” conferences.
Among the three heads of government, Churchill was the eldest, celebrating his 69th birthday; he had already met Stalin and Roosevelt, the latter seven times. Stalin was five years younger, Roosevelt the youngest at 61. Churchill was the only one of the three who had experience of commanding troops on the battlefield— did that make him a worse strategist than the other two or a better one? By 1943, an outsider might think that all the allies were working more or less closely towards the defeat of the enemy.
As we now know from innumerable accounts, this was far from the reality. Aside from almost non-existent military cooperation, we met with antagonism and obstruction from Soviet officialdom: spiteful, even incomprehensible behaviour. Their closely censored media were generally hostile at the failure of the Anglo-Americans to open a so-called “Second Front” in Western Europe. They scoffed at our military operations in the Middle East, Italy, the Atlantic, and our bombing offensive, which did constitute, however limited, a second, third, fourth and fifth front. We were grateful for the real Russian hospitality and friendliness of Soviet citizens brave enough to talk to foreigners. In Moscow, our food and accommodation were on the level of the privileged class, Communist Party officials: quite comfortable, thank you.
Churchill and Roosevelt flew to Teheran from Cairo, where they had disagreed bitterly over strategic priorities. Roosevelt had declined even to talk about a common approach to Stalin. To add to his discomfort, the Prime Minister had a throat infection, losing his greatest weapon: his voice. He looked worried and irritable as he arrived at the British Legation. It was the second time I had seen him in my life. Yet just seeing him, we suddenly felt the code-word for the conference, “Eureka,” was well-chosen.
As I gathered from bits of Chiefs of Staff conversations, the President was again refusing his lunch invitation or even to talk before they both met that awkward customer, Stalin. Even if he was determined to beard Stalin himself, why would Roosevelt not want the observations of Churchill, who had already met and negotiated with the Soviet chief? The latter, meanwhile, made his Foreign Minister, Molotov, concoct a cock-and-bull story of an assassination plot by enemy agents in Teheran. It successfully caused a not reluctant Roosevelt to move two-odd miles from the U.S. Legation into a bugged house in the grounds of the Soviet Embassy, just a step across a narrow road from the British Legation. [That FDR and Churchill knew they were being bugged is now accepted: see Warren Kimball, “Listening in on Roosevelt and Churchill,” FH 131: 20. –Ed.]
Today, as we know from contemporary accounts, Roosevelt sought to ingratiate himself with Stalin by mocking his British ally. He did tell Churchill he was going to make a few jokes at his expense, “just to put Stalin at his ease.” During the conference sessions and social occasions, I observed FDR assuming a jocular air about Churchill’s cigars and “imperialist” outlook.
The plenary sessions at Teheran were held in the Soviet Embassy. The first seemed somewhat disorganized. The President had not wanted an agenda; he had “not come all these miles to discuss details.” Roosevelt looked confident and pleased to be asked, as the only Head of State, to chair the sessions. Churchill, lighting up his cigar, looked fit, and at first seemed not unduly embarrassed by the fairly heated arguments between the Americans and British over strategic priorities now being played out in front of Stalin. As the debate developed, the Prime Minister increasingly appeared on the defensive, still arguing strongly for his vision of the military options. To me, Stalin seemed puzzled at first over the disunity between the Americans and British. He allowed his normally inscrutable face a rare smile.
Down the years I’ve been asked what it was like to watch Churchill, at this momentous juncture in his life, making friends with the ally we simply couldn’t do without: Josef Stalin, the biggest mass-murderer of all time, with the possible exception of Mao Tse-tung. I have vivid memories.
Stalin always spoke softly, briefly, and to the point, completely in command of facts and statistics, hardly ever looking at a note, asking pertinent, awkward questions. At times we could hardly make out his words, with their marked Georgian accent. Away from the table he was not the great heroic leader of the Red Square icons. Short, even in his built-up, square-toed shoes, peeping under door-keeper-like trousers with a broad stripe down each side, at first glance he looked unimpressive. His Marshal’s tunic with a plain Russian upright collar was decorated only with the Hero of the Soviet Union gold star. At close range, he looked like a humble, kindly uncle. But I was struck by the yellow whites to his greenish brown, cat-like eyes, which hardly ever met yours if you were a stranger, a foreigner. His own staff was often brought to order with a fearsome glare. You could see them freeze, almost literally tremble in their boots.
Apart from questions of military strategy and timing, Poland’s postwar frontiers, and how to secure a democratic government, were the major battlegrounds for Churchill. An early and firm date for the launch of the Second Front in Northern France was Stalin’s main aim. Roosevelt’s was to get Russia into the war against Japan. He was also determined to get Stalin to support his dream of an international peace-keeping body policed by the Soviet Union, the USA, Britain and China (at that time Chiang Kai-shek’s China, of course). At first Stalin was evidently not at all keen on a single body, doubtless thinking of the League of Nations, from which the Soviet Union had been kicked out when it attacked Finland in 1939. When Stalin saw the importance Roosevelt attached to the project, the Soviet media, following Stalin’s line of course, ostentatiously began to support it.
Teheran was, I believe, the most important of the Big Three Conferences, more significant than Yalta. A persistent historical misconception has it that Eastern Europe was “betrayed” at Yalta. Not so. That happened, and I believe it did happen, in Moscow in October 1943, before Teheran, at a meeting of foreign ministers: Molotov, Eden and Cordell Hull, Roosevelt’s then-Secretary of State, who seemed to know little and care less about the countries of Eastern Europe. From the little I saw of him I found him rather frosty. Eden’s attempt to involve the others in discussing the future of east and central Europe was smothered by Molotov, with the help of Hull’s cushion of indifference. Roosevelt at Teheran reinforced that impression, saying he intended to withdraw his troops from Europe within a year after the end of hostilities there. Stalin, I feel in retrospect, couldn’t have believed his luck. At the time, of course, we interpreters, even when briefed for a particular session, could only guess at the strategic dreams of the principals.
Here I should explain that Churchill’s principal interpreter was Major Arthur Birse, a peacetime banker, also from our Moscow Military Mission, born and educated in 19th century St. Petersburg, more than twice my age, a good friend and mentor, by far the most outstanding, the most brilliant of all the Allied interpreters. The Prime Minister didn’t like to be interrupted by his interpreter until he had finished his train of thought, which sometimes went on a bit, with many a stirring phrase, making it the more difficult for us. He was demanding, but at the same time generous and encouraging.
My own test came before the second plenary session on 29th November. The Prime Minister was to present a Sword of Honour on behalf of King George VI to mark the heroic defence of Stalingrad. Representing the Red Army—the only senior soldier Stalin had brought along, “hoping he would do,” as Stalin put it— was Marshal Voroshilov, once Stalin’s companion in arms, baby-faced, murderous and cruel. Voroshilov was in command of several “Army Fronts” when Hitler invaded Russia. He proved so hopeless he had to be sacked. Survivors of Stalin’s inner circle tell us that often he shouted at him, “Shut up, you imbecile.”
The Prime Minister proudly presented the sword. Stalin was visibly moved. After quietly uttering a few words Stalin passed the sword to Voroshilov, who promptly let it slip from the scabbard onto his toes. Stalin’s face darkened, his fists clenched.
As we dispersed after the ceremony, Churchill led our way out. I heard, or felt, a tug at my sleeve. It was Voroshilov. I had been interpreting for him that morning at the Chiefs of Staff meeting. Sheepishly he asked my help. As we caught up with the PM, Voroshilov, pink-faced, stammered an apology for his gaffe, and at the same time wished Churchill a happy birthday, which was in fact the following day. As we walked away the PM growled: “A bit premature—must be angling for an invitation… couldn’t even play a straight bat.”
At Churchill’s 69th birthday dinner, in the British Legation the next evening, we witnessed another little drama unfold. Bear with me if you’ve already heard or read about it—this is how I saw it.
A Persian waiter in white cotton gloves and red and blue livery, making (I suspected) his first entrance, brings in the magnificent dessert, a splendid ice cream pyramid with a kind of night-light under it. Stalin is making a bit of a speech. The waiter, wanting to serve Stalin first, stands behind him, then moves towards Molotov’s chair. Mouth agape at sight of the assembled magnificoes, the waiter nervously lets the dish tip slightly. It’s hot in the room and the inevitable happens. As I look on, fascinated, the beautiful creation accelerates off the salver. It misses Stalin, the waiter staggers further sideways, and it descends onto the shoulder of Vladimir Pavlov, Stalin’s interpreter, and all down his pristine Russian diplomatic dress uniform.
A voice is heard just in front of me, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal (Peter Portal to his colleagues), sotto voce: “Missed the target.”
I watch the Prime Minister, but either he has not noticed or has chosen not to. A true professional, Pavlov continues calmly interpreting. Pavlov, by the way, was virtually always Stalin’s interpreter—in English and German. At the Yalta Conference, some fourteen months after Teheran, Pavlov was rewarded by Churchill with the CBE—not, of course, for his heroism under ice cream fire.
After Teheran my next close encounter with Mr. Churchill was almost a year later in October 1944, his second and final visit to Moscow (codenamed “Tolstoy”), where he was accompanied by Eden. Talks with Stalin and Molotov mainly concerned Eastern Europe, the “percentage” agreement over Soviet and British influence in various countries, and Poland. Representatives of the London Polish Government in exile in London were also invited. The mischievous “percentages” more or less evaporated and did not figure formally again in any tripartite or even bilateral talks, though you’d not know it from the attention devoted to them by modern historians and Churchill himself. Our Military Mission officers, including myself, were on duty looking after the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary in the Soviet hospitality town house in Ostrovskiy Street (formerly and today the Austrian Embassy).
The following February, I watched Churchill’s aircraft land, after its seven-hour flight from Malta, at the Crimean airport of Saki, where I had been working for much of the past fortnight. It touched down shortly after Roosevelt’s aircraft. The President, waxen cheeked, looked ghastly, his familiar black naval cloak over his shoulders, hat-brim turned up in front, being helped into a jeep which Churchill solicitously followed on foot as they inspected the Guard of Honour together.
We had a five-hour drive to our respective destinations. Ours was the slightly odd Moorish-Scottish baronial style Vorontsov Palace/Villa overlooking the Black Sea at Alupka. Twelve miles away just outside Yalta was the last Czar’s Palace, Livadia, the American quarters and venue of the plenary sessions. Stalin, the generous host, was in between, in the Yusupov Villa in Koreis, six miles from Livadia. It was there in Stalin’s headquarters that we held the Chiefs of Staff military meetings.
The opening session of the Yalta Conference was one of the most dramatic and fateful. It was there that Dresden’s destiny was sealed. Among many omissions and misrepresentations put about by revisionist historians and others in recent years is that either Churchill or Air Marshal Harris or the RAF in general were directly and personally responsible for the deliberate annihilation of Dresden’s population and its art treasures. This is how I witnessed the matter at that first session.
Among other requests and questions of military liaison, Stalin, with his Deputy Chief of Staff, General Antonov—I watched and heard them both—asked us and the Americans to bomb lines of communication— roads and railways. They wanted to stop Hitler transferring divisions from the west to reinforce his troops in Silesia who were blocking the Russian advance on Berlin. We ourselves had passed intelligence about the troop movements to the Russians. They claimed they had it from their own sources.
The road and rail network, against which contingency plans had already been discussed by the RAF months previously, was the target—not the city, and not civilians as such. One of the intended consequences would be the jamming of road and rail communications by refugees. Together with other towns, Antonov stressed the importance of Dresden as a rail junction.
The following day at the Chiefs of Staff meeting in Stalin’s Yusupov Villa, which our Chief of Staff, by then Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, was asked to chair, the question of liaison for “bomb lines” was discussed. Antonov again pressed the subject of lines of communication and entrainment, specifically via Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden. The latter he again referred to as an important rail junction. The Soviet Air Marshal Khudyakov added his expertise to the same requests. I interpreted our assent. The USAAF Major-General Kuter also agreed. The bombing mission by the RAF and the U.S. Army Air Corps was a military success, but tragically inflicted great loss of civilian refugee life which Churchill later deeply deplored.*
Here in the Crimea, Stalin looked exultant, we thought—after all, he held the trump cards. His armies were already in occupation of most of Eastern Europe. The myth that it was carved up at Yalta is patently inaccurate. There was no need: the Red Army already held it. After the war one of Stalin’s favourite jokes suggested he deserved the whole bear, and he got it!
As I saw him, Roosevelt displayed indifference to Eastern Europe. I thought the President—and he was not the only one— hopelessly misperceived the realities of the Soviet Union, completely misjudging Stalin, as to an extent did Churchill and Eden. It was “a pleasure to work with Stalin…there is nothing devious about him,” Churchill said. Because of his paranoia, I believe Stalin did not trust those he thought were trying to curry favour with him. Stalin at one point told Churchill he felt more at home with frank and even tough negotiators and open enemies. The P.M., though wilier in this respect than Roosevelt, also thought he could win Stalin over by compromise and concession. By the way, unbelievably, he also said he liked the Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs Andrey Vyshinsky—a more despicable and treacherous character I could not imagine.
It was not until years after the Yalta Conference that one of its most tragic outcomes—one of the blackest pages in British history—was revealed. The last formal act was Eden’s signature to the secret agreement on repatriation, in other words the return to Stalin’s merciless hands of Soviet prisoners of war. Many, forced into auxiliary service in the German army, had fallen into our hands. The Foreign Office agreed to Soviet demands that even non-Soviet Russian civilians who had lived in Eastern Europe before the war should be handed over: an unnecessary and dishonourable act which Churchill at one point tried to stop.
Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s close adviser, whom Churchill admired, hailed Yalta as “the dawn of a new age.” Hopkins, for whom I interpreted briefly, was unhappily a chronically ill man, and he seems to have provided some dodgy advice to the President about Stalin, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In his recently published book, Sergo Beria, son of Stalin’s secret police chief, claims Hopkins was “blindly pro-Soviet even before he met Stalin.”
What stays in my memory is the doggedness, the toughness—not without old-world courtesy and magnanimity—with which Churchill fought not just for Britain, but for Poland and France and for smaller nations too. His private secretary Jock Colville once remarked that the difference between WSC and de Gaulle was that “de Gaulle’s loyalty was to France alone; Churchill’s was merely to Britain first.”
By contrast the xenophobe Stalin and the stolid Molotov, taking the cue from Roosevelt, poured vitriol on the French: “rotten to the core and should be punished,” was one expression I heard. Churchill stuck up for France not just out of love—Britain would need her as the main ally on the continent. But Churchill also stood up for fair play for the German people, as distinct from the Nazis. Stalin taunted him: “You are pro-German,” adding to his censure the Argentinians, Brazilians and Swiss, calling them “swine,” the Swedes even worse, the Finns “stone-obstinate.”
By the time the leaders met again in July 1945 at “Terminal,” the last of the Big Three gatherings at Potsdam, Truman had replaced Roosevelt, who had died in April. We saw Churchill still battling on behalf of postwar Poland and France. The meetings were bad- tempered, relieved by social occasions, banquets with music at the Neues Palast: on one occasion we heard Stalin applaud Truman’s impromptu and near-professional rendering of Chopin. Hailing Truman as a musician and Churchill as a painter, Stalin, fishing for compliments, lamented that he alone was “without talent.” Some understatement, that.
Rightly or wrongly, the new President seemed to us a much warmer, more approachable, more sincere chief than his predecessor. Halfway through the conference there was a general election in Britain. Winston Churchill, “the greatest modern British statesman” according to the New American Desk Encyclopedia, “the greatest Englishman” according to a recent UK public opinion poll, was dismissed by his country.
Having pondered the question over many decades and, most importantly, discussed it with Arthur Birse, I have become convinced that Churchill’s magnanimous judgment of Stalin was crucially formed during that tête-à-tête midnight meal in August 1942 in Stalin’s own Kremlin quarters, waited upon by his daughter Svetlana. It was, I think, that close, very personal encounter, in the face of a still mortally dangerous foe, which forged what in Churchill’s perception had perhaps become a bond between warrior leaders.
What amazed those of us, British and Americans, living and working in Moscow, experiencing the realities of life there, was the extraordinary ignorance, as it seemed, displayed by our principals and their advisers. Most astounding and puzzling was why Roosevelt and Churchill, the State Department and the Foreign Office, could for a moment believe that Stalin would allow free elections, let alone the inevitable concomitant of a free press, in liberated Europe, when those very freedoms were denied to the peoples of the Soviet Union. It was all on a par with Roosevelt’s silly remark to Stalin that he knew the Baltic peoples would happily vote to rejoin the Soviet Union if only Stalin allowed them free elections. True, Stalin later did graciously permit such things in Finland and Austria, but these were Stalin’s little showpiece states to help his “popular fronts” in Europe. “It doesn’t matter what you do,” as Lady Randolph Churchill is alleged to have said, “as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”
At that time the people were very ready to turn a blind eye to the monstrous and bloody Stalinist regime. The U.S. and British press and radio were brimming over with goodwill for the gallant Red Army and its leader. Churchill, we saw, was fed up after Yalta. We heard him say “That’s done with and out of the way,” and make various rude remarks about the final communiqué. Notwithstanding his partiality for what some saw as mad-cap military adventures, Churchill, with his political experience and historical perspective, saw further ahead than anyone, especially to the postwar perils facing central Europe.
It is not just his vision we have to respect and admire. His courage and energy, often barely recovering from serious illness, making the arduous, dangerous wartime pilgrimages to meet the two other Allied leaders, were almost superhuman. At the time, most of us could not know of the enormous physical, let alone mental, strain he must have been under.
In the years that followed Potsdam I saw and interpreted with Stalin face to face on several occasions, but sadly not with Churchill. My last tenuous connection with our wartime leader, almost exactly twenty years after the Yalta Conference, was in 1965, on the occasion of his state funeral, when it was my privilege in the BBC World Service to organize its coverage for our Czech and Slovak broadcasts. Churchill had outlived Roosevelt by two decades and Stalin by twelve years. The Triumvirate departed this world in inverse order to their ages, and to, one hopes, varied destinations.
General Charles de Gaulle was the chief foreign statesman at Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral. For the very reason that their relationship during the war, as everyone knew, had not been the easiest, his epitaph, it seemed to me, was the most fitting of all. You may remember, in his letter to the Queen, President de Gaulle paid this tribute, the more striking for its brevity: “Dans ce grand drame, il fut le plus grand.”
*At the Fifth Churchill Lecture, in Washington in 2005, Sir Martin Gilbert stated that the first Soviet request on Dresden arrived before Yalta, and that at Yalta, Stalin and Antonov asked Churchill why it hadn’t already been bombed. Churchill, perplexed, cabled Attlee in London, who responded that the attack had been ordered. This was actually confirmed by Gen. Antonov’s deputy, who was among the audience when Gilbert lectured on the subject in Moscow. It was undoubtedly this conversation which Mr. Lunghi observed. Sir Martin writes: “It is curious that when the request came…Churchill and Air Marshal Portal were in flight on their way to the Yalta conference. So the request was dealt with by Churchill’s excellent deputy Clement Attlee, later the Labour Prime Minister, and by the deputy chiefs of staff and approved. It was the 16th or 17th item of the things that they had to approve that day.”