Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010
Coalition for Victory, 1941-1945 / The Real “Dr. Win-the-War” / Winston Churchill and Britain’s Place
By Warren F. Kimball
Professor Kimball is Robert Treat Professor of History Emeritus at Rutgers University and a frequent contributor to Finest Hour.
Despite his 1943 aside to a reporter “Dr. New Deal” had done his job, and now it was time to bring in “Dr. Win-the-War,”1 Franklin Roosevelt was not the doctor in World War II. The true “Dr. Win-the-War” was Churchill—though it was his war he wanted to win.
For Churchill, victory was more than military; it was his political method. His postwar conception (hardly a “plan”) depended on Great Britain maintaining her self-perceived status as a major world power. “I am very doubtful,” he told Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in early 1941, “about the utility of attempts to plan the peace before we have won the war.”2 In other words, don’t plan from weakness (as things were for Britain in 1941), but from the stronger position you will have after victory.
What made Churchill take that approach? Like all of us, he was a product of his history. What mattered—what really mattered—was Europe, and the struggles that determined so much of that history: Agincourt, the unending wars over the Rhineland, Napoleon, the two World Wars. The political structure of Europe and the colonial world had been determined by those conflicts, and would so be set again by the war against Hitler’s Germany. As Churchill’s Europe went, so went history. “I must admit that my thoughts rest primarily in Europe—the revival of the glory of Europe, the parent continent of the modern nations and civilisation….Europe is our prime care….”3
Since he assumed that “reform” of the international structure was unlikely, Churchill needed to think less about the nature of the peace than to ensure that he and his nation would be in position to influence where the pieces in the game ended up. He professed that “the right to guide the course of world history is the noblest prize of victory.” (Stalin echoed that in blunter language: “whoever occupies a territory imposes on it his own social system.”)4 No international organization could substitute for winning the peace on the battlefield.
The first structured effort to think about the peace came with the Atlantic Charter meeting in August 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt meeting aboard warships moored in Newfoundland’s Placentia Bay. However much that was a “get acquainted” gathering, substantive results emerged.
For Churchill and his advisers, the Atlantic Charter was “a flop.” What Churchill wanted, even expected, from Roosevelt was a commitment to enter the war. What Britain got instead was “a declaration of war aims, not a declaration of war,” counter to the Prime Minister’s warning that winning ought to come before planning. But winning the war required that the Americans join the fight, sooner rather than later, and that meant wooing Roosevelt.
One of those Atlantic Charter war aims called for “an effective international organization” that would “afford” security to all. But getting a commitment to “an effective international organization” proved elusive. The Americans excised all mention or hints of such British suggestions, with FDR claiming that “those three little words” (League of Nations) would generate “suspicions and opposition in the United States.” A transition period, led by the United States and Great Britain—the “two policemen”—was
Roosevelt’s sine qua non.5
Churchill’s awkward maneuverings with Stalin in 1942 follow the win-the-war-first theme. Stalin insisted that in addition to a Second Front, they needed agreement “on war aims and plans for postwar organisation.” But that translated largely into renewed demands that the British recognize the Soviet frontiers that existed just before Hitler invaded Russia—what Stalin called the “old frontiers, the frontiers of 1941.”6
Recognizing Stalin’s claims, even if the Polish question could be left until later, was unacceptable to Churchill, who suddenly found the self-determination principles of the Atlantic Charter convenient, using them to chastise Eden for even proposing such a “forcible transfer of large populations.” Moreover, Churchill lectured Eden, “President Roosevelt holds this view as strongly as I….”7
Then one of Churchill’s favorites, Lord Beaverbrook, labeled the Baltic States “the Ireland of Russia,” a scarcely veiled reference to Irish neutrality. Beaverbrook argued that the “strict application” of the Atlantic Charter “would be a menace to our own safety as well as to that of Russia,” perhaps even forcing the “surrender of Gibraltar to the Spaniards”—a reference to a government Churchill loathed almost as much as the one in Dublin.8
By early March 1942, he shifted his position. Perhaps persuaded by Beaverbrook, perhaps concerned about Britain’s military position, perhaps worried about the ever-present rumors of a Soviet-German deal, the Prime Minister told Roosevelt on March 7th that the Atlantic Charter should not be interpreted to deny the Soviet Union the boundaries it had when Germany attacked, since that was the understanding when Stalin accepted the Charter.
Beaverbrook’s analogy may have worked, since Churchill, in the final paragraph of his cable, mentioned with seeming casualness his problems with India.9 The joining of the two themes was neither new nor accidental. Whatever the differences between the British and the Soviet empires, self-determination challenged both.
That autumn, the first Foreign Office proposals for an international organization mirrored Roosevelt’s “Policemen” proposal. Joint Anglo-American control would be better, the Foreign Office noted, but neither the Soviets nor the Americans would go along with that. This prompted Churchill to warn against “speculative studies” made by people with too little to do during the war—a demeaning dismissal of Foreign Office officials. Resorting to his preference for politics by warfare, he famously pointed to “Mrs. Glasse’s Cookery Book recipe for jugged hare—’first catch your hare.'”
But Churchill’s real concern was that he disagreed with Foreign Office thinking. An Anglo-American condominium seemed to him sensible and possible. “It would be a measureless disaster,” he wrote Eden, “if Russian barbarism overlaid the culture and independence of the ancient States of Europe.” What Churchill hoped for was a “United States of Europe” that would, presumably, include Russia, but a Russia safely neutralized within a “Council consisting of…. the former Great Powers, with several confederations…. which would possess an international police and be charged with keeping Prussia disarmed.”10
Churchill’s postwar politics persistently prompted his military proposals. His calls for offensive initiatives in the Aegean were routinely dismissed by his military advisers. Roosevelt caustically queried, in 1943: “Strategically, if we get the Aegean Islands, I ask myself where do we go from there?”11 But for Churchill, going somewhere else was not the purpose—it was getting there that mattered. An Aegean excursion held out little or no value to the overall campaign against Germany, but would signify the restoration of British influence in the eastern Mediterranean.
Churchill’s much belittled notion for a thrust through Istria (an historical, almost archaic name for the northwest corner of what had become Yugoslavia) toward Vienna began with nostalgic proposals for a resuscitation of a modified Austro-Hungarian empire. Searching in 1943 for ways to dismember Germany, he suggested a Danubian confederation that would join the “peaceful” Germans of Bavaria and Austria with, perhaps, the Hungarians. The disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had not brought stability after the First World War, but a restored and (presumably) democratic federation, one without the central and southern Slavs, might succeed.12
Churchill’s Danubian dream may have begun as a way to dismember and fence-in Germany, but by summer 1944, it assumed the guise of a modified cordon sanitaire, culminating in his ardent and angry attacks on plans to land in southern France (Operation Anvil). Anglo-American military staffs had proposed the invasion in accordance with the “broad front” strategy. But for Churchill, operations in the South of France only stole the troops, ships, and resources needed to conduct the ongoing campaign in Italy and his proposed Aegean operation, moving up through (the impossibly narrow) Ljubljana Gap toward Vienna.13
As a way to forestall Red Army occupation of Austria and perhaps Hungary, it was never plausible before mid-1944, and by then the demands of the broad-front campaign in western Europe against Hitler precluded availability of forces. The idea was dismissed by Churchill’s own chiefs of staff. Moreover, would it not violate understandings about who was liberating what, and prompt the Soviets to swing across northern Germany and “liberate” Denmark and the Low Countries? What benefit was there having the Red Army on the English Channel?14
Once again Churchill was forced to propose ineffective military campaigns in order to achieve his political goals. He was neither stupid nor naive; he was just shoveling sand against the tide—and he knew it. Little wonder, then, that he dismissed the Atlantic Charter as a star, not a law. Like FDR and Stalin, Churchill foresaw and preferred a world led by the Great Powers, not by some amorphous international organization. It was just that he believed Great Britain needed a little help—France, perhaps—and a turning back of the clock to put Churchill’s nation in the proper position.15
But Dr. Win-the-War could not win his war. If your foreign policy is predicated on power politics, and your own military strength cannot do the job, then you either change your policies or find yourself at the mercy of your allies. Churchill understood. Britain was, he ruefully admitted, “the poor little English donkey,” caught between the “the great Russian bear on one side and the “Great American buffalo” on the other. But only little Britain, he said, “knew the right way home.”16
1. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Samuel I. Rosenman, ed. (13 vols., New York: Harper, 1938-50), 1943, press conference of 28 December 1943, 573.
2. David Reynolds, “The Atlantic ‘Flop,’” in David Facey-Crowther and D. Brinkley, eds., The Atlantic Charter (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994), 142.
3. Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War (6 vols.; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948-53), IV:561-62.
4. Churchill on Europe, see note 3. Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, Robert Rhodes James, ed. (8 vols.; New York: Chelsea House, 1974), VI:6267-68 (House of Commons, 20 Aug. 1940).
5. Quotes primarily from Reynolds, “The Atlantic ‘Flop,’” 129-46, and Theodore Wilson, The First Summit (rev. ed; Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), 160-75. The earliest mention I have for Roosevelt proposing his policemen idea comes from his conversation on 21 May 1941 with British economist John Maynard Keynes; Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes, vol. 3, Fighting for Freedom, 1937-1946 (New York: Viking, 2000), 116. For context and references on Roosevelt’s war-long campaign for his Four-or-so-Policemen see my “Sheriffs and Constables: Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s Postwar World,” Finest Hour 141 (Winter 2008-09), 36-42.
6. Robin Edmonds, The Big Three (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1991), 263-65; and Soviet documents of the meeting in Oleg Rzheshevsky (ed.), War and Diplomacy (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1996). Stalin called for the dismemberment of Germany, which Soviet historians would later deny; see ibid., Doc. 4 (16 December 1941), 17-18; and Oliver Harvey, The War Diaries of Oliver Harvey (London: Collins, 1978), 74 (16 December 1941).
7. Martin Gilbert, Road to Victory (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 1617; see also Kimball, “The Atlantic Charter: “‘With All Deliberate Speed,’” in The Atlantic Charter, 100-02; and Keith Sainsbury, The Turning Point (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 80-85. The cordon sanitaire was a system of alliances created after the First World War by the French with the small states of central Europe that aimed at quarantining the Bolshevik Revolution.
8. Memo to the War Cabinet, “Policy Towards Russia,” 31 January 1942, British Foreign Office (FO) files, 954/25A/100731, (PRO-National Archive). On Ireland see my essay, “That Neutral Island,” Finest Hour 145 (Winter 2009-10), 54-61.
9. Kimball, Churchill & Roosevelt, I, C-40 (7 March 1942); Lloyd Gardner, Spheres of Influence (Chicago: Dee, 1993), 133-34, detects Churchill still inclined toward a territorial agreement with the Russians as of 18 August.
10. My view follows that of David Reynolds, In Command of History (London: Allen Lane, 2004), 335. He notes that the accurate quotation is, “Take your hare when it is cas’d [skinned], and make a pudding,” and traces the “jugged hare” story back to Churchill’s The World Crisis: The Aftermath (New York: Scribner, 1929) 140-01; see also Churchill to Eden, 21 October 1942, M.742/2 [T8/8/11], Churchill Archives Centre; and Churchill, The Second World War, IV:561-62. Foreign Office thinking is presented in Llewellyn Woodward, British Foreign Policy in the Second World War, (5 vols., London: HMSO, 1970-76), V:121; see also ibid., Memo of 7 July 1943, 51, and chapters 61-62.
11. General Marshall was telling the Prime Minister “Forgive me, but no American soldier is going to die on that goddam beach.” Kimball, Churchill & Roosevelt, II, R-379, R-381; Larry Bland (ed.), George C. Marshall Interviews (rev. ed.; Lexington, Kentucky: George Marshall Research Foundation, 1991), 13.
12. David B. Woolner, “Coming to Grips with the ‘German Problem’” in The Second Quebec Conference Revisited, David Woolner, ed. (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998), 67-68, 91; Keith Sainsbury, Churchill and Roosevelt at War (New York: NYU Press, 1994), 94-95, 141, 146-56; W. F. Kimball, The Juggler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 98. One wonders about “democracy” succeeding in Churchill’s Danubian Federation, since only the Czechs had much experience with it.
13 . Thomas M. Barker, “The Ljubljana Gap Strategy: Alternative to Anvil/Dragoon or Fantasy?” The Journal of Military History, 56 (January 1992), 57-85. Barker comes down persuasively on the side of “fantasy.”
14. Kimball, “The Two-sided Octagon,” in The Second Quebec Conference Revisited, 6. The Soviet Union could have occupied Denmark before the British could get there, but did not, and also withdrew from Bornholm and other Danish islands in the Baltic; see Tage Kaarsted, “Churchill and the Small States of Europe: The Danish Case,” in Winston Churchill: Studies in Statesmanship (London: Brasseys, 1995).
15. Churchill’s proposal to invade western Sumatra was completely unrelated to any military advantage. His Operation Unthinkable envisaged war with the Soviet Union in order to get a “square deal” for Poland. In May 1945, when, at his behest, British military planners offered a bizarre scheme that included strategic bombing and a surprise attack by forty-seven U.S. and British divisions in eastern Germany, Churchill quickly buried the plan; see Reynolds, In Command of History, 476-78.
16. Churchill told Roosevelt at Yalta that the “Charter was not a law, but a star;” Churchill, The Second World War, VI:393. The quotes are from John Colville in Action This Day, J. Wheeler-Bennett, ed. (London: Macmillan, 1968), 96; and John Colville, The Fringes of Power (New York: Norton, 1985), 564.