As 1895 opened, three events occurred in the first seven weeks—a wedding and two funerals—that were to have a major effect on the young Churchill’s life. For they combined to lead him into meeting his American mentor the lawyer, statesman, and orator Bourke Cockran, of whom Churchill once said, “He was my model. I learned from him how to hold thousands in thrall.
” The first event was the wedding in Vienna on 9 January of Count Charles Rudolf Kinsky and Countess Elizabeth Wolff-Metternich. Kinsky and Churchill’s mother Jennie had long been lovers. Had that affair continued, she likely would not have begun a new relationship with Cockran.
Two weeks later, Lord Randolph Churchill died on 24 January. Victorian convention required a two-year period of mourning before a widow could accept social invitations. That was not acceptable to Jennie, who promptly left England for Paris, less than a month after her husband’s death. There she rented a large house on the tree-lined Avenue Kleber and invited her older sister Clara and her younger sister Leonie to join her, which they did.
The third event was the sudden and unexpected death on 20 February of Cockran’s pretty thirty-nine-year-old wife Rhoda. Devastated, Cockran sailed for Europe on 19 March, seeking a change of scenery. As chance would have it, Cockran’s good friend Moreton Frewen was married to Jennie’s older sister Clara. Frewen invited Cockran to visit the three Jerome sisters at home in Paris. Thus a new romance began for the widowed Jennie. Later that year, when young Winston— fresh out of Sandhurst—first visited the United States, it was Bourke Cockran who greeted him at the quay and at whose house he stayed for a week.
By the end of 1919, Churchill had privately acknowledged that the Russian civil war was effectively over, writing to Sir Henry Wilson on 31 December that “There seems to be little doubt of the complete victory of the Bolsheviks in the near future.” Five days later, he wrote Wilson that a special warning should be sent to the commander of the British forces in Russia “to ensure the destruction of all Tanks which are likely to fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks.”
In January 1920, Churchill and Wilson were summoned to Paris by Prime Minister Lloyd George, who proposed giving military aid to the newly created republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan on Russia’s southern border, which would soon be threatened by the Bolshevik armies. Both Wilson and Churchill recognized the threat but opposed sending arms to the two countries for fear they would not fight. Wilson wrote in his diary that “all arms [sent to Georgia and Azerbaijan] would become a present to the Bolsheviks.” The French Marshal Foch agreed. Wilson noted in his diary for 19 January: “We left the problem unresolved & in exactly the state we have always left it in since last November. LG is totally unable to offer a solution & simply drifts from one crisis to another.”
Churchill felt much the same way as Wilson. On 20 January he wrote to Clementine: “Needless to say, no policy of any scope and clearness has been settled in regard to Russia: & the present state of drift is to continue…. Darling one, today I am telephoning you to ask what you wd like me to bring you back from Paris. Is there anything you want for yr trousseau? I mean to do another article this week. What did you think of the last? My sweet Clemmie I wd so much rather have spent these days in the basket instead of loafing around here. I look forward vy much indeed to getting home. You are vy good to me & put up with many shortcomings on the part of yr nevertheless devoted & loving W. He is quite lively: but he has a cold & is not at his best.”
Churchill and Wilson were proven right, and Georgia and Azerbaijan were absorbed into the new Bolshevik empire. Unaware that Churchill had opposed the Prime Minister’s plan to supply aid to the two countries, the British Weekly, a pro-Lloyd George paper published an article saying, “It has been an open secret that for many months the Prime Minister has been in conflict with Mr Winston Churchill on the subject of our duty and obligations to Russia in her present conflict. Up to a certain point Mr Churchill was the winner. He was allowed to spend a hundred millions in one way or another and to expose British troops to perils which in many cases led to death or permanent [sic] dismemberment.”
Churchill thought this was “unfair.” After all, Lloyd George had sent the troops to Russia long before Churchill became responsible for them as Secretary of State for War. Moreover, the “hundred millions” were spent to supply the “White” armies opposing the Bolsheviks, all of it at the specific direction of the War Cabinet of which Churchill was but one member. Churchill allowed Lloyd George to persuade him not to send a reply to the British Weekly. Instead, Churchill turned the situation to his economic advantage by defending himself in an article he wrote for the Illustrated Sunday Herald under the headline “The Red Fever,” for which he was paid his usual fee. In the story published on 25 January, Churchill wrote, “The essence of Bolshevism as opposed to many other forms of visionary political thought, is that it can only be propagated and maintained by violence.”
It is lamentable, but historically accurate, that most political leaders have an infallible belief in their own powers of persuasion. Churchill was no exception. As winter began, the two biggest problems he faced were in Greece, where communist guerrillas were waging a civil war, and in Poland, where Stalin was threatening to install a communist regime by fiat. Churchill chose to address both of these problems with personal diplomacy, going to Athens over Christmas to meet with rival Greek factions and to Yalta in February to meet with Stalin and Roosevelt. The outcome in both countries, however, was finally determined not by words in the air but by boots on the ground.
During their October 1944 meeting in Moscow, Churchill and Stalin had outlined in percentages the postwar influence the Allies should have in Greece: Britain and the US would have 90% and Russia 10%. Greek communists took no notice as they marched on Athens in early December, murdering policemen and seizing police stations. Churchill ordered the commander of the British troops in Athens to resist: “Do not hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.…It would be a great thing for you to succeed in this without bloodshed if possible, but also with bloodshed if necessary.”
Conditions in Greece worsened, and Field Marshal Harold Alexander, upon arriving in Athens on 12 December, recommended more reinforcements, to which the War Cabinet agreed. Stalin, meanwhile, made an effort to see that the Greek communists got the message by sending Colonel Gregory Popov of the Russian Military Mission to Greece, where he met with Alexander. Both men then walked together in public, having a friendly conversation. Still, by 22 December, the Greeks were at loggerheads about forming a new broad-based government in which the communists might join.
At this point, Churchill’s belief in his skills at personal diplomacy drove him on 23 December to decide that his personal presence in Athens was needed to “settle the matter.” He flew to Greece the next day, Christmas Eve. Informed of this, Churchill’s wife Clementine burst into tears and went to her room. Her husband was flying off at the last minute into an unsecured war zone at enormous personal risk.
Arriving in Athens on Christmas Day, Churchill met with Archbishop Damaskinos, who agreed to preside over a conference of all Greek political parties, including the communists. That was all that Churchill accomplished. The resulting conference, where Churchill was present for part of the time, failed to achieve any agreement on a new Greek government.
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