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Churchill’s Cold War: The Politics of Personal Diplomacy
Klaus Larres
New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2002
$40.00, xxii-583 pages, ISBN 0300094388 (hardback).

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

Churchill books are like ‘war books’: they cover the whole spectrum, from the overtly ‘popular’ (there have even been ‘comic strips’ of Churchill’s life (1)), to the fully footnoted academic monographs, with all categories in between these two clearly-recognisable genres.

Out of a total of 605 pages in this massive tome, 391 are devoted to the text proper, 136 go to the end notes and 40 to the bibliography, the rest being shared between the Introduction, the list of Abbreviations and the Index. Unusually in a book on Churchill, no photographs or cartoons are included: this makes the monograph all the more impressive as a piece of uncompromising scholarship and clearly indicates with what genre it belongs and at what readership it is aimed. The genesis of the work is indicated in the Preface: Klaus Larres felt that Churchill’s post-1945 personal diplomatic action was not adequately covered by the existing literature, especially the indomitable perseverance of his search for détente through ‘personal summitry’ at a time of increasing nuclearisation of potential Cold War belligerents – a fact which cannot be denied. More controversial, but equally fascinating, is Larres’s constant reminder that this obduracy served a major purpose: to maintain Britain’s status as a world power and to prevent at all costs the emergence of a situation in which the British Government would lose its options and have to choose between the celebrated ‘three circles’. As he puts it in the Conclusion on ‘Churchill’s Legacy’:

Churchill’s lifelong attempts to maintain Britain’s political and economic well-being and its great power status by means of his remarkable dedication to personal diplomacy and summit negotiations are seldom recalled by either professional historians or the general public interested in international affairs.

Classically, the book traces Churchill’s mental framework, ‘his conviction of the value of personal diplomacy’, to his formative years – but not so much his formal education and social background as his experience during the last months of peace between 1912 and 1914, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty and made ‘attempts to negotiate with the German Empire’ in a personal way, notably through ‘Albert Ballin, the German managing director of the Hamburg-American line, who was close to the Kaiser, and Sir Ernest Cassel, a London-based but German-born banker who was a friend of both King Edward VII and Churchill’. In this first chapter, entitled ‘Churchill’s Personal Diplomacy before the First World War’, Larres makes much of Churchill’s dealings with the Germans through Cassel and others in his attempt to arrange a meeting with Admiral Tirpitz, which he thought could be decisive in saving the peace by putting a stop to the naval race – not of course that he tries to show Churchill as a great peace negotiator, since the eventual outbreak of war would of course belie any such thesis: instead, Larres insists on the ‘Never Despair’ aspect so much associated with the later Churchill, and also on the fact that, in 1912-1914 as in 1952-1954, he had to overcome his friends’ scepticism in the Government.

The author pursues this thread in the second and third chapters, whose sub-titles seem more important for the reasoning than the titles themselves: 2 – ‘The Politics of War: Summit Diplomacy with Roosevelt and Stalin’, and 3 – ‘Churchill and the “United States of Europe” during the Second World War: Attempts to Preserve Britain’s Status as a World Power’. He argues that ‘during the Second World War Churchill was convinced that his country would benefit most if he conducted his summit diplomacy personally’ and links this with the pre-1914 formative years : ‘he tremendously enjoyed this style of politics and this had been his inclination ever since he had first become greatly interested in international politics between 1908 and 1914’, or again : ‘In the same way as before 1914 he had sought to use personal diplomacy, “to mitigate asperity between the German and British Empires” (2), he attempted during 1940-42 and then again in 1944-45 to use his strategy to maintain Britain’s place in the sun’. Larres’s central thesis in these chapters is that ‘Churchill’s attempts at summit diplomacy during and after the war were to a large extent based on his successful policy in the years 1940-41’.

Here the narrative merges with another thread, that of the ‘Special Relationship’, as Larres justifiably dwells on Churchill’s supposed special rapport with Franklin D. Roosevelt. We are reminded that from August 1941, the signing of the Atlantic Charter, ‘Churchill and Roosevelt met eleven times without Stalin’ (3), but it is clear who was the suitor, who was pleading for ‘fraternal association’ (Memorandum of 28 May 1943) or ‘Anglo-American Unity’ (Speech at Harvard, September 1943) at each of the meetings. Larres makes much of the Teheran (4) Conference of November-December 1943, ‘arguably one of the most important meetings of the war’ – not because it was the first meeting of the Big Three, but because it was evidently a conference of the Big Two and a Half, with Roosevelt clearly preferring to deal directly with Stalin.

From that time on, Larres (or, for that matter, any commentator) faces an apparently insoluble problem. If Churchill’s pride suffered a blow at Teheran (5), how can one then explain his continued taste for summit diplomacy ? It was clear that from 1941 any personal dealings at the highest level would involve the British Prime Minister meeting the American President and/or the Soviet Leader, whoever they may be. It was equally clear that the balance of power at Teheran, which had led to such disastrous results for Churchill (Larres correctly points out Churchill’s defeat to the Americans – backing the Soviets, not Britain – on the Second Front issue, and his defeat to the Soviets – backed by the Americans – on ‘the nature and frontiers of the post-war world’) would not improve in Britain’s favour as the war continued. Indeed Larres repeatedly alludes to Britain’s parlous situation in the shaky Grand Alliance of 1945 (6), and especially in the nuclearised Cold War, after August 1949, when the USSR had successfully exploded its first atom bomb and Churchill really believed in the danger of a nuclear attack on Britain. This can hardly be reconciled with Churchill’s insistence, very often recalled in the book, that one should negotiate from a position of strength.

There seems to be a way out of this contradiction, viz. Churchill’s idea that if he staked everything on the ‘Special Relationship’, his country would gain both the protection of the United States and the prudence of the USSR, which would not lightly show hostility to the American giant’s protégé. It is not clear how you can hope to remain one of the Big Three if you shelter behind one of the Big Two, but anyway this is not the factor that wrecked Churchill’s hopes. The deciding element was the classic Shakespearean difference between appearance and reality.

Larres very convincingly explains how Churchill could believe from, say, late 1946 (7) that the Americans were really converts to the notion of a ‘Special Relationship’ : this is the appearance, an appearance reinforced by the fact that the two Presidents with whom Churchill had to deal had also served during the war. Many excellent passages in the book show how Eisenhower wanted to be considerate to Churchill the former great war leader, and how most often Churchill mistook this consideration for approval of his Foreign Policy initiatives, and above all for an enthusiastic adoption of the ‘Special Relationship’. In reality – a reality which Churchill refused to see when he was back in Downing Street – Eisenhower only served his country’s interests. If the interests of the United States were seen as best served by paying lip service to the ‘Special Relationship’ – so be it. But Churchill should not have deluded himself into believing that Eisenhower was prepared to treat his junior partner as an equal, especially in the dangerous power game with a Soviet Union in possession of the atom bomb. Among the many revealing examples given by Larres is the fact that Eisenhower did not even bother to tell Churchill that the United States had tested an H-bomb in November 1952. Larres concludes on the complicated international dealings of the year 1953 that ‘there was no pretending that a really independent British position in world politics was any longer feasible’ – a conclusion that Churchill should have arrived at himself if he had acknowledged that his ‘Special Relationship’ could only lead to subservience (8). But he did not, and pursued the chimera of direct negotiations with the Soviets, ‘parleys’ to use one of his favourite terms, literally until he had exhausted all his physical forces. Why? The book gives at least three concomitant reasons.

Churchill believed that he was the last and only British statesman able to maintain the status of his country, since only he, because of his stature, could speak as an equal to Eisenhower or Stalin (9). Thus he entertained the fancy that at the negotiating table he would personally win for his country advantages that no Foreign Office efforts would remotely obtain. Few of his aides were convinced, but few could tell him so (10).

Churchill believed that, as he put it, ‘To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’. Once again, he did not trust the Foreign Office. Larres gives us to understand that he had drawn the lessons of his vain efforts in 1912-1914 to arrange a personal deal with Tirpitz in the face of Foreign Office opposition. In his eyes, the outbreak of the First World War was largely due to the professional diplomats’ incompetence. Leaving them to arrange the affairs of the world in the nuclear age was even more dangerous, and this is linked with his third motivation.

Churchill, who had never been afraid of facing the enemy with conventional weapons on the battlefield, and who did not seem to fear the German bombs over London in 1940-45, was absolutely scared by the idea of nuclear war. Larres reminds us of his remark to Lord Moran in March 1954 : ‘[I am] more worried by the hydrogen bomb than by all the rest of my troubles put together’. In this respect, on top of not trusting his own diplomats, he was fearful of rash American initiatives and never seemed to rule out a preventive attack on their part.

One of the many ironies of his long career is that this noble concern largely contributed to ruining his moral authority in the matter, since he allowed his arguments to slide into polemical attacks on the Labour attitude during his last major speech in Parliament on the subject, in April 1954. Another irony is that the summit talks which he had failed to organise in spite of all his repeated efforts in the post-war era did take place in July 1955, soon after his retirement in April, and Larres does not fail to insist on the pitiless cruelty of Churchill’s ostensible political friends : ‘However, neither the President (11), nor Eden or Macmillan, considered inviting Churchill to Geneva as an honorary guest. Despite their pious words in July 1955 they were all glad that the unpredictable Churchill was in retirement’.

Can there be a sadder conclusion to the extraordinary career of this extraordinary man, who had soon developed a passionate interest in world politics and personal diplomacy?

Larres’s Churchill’s Cold War is not only rewarding for the superbly documented insights which it gives into Churchill’s frustrated ambition to end the Cold War single-handed – a fact which would in itself justify unreservedly recommending the book to what the author calls ‘the general public interested in international affairs’. The scholar will also find a wealth of additional information in the notes (12), which go far beyond the conventional function of providing sources and references. Librarians will find another good reason for having the book on their shelves, as the comprehensive Bibliography provides a state-of-the-art reading list for advanced students undertaking research on International Relations and early Cold War History, with many articles and books in German which are not easily found in other American or British publications. The proof reading has been meticulously executed – no mean task considering the occasionally multilingual nature of the text and the complexity of the notes. The only fault which it was possible to find in the book was in the Index: for some reason Tirpitz, who is repeatedly mentioned in Chapter 1, is not in the Index. But then of course it could be argued with good reason that his name was deliberately omitted as nobody except a nit-picking reviewer would look up for ‘Tirpitz’ in the Index of a book on Churchill’s Cold War.

No doubt Larres’s monograph will be a landmark in Churchill studies, dispelling as it tries to do (13) the common misconceptions (14) associated with Churchill as a ‘Cold Warrior’.

1. Notably Makins, Clifford. The Happy Warrior : The Life of Sir Winston Churchill in Picture-strip as told in Eagle. Drawn by Frank Bellamy. Eagle Books Series. London : Hulton Press, 1958. Interestingly – and this bears out Larres’s thesis – only four frames are devoted to the period 1951-1955: his return, 1951; the King’s death, 1952; his Garter, 1953; his resignation, 1955. No mention at all of his diplomatic activities as a ‘Cold’ Warrior.

2. Larres provides the origin of the phrase in a note: it comes from The World Crisis (1):1911-4. London : 1923, p.181.

3. In contrast Churchill and Stalin ‘only’ met four times.

4. Contrary to Churchill in The Second World War (and most historians) Larres uses the current name, ‘Tehran’, throughout the book. Churchill of course detested these ‘modern’ spellings. There is a facsimile of a fascinating letter at Chartwell, in which Churchill deprecates the use of ‘Ankara’ instead of the old-fashioned ‘Angora’, with the argument that the connection between the city and the beautiful cat of that name (he was of course a great cat lover) will be lost – which it is for most people!

5. The account of the Teheran episode in The Second World War (Volume V, Closing the Ring. Book 2, ‘Teheran to Rome’, Chapters XIX-XXII) is one of the very few occurrences in the six volumes in which Churchill vents his pique against ‘the President’, as he always obsequiously calls him. Specialists of International Relations can reflect on this occasion on Churchill’s and de Gaulle’s different, but strangely parallel, experiences. De Gaulle of course always bore his allies a grudge for not inviting him to Yalta (for some reason, exclusion from Potsdam did not rankle) – but Churchill, who was invited to join the leaders of the United States and Soviet Union at Teheran, only went to suffer humiliation. Which was worse for these two proud European leaders?

6. Larres excellently documents how the British Foreign Secretary had been snubbed by the Big Two, especially the Americans, at the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in London in September-October 1945.

7. Though the link with the ‘Iron Curtain’ speech of 5 March 1946 at Westminster College, Fulton is not easy to evaluate, as Larres demonstrates.

8. This is of course what could be termed the ‘Charmley thesis’.

9. See the excellent quotation of Churchill’s child-like remark after an evening on the presidential yacht in January 1952 : ‘We talked as equals’.

10. There are some very perceptive passages on Eden and Macmillan jockeying for position and trying not to antagonize the Old Man in case it ruined their chances for the succession.

11. Eisenhower.

12. End notes, not foot notes, regrettably. This is probably due to the publisher’s pressure, for commercial reasons, to make the book more ‘attractive’ to a large public, as the academic community usually prefers foot notes.

13. John Charmley would of course argue that it is an impossible task.

14. For instance, Larres seems to have scant regard for David Carlton’s work.


See also Joachim Käppner's review in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung:

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