Churchill comes across as equivocating on the details of Britain’s engagement with post-war Europe. There can be no avoiding the body of quotes and speeches which are at once ambiguous or contradictory depending on what year and on what occasion you examine what he has to say.
Booted out of office in 1945, Churchill had lost the General Election to one of the most zealously innovative Labour governments in British history which gave the country a welfare state and the National Health Service.
Churchill wasn’t fit for the trivialities of domestic life or anything other than total control as a warlord. The qualities which made him great in war repeatedly proved disastrous in peace. As a young man his ministerial career was often controversial and heavy-handed coupled with a reputation for arrogance and boorishness. Precisely the same qualities were brilliantly utilised in Britain’s war for survival.
What is beyond doubt is Churchill’s chief commitment to the preservation of human life. It is easy to get bogged down in what he did or did not think about institutions such as the Council of Europe or the creation of the European Economic Community. These are fads, topical because they are today’s challenges. What is neglected, criminally so, is the motivation of a man remembered for war but who lived for peace.
Churchill was a bulldog in battle, but never a bloodhound. He took no relish in the loss of life. Throughout his leadership in the World War II, Churchill was reluctant to risk British lives unless absolutely necessary. He was shocked at early American calls in 1942 to invade France before the Allies were prepared and, along with the Chief of the Imperial Staff General Alan Brooke, was instrumental in deferring the plans to 1944 when casualty predictions were fewer.
After his election loss, Churchill fashioned himself as the first global politician of the modern age. He was a natural macro-manager, good at what American President George H.W Bush once dubbed “the vision thing”. Now the war was over, it was time to tackle the peace and it this through this paradigm which we can understand his sincerity about peace in Europe. In Zurich in 1946 Churchill made one of his most important post-war speeches:
“There is a remedy which … would in a few years make all Europe … free and … happy. It is to re-create the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”
Churchill was a soldier at heart, but his experiences of conflict made him deeply conscious that political leaders have a moral duty to prevent war. When he was First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill’s disastrous plan for the Dardanelles Campaign resulted in the loss of 252,000 Allied soldiers; his own experiences in the trenches on the Western Front in the same year all formed in him an acute awareness of the tragic of mechanised, mass warfare.
It’s this zeal and passion for life that affords a greater understanding of his global vision for peace in a United Europe. This is the essence of Churchill’s third act of life after the war which was undertaken with the same emphasis on saving lives. Churchill’s prodigiousness and energy meant he would not fall gently into old age (he was already in his 70s by the time he became prime minister a second time in 1951). His new obsession became the Cold War and the threat of nuclear weapons.
Churchill believed that Russia should be negotiated with, as he had in the World War II with Stalin. He understood that nuclear weapons shouldn’t be kerbed, but that Britain should have them to prevent the risk of war (it was his successor Clement Attlee that ushered in a nuclear arsenal for Britain). European disunity had to be avoided at all costs, as he said in his Zurich speech:
“In these present days, we dwell strangely and precariously under the shield and protection of the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb is still only in the hands of a State and nation which we know will never use it except in the cause of right and freedom. But it may well be that in a few years this awful agency of destruction will be widespread and the catastrophe following from its use by several warring nations will not only bring to an end all that we call civilisation but may possibly disintegrate the globe itself.”
For the next twenty years, both in and out of office, Churchill continued to try and curry favour with successive US presidents in a bid to limit the threat of nuclear weapons between the superpowers and to promote British prestige once more. In one of his most famous orations, Churchill spoke at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri where he condemned the Soviet Union’s policies in Europe, famously declaring:
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.
“Surely we should work with conscious purpose for a grand pacification of Europe, within the structure of the United Nations and in accordance with its Charter. That I feel is an open cause of policy of very great importance.”
“An iron curtain has descended across the continent” delivered to Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946
Churchill’s speech is considered one of the opening volleys announcing the beginning of the Cold War. It also happens to be one of the most honest. He praised the United States, which he declared stood as “the pinnacle of world power” and called for an even closer “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain as the “great powers of the English-speaking world” to organise and police the postwar world against the expansionistic policies of the Soviet Union.
While Stalin accused Churchill of “war-mongering”, Churchill understood that when dealing with the Soviets there was nothing they admired as much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for military weakness. Churchill understood that strength is the condition of peace, and there was no shame in ensuring it was known.
In what is considered to be his last great parliamentary speech in 1955 delivered to the House of Commons,
“Unless a trustworthy and universal agreement upon disarmament, conventional and nuclear alike, can be reached and an effective system of inspection is established and is actually workingg, there is only one sane policy for the free world in the next few years. That is what we call defence through deterrents. This we have already adopted and proclaimed. These deterents may at any time become the parents of disarmament, provided that they deter.
“I have said, like the United Kingdom and Western Europe, have had this outstanding vulnerability to carry. But the hydrogen bomb, with its vast range of destruction and the even wider area of contamination, would be effective also against nations whose population, hitherto, has been so widely dispersed over large land areas as to make them feel that they were not in any danger at all.
“Which way shall we turn to save our lives and the future of the world? It does not matter so much to old people: they are going to die soon anyway; but I find it poignant to look at youth in all its activity and ardour and, most of all, to watch little children playing their merry games, and wonder what would lie before them if God wearied of mankind.
“The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow-men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.”
Churchill knew that war was man’s natural predilection and that certain conditions gave rise to it. His ancestor John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, fought in the War of the Spanish Succession and of whom the Churchill wrote a seven-tome biography. He understood national ambition, national restraint and national war and his family’s place in it. Churchill always believed himself to be a man of destiny, but it wasn’t just to bring war but lasting peace.
It’s what drove him to continue as prime minister and as an international statesman working for a global resolution against the spectre of an atomic holocaust. It’s also what motivated him to fight on against his declining health despite the long-pleading of his wife Clementine to retire (particularly after a series of debilitating strokes throughout the 1950s). Fight on he did, right until he retired from the House of Commons in 1964. He died in January 1965.
Peace, not war, is the overriding motivation one must appreciate when remembering Sir Winston Churchill.
The state funeral of Winston Churchill, 30 January 1965