Churchill and the Cold War

"We and all nations, stand at this hour in human history, before the portals of supreme catastrophe and of measureless reward. My faith is that in God's mercy we shall choose aright."

From the end of World War II in 1945 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, former allies, no adversaries, probed and challenged each other, fought "proxy wars" in remote places, and attempted to best the other without provoking a nuclear exchange. It was known as the "Cold War."

Winston Churchill did not start the Cold War and he did not finish it. But he did see it coming, sounded its early warning, and defined the central problems that would occupy the leaders that followed him.

Churchill's speech at Fulton was the first widely recognized clarion call. But, throughout the late 1940s and during his second term as Prime Minister, Churchill continued to grapple with Cold War issues.

The Odd Couple

"I would not have believed it possible that in a year, the Soviets would have been able to do themselves so much harm, and chill so many friendships in the English-speaking world."

The wartime alliance formed a peculiar bond between Churchill and Stalin. Both men knew what it was like to have their back against the wall with Hitler in front of them. Each admired the courage with which the other faced the challenge.

They never fully trusted each other. They had acrimonious differences. And, as a life-long anti-Bolshevik, Churchill harbored few illusions about Soviet post-war intentions.

Nevertheless, unlike his relationship with Hitler, characterized by mutual loathing, Churchill's relationship with Stalin had the marks of respect. Churchill was fond of Stalin and enjoyed their interplay. These feelings were reciprocated.

The death of Roosevelt in April 1945 helped to extenuate existing fissures in the 'grand alliance'. Churchill's General Election loss and the Soviets' postwar actions in Eastern Europe further stressed the ties and effectively dismantled the relationship between Churchill and Stalin.

Stalin died in 1953 during Churchill's second premiership, leaving Churchill as the sole survivor of the original three Allied leaders. Ironically, it was the new Soviet leadership less well known to the West that Churchill saw as an opportunity for warmer relations. This "thaw" led to the Geneva Summit of 1955.

The Cold War Defined: Churchill's Perspective

"There I sat with the great Russian bear on one side of me with paws outstretched, and, on the other side, the great American buffalo. Between the two sat the poor little English donkey, who was the only one who knew the right way home."

The Cold War emerged as the Soviet Union turned Eastern Europe - the invasion route to Russia for centuries - into a military and political buffer between it and the West. Each saw a different reality; The Soviets wanted troops in Eastern Europe to block an attack from the West; the West saw them as a prelude to an attack on the West. Mutual suspicion, misunderstanding, ideological posturing and rhetorical extravagance, and Soviet-style governments in the East locked the two sides in a tense standoff.

Winston Churchill thought the Cold War required a three-part strategy:

The cooperation of Britain, the United States and the new United Nations would be needed to create the "sinews of peace".

Churchill advocated managing Cold War tensions with a view toward a favorable mutual resolution. The United States took a more confrontational stance, threatening "massive retaliation" with nuclear weapons and adopting a deterrent policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD).

The United States sought to win the Cold War; Churchill sought to overcome it. Of the United States policy Churchill remarked, "If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce."

The Cold War Engaged: Churchill's Second Premiership

"I do not believe that the immense problem of reconciling the security of Russia with the freedom and safety of Western Europe is insoluble..."

During the late 1940s Winston Churchill actively supported attempts to unify Europe through the Congress of Europe (1948) and the Council of Europe (1949). The creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 sought to tie the United State to Britain and Euroope, and to avoid American detachment as happened after World War I. The South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), formed in 1954 tried to do for Asia what NATO did for Europe.

At the end of World War II Korea, like Germany, was divided into Soviet and Allied zones of occupation which in turn became two separate states. When North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950, the action was seen as Soviet instigated and a foreshadowing of their intentions in Western Europe. The Cold War had just produced its first proxy hot war.

In 1951, upon becoming Prime Minister again, Churchill devoted much of his energies to Cold War issues, and a minimum to domestic policies. The Korean War had begun the year before, and Churchill supported British participation in the United Nations forces.

Churchill's strategy was to both maintain Britain's global role and establish constructive relations with Moscow through Summit conferences of world leaders. Churchill was to be largely frustrated in these efforts. Leaders with whom he forged personal relationships in World War II were dead (Roosevelt), devoted to other priorities (Eisenhower), or soon to die (Stalin). Winston was the only one talking about "Summits" - a term he popularized.

Also, from the perspective of the United States, Soviet repression of Eastern Europe and the Berlin blockade of 1948-49, plus their alleged complicity in the Korean War made constructive relations with the Soviet Union unacceptable.

Only one Summit Conference took place during Churchill's second premiership - Bermuda, 1953 - with minimal consequence.

Churchill's political career ended effectively in 1955 when he retired as Prime Minister. He died in 1965. Only many years after Churchill's passing would summitry and constructive relations with the Soviet Union become an effective instrument of statecraft, playing a significant role in the end of the Cold War.

The Cold War Resolved: A Churchill Retrospective

"It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look farther than you can see."

Ultimately, American Cold War policy warmed, coming to embrace positions Churchill had advocated years before.

The Cold War ended with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

How does Winston Churchill's original strategy look from the perspective of the Cold War's conclusion?

While Churchill did not and could not foresee all the twists and turns of the Cold War, he would certainly recognize solutions to the issues he framed in the shape of our contemporary world.

The "poor little English donkey" was indeed the one "who knew the right way home."


“Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

Winston S. Churchill