Churchill, Yalta & Jonah

by Steven F. Hayward

Jonah baits me about Churchill and Yalta. This remains an enormously controversial subject among Churchill scholars, but alas I am at my office at AEI today, and away from all my Churchill books and files where I can consult key texts. One important point I do recall: Churchill wanted to revisit the Yalta agreement at the Potsdam conference in July 1945, where, by the way, he instantly got on with Harry Truman, and probably realized that Truman would perform better than the obviously ailing FDR had at Yalta. Also, by July 1945 we had The Bomb ready to go–the famous first test blast at White Sands went off during the middle of the Potsdam conference–which means the US had a theoretically stronger negotiating position than in January.

Churchill claims in his memoirs that he planned to “have it out” with Stalin at Potsdam. But then, fate intervened: he had to return to London for the results of the June election (the results were delayed for several weeks so the votes of overseas servicemen could be counted–attention US Dems in Florida 2000!!), and much to everyone’s shock Churchill’s party lost in a landslide. So it was Attlee, not Churchill, who returned to Potsdam to finish the conference. The promised showdown never occurred.

Who knows if Churchill really would have “had it out” with Stalin had he returned; this may have been post hoc justification in his memoirs. And if he had “had it out” with Stalin, there is no assurance he and Truman would have had any success. And it should be kept in mind that Attlee, and especially his foreign secretary Bevin, were solid anti-Communists, and had no illusions (unlike their Labour successors in the 1980s) about the Soviet Union. (There is a famous story about Bevin returning from Potsdam and being asked by his friends “what the Soviets were like,” to whihc Bevin responded: “They’re just like the Communists!” Bevin, an old trade union guy, knew from direct experience what Communism meant, just as a guy named Reagan learned the same lesson from his own trade union days. . .)

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