Cross-posted from History Matters
On 23 February 1945 Churchill invited all ministers outside the War Cabinet to his room at the House of Commons to hear his account of the Yalta conference and the one at Malta that had preceded it. The Labour minister Hugh Dalton recorded in his diary that “The PM spoke very warmly of Stalin. He was sure […] that as long as Stalin lasted, Anglo-Russian friendship could be maintained.” Churchill added: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust with Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.”
Just five days later, however, Churchill’s trusted private secretary John Colville noted the arrival of:
“sinister telegrams from Roumania showing that the Russians are intimidating the King and Government […] with all the techniques familiar to students of the Comintern. […] When the PM came back [from dining at Buckingham Palace] […] he said he feared he could do nothing. Russia had let us go our way in Greece; she would insist on imposing her will in Roumania and Bulgaria. But as regards Poland we would have our say. As we went to bed, after 2.00 a.m. the PM said to me, ‘I have not the slightest intention of being cheated over Poland, not even if we go to the verge of war with Russia.”
At an initial glance, there seems to be a powerful contradiction between these different sets of remarks. In the first, Churchill appears remarkably naïve and foolish, putting his faith in his personal relationship with a man whom he knew to be a mass murderer. In the second he seems strikingly, even recklessly bellicose, contemplating a new war with the Soviets, his present allies, even before the Germans and the Japanese had been defeated.
Surprising though it may seem, the disjuncture is not as large as it appears on the surface. Relations with the USSR and the future of Poland were not the only things that were at stake at Yalta. The Big Three took important decisions regarding the proposed United Nations Organization, and the post-war treatment of Germany, and even Anglo-US relations were not uncomplicated. In this post, however, I want to focus on the Polish issue and the broader question of how Churchill viewed the Soviet Union and its place in international relations more generally. I will outline three key assumptions that governed Churchill’s approach and which explain the apparent discrepancies in his remarks upon his return.
Assumption 1: The key to the Soviet enigma was the Russia national interest.
This assumption is the one that needs explaining at greatest length. In a radio broadcast given in the autumn of 1939, a month after the outbreak of the Second World War, Churchill told his audience: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
What Churchill meant was that the Soviet Union was acting on traditional Great Power lines, in a rational and predictable way. This was a striking, and remarkably sanguine, thing to say just a few months after the conclusion of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The pact had clearly not disrupted his conclusion, reached earlier in the thirties, that the USSR was a potentially responsible actor with which it was possible for Britain to collaborate.
That conclusion was in marked contrast to Churchill’s attitude in the fifteen years after 1917. To him, in the aftermath of WWI, the Bolsheviks were ‘the avowed enemies of the existing civilization of the world’. He believed that Lenin, Sinn Féin and the Indian and Egyptian nationalist extremists were all part of ‘a world-wide conspiracy’ to overthrow the British Empire. His central objections to Bolshevism, then, were a) that it involved a reversion to barbarism, and b) that its proponents were attempting to spread its seditious principles globally.
As late as 1931 he was portraying the USSR as a “gigantic menace to the peace of Europe”. There followed almost three years in which he failed to offer substantive comment on the Soviet Union, a period during which, however, he appears to have significantly adjusted his views. The rise of Hitler was of course crucial here. In August 1934, the Sunday Express reported that Churchill had had a change of heart on Russia. An article by the journalist Peter Howard was headlined: ‘Mr. Churchill Changes His Mind: The Bogey Men of Moscow are Now Quite Nice.’
Howard’s piece was prompted by a speech by Churchill the previous month. In this he had praised the proposal – which in fact never came off – of a mutual-aid treaty between the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This was an idea, Churchill said, which involved “the reassociation of Soviet Russia with the Western European system.” He cited the speeches of Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litivinov. These, he said, “had seemed to give the impression which I believe is a true one, that Russia is most deeply desirous of maintaining peace at the present time. Certainly, she has a great interest in maintaining peace.”
It was not enough, in Churchill’s view, to talk about the USSR as “peace-loving” because “every Power is peace-loving always.” Rather: “One wants to see what is the interest of a particular Power and it is certainly the interest of Russia, even on grounds concerning her own internal arrangements to preserve peace.” Thus, by the mid-1930s Churchill had reached the conclusion that the USSR had abandoned world revolution and that, acting once again as a traditional Great Power, it shared Britain’s interest in preserving the peace of Europe. This determined his attitude at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938 and held good through to the time of Yalta.
Assumption 2: Stalin would respect ‘spheres of interest’ and the so-called ‘percentages agreement’.
The Moscow summit of October 1944 was the occasion of the notorious “percentages agreement”, via which Churchill believed he had secured Stalin’s consent for the division of the Balkans into British and Soviet spheres of influence. What, if anything, Stalin had really agreed is open to debate. It is striking, though, that the Soviet press reported that the two men had reached genuine unanimity over Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Greece, and warmly welcomed the “disappearance of the Balkan powderkeg” from the European scene. Crucially, Poland was not mentioned in the agreement. This explains why Churchill did not feel able to protest about Soviet actions in Rumania and Bulgaria yet spoke of his willingness to go to the brink of war over Poland.
Assumption 3: The Polish government-in-exile would best serve its own cause by not rocking the boat, and that Soviet human rights abuses were best swept under the carpet.
This assumption is best illustrated by a 1943 diary entry by Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London. This related to the notorious Katyn forest massacre, perpetrated by Soviet forces in 1940; the Nazis had recently announced the discovery of mass graves on territory now controlled by Germany. Maisky wrote:
“Churchill stressed that of course he does not believe the German lies about the murder of 10,000 Polish officers … But is this so? At one point during our conversation Churchill dropped the following remark: ‘Even if the German statements were to prove true, my attitude towards you would not change. You are a brave people, Stalin is a brave warrior, and at the moment I approach everything primarily as a soldier who is interested in defeating the common enemy as quickly as possible.”
Churchill’s real concern was to prevent the affair damaging Anglo-Soviet relations, which he believed the Polish press in Britain was putting at risk. He fulminated to his Cabinet that “no Government which had accepted our hospitality had any right to publish articles of a character which conflicted with the general policy of the United Nations and which would create difficulties for this Government.” One might say that there was a further assumption here, that history was driven by Great Men, like him and Stalin, and that Great Powers could legitimately settle the fates of nations over the heads of their peoples and governments. Omelettes could not be made without breaking eggs.
When he rose to speak in the Commons on 27 February in order to expound the Yalta agreement Churchill stated his impression “that Marshal Stalin and the Soviet leaders wish to live in honourable friendship and equality with the Western democracies. I feel also that their word is their bond.” Justifying this latter claim in his memoirs, Churchill wrote: “I felt bound to proclaim my confidence in Soviet faith in order to procure it. In this I was encouraged by Stalin’s behaviour about Greece.” As we have already seen, however, he claimed privately to be “Profoundly impressed with the friendly attitude of Stalin and Molotov.” Colville wrote: “He is trying to persuade himself that all is well, but in his heart I think he is worried about Poland and not convinced of the strength of our moral position.”
Churchill cannot be convicted of total naivety. There was a degree, certainly, to which he put too much faith in his own personal capacity to win over and deal with the Soviet leadership. But his comments about Stalin’s trustworthiness were to a great extent an attempt to put on a brave face in front of his ministers and the public. He never did make the mistake of assuming that Stalin was a pushover, but he did believe that he would respond to firm handling. More broadly his approach was determined by the belief that the Soviets were rational actors who could contribute to a constructive global order, even as they acted as rivals to Britain and the USA.
The conflict between the remarks recorded by Dalton and those recorded by Colville is explained by Churchill’s belief (or most profound assumption) in managed international rivalry. It was not that he thought that Yalta had solved or prevented conflict between the Great Powers but he believed that this type of international agreement could keep it within bounds. In respect of his apparent belief that Stalin could be induced to accept a free and democratic Poland, it is easy to see that Churchill was indeed wrong. But in regard to his overarching belief that the Soviet regime acted in line with rational calculations about its own national interests, rather than being primarily motivated by communist ideology, he may have been far less wrong than appears at first sight.
Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Winston Churchill: A Life in the News and co-author (with Steven Fielding and Bill Schwarz of The Churchill Myths, both published by Oxford University Press in 2020. He tweets @RichardToye.
Cover Image: Winston Churchill sharing a joke with Joseph Stalin and his interpreter, Pavlov at Livadia Palace during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
 Ben Pimlott (ed.), The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton, 1940–1945 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 836 (entry for 23 February 1945).
 John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 (London: Phoenix, 2005), p. 536 (entry for 28 Feb. 1945).
 Broadcast of 1 Oct. 1939.
 Speech of 3 Jan. 1920.
 Speech of 4 Nov. 1920.
 ‘Winston Churchill Sees Soviet Russia as Gigantic Menace to the Peace of Europe’, New York American, 23 Aug. 1931.
 Sunday Express, 26 Aug. 1934.
 Speech of 13 July 1934.
 See Albert Resis, ‘The Churchill-Stalin Secret “Percentages” Agreement on the Balkans, Moscow, October 1944’, American Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (Apr., 1978), pp. 368-387.
 W.H. Lawrence, ‘Russians Indicate Unity on Balkans’, New York Times, 22 Oct. 1944.
 Gabriel Gorodetsky (ed.), The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s 1932-1943, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2015, p.509 (entry for 23 Apr. 1943).
 Cabinet Minutes, 27 Apr. 1943, WM (43) 59th Conclusions, CAB 65/34/13, The National Archives, Kew, London.
 Speech of 27 Feb. 1945.
 WSC, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 351.
 WSC to Clement Attlee and James Stuart, 14 Feb. 1945, Churchill Papers, CHAR 9/206B/207.
 Colville, Fringes of Power, p. 565 (entry for 27 Feb. 1945).