Friday, December 14, 2012

A Legacy of Leadership: Happy 138th, Winston

November 30 was Winston Churchill’s birthday. 138 years after his birth, historians, politicians and the public are still as fascinated as ever about this most iconic of British Prime Ministers. Of course, as with every major historical figure, the amount of one-sided deconstructionismhas increased over the past few years, no more useful to the reader than one-sided hagiography. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle–a deeply flawed (aren’t we all!) larger-than-life figure who botched a lot of decisions–notably his resistance to home rule for India and well-meaning but ill-conceived support of Edward VIII during the 1936 abdication crisis–who got the big things right.

Among the latter was Churchill’s foresight over the divisions between the democratic West and the Communist East. Since the inception of Communism and its violent manifestation in the Russian Revolution, Churchill had despised the movement, calling it a “pestilence.” Certainly, his monarchial devotion was part of this, but more so, Churchill believed Communism destroyed the very principles of liberty and freedom that he would devote his career to advancing and defending. 

Certainly, with his love of Empire, there were some inconsistencies in his thinking, but above all, Churchill believed that the individual should be able to make choices and that systemic freedom–of the press, of religion, of the ballot, must be upheld for individuals to enact such choices. That’s why he vowed to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle,” though his plan to bolster anti-Communist forces was quickly shot down by Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George as another of “Winston’s follies.”

In this case, his plan to oppose Communism was indeed unrealistic. There were a small amount of British, Canadian, and American troops and a trickle of supporting materiel going to aid the White Russians toward the end of World War I, but once the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the Allied leaders wanted to get their boys home, not commit more to a seemingly hopeless cause.

But over the next three decades, Churchill’s ideas on how to deal with Communism became more informed, more realistic and, arguably, more visionary. Though he reluctantly accepted Stalin as an ally when Hitler turned on Russia in the fateful summer of 1941, Churchill’s pragmatism and public admiration of the Marshal did not blind him to the ills of the Communist system. The Percentages Agreement he signed with Stalin in a late 1944 meeting has since been blamed for hastening the fall of democratic Eastern Europe, but what Churchill was actually doing there was essentially recognizing that the Communist takeover was a fait accompli, and guaranteeing Stalin’s agreement to largely leave the Greek Communists to their own devices in Greece after World War II. Though Moscow did supply arms and it took the Marshall Plan to prop up the anti-Communist side in Greece, Stalin largely honored this pledge.

He was not so good on his word with many other things, however. Among the promises he made to Churchill and FDR were to include the London Poles (exiled during the war) in a so-called representative government in Poland. In fact, the Communist puppet Lublin Poles ran the new regime after the war, and the old guard was either shunned or killed. In fact, horrifyingly, many of the leaders of the Polish Underground were taken out by Stalin’s henchmen, and others were held in former Nazi camps that the Red Army had supposedly “liberated.” 

At the Potsdam Conference in July 1946, Stalin showed that his vows at Yalta were mere lip service to the British and American leaders. He made demands for bases in Turkey, threatened the vital British trade route through the Suez canal and refused to withdraw troops from oil-rich Iran.

Churchill, still putting his faith in personal diplomacy, believed he could reason with Stalin, particularly if Harry Truman backed him up. But halfway through the Potsdam meeting the British public sent the Conservative Party to its second worst defeat in one of the most surprising General Election decisions. Churchill was out as Prime Minister and Clement Attlee was in. Off Attlee went to Germany to finish the dialogue with Truman and Stalin. Churchill feared he was headed for political oblivion. 

Yet, after a few weeks of moping, he realized that he still had his pen and, as arguably the most famous democratic leader of the age (only FDR came close in global renown), his voice.
  Click here to keep reading at the blog of Boston University's Historical Society

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