Friday, December 7, 2012

A Leadership Legacy: Happy 138th, Winston

Philip White

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
Ivor Roberts-Jones statue of Churchill, Oslo, Norway
amount of one-sided deconstructionism has 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. And so it was that he accepted an invitation to speak at a most unlikely venue in March 1946 – Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri – not least due to the postscript that Truman added to Westminster president Franc “Bullet” McCluer’s invite, offering to introduce Churchill in the President’s home state. There he described the need for a “special relationship” between the British Commonwealth and the United States, which was needed to check the spread of expansionist Communism and the encroachment of the “iron curtain” into Europe. 

As I explained
Philip White speaking at the National
Churchill Museum, Fulton, Missouri, Nov 11, 2012
when I spoke at the National Churchill Museum on, fittingly, Armistice Day, last month, this metaphor entered our lexicon and was embodied in the Berlin Wall–the enduring image of the standoff. Yet the “special relationship” outlived this symbol, as did the principles of leadership Churchill displayed in his brave “Sinews of Peace” speech (the real title of what’s now known as the “Iron Curtain” address). Churchill was willing to speak a hard truth even when he knew it would be unpopular and then, a few days later, after a police escort was needed to get him into New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel as demonstrators yelled “GI Joe is home to stay, Winnie, Winnie, go away,” to boldly declare, “I do not wish to withdraw or modify a single word.” His critics again called him an imperialist, an old Tory and, in as Stalin said, a warmonger. The same insults he had endured when sounding the alarm bell about Hitler in the mid- to late-1930s. And in 1946, just as in the 1930s, Churchill was right.

Not only did Churchill define the Communist-Democratic divide, he also had a plan for what to do about it. Though his more ambitious ideas, including shared US-UK citizenship, did not come to fruition, the broader concepts were embodied in the creation of NATO, European reconciliation, and the Marshall Plan. He also understood not just the Communist system he criticized but the democratic one it threatened, and, the day after the anniversary of Jefferson’s inaugural address, gave a memorable defense of the principles that were, he said, defined by common law and the Bill of Rights. This is something leaders of any political persuasion must be able to do–to articulate what they and we stand for, and why.

As I think of Churchill just after his birthday, that’s what I’m focusing on: vision, understanding and bravery. Such leadership principles will be just as valid 138 years from now as they were on that sunny springtime afternoon in Fulton.


Unknown said...

Churchill seems like an interesting character from the way you describe him, Philip. Aside from "World At War" and the like, I've never really learned much about him, except his childhood. My research into British radical Charles Bradlaugh has given me an opportunity to read quite a bit about Winston's father, Lord Randolph Churchill. Randolph was a leader of "Tory Democracy," and famously resigned from his cabinet post -- a mercurial character who was a perennial foe of my subject. And for his part, Bradlaugh inveighed pretty constantly against the aristocracy, at whose head Churchill and his cronies stood in Bradlaugh's mind.

So I'm reminded, when I read your description of Churchill's evolving views, that he began his life at Blenheim Palace, the largest manor house in Britain, and that he lived his life the grandson, nephew, and cousin of a succession of Dukes of Marlborough. And that his mother was American socialite Jeanette Jerome. I'm not saying that Winston was determined by his roots, I just find them interesting.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Philip, thanks so much for sharing this. It is so timely in so many ways. We just read "Sinews of Peace" in my World Civ class, so I'll be copying your essay to them. Thanks for pointing out the nuance in his life. I especially like your characterization of his growth on this subject, becoming "more informed, more realistic, and, arguably, more visionary." That's beautiful. And it helps us realize that more information and realism can actually result in more imagination, more possibilities for dealing with crisis.

Elrod said...

I've always been more drawn to the place of Churchill's Sinews of Peace (Iron Curtain) speech than to the content; I'm a 19th century history and my book, Rebels on the Border, focuses heavily on the central Missouri River valley. Fulton, Missouri. A small, liberal arts college in the Upper South. In the famous "Kingdom of Callaway," a pro-Confederate stronghold during the Civil War, though with many Unionists in the town, and many arch anti-slavery German Republicans in Gasconnade County just across the river. In some ways, the Little Dixie region of central Missouri where Fulton lies was a kind of Southern salient in the emerging late antebellum free Midwest. To the Missouri slaveholders of Callaway County, the "iron curtain" surrounding them was defined by the North Missouri Railroad, Free Kansas, Iowa and the Mississippi River. What an ironic place on so many levels, then, to give an epochal speech about the frontiers of freedom.

Philip White said...

Thanks for your comments Elrod, Lisa and Dan.

Dan, it's interesting to me some of the assumptions made about Churchill. Yes, he was born in Blenheim Palace and went to the best schools, but he only kept his family afloat financially with his pen. In addition to writing more than 40 books, he worked for Collier's, The Telegraph and many other publications, on top of his "day job" of politico. When I was flagging some nights and the caffeine stream had receded to a trickle, I conjured visions of him pacing his study in the wee hours, dictating or scribbling edits on crumpled pages. An aristocrat, yes, but also a hard worker.

Lisa, it's kind of you to share my post with your class. With regard to Churchill's opinions evolving, I appreciate that in a politician, a family member or a friend, and hope they allow me the room to grow and form over time. Too often we dismiss such growth, particularly in the political realm, as flip flopping.

Elrod, I discovered a little of Callaway County's history during my research but don't have your depth of knowledge. Thanks for helping broaden what I know of the place pre-Churchill.