- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2002

In 1953, Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The old warrior was bitterly disappointed. Klaus Larres' study of Churchill's Cold War diplomacy explains precisely why he was so unlike other Laureates. Being merely regarded as a great writer was not enough for Churchill; he wanted the Peace Prize. Above all, Winston wanted the world to recognize his attempts at saving the planet from nuclear suicide.
Churchill, like Lincoln and Napoleon have been written about to the point of utter exhaustion. Never has so much been written by so many for such increasingly smaller returns on investment, it seems. Not this time, however. In fact, Klaus Larres in "Churchill's Cold War" has produced a well-written, scrupulously documented account devoted largely to Churchill's final turn as Prime Minister, four years that most biographers prefer not to dwell on.
No wonder. The usual take on Churchill's return to Downing Street was that the man was too old, too sick, and had too little to show for the time spent in office. In short, the second time around was very much a damp squib. All this is largely true, but it is an incomplete account as the author demonstrates in overwhelming detail. It also leaves out some important phases of the early Cold War and avoids hard questions such as: After Stalin's death could the Cold War have been concluded, thus saving the American taxpayers, for example, trillions of dollars.
Mr. Larres considers these kinds of queries and to his credit weighs the evidence and comes to no final conclusions. That doubtless will sit unwell with Cold Warriors and revisionists alike. Too bad. But in the author's defense, as he points out, the record is far from complete with the old Soviet archives still largely closed on this question.
Still, there remains much to ponder and Churchill's role in attempting to terminate the East-West struggle on terms advantageous to us is well worth examining. So is his penchant for personal diplomacy, an endeavor frequently criticized in direct proportion to the critic's distance from high office. In fact, as the author demonstrates Churchill much before World War II was a vociferous proponent of personal diplomacy. To be exact, it was 1908 that young Winston became a member of the cabinet. It was not long after he was proposing to meet with top German officials in order to keep the two nation's budding naval rivalry from spilling into war. Churchill's older, but hardly wiser, colleagues were opposed and the two empires found themselves at war a few years later.
Churchill's preference for "parleys at the summit" could not be acted on until another war more than three decades later. His wartime meetings with Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman (once at Potsdam), Joseph Stalin, and (once in Cairo) Chiang Kai-shek are familiar even to casual students of 20th century history. The author wastes little time in regurgitating the familiar. But Churchill's objectives merit further consideration. Other than personal ambition and vanity (which the Duke of Marlborough's distinguished descendent had in abundance), Britain's wartime leader had a distinctly patriotic agenda.
First, he wished to promote allied cooperation, which is to say he wanted to be sure the Americans and the Soviets would stay in the war until the Nazis were finished which was no sure thing, especially with the Russians. Next, he wanted his country to remain a great power. Finally, he wanted an enduring peace that would allow Britain to rebuild its fortunes after being bled white after four decades of war, depression, and war again, not to mention misguided domestic policies that destroyed genuine Victorian virtues to be replaced with utopian prescriptions from the left.
Churchill got some of what he wanted and Britain needed, but not everything. The alliance did hold until Germany's defeat. But 1945 left only two superpowers in the world, and one of them was not Great Britain. The Soviet Union may have been fundamentally flawed (something George Kennan clearly saw) but it did have nuclear teeth which in time it would bare. Indeed, when Churchill returned to 10 Downing Street in April 1951, he was intent on Britain catching up in nuclear weapons, continuing Labor's atomic bomb program and stocking a thermonuclear arsenal of his own. This, of course, was all meant to keep Britain in the small, tight circle of powers that count and not become one of the many has-beens and never-weres.
Churchill's quest in terms of practical diplomacy meant a nearly ceaseless campaign to entice the Russians into a grand, post-war summit with or without American participation. The Prime Minister thought he could re-establish what he felt was a good working relationship with Stalin or, after the tyrant's sudden end in March 1953, his successor who Churchill thought was Georgi Malenkov. The problem? Nearly everyone else thought otherwise. The Soviets, Stalin and then his successors, believed Churchill, the old anti-Bolshevik, was up to no good. Truman and Eisenhower were hugely skeptical. Ike's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles (whom Churchill loathed) was bitterly opposed.
So was Britain's Foreign Office and after some initial hesitation, Churchill's Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Perhaps Churchill was simply too old, but there is nothing in the record that shows that he had any stomach for the political intrigue that can spur a balky bureaucracy into moving along the course designated. Churchill hardly helped his own cause by insisting on a summit where the participants would be leaders only, the agenda unfixed, and where, seemingly, personal warmth alone would melt the frost of the Cold War. The P.M. never seemed to get much beyond these vague ideas leaving even his staunchest defenders well, defenseless.
Churchill may have been on to something, however, especially with the post-Stalin uncertain leadership in the Soviet Union. True, V.M. Molotov had no interest in detente and stridently opposed any meeting at the top. But the odious Beria had other ideas. He knew better than anyone what a beating the Soviet fatherland had taken at the hands of the Germans. He knew how unhappy (and unfaithful, not to mention, broke) the satellites were, and he understood the implications of a crushing defense budget on a regime that could not and never did provide even the basics for its people.
Of course, Beria would not live long enough to put any of his ideas in practice. But what if Beria had succeeded in eliminating his rivals rather than the other way around?
Churchill had not the vaguest idea of what the Soviet presidium was up to after Stalin, but neither did anyone else. The CIA to find out who really was in charge in Moscow at the time of the 1955 Geneva Summit, in fact, tasked Eisenhower to do a personal presidential recce mission. Ike's conclusion after surveying the collective leadership: it was N.S. Khrushchev. True, true, but a little late in the game and so hardly anyone can blame Churchill with fixing on Malenkov who would soon be along with Molotov bumped, but not buried, by the irrepressible Khrushchev.
Churchill never got his parley, of course, but there is something uplifting about the old lion not giving in even after a series of strokes with a Tory party anxious to replace their leader before a real disaster occurred.
It would happen, but that was Suez and Churchill's successor, Anthony Eden would be tarred with the fiasco. Meanwhile, Churchill's reputation would survive and even swell in the ensuing years. Mr. Larres gives us a gripping account of his last years in office, which were not entirely without honor, if not, glory.

Roger Fontaine served on the National Security Council staff under President Ronald Reagan.

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