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.