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Diplomatic History

The Unquiet Reporters: The American Press and the Franco-Viet Minh War, 1950-54

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In Hanoi, Vietnam, correspondents filed into the press camp to hear about the latest military engagement in France’s war against the Communist-led Viet Minh. The French colonel presiding explained that French forces had secured a crushing victory in northern Vietnam, inflicting severe losses on communist combatants, and compelling the remaining enemy troops to flee across the Red River where they were being pummelled by French air power. 

The colonel could not revel for too long in tales of France’s battlefield success, for his announcement was interrupted by Bill Granger, a crude and often inebriated American correspondent. U.S. representation in the press corps had swollen in recent years, following Washington’s 1950 decision to supply French forces with American military hardware. U.S. officials hoped this aid would stave off Vietnam’s fall to communism, preventing the start of a domino effect they feared would see all of Southeast Asia slip into the Soviet Union’s Cold War orbit.

After forcing the evasive colonel to reveal the scale of French losses, Granger turned to France’s next steps. Incensed by the American’s condescending tone and provocative questioning, the colonel eventually snapped, informing Granger that French options were limited by the tardiness of the arrival of U.S. aid. 

Washington’s failure, the colonel sneered, to deliver the helicopters it had promised would probably cost French lives, leaving those wounded in the battle to trek through dangerous terrain in which death by ambush or gangrene likely awaited them. And with that the colonel stormed out of the press conference.[1]

The above account summarising Granger’s tense interaction with the French colonel is a scene from British author Graham Greene’s Indochina novel, The Quiet American. Since its publication in 1955, historians, encouraged by Greene’s own admission that the book contained more direct reportage than any of his other works, have sought to uncover the real-life inspirations behind the novel’s characters and plot.[2]   

Scholars have focused their attention principally on identifying the quiet American of the novel’s title, Alden Pyle, the CIA operative whose idealistic pursuit of a Third Force between communism and colonialism succeeds not in engineering democracy in Vietnam but rather sowing death and destruction in the streets of Saigon

Far less attention has been paid to the novel’s quite accurate portrayal of the tempestuous relationship between American correspondents and the French, one of several issues that fostered an uneasy alliance between Paris and Washington during the Franco-Viet Minh War. 

The press conference Greene depicted in The Quiet American was more fact than fiction, drawn from a December 1951 briefing that Greene himself had attended in Hanoi in which Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist Larry Allen, the model for Granger’s character, baited Colonel Gousset about French casualties.[3]

Such clashes between French officials and American journalists, as I show in my article ‘Press Management and U.S. Support for France in Indochina, 1950-1954’, were frequent events during the early 1950s, with French officials regularly complaining to U.S. diplomats about the behaviour and reporting of American correspondents in Vietnam.[4]

U.S. reporters, Paris noted, fixated more on French military setbacks and the evils of French colonialism than France’s honourable contributions to the causes of the Cold War and Vietnamese development. The French argued that such reporting succeeded only in strengthening the position of those in the French National Assembly calling for France to withdraw from Vietnam and abandon it to the communists.

The novel’s references to the evasiveness of French press officers and the severe restrictions and strict censorship that the French placed on American correspondents also accurately captured the obstacles reporters faced in covering the war, as well as the reasons for journalists’ frustration with their French handlers. 

The antagonistic relationship between American reporters and the French, I show in my article, left American policymakers fearful that U.S. correspondents would initiate a rupture in the Franco-American alliance that would indeed force a premature French departure from Indochina. Washington recognised that non-state actors, as much as government officials, could make or break diplomatic alliances. 

To avert such a Cold War calamity, U.S. diplomats briefed American reporters on their arrival in Vietnam on French sensitivities and the national security importance of avoiding stirring the pot. They also intervened with journalists and editors to kill stories and pressured media outlets to publish rebuttals when reporters refused to fall into line.

Simultaneously, American diplomats urged the French to ease their restrictions on U.S. correspondents. The sum of American reporting was generally supportive of French aims, they accurately informed Paris, and draconian restrictions on press freedoms would only encourage embittered journalists to write critically of French efforts. 

The U.S. mission’s activities met with mixed success. U.S. government intervention ensured that the American media’s coverage of the war was largely favourable but some pessimistic and critical pieces continued to find their way to print. Small numbers of U.S. correspondents found creative ways to bypass French restrictions, locate pessimistic sources, and resist U.S. government intimidation. Meanwhile, American officials experienced little joy with the French, who knew that Washington’s steadfast commitment to containing communism would ensure the flow of U.S. aid to Indochina regardless of whether they liberalised their press policy.

The relationship between American reporters and the French remained frosty right through to the war’s conclusion in 1954, when French war weariness, desire to focus on economic recovery at home and combat nationalist threats in their North African colonies, and further military setbacks forced France to call time on their war in Indochina.[5]

As the French departed and the focus of U.S. efforts shifted to supporting the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem, Washington’s commitment in Vietnam grew, drawing with it increasing numbers of American reporters. 

As historian Kevin Ruane has recently noted, many of these incoming correspondents looked not to history books but to The Quiet American to understand their new surroundings. Sixty-six years on from the novel’s publication, we too can look to The Quiet American for insight into the fragile Franco-American alliance at the centre of early US efforts to contain communism in Vietnam. 

Dr Alex Ferguson is a Teaching Associate in 20th Century U.S. History at the University of Sheffield. He is currently working on a book project examining the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and the Franco-American alliance in Vietnam during the early 1950s. You can find Alex on Twitter @AFerguson1988.

Cover Image: In spring 1954, French soldiers await the Viet Minh attack at Dien Bien Phu, the scene of the climactic battle of the Franco-Viet Minh War. Source: File:Dien Bien Phu002.jpg – Wikimedia Commons


[1] Graham Greene, The Quiet American (New York, 1957), pp. 63-67.

[2] Graham Greene, Ways of Escape (London, 1999), p. 165.

[3] Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene: Volume 2, 1939-1955 (New York, 1994), p. 398; Richard Greene, Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene (London, 2020), pp. 217-218.

[4] Alex Ferguson, ‘Press Management and U.S. Support for France in Indochina, 1950-1954’, Diplomatic History 42.2 (April 2018), pp. 228-253. My thanks go to Oxford University Press and the Society for American Foreign Relations for allowing me to reuse some of this article here. 

[5] Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (New York, 2012).

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Mining the Munich Crisis for Meaning: Crises Past and Present

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We are the editors of a new book, The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (Manchester University Press, 2021). The contributors came together for a conference in 2018, the 80th anniversary of the signing of the highly controversial but pivotal Munich Agreement, a diplomatic event that was all-absorbing for people throughout Europe and beyond. The days, weeks, and months when the world was on the brink of another global conflict war was a time of acute crisis, uncertainty, anxiety, and private and public suspense and nervousness. In this blog post we reflect on the Munich Crisis in light of the current global crisis, hearing unmistakable resonances, drawing some parallels, as well as thinking about how the ‘People’s Crisis’ of 1938 differed in important ways from the all-consuming global pandemic today. 

Julie V. Gottlieb: The Munich Crisis and the repercussions of the international affairs on the home front and on private lives has been the focus of my research and my attention for many years now. It is therefore difficult not to hear (loud) resonances with crises in international affairs in the last few years and with heated debates about international intervention—Iraq, Syria, China etc… Other resonances can be heard with the current global people’s crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. With regards to the latter, we need to be cautious about the parallels we see and the lessons we think we can draw from crisis events of the past. There is no easy symmetry here. 

Richard Toye: I agree, but there is one significant thing the crises have in common. Both involve(d) the fear of mass death. It is a commonplace in the literature that people during the interwar years tended to exaggerate the likely impact of bombing, thinking it would literally bring about the end of civilisation, but the actual results during World War II turned out to be somewhat less dramatic. However, one can hardly blame people for being fearful – of gas, as well as of bombs. On the other hand, as far as I know, there were no ‘Munich deniers’ in 1938. Nobody suggested that war was a non-existent threat that had been worked up by the authorities for their own political purposes.

Daniel Hucker: A small minority of pacifists did argue that air raid precaution measures served only to normalise militarism whilst hoodwinking the people into believing that they could be protected against bombs and gas (are there echoes here in the anti-vaxxer’s arguments, who almost fear the solution more than the problem?), but nobody genuinely argued that the threat of war was imagined. I am struck, however, by the parallels between how far people are/were willing to go to mitigate the threat. In 1938, for the French and British at least, it was a question of sacrificing honour and prestige, with the ultimate price being paid by the Czechoslovakians. Today, we are all making sacrifices but, just as in 1938, some are making more substantial sacrifices than others.

Neville Chamberlain on his way home after the signing of the Munich Agreement. To his left the Reich’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and to his right the head of the Munich Police Karl von Eberstein, 30 September 1938. Source: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

JG: As this pandemic wears on, it is less and less reminiscent of the Munich Crisis. Rather it evokes if anything from that heavily-mined period and the rose-tinted nostalgia for the People’s War, the ‘Phoney’ or more aptly the ‘Bore’ war. This was the long months of anticipation from September 1939 to May 1940 when Britain was at war but there was little action. 

RT: Yes, but looking at it another way, thousands of people have been dying every day–just as thousands died or were oppressed by the Nazis in Poland. This happens out of sight of most of us, which may be why it seems as though nothing is happening. A reasonably strong pro-peace movement emerged in the autumn of 1939, which is perhaps not unlike the calls today for Lockdown to be lifted.

JG: One of the main lessons I have drawn from the Munich Crisis, and from the way we have studied it in this book, is that to understand the national stories of the global pandemic these crises have to be understood as ‘people’s crises’. It seems all the more striking how little the earlier scholarship on appeasement has taken public opinion into account. So far the scholarship has not had much if any concern with the subjective experience of diplomatic events. Holed up in our home offices—alone or with people who in normal times we only see a couple of hours a day—there is ample opportunity to think and feel our way through how the global pandemic affects us individually. Certainly one unmistakable parallel is the ‘crisis fatigue’ that Mass-Observation diagnosed in 1938, and the widespread feeling that we are at a saturation point with news of the pandemic, fed up, desperate for news of something else. 

DH: Throughout the current pandemic the people have been at the forefront of politicians’ responses—we hear repeatedly of the need for clear and unambiguous messaging, for the public to do ‘their bit’ by following official guidelines, and how policy must be attentive to the public’s willingness to listen and adhere. In an era of rolling news, social media, and unprecedented global interconnectivity, this is unsurprising. But as our book shows, the Munich ‘moment’ was also framed as a global crisis, with ramifications that would be felt far and wide. Not only was the crisis experienced subjectively by individuals, but it was experienced collectively, as an event. This clearly had a profound impact, and several of the contributions in this book demonstrate only too clearly the importance of public opinion.

JG: We seem to be congratulating ourselves quite a bit here in Britain—and I expect elsewhere as well—on our appreciation and willingness to deal with the mental health consequences of the current global crisis. It is a helpful reminder that there was genuine concern and many schemes to deal with just the same mental health fallout of the crisis itself and of the impending war from the air. Our mission with this collaborative work was to think about the Munich Crisis as ripe for the study of emotions—private, collective, imagined, prescribed and proscribed. 

RT: Indeed, and it’s a very difficult thing to do. Perhaps it’s a bit easier in respect to Munich than with regards to the pandemic, as the 1938 crisis was relatively short-lived, people took particular note to record it, and everything was felt very intensely. How will historians reconstruct people’s feelings during Covid, when a lot of people are progressively, but imperceptibly, worn down a bit further every day, and perhaps feel less and less incentive to write down their emotions? True, the sociological research organisation Mass Observation sprang into action and recruited a lot of new observers in March/April 2020 to capture the experience of the pandemic. In the fullness of time we will learn how many of them stayed the course.

The Munich Conference on 29 September 1938 in the so-called Führerbau (Führer’s Building) on the Königsplatz. From left to right: Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, the interpreter Paul Otto Schmidt, and Neville Chamberlain. Source: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

DH: The early stages of the Covid crisis were perhaps the most analogous to Munich—just as news of a new virus in China had played out in the background before March 2020, so the Sudeten crisis unfolded over the summer of 1938 in a way that didn’t affect people in a meaningful way until September. Then the reality dawned and a tangible ‘crisis’ set in—in 1938 air raid shelters were constructed and gas masks distributed; in 2020 we locked down, queued outside supermarkets, and fashioned face masks out of old clothes. We might acclimatise to a crisis, adapt to a ‘new’ normal, but new crises (today’s ‘variants’) are never far from the surface. 

JG: Another issue is the use of the word ‘crisis’. Can a crisis drag on and on, for months and even years, or does longevity make the word unhelpful, misleading, or even useless? Certainly in September 1938 everyone immediately referred to the moment as ‘The Crisis’, specifically the four days at the end of September at the climax of the drama when Chamberlain was summoned to a third meeting with Hitler, and the meeting of the Four Powers at Munich when they came to the agreement for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. In the first lockdown, thinking about Covid-19 as a crisis event was plausible. As we in Britain find ourselves in the third lockdown, and a year and counting into the global pandemic, we may very well require a different word, a different paradigm, to make sense of our historical moment, and how it will be bookended by historians of the future. The study of comparative crisis therefore prompts a fruitful discussion about periodization.

Tickets are available via Eventbrite for the book’s launch event on 11 March 2021:

Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. Her related publications include ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement (Palgrave, 2015), “The Munich Crisis: Waiting for the End of the World” https://www.historytoday.com/archive/feature/munich-crisis-waiting-end-world, and “Surviving a “War of Nerves”: Lessons for the age of coronavirus from 1930s Britain” https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/coronavirus/2020/03/surviving-war-nerves-lessons-age-coronavirus-1930s-britain

Prof. Daniel Hucker is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nottingham. His related publications include Public Opinion and the End of Appeasement in Britain and France (Ashgate, 2011) and Public Opinion and Twentieth-Century Diplomacy: A Global Perspective (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Prof. Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. His related publications include Winston Churchill: A Life in the News (Oxford University Press, 2020) and ‘“This famous island is the home of freedom”: Winston Churchill and the battle for “European civilization”’, History of European Ideas, 46 (2020).

Cover Image: Neville Chamberlain holding the paper containing the resolution to commit to peaceful methods signed by both Hitler and himself on his return from Munich, 30 September 1938. Source: Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

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The border, politics, and the Commonwealth in interwar Ireland

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In the still recent past of the pre-Covid era, news cycles in Britain and Ireland were dominated by Brexit, and in particular by the question of the Irish border. However, while Irish politicians have spent much of the last few years stressing its significance to British audiences in this context, the border has animated the rhetoric of Irish politics since its establishment almost one hundred years ago.

The European Union is of course not the first international framework in which the border has been understood — as demonstrated by important recent discussions on ‘the imperial and colonial legacies of Irish history’. However, while some Irish nationalists had framed resistance to British rule as part of a critique of empire, after independence, there were still others who promoted Commonwealth membership. As examination of the interwar period demonstrates, the Irish Free State’s pursuit of sovereignty shaped many debates on partition — underlining the delicate relationship between constitutional change and its effect on the status of the border.

Debates on sovereignty and partition

As has been noted, the chief focus of debates on the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which granted the 26-county Free State dominion status, was on sovereignty rather than partition (Northern Ireland having already been established with a devolved government under 1920 legislation).[1]

Allegiance to the crown was anathema to republicans who opposed the Treaty and Éamon de Valera was among a number of Irish nationalists renowned among anti-colonial movements around the world.[2] Yet, while de Valera would hold fast to his concept of accepting only ‘external association’ with empire, the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal administration participated fully in imperial conferences in the 1920s, seeking diplomatic routes to extend sovereignty —and achieve unity. 

When the Boundary Commission established under the Treaty to adjudicate on the border yielded no progress, Free State minister Kevin O’Higgins even used the 1926 imperial conference to consider reviving the old Sinn Féin idea of Ireland becoming part of a dual-monarchy — with the implication that a fuller embrace of the crown could appeal to British and unionist leaders and smooth the path to unity.[3] However, while Jason Knirck has argued that Treatyites were committed to using the Commonwealth as an ‘anti-imperial instrument’, O’Higgins was not the only voice who saw greater engagement with the crown or Commonwealth as a prerequisite to ending partition.[4]

Those actively promoting the benefits of Commonwealth membership included former members of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which before its electoral collapse in 1918, had campaigned for ‘home rule’ (a measure of devolution similar to that enjoyed by Scotland today). Individuals like William A. Redmond, James Dillon and Frank MacDermot looked to the Commonwealth as a stage to enhance Irish sovereignty, trade, and economic growth — but also unity. As early as 1923, Redmond, for example, had claimed not to be ‘in ecstasies’ about the Treaty, expressed little faith in the Boundary Commission, and instead pointed to dominions like South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand as what he called the ‘the freest democracies in the world’.[5]

Ireland in the 1930s

By the time MacDermot and Dillon entered politics in the 1930s, de Valera and Fianna Fáil were in government, beginning a more robust campaign of ‘dismantling’ the Treaty and a shift away from participation in the Commonwealth. Both men were convinced, however, that strident nationalism would (to borrow Brexit-era vernacular) only ‘harden’ the border. Their twin priorities of unity and Commonwealth membership won their way into the heads of policy when they joined with Cumann na nGaedheal to form Fine Gael (the United Ireland Party) in 1933.[6]

While MacDermot’s time in Fine Gael was brief, his priorities remained unchanged. As an independent, he put down over a hundred amendments to de Valera’s 1937 constitution, reiterating the benefits of the Commonwealth, and initiated a senate debate in 1939 where de Valera admitted he would not be prepared to sacrifice the tricolour and other symbols of nationalism as a concession to British identity.[7] In contrast to others from IPP backgrounds, Dillon and MacDermot were prominent opponents of the state’s wartime neutrality, and Dillon remained one of few Irish politicians to participate in the Empire Parliamentary Association.

A republic

Yet, de Valera himself combined republican ideals with a recognition that leaving the Commonwealth reduced the chances of unity. It was thus a coalition led by Fine Gael rather than Fianna Fáil which unexpectedly declared a republic in 1948, leaving the Commonwealth in the process (in contrast to India in 1950).[8]

While Dillon as Minister for Agriculture offered his support, he was absent from the Dublin parliament as the Republic of Ireland Bill passed. The legislation introduced at Westminster in response, reaffirming the authority of the Belfast parliament in deciding the future of Northern Ireland, would surely have served as proof to the younger Dillon that separation from the Commonwealth was detrimental to Irish unity. 

His government colleague and former IPP MP Alfie Byrne still attended the September 1949 Commonwealth Relations Conference and reminisced on the possibility of unity in the home rule era. By that point, hopes of ending partition via this avenue had clearly passed into history.

Conclusion

Yet, the idea of the Commonwealth membership as an incentive to unionists to join a united Ireland has never been quite extinguished from political debate — even amid the frayed Anglo-Irish relations of the Brexit crisis. On the other hand, Irish engagement with the European project since 1973 has been deep and sustained — a marked contrast with the state’s drawn-out disentanglement from the Commonwealth.

As doubts remain over a deal between British government and the EU, however, the Irish border occupies a similar position to one it held in the early twentieth century — a subject of speeches and newspaper columns where debates on the nature of sovereignty again interact uncomfortably with relations north and south, and across the Irish Sea.

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Dr Martin O’Donoghue is Teaching Associate in Modern British and Irish History at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949, published by Liverpool University Press last year.

Cover image: Irish politician James Dillon of Fine Gael, circa 1930s (left), and Irish Politician Frank MacDermot in September of 1933. Source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_Dillon_circa_1930s.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frank_MacDermot,_1933.jpg


[1] Liam Weeks and Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh (eds), The Treaty: debating and establishing the Irish state (Dublin, 2018); Alvin Jackson, Home rule: an Irish history, 1800-2000 (London, 2003).

[2] On admiration for de Valera in India for example, see Kate O’Malley, Ireland, India and empire: Indo-Irish radical connections, 1919-64(Manchester, 2008), pp 1, 40, 94-5.

[3] Deirdre McMahon, ‘The 1926 imperial conference and Kevin O’Higgins’s proposals for a dual monarchy’, Analecta Hibernica, No. 44 (2013), pp. 99, 101-120.

[4] Jason Knirck, ‘The dominion of Ireland: the Anglo-Irish Treaty in an imperial context’, Éire-Ireland, vol. 42, no. 1 (2007), p. 250; Hugh Hanley, ‘Monarchism, international relations, and the continuing Irish revolution, 1926-29’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (2020) DOI: 10.1080/03086534.2020.1783116.

[5] Irish Independent, 18 Aug. 1923.

[6] Heads of Policy, minutes of meeting of the General Purposes Committee of Fine Gael, 9 Nov. 1933: UCDA, Fine Gael papers, P39/MIN 2.

[7] Seanad Debates, vol. 22, cols 923-995, 7 Feb 1939.

[8] O’Malley, Ireland, India and empire, pp 158-9.

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‘I don’t think I’m Wrong about Stalin’: Churchill’s Strategic and Diplomatic Assumptions at Yalta

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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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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’.[4] 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.[5] 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”.[6] 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.’[7]

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.”[8] 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.[9]  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.[10] 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.”[11]

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.”[12] 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.

Conclusion

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.”[13] 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.”[14] As we have already seen, however, he claimed privately to be “Profoundly impressed with the friendly attitude of Stalin and Molotov.”[15] 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.”[16]

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.

[1] Ben Pimlott (ed.), The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton, 1940–1945 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 836 (entry for 23 February 1945).

[2] John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 (London: Phoenix, 2005), p. 536 (entry for 28 Feb. 1945).

[3] Broadcast of 1 Oct. 1939.

[4] Speech of 3 Jan. 1920.

[5] Speech of 4 Nov. 1920.

[6] ‘Winston Churchill Sees Soviet Russia as Gigantic Menace to the Peace of Europe’, New York American, 23 Aug. 1931.

[7] Sunday Express, 26 Aug. 1934.

[8] Speech of 13 July 1934.

[9] 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.

[10] W.H. Lawrence, ‘Russians Indicate Unity on Balkans’, New York Times, 22 Oct. 1944.

[11] 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).

[12] Cabinet Minutes, 27 Apr. 1943, WM (43) 59th Conclusions, CAB 65/34/13, The National Archives, Kew, London.

[13] Speech of 27 Feb. 1945.

[14] WSC, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 351.

[15] WSC to Clement Attlee and James Stuart, 14 Feb. 1945, Churchill Papers, CHAR 9/206B/207.

[16] Colville, Fringes of Power, p. 565 (entry for 27 Feb. 1945).

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What’s in a Special Relationship?

NATO_3c_1952_issue_U.S._stamp

The recent decision by US President Donald Trump to remove some American troops from Germany has brought much consternation to the international community. One interesting twist that has found its way into the conversation occurred when Anthony Blinker, policy advisor to presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden commented that the move weakened NATO and harmed Germany, ‘our [America’s] most important ally in Europe.’ Many on both sides of the Atlantic gasped at this comment, but none more so than those in the United Kingdom. The truth of the matter is – and this may come as a shock to some – that the United States has never seen the Anglo-American relationship as special. Yes, there are cultural and linguistic commonalities, but when it comes to foreign policy, the United States’ view on Britain and Europe does not match that of an Anglo-American ‘special relationship’.

It would be fair to say that Winston Churchill’s consistent message of a Special Relationship between Great Britain and the United States has ingrained the phrase in the minds of most citizens of both countries. Nevertheless, from a governmental and policy position, it has traditionally been a one-sided relationship. American leaders have rarely used the phrase and even more rarely acted on it to the point that former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is reported to have said the ‘British clam to have a special relationship with the US, but if you mention this in Washington, no one knows what you are talking about.’ This idea was reinforced during the Brexit debates when US President Barack Obama stated that the UK would find itself at the back of the queue in US trade negotiations. The last fifty years provides a clearer understanding of how the US views the ‘Special Relationship.’

It would also be fair to say that since the end of the Second World War, US Foreign Policy has focused on a strong Europe. The ‘Special Relationship,’ as a purely Anglo-American relationship, is very much a British view. This does not mean that the US has not or does not value Britain. What is often forgotten, intentionally or not, is the importance of Europe to US foreign and trade policy since 1945. During the Second World War, the US and Britain, along with the Soviet Union, stood side-by-side to defeat the Axis. Once the war was over, and the Cold War began, the relationship between the US and Britain changed. What began as a strategic and military partnership during the Second World War quickly morphed into a relationship between two unequal partners. Despite Britain’s continually diminishing status, US presidents from Truman to Clinton understood the value of working with the British to meet US foreign policy goals.[1]

Nevertheless, US presidents have also focused on a strong Europe. Successive US presidents supported British involvement in different European projects. Dwight D. Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander Europe and later as President was firm in his belief that any plan to defend Europe required a British commitment to the continent. As such, he continually pushed Churchill, and later Eden and Macmillan, to take a more active role in NATO and the European Economic Community, which they eventually did.

The collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 left US leaders believing they did not need multilateral alliances. The US was and is, after all, the lone superpower. Since this time, presidents from both parties have chosen to ‘go it alone.’ In the meantime, Britain failed to stop its slide away from world power status. True, London remains one of the great financial centers in history but as a nation, they no longer have the military power to be more than a limited partner on the world stage. A no more shocking example of how far Britain’s defense capabilities have fallen can be found in the fact that the Royal Navy is now smaller than Pakistan’s navy and only slightly larger than Qatar’s, and the Royal Air Force is about the size of the Brazilian air force.[2]

Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it appeared that the US was moving closer to Germany as its leading partner in European issues. This was not a new position, per se, and it was not a result of Germany’s military prowess (it is also struggling to maintain a large and functioning force) but due to its economic power. The US position since 1945 has been to forge a durable transatlantic link between the US and Europe.[3] At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Germany had the fourth-largest economy in the world with a GDP that was more than $1 trillion larger than that of Britain. What is often overlooked in all of the discussion about America pulling closer to Germany and further away from Britain, or about the withdrawal of US troops from Germany is Europe’s importance to the US.

A look at the Bank of England’s Quarterly Bulletin provides an idea of how important Europe is to the US relative to the UK. America’s most trusted trade partners are still the United Kingdom and Europe. As the year 2020 rolls towards the last quarter, Germany is feeling angst about its special relationship with the US. While the US president drives that anxiety, a reversal of roles may be in the offing. With US politics becoming less reliable in recent years, Europe might decide to no longer rely on the US and ‘go it alone,’ just as the US did in the 1990s. However, with reports that Johnson’s government is secretly ‘desperate’ for a Biden victory in hopes of a revived comprehensive trade plan the chances of a Europe without the US seem small.  In light of Brexit, the UK might think about how the US has historically viewed the special relationship. For the US, the relationship that is and has always been special has been with Europe – a Europe that includes Britain.

Justin Quinn Olmstead is currently Associate Professor of History and Director of History Education at the University of Central Oklahoma with a Concurrent Appointment in the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University, Wales as Affiliate Faculty with responsibility for doctoral research supervision. He has edited two books, Reconsidering Peace and Patriotism during the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), and Britain in the Islamic World: Imperial and Post-Imperial Connections (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Dr. Olmstead has also published, The United States’ Entry into the First World War: The Role of British and German Diplomacy (Boydell & Brewer, 2018). He has contributed a chapter on the impact of military drones on foreign affairs in The Political Economy of Robots, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Currently, he is the Assistant Editor for The Middle Ground Journal, Treasurer and Director of Membership for Britain and the World, and president elect of the Western Conference on British Studies. Just undertook his PhD at the University of Sheffield — you can find him on Twitter @OlmsteadJustin

Cover image: NATO 3-cent 1952 U.S. stamp, issued at the White House on April 4, 1952, honored the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NATO_3c_1952_issue_U.S._stamp.jpg [Accessed 11 August 2020].

[1] Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 61.

[2] https://britainandtheworld.org/news/2020/6/4/batw-announces-a-virtual-roundtable

[3] Timothy Andrews Sayle, Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), p. 3.

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