Winston Churchill, arch-pragmatist

  • Themes: Leadership, War

Painting the wartime premier only as an heroic anti-appeaser overlooks the many diplomatic ploys he used to disarm a dangerous world.

Winston Churchill during the Second World War.
Winston Churchill during the Second World War. Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

What does it mean, exactly, to be ‘Churchillian?’ It is a question we in the West evidently take seriously, to judge from the public appetite for Churchilliana in films, books and as a general reference point. If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has confirmed one thing about Anglo-American collective memory, it’s that we regard Winston Churchill, British prime minister and hero of the Second World War, as an emblem of unyielding, belligerent defiance to the end. Many of those who revere him, like those who despise him as a warmonger, take at face value the image that Churchill crafted of himself in his schemingly edited memoirs, as the resolute anti-appeaser. But is it true?

Appeasement is the policy of making concessions, often unilaterally, to render an adversary more peaceful. It is a strategy of accommodation that can come at others’ expense. We identify it with Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, and the Munich Agreement of 1938 that he helped negotiate, to prevent or postpone war by ceding Czech territory to Adolf Hitler. Above all, talk of appeasement is a charge of immorality, extended to behaviour that limits commitment. It works as the equal and opposite to kneejerk claims that all wars are Vietnam and all supporters are warmongers. Its core proposition? That the only virtuous and safe posture is strength. ‘Strength’ means being unbending, militarily robust, and maximal about war aims. Its record as a strategy is mixed. In our folklore, though, it is history’s supreme lesson of war and peace.

In the West’s debate about how far to support Kyiv, a common framing from maximalists – those who call for the removal of limits – is heroic Churchills versus feckless appeasers, in the face of Adolf Hitlers. To favour anything less than eviction of Russia from every inch of Ukraine’s soil is to appease, and to appease is immoral and futile. The charge of appeasement even falls on those who broadly favour President Joe Biden’s prudential approach, supporting Ukraine with arms, aid and intelligence, while avoiding measures that might elevate the risk of going to the brink.

The British politician Tobias Ellwood MP, chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee, argued in January 2022 for deploying Nato troops in Ukraine to deter invasion: ‘Threat of sanctions and parking our tanks AROUND Ukraine will not prevent an invasion. It’s time to show strength. Think Churchill not Chamberlain.’ Last-ditch efforts to prevent the war through negotiations had the ‘whiff of Munich, according to the secretary of defence, Ben Wallace. Former prime minister Boris Johnson has cast himself as today’s embodiment of Churchill, by writing a self-serving biography and by deliberately impersonating his growl. He told President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that Churchill’s ‘spirit’ walked with him. Zelensky, meanwhile, calling on Britain’s parliament for more aid and a no-fly zone, echoed Churchill and vowed to fight in the ‘forests, the fields, the shores and in the streets’.

The iconography is even stronger in America’s debate. Even mild claims that the US prepare the ground for talks while arming Ukraine and sanctioning Russia, as the Congressional Progressive Caucus briefly tried, attract charges of ignoring the lessons of Munich and choosing shame. Former president, George W. Bush, called Zelensky the ‘Winston Churchill of our time’. This pairs awkwardly with his condemnation, back in 2005, of the Yalta carve-up of 1945, co-authored by Churchill, that confirmed the imprisonment of the people of Eastern Europe under Stalinism. But by branding Zelensky as Churchill, Bush does what many do, singing into existence a statesman-hero who transcends the brutal geopolitics of his time. The flip-side of Churchillism is a demonic enemy, putting any diplomacy beyond the pale. As Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, rebuked President Emmanuel Macron: ‘Criminals are not debated with. Nobody negotiated with Hitler.’

Churchill did not negotiate with Hitler, to be sure. He negotiated with Stalin, the Soviet totalitarian ruler. There is a problem here. It is not that the whole proposition is false. The core of the Churchill legend is justified. He played a weighty (though not decisive) part – with Chamberlain’s support – in persuading the war cabinet of May 1940 not to enter into negotiations with Hitler. He nerved Britain through the war. But the notion that he was consistently the nemesis of appeasement is untrue.

Leading and championing the war effort, and personally finding exhilaration in war, Churchill was also an appeaser. Before, during and after the war, he advocated and practised it, whether wisely or in error. He bargained with despots, bribed them, and allowed for tacit limits in resisting them. If he was consistently inflexible, it was over India, not Europe. And like most ostentatious public anti-appeasers, when he conducted this policy, he mostly called it by other names.

In his wilderness, pre-war era, Churchill advocated conciliation as readily as thumping his chest for rearmament. He was publicly and privately all over the place with regard to Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia. Like many, he feared Italy would be needed as a counterweight against Nazi Germany, the threat that an overstretched Britain should focus on. A similar logic guided his studied neutralism towards Spanish tyrant Francisco Franco, and he approved the bribery of Spanish officers, agents and El Caudillo himself, to keep them out of the war. With regard to Imperial Japan, Churchill initially sympathised with its imperial aggrandisement in Manchuria. He urged accommodation with it, seeing it both as a bringer of order into chaos and a bulwark of British power in East Asia, a theatre often only at the periphery of his vision. He did not oppose the government’s attempt to appease Tokyo. And he supported the prioritisation of air before naval and land rearmament, reflecting an assumption that the state should concentrate its power on the Nazi threat.

Even in the Czechoslovakia crisis of 1938, his moment of peak anti-appeasement, Churchill came late to outright public opposition. He had supported maximal concessions to the Sudeten separatists within Czech borders. In June that year, as Hitler and his irridentist proxies in the Sudetenland agitated for reunion with the Reich, Churchill privately told Hubert Ripka, confidant of Czech president Edvard Beneš, that if he were in office, he would likely follow Chamberlain’s policy of seeking peaceful compromise.

In May 1940, as Churchill resisted the claims of colleagues more willing to entertain a proposed settlement with an ascendant Berlin, his opposition to negotiations was not absolute but circumstantial. Talks would not work in this instance. If he had a theory of victory, it was premised not yet on all-out triumph, but in recovering ‘prestige’ in Europe, to encourage allies, impress the United States and (implicitly) strengthen Britain’s bargaining hand. There was nothing wrong in principle with considering terms or sacrificing territory for peace, he said, but it had to be from a position of strength. There was a time to appease, and a time to fight. That was his symbiosis. The Churchill who sometimes declared Britain should fight to the end while it bled dying was also the Churchill of cold guile, willing to contract with the devil or trade away others’ interests in aligning with yesterday’s opponents.

Above all, Churchill appeased Stalin. He assumed throughout the war that Stalin’s continued alliance had to be bought, even if others bore the brunt. He accommodated the Soviet Union and its demands for territory, resources, and zero-sum security. He did so by keeping publicly silent about Soviet guilt in the massacre of Polish officers and intellectuals, when their corpses were found at Katyn. He tried to limit the scope of the Atlantic Charter, recalled now as an episode of internationalist principle, urging Washington that it should not require the Soviet Union to give up its pre-1941 conquered territories. He haggled to agree a Soviet sphere in Eastern Europe, via the infamous ‘percentages agreement’ of October 1944, and then the Yalta settlement of February 1945. He and Roosevelt tried to ameliorate Soviet occupation by getting Stalin’s commitment to elections. But by leaving it to his mercy, these accommodations sold out populations – from Poland, the Baltic states, Romania, Bulgaria to China – to purchase a favourable peace for themselves.

From the moment Hitler unleashed his genocidal invasion in the East, Churchill rightly sensed the alliance with Moscow was fragile. Not because he over-estimated his personal sway over Stalin, warlord to warlord (though he did), but because the Soviets had form in realigning or defecting, whether at Brest Litovsk in 1918 or in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. Stalin’s de facto alliance with Hitler had brought the world to this catastrophic point. Churchill feared that productive cooperation might cease, or the Soviets might cut a separate deal with Berlin. He calculated that Britain must keep the balance of interests in favour of the Soviets staying in the war. And concessions would be needed to counterbalance the one issue where Churchill denied Stalin what Stalin and Churchill’s later detractors demanded, an earlier cross-Channel invasion. Neither was there any guarantee that the United States would remain present, to check Soviet power on the Eurasian landmass. That Stalin exploited these fears, like the boy who cried wolf, did not mean there was no wolf.

This bargaining relationship yielded substantial gains. It enabled mutual wartime cooperation, which resulted, if not in long term collaboration, at least in terminating the war more favourably and positioning the West. Consider that in 1945 and 1946, the Soviets withdrew troops from northern Norway and Bornholm in Denmark, discouraged revolutionary communist agitation in France, Italy and Greece, allowed for the semi-autonomy of Austria and Finland, eventually pulled out of Iran and Manchuria, and consented to the withdrawal of Bulgarian troops from Macedonia and Thrace. And to the extent that we can divine Japan’s motives, timely Soviet entry into the war also played a central part in enabling Tokyo’s surrender. While the allies were already wearing down Japan through blockade and bombardment, the US Combined Chiefs of Staff had informed Churchill and Roosevelt that victory would hopefully come in 1947. Stalin’s intervention, purchased at Yalta, killed more armed personnel and civilians than the nuclear blasts, persuading Japan’s armies to comply with the emperor’s surrender order. Without Soviet entry at the right time, Britain and the US may have faced continued bitter resistance by disobedient forces outside the home islands. Soviet entry hastened Japan’s surrender and made it cheaper than it might have been.

In effect, to defeat the most dangerous, implacable enemies in Europe and Asia, it would take a land force capable of absorbing, weakening and tying down Hitler’s and General Tojo’s fighting forces on a large front. And so, it would be necessary to accommodate such a force, inevitably betraying others. Decades of condemnation since have yielded few constructive alternative policies. As the war itself involved the physical advance of the Red Army, lands overrun by Stalin’s forces would either fall under totalitarian rule, or Stalin would treat them as bargaining chips, to be traded in exchange for control elsewhere. Power still lay primarily in the hands of those on the scene, holding the gun. The dispensations negotiated with Stalin were crude and callous primarily because these were the realities they reflected.

The image of Churchill as uncompromising man of war offers a righteous certainty. It is a species of moralism, putting willpower above all, promising that will and principle, right and wrong, can determine everything. But, in reality, there is more than one pathway to escalation and ruin. Caving in can be dangerous, but so too can ramping up. And in opposing one predator, it may be prudent to bargain with another. An emboldened enemy can be dangerous, yet so can a desperate one.

Given the tragic ways of international life, even ostentatious anti-appeasers find appeasement hard to avoid. As president, would-be Churchillian George W. Bush sold out others, through silence or inaction, in order to bargain with Putin, a desired security partner. To secure nuclear arms reductions and cooperation on terrorism and counter-proliferation, he averted his eyes from the brutal harrying of Chechnya.

The moralist view, that the overriding choice is between resolute will and appeasing weakness, has been a continual source of peril. As an instrument of persuasion, it helped plunge countries into disastrous wars in Suez, Vietnam and Iraq. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy resisted the advice of General Curtis LeMay and other hardliners, who were dismissive of escalation risks. They insisted that not attacking missile sites in Cuba, and restricting policy to blockade, was Munich-style appeasement. We now know what they didn’t then, that Soviet forces in Cuba were prepared to strike the Guantanamo Bay naval base with nuclear cruise missiles in retaliation. Kennedy himself had imbibed and recycled the mythology of 1938 in his published undergraduate thesis, Why England SleptBut he realised that pragmatic restraint, backed up by deterrence, was needed to prevent everyone getting killed.

Self-styled anti-appeasers will retort that Kennedy’s quid pro quo of Soviet withdrawal, the removal of Jupiter missiles in Turkey and a commitment not to invade Cuba, was not appeasement. How so? In the United States in 1962, the air was thick with demagogic accusations to the contrary. When it suits them, maximalists are often willing to brand as appeasement any measure of limitation, whether pursuing arms control with the Soviet Union or just not invading Iraq. They tend not to call historical bargains ‘appeasement’ when they seem in hindsight to have worked, even though those arrangements also involved significant and unjust concessions, such as the opening to China in 1972, or the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It is only appeasement, it seems, when politically convenient.

As others demonstrate, poor use of the Munich analogy is not even good history. It loses sight of Britain’s predicament at the time. Britain was constrained by popular opinion and professional military advice, French reluctance, opposed dominions, a distant United States, multiple potential adversaries, time needed for rearmament, and the uncertainty of whether preventive war would even work to extinguish German nationalism. And by cutting and pasting this cartoon memory, it encourages further distortions. Hitler’s Germany was undeterrable and poised to conquer a continent in a pre-nuclear age, and Britain’s interests in the crisis were existential. Putin’s Russia is depleted, warred-down, can’t even overrun its neighbour and, now that it is blunted, is a reduced menace. Yet unlike Hitler’s Germany, it has a large nuclear arsenal that cannot be wished away.

None of this means that there is a simple counter-solution, to cry ‘diplomacy’ piously, as though we can negotiate any war like Ukraine to a stable ending at will, especially given the reluctance of other warring parties. But Churchillism is not an answer to the unavoidable issue, of how far the West should go in supporting its proxies.

Churchillism is guilty of another oversight. It diminishes Churchill himself. Addressing the House of Commons in 1950 as the Iron Curtain descended, he argued that conditions rather than dogma should decide the issue. ‘Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.’ In his melancholy political twilight, Churchill argued, in his Fulton, Missouri, Cold War address, for talks to bound the competition, a position it would take further crises for others to grasp.

A memory of Churchill only as an icon of anti-appeasement is a caricature, even if it was a caricature the man himself was complicit in creating. It reduces a man of many parts, and of many bargains, into a lovable bulldog, rather than the premier who struggled to link war and diplomacy in surviving a dangerous world. There is more, much more, to world politics. Churchill’s diplomacy suggests so. If only some Churchillians would care to look.


Patrick Porter