Churchill’s Best Words
For over a year I’ve been working on the fifth, last and best edition of my Churchill book of quotations. The current edition (e-book and paperback) is Churchill by Himself / In His Own Words. It contains 4000 entries in 350,000 words, all with verified citations. (An appendix contains over 250 popular quotations Churchill supposedly said but never did. You can find these in an up to date list on this site. Click here.)
The new edition may be entitled Churchill: An Encyclopedia of His Greatest Words. At over 5000 entries and a half-million words, it is encyclopedic—but not comprehensive. This is only 2.5% of Churchill’s 20 million published words—books, articles, speeches, letters and papers. But the kernel of his wit, wisdom and timeless relevance is here.
I constantly encounter remarkable things he said that I utterly missed in earlier editions: the “best of the best.” I scoop these up seriatim. All are added to the new edition. Many are there purely because they dawned accidentally on what’s left of my consciousness. Today’s topic is just one of them.
“The most important telegram I ever sent”
On 5 July 1953, Churchill showed Field Marshal Montgomery and his doctor Lord Moran what he thought was his best telegram. It was sent to U.S. President Harry Truman on 12 May 1945. It may be read in full in The Churchill Documents, vol. 21 (Hillsdale College Press, 2021), 1389-90. This was also the first time Churchill used the phrase “Iron Curtain”—an expression that dates at least as far back as Martin Luther in 1521.
Churchill’s message was ominous with foreboding. “I am profoundly concerned about the European situation,” he wrote the President:
The newspapers are full of the great movements of the American Armies out of Europe. Our Armies also are under previous arrangements likely to undergo a marked reduction. The Canadian Army will certainly leave. The French are weak and difficult to deal with. Anyone can see that in a very short space of time our armed power on the Continent will have vanished except for moderate forces to hold down Germany.
Meanwhile what is to happen about Russia? I have always worked for friendship with Russia but, like you, I feel deep anxiety because of their misinterpretation of the Yalta decisions, their attitude towards Poland, their overwhelming influence in the Balkans excepting Greece, the difficulties they make about Vienna, the combination of Russian power and the territories under their control or occupied, coupled with the Communist technique in so many other countries, and above all their power to maintain very large Armies in the field for a long time. What will be the position in a year or two…when we may have a handful of divisions mostly French, and when Russia may choose to keep two or three hundred on active service?
“Surely it is vital now…”
An iron curtain is drawn down upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind…. All kinds of arrangements will have to be made by General Eisenhower to prevent another immense flight of the German population westward as this enormous Muscovite advance into the centre of Europe takes place. And then the curtain will descend again to a very large extent if not entirely….
Meanwhile the attention of our peoples will be occupied in inflicting severities upon Germany, which is ruined and prostrate, and it would be open to the Russians in a very short time to advance if they chose to the waters of the North Sea and the Atlantic.
Surely it is vital now to come to an understanding with Russia, or see where we are with her, before we weaken our Armies mortally or retire to the zones of occupation. This can only be done by a personal meeting. I should be most grateful for your opinion and advice. Of course we may take the view that Russia will behave impeccably and no doubt that offers the most convenient solution. To sum up, this issue of a settlement with Russia before our strength has gone seems to me to dwarf all others.
Just as an aside, it would seem that we have never really been able to take the view that Russia will behave impeccably….
Reactions in 1953
According to Moran, Churchill quoted this telegram from his final volume of war memoirs (not yet then published). One always has to take the Moran diaries with circumspection. Published in 1966, they differ in many details from what Moran recorded at the time. Lots of things were added after the fact. Nevertheless, according to Moran, Churchill insisted he was “pleading that we should not give up the part of Germany we occupied to the Russians until we had made a firm agreement with them. Truman replied that we had given our word. I argued that this did not hold under the new circumstances, because the Russians had broken their word over Vienna.” (The last Soviet troops left Austria in 1955.)
Montgomery read the telegram. “That was the first mention of the Iron Curtain?” he asked. Yes, Churchill said. “All these telegrams ought to be published,” replied Monty:
People think we are winning the cold war. It is not true. We are losing it—thirty love. The Big Three ought to have met earlier; Potsdam was too late. This all began at Casablanca. Unconditional surrender meant that Russian troops would invade Germany, and once that was decided we ought to have made certain we’d be first in Berlin, Vienna and Prague. It could have been done. If Alex’s command had not been weakened he would have got to Vienna.” [He was referring to General Alexander’s Italian campaign.]
Churchill replied (again according to Moran):
I warned the Americans before Potsdam not to withdraw from any of the part of Germany we occupied until we had a satisfactory understanding. They would not listen. And they will not listen now when I warn them about Germany. At Potsdam I wanted Prussia isolated and Germany divided horizontally and not vertically.
Churchill deemed this his best telegram. He reprised it in his war memoirs (Triumph and Tragedy, London: Cassell, 1954, 444). He reiterated it in a 1954 debate about West German rearmament (The Unwritten Alliance, London: Cassell, 1961, 206). Martin Gilbert included it in the official biography. Larry Arnn republished it in The Churchill Documents. And I missed it—until I fell over the reference to WSC’s best telegram in Lord Moran’s Churchill: The Struggle for Survival (London: Constable, 1966, 450). Well, it won’t miss my new edition.