Churchill Quotations: The Best Telegram He Ever Sent

Churchill Quotations: The Best Telegram He Ever Sent

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.

In retrospect

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.

Further reading

“Ori­gins of Churchill Phras­es: ‘Spe­cial Rela­tion­ship’ and ‘Iron Cur­tain,'” 2019

“Iron Cur­tain 75 Years On: Churchill and the Ful­ton Flak,” 2021

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