Churchill on Trial: Washington, 1953

Churchill on Trial: Washington, 1953

Churchill and Truman, Fulton, 1946. (AP)
Churchill and Tru­man, Ful­ton, 1946. (AP)

In ear­ly 1953, Win­ston Churchill was placed on tri­al by his peers, with Pres­i­dent Tru­man the pre­sid­ing judge, for com­plic­i­ty in the use of atom­ic bombs. To any­one who may write to say that he and Tru­man were mak­ing light of events caus­ing thou­sands of deaths, the answer is twofold: 1) How do you know they were mak­ing light?; and 2) This is in answer to a his­tor­i­cal query. Sources: Clark Clif­ford, rec­ol­lec­tion, to Richard Lang­worth, 1988. Mar­garet Tru­man, “After the Pres­i­den­cy,” in Life, 1 Decem­ber 1972, 69-70. Also record­ed in her book, Har­ry S. Truman.


Mar­garet Tru­man wrote: “Dur­ing our last weeks in the White House, Prime Min­is­ter Churchill arrived for a vis­it. My father gave him a small stag din­ner to which he invit­ed Sec­re­tary of Defense Robert Lovett, Averell Har­ri­man, Gen­er­al Omar Bradley, and Sec­re­tary of State Dean Ache­son. Every­one was in an ebul­lient mood, espe­cial­ly Dad. With­out warn­ing, Mr. Churchill turned to him and said…”

Mr. Pres­i­dent, I hope you have your answer ready for that hour when you and I stand before St. Peter and he says, “I under­stand you two are respon­si­ble for putting off those atom­ic bombs. What have you got to say for yourselves?”

Robert Lovett asked: “Are you sure, Prime Min­is­ter, that you are going to be in the same place as the Pres­i­dent for that interrogation?

Lovett, my vast respect for the Cre­ator of this uni­verse and count­less oth­ers gives me assur­ance that He would not con­demn a man with­out a hearing.

Lovett: “True, but your hear­ing would not be like­ly to start in the Supreme Court, or, nec­es­sar­i­ly, in the same court as the President’s. It could be in anoth­er court far away.”

I don’t doubt that, but, wher­ev­er it is, it will be in accor­dance with the prin­ci­ples of Eng­lish Com­mon Law.

Dean Ache­son, who liked to tweak Churchill about Britain’s dimin­ished stature, then spoke up: “Is it alto­geth­er con­sis­tent with your respect for the Cre­ator of this and oth­er uni­vers­es to lim­it His imag­i­na­tion and judi­cial pro­ce­dure to the accom­plish­ment of a minute island, in a tiny world, in one of the small­er of the universes?”

Well, there will be a tri­al by a jury of my peers, that’s certain. 

Ache­son: “Oyez! Oyez! In the mat­ter of the immi­gra­tion of Win­ston Spencer Churchill, Mr. Bailiff, will you empan­el a jury?”

Each guest accept­ed an his­toric role, wrote Mar­garet Tru­man. “Gen­er­al Bradley decid­ed he was Alexan­der the Great. Oth­ers played Julius Cae­sar, Socrates and Aris­to­tle. The Prime Min­is­ter declined to per­mit Voltaire on his jury—he was an atheist—or Cromwell, because he did not believe in the rule of law. Then Mr. Ache­son sum­moned George Wash­ing­ton. That was too much for Mr. Churchill. He saw that things were being stacked against him:”

I waive a jury, but not habeas cor­pus. You’ll not put me in any black hole.*

“They ignored him and com­plet­ed the selec­tion of the jury. Dad was appoint­ed judge. The case was tried and the Prime Min­is­ter was acquitted.

“Dur­ing this vis­it Mr. Churchill con­fessed to Dad that he had tak­en a dim view of him as Pres­i­dent when he had suc­ceed­ed Franklin Roo­sevelt. ‘I mis­judged you bad­ly,’ the Prime Min­is­ter said. ‘Since that time, you, more than any oth­er man, have saved West­ern civilization.'”


*Churchill’s words (bold face) are from Mar­garet Truman’s account except the last sen­tence aster­isked, which was quot­ed to me by Clark Clif­ford, whose account was oth­er­wise the same as Ms. Truman’s.

One thought on “Churchill on Trial: Washington, 1953

  1. This is a won­der­ful sto­ry; reminds me of the film ‘A Mat­ter Of Life and Death’ with the great David Niv­en – I think 1946.

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