Churchill, Truman and Poker on the Train to Fulton, March 1946

Churchill, Truman and Poker on the Train to Fulton, March 1946

How Har­ry fleeced Win­ston at pok­er, and the arche­typ­al Eng­lish­man wished to be born again…

The Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project is clos­ing in on fin­ish­ing Win­ston S. Churchill, the offi­cial biog­ra­phy. At thir­ty-one vol­umes, it is the longest on record and will have tak­en fifty-six years to com­plete. It is an hon­or to be part of the team now review­ing proofs for the penul­ti­mate doc­u­ment (com­pan­ion) vol­ume. This runs from August 1945, after Churchill was turned out of office, through Sep­tem­ber 1951, when he was about to regain it. The last vol­ume (1951-65) will be pub­lished next year, with suit­able celebrations.

One of the joys of this work is the vast trove of hith­er­to undis­cov­ered (or at least obscure) facts it pro­vides. Take the 1945-51 vol­ume, for exam­ple. One has no con­cept of the extent and col­le­gial com­mu­ni­ca­tion, after the July 1945 elec­tion, between Churchill and Clement Attlee. Labour had rout­ed the Con­ser­v­a­tives. Churchill was embit­tered over his dis­missal, and con­ven­tion­al wis­dom is that they were at dag­gers-drawn. Not so. Churchill and Attlee went out of their way to com­mu­ni­cate. Even when they dis­agreed on issues, they respect­ful­ly wrote and met with each oth­er. That was indeed a dif­fer­ent age.

Above all, they tried to main­tain a unit­ed front in British for­eign pol­i­cy as the Cold War accel­er­at­ed. Churchill’s alleged cracks about Attlee— “an emp­ty taxi arrived and Clem got out”; a “sheep in sheep’s clothing”—are apoc­ryphal. Churchill made only one remark at Attlee’s expense. It was in pri­vate, and it is in this vol­ume. It occurred as he and Pres­i­dent Tru­man rode to Ful­ton for the “Iron Cur­tain” speech  aboard the Fer­di­nand Mag­el­lan, “U.S. Rail­car No. 1.”

All Aboard!

This vol­ume exhaus­tive­ly cov­ers Churchill’s invi­ta­tion to speak at Ful­ton, Truman’s sup­port for it, Churchill’s vis­it to Amer­i­ca, and every aspect of the event down to who was assigned to which car on the Pres­i­den­tial train. One was Clark Clif­ford who worked for Demo­c­rat pres­i­dents from Tru­man to Carter and served briefly as Lyn­don John­son‘s Sec­re­tary of Defense. Aged only forty in 1946, he was White House coun­sel to the Pres­i­dent. His rec­ol­lec­tions were pub­lished in the St. Louis Post-Dis­patch. Before he died he sent them to me with per­mis­sion to use for any edu­ca­tion­al pur­pose. They are among the few addi­tions I could offer to this vol­ume, so mas­ter­ful­ly assem­bled by Mar­tin Gilbert and Hillsdale’s Churchill fel­lows. It is in Clifford’s rec­ol­lec­tion that Churchill com­mit­ted a momen­tary lapse in his usu­al respect­ful ref­er­ences to Attlee.

The Mag­el­lan, Clif­ford wrote:

had an obser­va­tion plat­form on the back and it was equipped so that in the rear por­tion you walked into a very attrac­tive liv­ing room, fur­nished as you might fur­nish a men’s club. There was a series of closed-in state­rooms with sep­a­rate baths, and at the oth­er end of the car, there was a din­ing room and what the Navy would call a gal­ley. So those two lived on that car and the rest of us lived on the car in front, which was a stan­dard Pull­man. The rea­son they went by train was to give Churchill and Tru­man an ample oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk. Mr. Tru­man want­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to vis­it with Churchill, and Churchill, who had been very close to Franklin Roo­sevelt, felt he had no rela­tion­ship with Tru­man and want­ed to devel­op one.

* * *

We left Wash­ing­ton around noon, and we all sat down in the liv­ing room. Mr. Churchill said, “Mr. Pres­i­dent, we’re going to be togeth­er now for a week or so. I would like to dis­pense with for­mal­i­ty, and to have the priv­i­lege of call­ing you Har­ry.” And Tru­man said, “Mr. Churchill, I would be hon­ored if you would call me Harry.”

Then Mr. Churchill said, “Well, if I am going to call you Har­ry, then you must call me Win­ston.” Mr. Tru­man, as you know, was a very mod­est fel­low, so he said, “That would be very dif­fi­cult for me to do, Mr. Churchill. I have such a high regard and enor­mous respect for you.” But Churchill said, “You must do it, or I can’t call you Har­ry.” And Mr. Tru­man said, “All right, then. It’s Har­ry and Winston.”

The next thing Tru­man said was, “About six weeks ago, Clement Attlee came over to see me.” There was a very chill silence. Then Churchill said, “There is less there than meets the eye.” Mr. Tru­man, know­ing that he’d kind of put his foot in it, just brave­ly felt he had to go on. So he said. “Well, he seems to be a very mod­est fel­low.” “Yes,” Churchill said, “He has much to be mod­est about.”

“If I were to be born again…”

It was “a great deal of fun,” Clif­ford con­tin­ued, because “Churchill punc­tu­at­ed the con­ver­sa­tion with philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings.” He remem­bered only one, but in Har­ry Truman’s ver­nac­u­lar, it was a humdinger. Until Mr. Clifford’s tes­ti­mo­ny, it was hard to believe Churchill said it:

One evening, we stayed up late. Every­body else went to bed, and [Tru­man Press Sec­re­tary] Char­lie Ross and I stayed up and talked to him after­wards. He was kind of mel­low by that time. He had the rep­u­ta­tion of being a fair­ly for­mi­da­ble drinker, and I think I know the rea­son why. It was because he always had a scotch high­ball in front of him, but he would nurse the high­ball, and it would take him about an hour and a half to drink it. I did not find him to be a heavy drinker at all.

This evening, he said, “If I were to be born again, I would wish to be born in the Unit­ed States. At one time it was said that the sun nev­er sets on the British Empire. Those days are gone. The Unit­ed States has the nat­ur­al resources; they have an ener­getic, resilient peo­ple. The Unit­ed States is the hope of the future. Even though I deplore some of your cus­toms. You stop drink­ing with your meals.”

For the arche­typ­al Eng­lish­man, with such rev­er­ence for his coun­try, this seems aston­ish­ing. And yet as you think about it, it becomes eas­i­er to believe. Britain after two world wars was exhaust­ed and broke. Churchill knew it—knew it first hand. His doc­u­ments are full of his depres­sion over Britain’s plight. Yet he had this over­whelm­ing respect and faith in what he always called “my mother’s land.” He saw in “the Great Repub­lic” the hope of the world.


Pres­i­dent Tru­man and Char­lie Ross.

With­out leak­ing the full con­tents of the Clif­ford doc­u­ment, I can’t resist some of the pok­er bits. The sto­ry is redo­lent of Churchill and Tru­man humor, their ripen­ing friend­ship as the train rum­bled on. Clark Clif­ford continues:

Churchill said, “Har­ry, I’ve read in the press over a peri­od of years that you play pok­er.” And Tru­man said, “Yes, I guess I’ve played pok­er for a good many years, Win­ston.” Then Churchill proud­ly said, “Well, I first learned to play pok­er in the Boer War. I love the game.” Well, my God, that was very impres­sive; none of us could remem­ber when the hell the Boer War was.

* * *

We played dealer’s choice: stud, draw, sev­en-card stud and high-low, which is a great gam­bling game because it keeps every­body in the pot. Well, we played about an hour and a half, and Mr. Churchill excused him­self to go to the men’s room. And the Pres­i­dent looked over to his staff and coun­sel­lors and said, “Men, Mr. Churchill has lost $850. Now, remem­ber, he is our guest. We cer­tain­ly are not treat­ing him very well.”

Char­lie Ross spoke up, and said, “Boss, you can’t have it both ways. Which do you want us to do, play pok­er or car­ry this fel­low along?”

The Pres­i­dent said, “Boys, I want Mr. Churchill to have a good time. I rec­og­nize the stan­dards of pok­er as played in Great Britain aren’t near­ly up to the stan­dards in the Unit­ed States. But I want him to have a love­ly time.”

So he was nursed along, and he won some won­der­ful big pots. I saw some peo­ple drop out with three aces, and he’d win with a pair of kings. He had a mar­velous time, and yet he couldn’t go back and say he’d beat­en this group play­ing pok­er. When the last game was over he’d lost about $80.

The occa­sion was the oppor­tu­ni­ty of a life­time. Here we were, encap­su­lat­ed in this rail­road car, hav­ing meals dur­ing the day and the pok­er at night. I don’t know any­body else who had the oppor­tu­ni­ty of spend­ing that kind of time with Mr. Churchill.



3 thoughts on “Churchill, Truman and Poker on the Train to Fulton, March 1946

  1. I read this quote, seem­ing­ly said by Churchill to Tru­man dur­ing March 1946 at Ful­ton, but can’t find the source. Is it valid?

    “The war wasn’t only about abol­ish­ing fas­cism, but to con­quer sales mar­kets. We could have, if we had intend­ed to, pre­vent­ed this war from break­ing out with­out doing one shot, but we didn’t want to.” 

  2. great sto­ries. Pok­er is a fun game but unless you play it often you can’t real­ly play with the boys. I had not real­ized Churchill lost $80.

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