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 PM 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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