Shocking Facts: “Nuke the Soviets”

Shocking Facts: “Nuke the Soviets”

Intaglio print by Sarah Churchill/Curtis Hooper
Intaglio print by Sarah Churchill/Curtis Hoop­er

Novem­ber 5th— A call from the Lon­don Dai­ly Mail: “We are doing a piece on a new book and want­ed to run it by you.”

Novem­ber 6th— The new book is Thomas Maier’s When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys. What’s excit­ing is their dis­cov­ery of a Shock­ing Fact about Churchill (Shock­ing Fact #22,385, by my count.)

Mr. Maier reports, calm­ly and dis­pas­sion­ate­ly, a 1947 con­ver­sa­tion between Churchill and Sen­a­tor Stiles Bridges (R-NH). In it, Churchill says “that if an atom­ic bomb could be dropped on the Krem­lin wip­ing it out, it would be a very easy prob­lem to han­dle the bal­ance of Rus­sia, which would be with­out direction.”

So—wow—the Mail is real­ly onto an exposé. And the ques­tion for me is: “Did you know Churchill want­ed the Amer­i­cans to bomb Russia?”

Dear oh dear. This Shock­ing Fact has been known for half a cen­tu­ry. Churchill’s momen­tary pri­vate thoughts of nuk­ing the Sovi­ets were first revealed in his doctor’s diaries in 1966:

Amer­i­ca knows that fifty-two per cent of Russia’s motor indus­try is in Moscow and could be wiped out by a sin­gle bomb. It might mean wip­ing out three mil­lion peo­ple, but they would think noth­ing of that….They think more of eras­ing an his­tor­i­cal build­ing like the Krem­lin.” (Con­ver­sa­tion of 8 August 1946).

The sto­ry is not new, I told the Mail: Churchill also said some­thing sim­i­lar to Cana­di­an Prime Min­is­ter MacKen­zie King, known since 1970:

The West should make it clear that the Sovi­et Union must not extend its regime any fur­ther in West­ern Europe, Churchill argued. He added that if the Sovi­ets did not accept the ulti­ma­tum, a West­ern leader should tell them straight “We will attack Moscow and your oth­er cities and destroy them with atom­ic bombs from the air.”  (The MacKen­zie King Record vol. 4, 1970, in Gra­ham Farme­lo, Churchill’s Bomb, 339).

So why the parox­ysms of hor­ror fifty years later?

Churchill occa­sion­al­ly voiced apoc­a­lyp­tic notions in pri­vate, to see what the reac­tion would be. A crit­i­cal but bal­anced biog­ra­ph­er, Antho­ny Sel­don, in his 1981 book Churchill’s Indi­an Sum­mer, wrote: “Churchill’s style of toss­ing ideas around with his com­pan­ion, often to test their effect, mis­tak­en­ly inclined Moran to give these half-formed thoughts and sug­ges­tions a sta­tus of hard fact.” And not just Moran.

Churchill nev­er for­mal­ly pro­posed to bomb Moscow as Leader of the Oppo­si­tion (as he then was) or to Pres­i­dent Tru­man or the State Depart­ment. Churchill’s  for­mal state­ments had a dif­fer­ent tack, as Mr. Farme­lo cor­rect­ly report­ed (and the Dai­ly Mail didn’t):

This was the zenith of Churchill’s nuclear bel­li­cos­i­ty. He soon soft­ened his line. In the House of Com­mons he went no fur­ther than the words he used after British rela­tions with the Sovi­et Union dete­ri­o­rat­ed again, in Jan­u­ary 1948: the best chance of avoid­ing war was “to bring mat­ters to a head with the Sovi­et Government…to arrive at a last­ing settlement.”

I emailed all this to the Mail‘s reporter, adding:

I trust you are not going to say, as you did on the phone, “Churchill want­ed to nuke Moscow.” What he con­tem­plat­ed in pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions, which nev­er devel­oped into any kind of plan and was nev­er pro­posed to the Amer­i­cans, can hard­ly be con­strued as some­thing he “want­ed.”
Alas, when it comes to pop­ulist news­pa­pers, Shock­ing Facts are key, and calm rea­son is like shout­ing into the wind. Forty-eight hours lat­er the Dai­ly Mail announced:

Win­ston Churchill’s “bid to nuke Rus­sia” to win Cold War – uncovered….Winston Churchill urged the Unit­ed States to launch a nuclear attack on the Sovi­et Union to win the Cold War, a new­ly released doc­u­ment reveals. Read the full sto­ry.

When Churchill returned to Down­ing Street and Stal­in died, he spent much of his time striv­ing vain­ly for “a set­tle­ment” with the Sovi­ets, plead­ing with Pres­i­dent Eisen­how­er. And here is anoth­er Shock­ing Fact for the Dai­ly Mail to dis­cov­er:  Eisen­how­er replied that Rus­sia might have new lead­ers and  a new dress, “but under­neath she is still the same old whore.”
The Mail also omits anoth­er quote I sent them, from William Manchester:

Churchill, how­ev­er, always had sec­ond and third thoughts, and they usu­al­ly improved as he went along. It was part of his pat­tern of response to any polit­i­cal issue that while his ear­ly reac­tions were often emo­tion­al, and even unwor­thy of him, they were usu­al­ly suc­ceed­ed by rea­son and generosity.

Churchill died despair­ing of his final goal: world peace. That will not inter­est the pop­ulist media—which much prefers Shock­ing Facts. Even if they are half a cen­tu­ry old.

4 thoughts on “Shocking Facts: “Nuke the Soviets”

  1. Hel­lo Richard Lang­worth and Thomas Maier. This is a first: I have read books by you both! I read and favor­ably reivewed When Lions Roar. I think Mr. Maier tried very hard not to go beyond his facts though he eas­i­ly could have many times. Almost always he leaves all spec­u­la­tions to the read­er. I have always been fas­ci­nat­ed on those two fam­i­lies and the rela­tion­ship (most­ly lit­er­ary and intel­lec­tu­al) between JFK and Churchill. I have also read Lord Moran’s book also and real­ize some was writ­ten long after the dates he dis­cuss­es. Yes to me the Man­ches­ter quote is quite true: “Churchill, how­ever, always had sec­ond and third thoughts, and they usu­ally improved as he went along….” 

    What peo­ple say pri­vate­ly, what they say in anger, or what oth­er peo­ple inter­pret are not nec­es­sar­i­ly what real­ly hap­pened. It goes with­out say­ing that Churchill was not an irra­tional mad­man like Hitler. He act­ed on big mat­ters after seri­ous thought and was, in short, a wise statesman.

  2. Thanks, Thomas. I thought your report per­fect­ly prop­er and inter­est­ing, in that the Bridges com­ment you found mir­rors what he said to Moran (alleged­ly) and King around the same time. That he said it pri­vate­ly, nev­er pro­posed it to the U.S. and took a dif­fer­ent tack pub­licly is lost on a media thirst­ing for a “dis­cov­ery.” What would we do with­out them?

  3. Hi Richard, I enjoyed your post and thank you for prop­er­ly cred­it­ing my book with try­ing to report about this 1947 FBI memo with the prop­er con­text. At best, it is only a “snap­shot” in Churchill’s think­ing about nuclear war­fare at that time. But it is an inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment nonethe­less. In my book, I men­tioned both Lord Moran’s account of Churchill’s com­ments about the atom­ic bomb dur­ing that ear­ly Cold War peri­od as well as the views of oth­ers like Amb. Har­ri­man. How­ev­er, to the best of my knowl­edge and review, there’s nev­er before been a men­tion of this 1947 Bridges con­ver­sa­tion. Of course the focus of my book is the rela­tion­ships between the Churchills and Kennedys from 1930 to 1970, espe­cial­ly between great men and their sons.I hope that this “scoop” doesn’t divert atten­tion from read­ers’ enjoy­ment of this over­all story.

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