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:
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.
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.