Shocking Facts: “Nuclear Armageddon” Then and Now

Shocking Facts: “Nuclear Armageddon” Then and Now

Nuclear armageddon, then and now

5 Novem­ber 2015— A call from the Lon­don Dai­ly Mail: “We are doing a piece on a new book and want­ed to run it by you.” The book was Thomas Maier’s When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys. They were excit­ed about their dis­cov­ery there­in of a Shock­ing Fact about Win­ston Churchill. (Shock­ing Fact #2385, by my count.)

Mr. Maier had record­ed, calm­ly and dis­pas­sion­ate­ly, a 1947 con­ver­sa­tion between Churchill and Sen­a­tor Stiles Bridges (R-N.H.). Churchill told Bridges “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 was real­ly onto an exposé. And their ques­tion for me was: “Did you know Churchill want­ed the Amer­i­cans to bomb Russia?”

Flash for­ward to 2022 and the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, say­ing (not so pri­vate­ly) that we are on the brink of nuclear Armaged­don. It’s the clos­est we’ve come, he says, since the 1962 Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis. It may be inter­est­ing to com­pare the these two apoc­a­lyp­tic visions and the set­tings in which they occurred. (Remem­ber­ing, of course, that in 1947 the Rus­sians couldn’t nuke us in return.)

Shocking fact 2385

The Shock­ing Fact about Churchill con­tem­plat­ing nuk­ing Moscow has been known for over half a cen­tu­ry. Churchill’s momen­tary pri­vate thoughts were first revealed in his doctor’s diaries in 1966. Accord­ing to Lord Moran, on 8 August 1946, WSC said:

Amer­i­ca knows that 52% 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 a his­tor­i­cal build­ing like the Kremlin.”

Intaglio print by Sarah Churchill/Curtis Hoop­er (

“The sto­ry is not new,” I told the Mail. Indeed around the same time, Churchill 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).

What’s the difference?

Churchill voiced his thought pri­vate­ly in chats with indi­vid­u­als. Biden voiced his in a fundrais­er, where it was quick­ly picked up and cir­cu­lat­ed by the media, then walked back by the White House. He was, er, you know, just think­ing out loud. What he meant by rais­ing it pub­licly remains obscure. What Churchill intend­ed by his more pri­vate remarks in 1947 is clearer.

Churchill occa­sion­al­ly voiced apoc­a­lyp­tic notions in pri­vate, to see what the reac­tion would be. A crit­i­cal but bal­anced biog­ra­ph­er, Antho­ny Sel­don, wrote in Churchill’s Indi­an Sum­mer: “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. Bridges and King were cer­tain­ly tak­en aback suf­fi­cient­ly to record it.

As Leader of the Oppo­si­tion (which he then was), Churchill nev­er for­mal­ly pro­posed to bomb Moscow. He nev­er urged it upon Pres­i­dent Tru­man or the State Depart­ment. Churchill’s  for­mal state­ments had a dif­fer­ent tack, as Gra­ham 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.”

What the Mail reported

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 media, Shock­ing Facts are all the rage 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.

What Churchill really wanted

After Churchill returned to Down­ing Street and Stal­in died, he spent much of his time striv­ing vain­ly for “a set­tle­ment” with the Sovi­ets. He plead­ed in vain with Pres­i­dent Eisen­how­er for a “meet­ing at the sum­mit.” And here is anoth­er Shock­ing Fact for the Dai­ly Mail to dis­cov­er:  Eisen­how­er replied (at the 1953 Bermu­da Con­fer­ence) that Rus­sia might have new lead­ers and  a new dress, but under­neath she was still the same old woman of the streets. (Or words to that effect; sources differ.)
The Mail also omit­ted 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. (The Last Lion, vol. 1, 843-44.)

Churchill died despair­ing of his final goal of world peace. That will not inter­est the pop­ulist media, which much prefers Shock­ing Facts. Even if they are a half cen­tu­ry old. As to what Mr. Biden meant by his remarks, or the pub­lic venue in which he made them, I am not qual­i­fied to judge.

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