“Stalin never broke his word to me.” Were these Churchill’s words?

“Stalin never broke his word to me.” Were these Churchill’s words?

A mag­a­zine fact check­er writes ask­ing if Churchill ever said, “Stal­in nev­er broke his word to me.” The short answer is yes. The long answer shows how care­ful we should be when quot­ing Churchill.

Cyrus Leo Sulzberg­er in 1968. (Wikipedia Commons)

The source of this quote is the jour­nal­ist C.L. Sulzberg­er (1912-1993), in his 1970 book, The Last of the Giants, page 304. In it Sulzberg­er reports his “five hours with old Win­ston Churchill” at Chartwell on 10 July 1956.

Churchill, wrote Sulzberg­er, thought Stal­in “a great man, above all com­pared to Khr­uschev and Bul­ganin,” and quot­ed Churchill as follows:

Stal­in nev­er broke his word to me. We agreed on the Balka­ns. I said he could have Ruma­nia and Bul­gar­ia; he said we could have Greece (of course, only in our sphere, you know). He signed a slip of paper. And he nev­er broke his word. We saved Greece that way. When we went in in 1944 Stal­in didn’t inter­fere. You Amer­i­cans didn’t help, you know.

Sulzberg­er was a reli­able reporter, so the source although hearsay, is cred­i­ble. As a  gauge of Churchill’s final view of Stal­in, it is more problematic.

By 1956 Churchill was an aged 81, out of pow­er and still smart­ing over his fail­ure to achieve a sum­mit con­fer­ence with the Rus­sians. (Eisen­how­er held one almost imme­di­ate­ly after Churchill left office, say­ing, pri­vate­ly. that he feared “Win­ston might give away the store.”) Churchill had long argued for a three-pow­er meet­ing and “set­tle­ment” with the Rus­sians, based on the brand of per­son­al diplo­ma­cy he’d prac­ticed with Stal­in dur­ing World War II.

Stalin and the “Percentages Agreement”

In say­ing Stal­in nev­er broke his word, Churchill referred to the much mis­rep­re­sent­ed “naughty paper.” This was the “per­cent­ages agree­ment” with Stal­in in their Moscow talks (Tol­stoy Con­fer­ence,  9-19 Octo­ber 1944)—which Stal­in did hon­or. The Sovi­ets made no move to inter­fere when Churchill flew to Athens to bro­ker a truce between com­mu­nist and nation­al­ist insur­gents. Stal­in began med­dling in Greece after Churchill was out of office. He met stiff resis­tance from Pres­i­dent Tru­man.

After the Yal­ta Con­fer­ence in Feb­ru­ary 1945, Churchill said he thought he could trust Stal­in. His suc­cess in Greece was fresh in his mind, and Stal­in had promised free elec­tions in Poland. With­in a month Churchill admit­ted, in cor­re­spon­dence with Roo­sevelt, that he’d been wrong. Even in the imme­di­ate after­math of Yal­ta, on 23 Feb­ru­ary 1945, he won­dered, after Germany’s defeat, “what will lie between the white snows of Rus­sia and the white cliffs of Dover?” (John Colville, Fringes of Pow­er, 563).

It is fair to say that Churchill believed Stal­in had not bro­ken his word through 1944. To some extent his 1956 remark to Sulzberg­er was meant to con­trast what Churchill saw as the giant fig­ure of Stal­in. But trust in Stal­in was cer­tain­ly not some­thing Churchill expressed often after 1945. In the end, I doubt that he had very much.

Speak­ing at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy (3 March 1949) Churchill pre­dict­ed the fall of com­mu­nism, fueled by “a spark com­ing from God knows where and in a moment the whole struc­ture of lies and oppres­sion is on tri­al for its life.” Jock Colville told me that WSC said to him: “I won’t live to see it, but you will.” Colville died in 1987. He didn’t quite make it.

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