Churchill and the Red Scare: The Zinoviev Letter

Churchill and the Red Scare: The Zinoviev Letter

Excerpt­ed from “The Zinoviev Let­ter and 1924 ‘Red Scare,’” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with views of his­to­ri­ans Paul Addi­son and David Stafford, end­notes and dif­fer­ent images, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and enter your email in the box “Stay in touch with us.” We nev­er spam you and your iden­ti­ty remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Zinoviev clamor

Sen­sa­tion­al­ized by the Dai­ly Mail, the Zinoviev Let­ter appeared just before the 1924 British gen­er­al elec­tion. Pur­port­ed­ly issued by Com­intern head Grig­o­ry Zinoviev, it urged the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of Great Britain to engage in sedi­tious activ­i­ties. Elect­ing a Ram­say Mac­Don­ald Labour gov­ern­ment, it claimed, would awak­en the work­ing class­es and lead to a Marx­ist rev­o­lu­tion with the CPGB in the vanguard.

Even­tu­al­ly the Let­ter proved a forgery. It did, how­ev­er, enable con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cians, includ­ing Churchill (run­ning as an inde­pen­dent “Con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist”) to raise the specter of Red revolution.

It had lit­tle effect on the elec­tion: The Con­ser­v­a­tives under Stan­ley Bald­win swamped their Labour and Lib­er­al oppo­si­tion. Bald­win made Churchill Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer and he returned to the Tories. (Zinoviev ulti­mate­ly suf­fered exe­cu­tion by his own side, after a Moscow show tri­al in 1936.)

“The effect of the Zinoviev let­ter on the 1924 elec­tion result is prob­lem­at­i­cal,” wrote Robert Rhodes James, “but it is of inter­est to see what Churchill’s reac­tions were.”

Always a tar­get for con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists, the schemer Win­ston was drawn for F.E. Smith’s 1924 book, “Con­tem­po­rary Per­son­al­i­ties.” (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Was Churchill involved?

A promi­nent his­to­ri­an asks if Churchill was impli­cat­ed the Zinoviev plot:

It is not indexed in Mar­tin Gilbert’s biog­ra­phy…. Giv­en Churchill’s fer­vent anti-com­mu­nism, he seems an obvi­ous tar­get for con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists. Nei­ther Bald­win, the par­ty stal­wart J.C.C. David­son nor MI5’s Joseph Ball knew of the plot. William Orms­by-Gore knew about it, pos­si­bly slight­ly lat­er. It is hard to imag­ine that Churchill did not know, but it seems he was not a par­tic­i­pant. Is that how you see it? [Yes.]

He was not…

Remark­ably, the con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists have not got round to accus­ing Churchill of actu­al­ly writ­ing the Zinoviev Letter–at least as far we know! It is cer­tain that he was not involved in the forgery, though he ini­tial­ly accept­ed it as gen­uine. (He so wrote For­eign Sec­re­tary Austen Cham­ber­lain a month after its appear­ance. See below.)

Churchill did take polit­i­cal advan­tage of the Zinoviev uproar. Even if it were forged, he said, it was noth­ing new where Bol­she­viks were con­cerned. (He called Ram­say Mac­Don­ald a “futile Kerensky.”)

The fol­low­ing ref­er­ences are from our dig­i­tal archive of 80 mil­lion words by and about Sir Win­ston Churchill. Mar­tin Gilbert did not entire­ly ignore Zinoviev, pub­lish­ing WSC’s 14 Novem­ber 1924 let­ter to Cham­ber­lain. That was writ­ten after Churchill’s “Red Plot” arti­cle had appeared in the Week­ly Dis­patch. At the time, WSC seemed to believe the Tories might label it authen­tic. But on the whole he was non-committal.

 “Futile Kerensky,” 25 October 1924

Speak­ing a few days before polling day, Churchill high­light­ed what he saw as a very real dan­ger of Sovi­et agents in Britain, and MacDonald’s uncon­cern. (Alexan­der Keren­sky was the Men­she­vik head of the short-lived 1917 Russ­ian pro­vi­sion­al gov­ern­ment, oust­ed by Lenin in the Octo­ber revolution.)

[Extract] Even if the Moscow let­ter is a forgery it in no way alters the facts that Bol­she­vik pro­pa­gan­da has nev­er ceased dur­ing the last four years. They have nev­er ceased to stir up bloody rev­o­lu­tion in India and to fos­ter strife in this coun­try. The Prime Min­is­ter [Mac­Don­ald] said he believes this let­ter is authen­tic, but the Com­mu­nist forces are already on his track, and the moment is com­ing when this futile Keren­sky will make anoth­er surrender.

The process of con­ver­sion has already begun. Mr. Mac­Don­ald said he was going to probe the mat­ter to the bot­tom, and he described the affair as a new Guy Fawkes Gun­pow­der Plot.

The Prime Min­is­ter is prepar­ing already to turn about, and I ven­ture to pre­dict that before the elec­tion is over, we will find Mr. Mac­Don­ald singing in cho­rus with the rest of his Min­is­ters that the let­ter he has said he hon­est­ly believes is authen­tic is a gross forgery and a dodge of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Party.

“The Red Letter,” 2 November 1924

Writ­ing three days after the elec­tion, Churchill insist­ed that the Zinoviev Let­ter rep­re­sent­ed gen­uine Sovi­et inten­tions. He lam­pooned the now-defeat­ed MacDonald’s efforts to loan Rus­sia mon­ey and expand trade:

[Excerpt] Let us con­sid­er this “Red Let­ter” itself. It con­tained noth­ing new. From the ear­li­est moment of its birth the Russ­ian Bol­she­vist Gov­ern­ment has declared its inten­tion of using all the pow­er of the Russ­ian Empire to pro­mote a world rev­o­lu­tion. Their agents have pen­e­trat­ed into every coun­try. Every­where they have endeav­oured to bring into being the “germ cells” from which the can­cer of Com­mu­nism should grow….

When, on Octo­ber 16, the “Red Let­ter” first received the atten­tion of the Prime Min­is­ter, only two cours­es were pos­si­ble for any rea­son­able man. The first was to treat it as a doc­u­ment of no more con­se­quence than many oth­ers in the For­eign Office archives or to refuse to accept its authen­tic­i­ty and to con­tin­ue his advo­ca­cy of the loan to Rus­sia. The sec­ond was to pub­lish it…and declare that after such an affront, the whole pol­i­cy of the Russ­ian Treaties must be abandoned.

Mr. Mac­Don­ald did nei­ther. He accept­ed the authen­tic­i­ty of the doc­u­ment; he affirmed its extra­or­di­nary impor­tance; he denounced it in sweep­ing terms, and he con­tin­ued to appeal to the amazed elec­tors for a guar­an­teed loan to Russia.

* * *

Was the let­ter a forgery [or] the For­eign Office hoaxed? Was its chief mis­led by his offi­cials? Such were the furi­ous ques­tions which the dis­com­fit­ed Social­ist Min­is­ters imme­di­ate­ly hurled at their leader…. We do not know what evi­dence they had at their dis­pos­al [but] it was weighty and cogent. We know that these attempts to foment dis­or­der and revolt in Britain and the British Domin­ions have been unceasing.

Such a doc­u­ment is only typ­i­cal. It might have been sent out as a mat­ter of mere rou­tine from the Bol­she­vist head­quar­ters….. The “Red Let­ter” did not illu­mi­nate the con­tro­ver­sy. Its pub­li­ca­tion, with Mr. MacDonald’s con­fir­ma­tion and protest, only stul­ti­fied him and the Social­ist Par­ty. But that stul­ti­fi­ca­tion came as the final stroke in a long process of con­vic­tion which at length roused the British nation to an expres­sion of nation­al cen­sure more effec­tive than any which our mod­ern polit­i­cal his­to­ry records.

Churchill to Austen Chamberlain, 14 November 1924

[Excerpt] We shall in all prob­a­bil­i­ty have to pro­claim in a few days’ time that we believe the Zinoviev Let­ter to be authen­tic, and that is only part and par­cel of the gen­er­al pol­i­cy of pro­pa­gan­da unceas­ing­ly pur­sued by the Sovi­ets. If we say this, it fol­lows that we believe the Bol­she­viks have bro­ken their solemn engage­ments under which they were admit­ted to this coun­try both in the days of the Krassin mis­sion and in those of Rakovsky.

If they have thus bro­ken their engage­ments, and have attempt­ed to stir up rebel­lion in our midst, what grounds are there that can jus­ti­fy our pro­ceed­ing to allow them to remain here? The rep­re­sen­ta­tives of no oth­er coun­try would be per­mit­ted to remain if con­vict­ed, in our opin­ion, or sim­i­lar offences. I am cer­tain that no mere Note or answer will by itself be suf­fi­cient to sat­is­fy either jus­tice or pub­lic opin­ion. It is essen­tial that action should fol­low a dec­la­ra­tion of the authen­tic­i­ty of the Zinoviev let­ter. The ques­tion is what action.

Zinoviev in the War Memoirs

In 1947, Churchill asked the philoso­pher and his­to­ri­an Isa­iah Berlin to read a draft of The Gath­er­ing Storm, his first vol­ume of Sec­ond World War mem­oirs. Berlin replied with a men­tion of the Zinoviev Let­ter. The Gath­er­ing Storm, Berlin wrote

seems to me to take some time to get going prop­er­ly. The main theme is the Rise of Hitler, and the blind­ness of Eng­land and the West­ern World. If the sto­ry is to start with the ear­li­er “peace­ful years” 1924-1929, it may be felt to lack some­thing unless the cen­tral events which linger in the pop­u­lar memory—the Gen­er­al Strike, rela­tions with Rus­sia (the Zinoviev Let­ter, the Arcos Raid), etc. are placed in prop­er focus; alter­na­tive­ly all this could be con­densed into a gen­er­al pre­lude to the real story—with not too rigid a skele­ton of chronology—a kind of com­men­tary on the moods and acts of these remote delud­ed years, not over­weight­ed with spe­cif­ic detail, a back­ground to the awful things to come.

Berlin sug­gest­ed jet­ti­son­ing the rather bland Chap­ters II and III (“Peace at Its Zenith” and “Lurk­ing Dan­gers”) and going right to Chap­ter IV (“Adolf Hitler”). Churchill did short­en those chap­ters. But if WSC’s ear­ly drafts men­tioned the Zinoviev Let­ter, it did not appear in the book.

The only ref­er­ence to Zinoviev in The Gath­er­ing Storm was in pass­ing, though abrupt. Describ­ing Stalin’s 1937 purges, Churchill wrote: “Zinoviev, Bukharin, and oth­ers of the orig­i­nal lead­ers of the Rev­o­lu­tion, Mar­shal Tukhachevsky, who had been invit­ed to rep­re­sent the Sovi­et Union at the Coro­na­tion of King George VI, and many oth­er high offi­cers of the Army, were shot.”

Further reading

Churchill, Hen­ry Ford and Sid­ney Reil­ly: Anti-Bol­she­vik Col­lab­o­ra­tors?” 2022.

“Churchill’s Mag­na­nim­i­ty: Stan­ley Bald­win 1867-1947,” 2021.

“Zion­ism, Bol­she­vism, Ene­mies of Civil­i­sa­tion: What Churchill Said,” 2021.

“‘Stal­in Nev­er Broke His Word to Me’: Were These Churchill’s Words?” 2020.

“Churchill and the White Rus­sians: The Russ­ian Civ­il War, 1919,” 2019.

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