History / What Churchill Had to Hide

Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby, Simon & Schuster, 464 pages, $37

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had far-reaching consequences, whose full significance it is doubtful we are yet capable of understanding today. But those consequences certainly included revolutionary changes in the prevailing perception of 20th-century history. Historians were therefore required to conduct a fundamental revision in the story they had disseminated until this formative event, not only because previously unfamiliar documents and testimony were discovered, but also because now, after the removal of the real or imagined Damocles sword that ostensibly threatened the security and the future of the Western world, we have time to consider to a story whose terms are not so black and white.

The outlines of the "big story" were influenced to a great extent by the heroes of this history themselves, who of course had vested interests and clearly wanted to disseminate their own particular versions. There is no question, for example, that in his historical writings Sir Winston Churchill, Great Britain's prime minister during World War II, shaped the way the Western world understood the war for many years.

The man who said that he knew how history would judge him, because he himself planned to write it, succeeded in the assignment that he had set for himself, and for many years historians were forced to depend on him as a reliable and exclusive source, since the documents he had at his disposal were unavailable to them. For example, he was able to conceal the fact that from the time the United States joined the war, in December 1941, his influence on military decisions declined sharply.

An important issue that is now being subject to a new and surprising approach is the relationship among the leaders of the Allied powers, who together coordinated the course of the struggle against Hitler and his allies. The familiar pictures of the three great leaders - Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt - sank into public awareness; the sites of their meetings, in Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam, became popular tourist attractions. But much of what happened among the three remained a mystery.

Nonetheless, Churchill's mission of dictating history was only partially accomplished, and the full picture is gradually being revealed in all its complexity.

Jonathan Fenby is an experienced journalist with a rare ability to absorb the latest findings of historiographical scholarship and produce a lucid and accessible book, which is based on the discoveries of dozens of diligent historians. Although he himself does not provide much new information, his portrayal serves as a kind of up-to-date summary of the knowledge available thus far. And this summary differs greatly from the version we had until now.

A decisive role in the Allied powers' successful elimination of the Nazi threat has been attributed to the relations among the "three greats." One does not require much imagination in order to understand the dramatic dimensions of this complex encounter among three such different leaders.

Common sense would say that the most problematic side of the triangle was the Soviet dictator, yesterday's mortal enemy who turned into an indispensable friend. After all, he forged an alliance with Hitler, and according to the version commonly accepted in the West, rejected attempts at persuasion on the part of Great Britain and France; and whereas these two countries represented democracies, nobody knew how Stalin made his decisions. But Stalin was not the only problematic member of the triumvirate.

When the war broke out, and when it became clear that the countries of Europe were collapsing one by one and leaving Great Britain alone in the fray, Churchill was convinced that his country's only hope was to have the only other English-speaking power, the United States, join the war. He promised the citizens of his country war wherever necessary, to the last drop of blood, and the defeat of "Herr Hitler," but deep inside he knew that these statements had a very short life expectancy. He knew that if the U.S. was the key to salvation, and its enigmatic president was the chief decision-maker, everything possible had to be done to persuade him. And Churchill flattered, lobbied, pleaded, threatened and placed the fate of the glorious and long-standing British Empire on the shoulders of the paralyzed president, as he waited impatiently for him to come around.

Wooing Roosevelt

When Churchill's aides informed him that Japan had attacked the U.S. in Pearl Harbor, he was relieved. He knew that this was the beginning of the end. However, he still had to nurture relations with Roosevelt. Churchill wrote hundreds of letters to the president in Washington, and consulted with him on everything. He praised him publicly, and when describing the proper relationship between the two nations he actually began to grovel.

Churchill knew that the U.S. president had reservations about the British Empire. However, he tried to ignore this issue, and expected the two of them to present a united front when they faced the Russian bear, "Uncle Joe" in the code they used. And that is how Churchill eventually described this unique alliance.

However, things didn't quite work that way. Fenby tells us what Roosevelt's biographers in recent years have already discovered: that this popular U.S. president was cold, almost emotionless, calculated and pragmatic. Liberals and radicals see him as a leader who came to power with an organized agenda for removing the injustices rooted in his country's society and economy; but in fact, Roosevelt had no real principles. He was not faithful to anyone - not to his associates and the members of his entourage, not to his wife, and not to Churchill either.

There was also something malicious about Roosevelt, which very soon became evident when the three leaders met and discovered that though Churchill was a great leader of his country, there were some strange aspects to his behavior and his obsessions. And Roosevelt, in his efforts to court Stalin, did not hesitate to mock the eccentric Briton. He and Stalin derived great pleasure at the sight of Churchill who didn't understand that the other two were pulling his leg.

Fenby tells these stories with great enjoyment. He makes every effort to expose what he sees as the human face of this vital alliance. He does not write only about political decisions, but also fills in the background: how many shots of whiskey were drunk at each of the meals they shared, how Stalin treated his associates and Churchill's whims.

The result is certainly entertaining. For example, Archibald Clark Kerr, the British ambassador to Moscow, was known among the staff of the Foreign Office in London as being independent minded. Churchill did not like such people, and during his visits to the Soviet capital he rarely involved his ambassador in the important issues. But the independent ambassador did not give in, and more than once rescued his leader from serious mistakes.

Up to this point, these are not stories that cannot be found in other books about World War II. But Fenby also relates that Clark Kerr was a pedantic diarist who displayed considerable talent for writing, demonstrated on the pages of his diary. During one of his visits with Churchill at his Moscow hotel, the British leader did not hesitate to get into a heated debate about one of the crucial issues in talks with Stalin, while preparing himself for the hot bath he so loved. And thus, immediately after Churchill, clad only in a light silk undershirt, had negotiated with his ambassador and reprimanded him, Kerr, the obsessive diarist, rushed back to his room in the embassy to record the conversation in his diary. To enhance the impression, he also added a description of Churchill on his way to the bath.

Dirty work

Fenby also uses secondary characters to add to the human dimension of his story. For example, he tells the story of a close associate of Roosevelt's, his emissary for the most difficult and complex assignments - Harry Hopkins. The ailing Hopkins paid no attention to his health and traveled to London during the heavy bombings, and also went to Moscow to lay the foundations for the magnificent structure of the Alliance. Roosevelt, not one to prepare much before making crucial decisions, relied on his intuition and on Hopkins' advice. In Fenby's book, the devotion of this loyal assistant reads like a story of true heroism.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the heart of the book is the story of the second front. Immediately upon the Nazi invasion of his country and the first signs of the anti-Nazi alliance, Stalin demanded of his interlocutors that they open a second front in Europe, which would relieve the Soviet Union of the full weight of German might. This issue would eventually become a bone of contention during the Cold War: The Soviet Union would try to take all the credit for the victory, and would not hesitate to accuse its former allies of foot-dragging that prevented the elimination of the Nazi threat earlier. The Soviets even dropped broad hints to the effect that Great Britain and the U.S. had refrained from opening a second front in the hope that Hitler would do their dirty work for them and destroy the Soviet Union.

After the victory, and when he wrote up his version of events, Churchill did not hesitate to claim that from the time the idea of the second front was proposed, he was among the leaders of those demanding that it be implemented. He rejected out of hand the accusations that he had actually worked to prevent the invasion of Normandy. If there was a delay, he claimed, it stemmed from tactical considerations alone, and when it turned out that the military and logistical preparations for the invasion had been completed, it was carried out.

But the British Fenby, basing himself on detailed studies, reveals to us that Churchill did in fact try to prevent the invasion of occupied France, and among the considerations behind this position were strategic and tactical reasons, fixed modes of thinking and narrow British interests.

Fenby relies on other commentators to explain Churchill's embarrassing attitude toward historical truth. Apparently it was not only his desire to refute the claims of someone who had been an ally and was now a dangerous enemy: When Churchill wrote these things, in the late 1940s, he was a leader who, even if his voters had turned their backs on him and did not want him to conduct their affairs in peacetime, had not lost his hopes for the future. As a man whose political future still lay ahead of him, Churchill could not permit himself to be perceived as someone who had tried to delay the implementation of what would turn out to be the greatest achievement of the war. Nor could he by any means reveal the bitter fact that from a certain stage, Great Britain, and he at its helm, had ceased to be an important military factor determining the course of the war.

To Fenby's credit, it should be said that he knows how to grant proper recognition to the historians who were involved in the work and exposed the details from which he has woven a colorful and fascinating book. And it should also be said that in spite of his unconcealed affection for the small anecdotes behind the great personalities, which he brings to the verge of gossip, he makes sure not to cross the line into triviality.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is editor-in-chief of the "Ofakim" series, published by Am Oved.