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CHURCHILLIAN COLD WAR DIPLOMACY: PUTTING BRITANNIA FIRST
Review by Jacyln Stanke

Churchill's Cold War: The Politics of Personal DiplomacyChurchill’s Cold War: The Politics of Personal Diplomacy. by Klaus Larres. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002,. Pp. xxii, 583. $40 cloth.)

“Larres’ book challenges traditional interpretations of Churchill the consummate Cold Warrior while also resisting more recent attempts to categorize Churchill’s search for detente in the early 1950s as either visionary brilliance or misguided foolishness.”

Klaus Larres, Professor of International Relations and Foreign Policy at the University of London, has written a magisterial book. Churchill’s Cold War is perhaps the best study to date addressing the question of whether an opportunity was missed to end the Cold War following the death of Stalin. Based on an impressive array of British and American archival sources, official published sources in English, German, and French, Soviet materials in translation, and secondary items in multiple languages, the author traces Winston Churchill’s involvement in international affairs from the eve of World War I to his retirement, but focuses on the British statesman’s search for detente in the early 1950s. Larres challenges traditional interpretations of Churchill the consummate Cold Warrior, while also resisting more recent attempts to categorize his search for detente in the early 1950s as either visionary brilliance or misguided foolishness. Churchill’s policy to achieve an early detente in the Cold War was rather something in between and rooted in his consistent policy throughout the century to put Britain’s interests first, using the means he believed most valuable--personal diplomacy and summitry.

Larres lays the groundwork for his thesis in the first half of the book. The years 1908-1914 kindled Churchill’s belief in personal diplomacy. As Cabinet Minister, he unsuccessfully advocated high-level Anglo-German talks to avert war, which broke out in August 1914, but did not shake his convictions. Churchill’s successful alliance with Washington and Moscow during the Second World War confirmed his belief in the efficacy of personal diplomacy and summitry. Britain’s declining power notwithstanding, Churchill continued to configure a postwar international system with Britiain as a major player. During 1940-43, he contemplated some kind of United States of Europe. He finally abandoned the idea as pursuing it risked antagonizing his wartime allies and damaging Britain’s place amongst the Big Three.

Though removed from power in 1945, Churchill continued to seek ways to protect his country, the empire, and Britain’s status as a world power. That included a negotiated postwar settlement with Stalin, which underpinned his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1947. While Churchill called on the West to build up its strength against communism, Larres believes his rationale was based on the need for a satisfactory settlement with the U. S. S. R. By 1950, Churchill believed the West had attained sufficient strength to pursue negotiations, but as a former prime minister there was little he could do promote his views.

Returned to 10 Downing Street in 1951, Churchill looked for openings to wind down the Cold War. Few opportunities arose until after Stalin’s death in 1953. Encouraged by the more conciliatory tone of the dictator’s successors, he called for a summit in May 1953. Here, Larres examines Churchill’s actions and maneuverings to obtain a summit while also exploring fully the “missed opportunity” question from the American, German, and Soviet perspectives. In the end, he concludes, the opportunity was always slim at best. Despite Churchill’s efforts, the Western allies showed little interest, while German rearmament was in the offing and the June riots in East Berlin made it clear that the Kremlin leadership was in no position to negotiate.

Despite his best efforts, Churchill never regained another such opportunity to to build detente. Most desperately in 1954, he proposed an Anglo-Soviet summit without Cabinet approval. His action provoed a government crisis, but Soviet ineptitude defused the situation. the final nail in the coffin was the February 1955 resignation of Georgii Malenkov, the Soviet leader upon whom Churchill had placed his bets. In April 1955, Churchill retired from office. He was not at Geneva that summer--the first postwar summit of the Big Four. It was not the meeting he had envisioned. Rather than find ways to end the Cold War, the participants informally acknowledged the status quo in East-West relations.

The unifying thread in this exhaustive study is Churchill’s belief in and use of personal diplomacy. Larres’ examination of his subject’s pre-World War II dealings through personal diplomacy enables him to identify problems inherent in Churchill’s methods, thus shedding light on his eventual failure to obtain detente in the 1950s. First, Churchill frequently bypassed experts and regular channels of diplomacy (especially the Foreign Office). Secondly, he often focused on the big picture, but neglected the details. Thus, his plan for a United States of Europe lacked workable details. Similarly, he was unclear in how exactly a summit could end the Cold War, for at some some point the specifics of a settlement would have to be determined. Bothof these factors made it difficult to garner support from his government and allies. Third, despite acting in Britain’s interests, Churchill’s attempts to defuse tensions with his country’s chief adversaries (Germany prior to World War I and Russia during the Cold War) unleashed the possibility of these adversaries driving a wedge between London and its allies, possibly doing more harm than good. Finally, Larres--though sympathetic--takes Churchill to task for failing to recognize the shifting power realities of the post-war world. No amount of Churchillian diplomacy could preserve Britain’s status as a great power. In that regard, the twentieth-century’s greatest statesman failed and perhaps even prolonged his country’s inability to face political reality.


Dr. Jacyln Stanke, a past contributor to these pages, is an Assistant Professor of History at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC.

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