Winston Churchill was famously described by one biographer as “gloriously unfit for office” when he returned to Downing Street in 1951.
Now Roy Jenkins’s appraisal has arguably found new weight with the emergence of a memo that suggests Churchill’s favoured Cold War strategy included nuclear strikes and bombing Russia and China into submission.
The “shocking” strategy of threatening 20 to 30 cities is outlined in a memorandum from Julius Ochs Adler, the New York Times general manager, describing a conversation at Churchill’s home in Kent, southern England, on Sunday, April 29, 1951.
During lunch the 76-year-old statesman was drinking Pol Roger champagne from a glass “of unusual size and shape, holding at least twice as much as those in front of the other places”. Churchill, at that time leader of the opposition, lamented that British-US joint policy on Russia was “weak, rather than aggressive”.
Adler wrote: “Somewhat abruptly, (Churchill) asked me the official figure of our atom bomb stockpile and our estimate of Russia’s available supply. I replied that happily I was not in the inner circles of the government and therefore was not burdened with that awesome secret.”
The former US army officer went on: “He then startled us a second time by stating that if he were prime minister and could secure the agreement of our government, he would lay down conditions to Russia … an ultimatum.
“Upon their refusal, the Kremlin should be informed that unless they reconsidered, we would atom bomb one of 20 or 30 cities.
“Simultaneously we should warn them it was imperative that the civilian population of each city named be immediately evacuated. He believed they would again refuse to consider our terms.
“Then we should bomb one of their targets, and if necessary, additional ones. Such panic would ensue (certainly by the third attack) not only among the Russian people but within the Kremlin, that our terms would be met.”
Adler told Churchill that he did not believe the American people “would ever consent to such a form of preventative war and would only use our atom bombs in retaliation”.
He also reminded him “that Britain and the United States had many partners to consider who might be averse to such a policy”.
Soon afterwards, port was served.
Richard Toye, head of history at the University of Exeter, who discovered the memorandum in the papers of the New York Times Company, said that it was well known Churchill had advocated this kind of threat before August 1949, when the Soviet Union had not yet developed its own nuclear weapons.
It was a revelation, however, that he was toying with such a policy as late as 1951. “One can question his judgment at this point,” he said.
Professor Toye added that, while he did not believe the ultimatum was a “brilliant” approach, “the strategy he pursued in office was rather better”.
“When he became prime minister again (later in 1951) he didn’t go around behaving in an incredibly threatening way,” he said.
Despite his professions of shock at some of Churchill’s statements, Adler’s affection for his host shines through. He tells how Churchill noticed two women with children at the estate gate. He says: “He stopped his conversation abruptly and waved gaily to them. As he did so his seriousness disappeared and his face was wreathed in smiles.”