John Lukacs: The Importance of Being Winston

[John Lukacs is a historian. His most recent books are The Legacy of the Second World War (Yale University Press, 2010); Through the History of the Cold War: The Correspondence of George F. Kennan and John Lukacs (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); and the forthcoming The Future of History (Yale University Press, Spring 2011).]

In August 1942, Churchill and Stalin met for the first time. That event was the least discussed and yet perhaps the most important among the many “summits” of the Second World War.

The entire history of World War II proves the then-supreme importance of great national leaders and of their relationships. How contrary this is to the widely accepted and trusted idea: that history and politics and societies are governed by economic and “material factors,” that the primary importance of individual persons belongs (if it ever belonged) to earlier ages. The entire history of the Second World War denies this. Its course was set by Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Without Churchill: Hitler may have won. Without Roosevelt: Churchill may not have prevailed. Without Stalin: Churchill and Roosevelt may not have been capable of entirely conquering Hitler.

As the war dragged on, summit followed summit. From 1934 to 1944, Hitler and Mussolini met ten times, but none of their meetings was very consequential—mostly because after 1937 Hitler had the upper hand; Mussolini could not sway him. Churchill and Roosevelt had met first in 1918, neither of them heads of their governments then; Churchill forgot that encounter (this disappointed Roosevelt in 1940). They met twice in 1941, 1942 and 1943, and in 1944 once, almost always in the United States. They sat down together with Stalin two times (the so-called three-man conferences), in 1943 (Tehran) and in 1945 (Yalta). In July 1945, Stalin met Churchill and Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, in Potsdam.

The employment of the word “summit” to conferences of heads of state was probably Churchill’s choice. It had been, on occasion, applied to a monarch (in 1707 to Queen Anne of Great Britain). There were meetings and conferences of monarchs in the eighteenth, nineteenth, even in the twentieth centuries, and many such gatherings of their chancellors or prime ministers. One of these was the Munich “conference” in September 1938, with Hitler and Mussolini and Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier (the British and French prime ministers), a “summit” where important decisions were made (and of which Churchill disapproved, to say the least). Yet he was often in favor of personal meetings with other heads of government when he thought them useful. (In 1932, Hitler declined a chance to meet Churchill, who a few years later preferred not to meet Hitler.) Unlike in the case of that non-event, Churchill, by and large, trusted his ability to impress other important men. In such instances he was more often right than wrong. That is why his “summits” during the Second World War were important, sometimes dramatic and almost always consequential.

The most important of these meetings between Churchill and Roosevelt were those in June 1942 and January 1943, for these were the meetings that first delayed a second front in Europe (so desperately desired by Stalin), then allowed for an invasion of North Africa that increased the pressure on Germany. In 1942, Churchill was able to convince Roosevelt and the American military leaders that their plan for a landing in western France in November 1942 would be a disaster. In January 1943, he persuaded them that after eliminating all German (and Italian) forces from North Africa, the Western Allies should go on to invade Sicily and force Italy out of the war. That was the last time the British prime minister had his way with Roosevelt. For many reasons—military, financial, political—Roosevelt soon was in the position of power. Except for on minor issues, Churchill could no longer convince him and other Americans of his strategical ideas.

Other meetings of heads of state, innumerable nowadays, amounted and amount to largely ceremonial occasions, with agreements and documents signed there but prepared and agreed to before by respective experts. This was not quite so with Churchill. Of course he brought his experts and advisers with him; but it was he who mattered then and there. This was especially true of his meetings with Stalin. In 1942, as the Russians struggled with very great German forces and the Western Allies suffered stunning defeats, almost everything hinged on Churchill’s relations with the then-new Russian czar...

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