Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Winston Churchill on 'the sinews of peace'

Winston Churchill: Bush and Blair make this warmonger look like a peace-nik

On March 5th 1946, Winston Churchill made his famous 'Sinews of Peace' speech at Fulton, Missouri, which as it happened signalled the first warning shot in the Cold War. There has been a lot of pieces in the media commemorating the 60th anniversary of this speech, which is remembered for this famous passage:

'From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow...'

Most of these pieces, in Britain and the US at least, have been full of praise for Churchill and his pledge that the US and Britain would fight for 'freedom' against 'tyranny'. Typical here is a gushing piece of good old-fashioned 'hero-worship' by the BBC European Affair's correspondent William Horsley, entitled 'Churchill Speech: A lesson for the present', which concludes:

'After all these years Churchill's Iron Curtain speech reads like an example of true statesmanship, and perhaps the most memorable "wake-up call" in post-War history. It also displays the genius with words that would later bring Churchill yet another honour - the Nobel Prize for Literature. In an age of great uncertainty it projected Churchill's iron conviction of purpose. His core beliefs were in the special bond between America and Britain, the need for the United Nations to be "a force for action and not merely a frothing of words", and the duty of the Western democracies to stand up for freedom and against tyranny. Sixty years later, there are more democratic governments in the world than ever. Yet such moral certainty is rare, and the authority with which Churchill's expressed it is surely rarer still.'

However, the reality behind the rhetoric of 'true statesmanship' and 'moral certainty' is rather different, as historian Ian Birchall has argued:

'If Europe was divided by a sinister iron curtain, then one of those chiefly responsible was Winston Churchill...In October 1944, Churchill visited Moscow and met Stalin. Churchill wrote on a half sheet of paper a proposal for the post-war division of Europe. He pushed this over to Stalin. In Churchill’s own words: "There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all done in no more time than it takes to set down." The carve-up was modified at the end of war conferences at Yalta and Potsdam, but in essence the agreement that Russia should have control over Eastern Europe as its share of the war booty remained.'

As for Churchill's 'genius with words', Birchall notes that 'the phrase "iron curtain" had first been used to describe revolutionary Russia by Labour Party writer Ethel Snowden in 1920. More notoriously, it had been used by the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels in 1945, predicting the consequences of a German defeat: "The Soviets, according to the agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, would occupy all of east and south east Europe along with the greater part of the Reich...An iron curtain would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered."'

As for 'the most memorable "wake up call" in post-War history' and the 'special relationship' between America and Britain, in fact the speech showed Churchill in his true light - a warmonger concerned above all with preserving the power of the British Empire and the power of the rich as a whole. As Churchill argued, "Communist fifth columns are established and work in complete unity and absolute obedience to the directions they receive from the Communist centre...The Communist Parties constitute a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilisation."

Yet as Birchall notes, 'the Communist Parties [in Western Europe] were indeed under Moscow’s orders – but those orders were to do nothing to upset the balance of power. In France and Italy, Communist ministers were serving in coalition governments. Their parties opposed all strikes. In Britain, before the 1945 election, the Communist Party called for a continuation of the war time coalition – including Churchill. It was the right wing Labour leaders who saw they could win the election on their own.'

In fact, the threat of 'Communism' was needed to justify massive spending on weapons programmes by the US and Britain. 'Stalin was not a man of peace. He was a murderous thug. But there is no reason to believe that he had further territorial ambitions. To have taken over Western Europe with its well developed working class movement would have been more trouble than it was worth.' Evidence for this view can be seen from looking at a speech Stalin himself gave a month before Churchill's, in February 1946 in Moscow:

'The Second World War against the Axis Powers, unlike the First World War, assumed from the very outset the character of an anti-fascist war, a war of liberation, one of the tasks of which was to restore democratic liberties. The entry of the Soviet Union into the war against the Axis Powers could only augment -- and really did augment -- the anti-fascist and liberating character of the Second World War. It was on this basis that the anti-fascist coalition of the Soviet Union, the United States of America, Great Britain and other freedom-loving countries came into being and later played the decisive role in defeating the armed forces of the Axis Powers.'

Nowhere in Stalin's speech is any suggestion that he was thinking about further toppling Western capitalism, bar a bit where he talks vaguely about the long term inevitable collapse of capitalism under the weight of its own contradictions through economic crisis. Indeed, he even describes the US and Britain as 'freedom-loving countries' interested in 'democracy' and 'liberation'.

However, there are passages in Churchill's speech - which was actually titled 'The Sinews of Peace' that do make interesting reading as lessons for today in the light of Bush and Blair's plans to bomb Iran as part of the 'war on terror':

'What then is the over-all strategic concept which we should inscribe today? It is nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands...To give security to these countless homes, they must be shielded from the two giant marauders, war and tyranny. We all know the frightful disturbances in which the ordinary family is plunged when the curse of war swoops down upon the bread-winner and those for whom he works and contrives. The awful ruin of Europe, with all its vanished glories, and of large parts of Asia glares us in the eyes. When the designs of wicked men or the aggressive urge of mighty States dissolve over large areas the frame of civilized society, humble folk are confronted with difficulties with which they cannot cope. For them all is distorted, all is broken, even ground to pulp. When I stand here this quiet afternoon I shudder to visualize what is actually happening to millions now and what is going to happen in this period when famine stalks the earth. None can compute what has been called "the unestimated sum of human pain." Our supreme task and duty is to guard the homes of the common people from the horrors and miseries of another war. We are all agreed on that.'

It is also interesting to note Churchill's praise for the UN in the current age of unilateral US/UK intervention:

'A world organization has already been erected for the prime purpose of preventing war, UNO, the successor of the League of Nations, with the decisive addition of the United States and all that means, is already at work. We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can some day be hung up, and not merely a cockpit in a Tower of Babel. Before we cast away the solid assurances of national armaments for self-preservation we must be certain that our temple is built, not upon shifting sands or quagmires, but upon the rock. Anyone can see with his eyes open that our path will be difficult and also long, but if we persevere together as we did in the two world wars - though not, alas, in the interval between them - I cannot doubt that we shall achieve our common purpose in the end.'

Tell that to John Bolton.

Churchill also has some words of warning about the importance of upholding civil liberties - which make interesting reading in our brutal age of Guantanamo Bay, torture at Abu Graib, etc:

'But we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence...Here are the title deeds of freedom which should lie in every cottage home. Here is the message of the British and American peoples to mankind. Let us preach what we practice - let us practice - what we preach.'

If only the US and UK did 'practise what they preached' with respect to 'freedom'. Overall, that today George Bush and Tony Blair can almost make Churchill look like some liberal UN-loving peacenik arguably tells us much about the dark times we are living in today.

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At 2:19 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the subject of John Bolton, my favourite quote of his from 1994:

"There is no such thing as the United Nations. United States makes the U.N. work when it wants it to work. If the U.N. secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it would not make a bit of difference".

Thank goodness nobody has taken his suggestion literally yet...


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