Churchill Archive Platform - The Cold War and Nuclear Weapons

For students and historians of the Cold War, the Churchill Archive is a treasure trove of primary sources. Although first and foremost a collection of materials concerned with the life and career of Winston Churchill, the archive also functions as a window into the times in which he lived. As Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1940 to 1945, Churchill was a key participant in the events that historians agree were the principal staging posts in the origins of what became the Cold War, notably the Big Three wartime conferences at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam.

Voted out of office in the July 1945 British General Election, Churchill spent the next six years in opposition. However, as the most famous statesman in the world, he was never far from the centre of international affairs – most famously at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946, when his ‘iron curtain’ speech warned of the onset of the Cold War and urged the coming together of the free world under US leadership to resist Soviet expansionism. Within a year, the Cold War itself had begun and the United States, through the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, and a little later NATO, had taken up the mantle of Western leadership. As such, the ‘iron curtain’ speech came to be seen as an inspired prophecy and Churchill gained – and never really lost – a reputation for being the original Cold Warrior.

By the time that Churchill returned to power in Britain in 1951, the Cold War had become overshadowed by the expanding nuclear arsenals of the USA and the USSR. Conscious of the UK’s vulnerability to attack by Soviet bombers with nuclear payloads if the Cold War ever degenerated into hot war, Churchill hoped to arrange an East–West summit at which the two sides might map out a basis for peaceful coexistence. The emergence in 1953–4 of the calamitous hydrogen bomb – a weapon hundreds and potentially thousands of times more powerful than the atomic bombs used against Japan in 1945 – so frightened Churchill that he promptly elevated détente from the status of aspiration to vital necessity. The first step remained a summit but age and infirmity eventually caught up with him and he bowed out as Prime Minister, aged eighty, in April 1955, having failed to realize his cherished goal. Ironically, just three months later, the first East–West heads of government meeting since Potsdam took place in Geneva. Although he was not present, Churchill, the so-called original Cold Warrior, not only did much to make the summit happen but deserves to be acknowledged as the forefather of European détente.

The Churchill Archive is more than an archive devoted to Churchill. To study Churchill’s life and career from 1940 to 1955 is to study the origins and early course of the Cold War, the onset of the nuclear arms race, and the first moves towards arms control and détente.

Where to Find Documents in the Churchill Archive

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a suggestion for starting points, and should be used in conjunction with the search facilities that will enable you to search across files for people, places and topics relevant to your individual research interests.

The War Time Origins of the Cold War

CHAR 20 – This contains a mass of material relating to Churchill’s wartime premiership, 1940–45, and provides a great deal of documentation relating to the tensions in the wartime Big Three alliance of the USA, the UK and the USSR. Churchill’s personal telegrams and minutes are all here – many of them typed up on Churchill’s instructions towards the end of the war as he began thinking ahead to the writing of his war memoirs. However, while these month-by-month digests are very valuable, they give us only Churchill’s side of the story: for the replies to his minutes and cables, researchers must look elsewhere, notably the UK National Archives at Kew Gardens, London, or else published volumes such as the Churchill–Roosevelt correspondence. Unless you have a specific topic you wish to search for using the digital archive, the CHAR 20 catalogue hosted by the Churchill Archive Centre is a helpful aid to traversing this large collection. Some general and some specific highlights of CHAR 20 include:

Wartime conferences

  • CHAR 20/181: Churchill’s telegrams to London from the TOLSTOY conference, his one-to-one encounter with Stalin in October 1944 that produced the notorious ‘percentages’ agreement, a sphere-of-influence deal that gave Britain a free hand in Greece while doing the same for the Soviets in the Balkans. The cables here – mostly to the King, whom Churchill kept fully apprised on all important issues during the war, and to the Deputy Prime Minister in London, Clement Attlee – confirm how big an issue the future of Central and Eastern Europe was at the talks, and there are a few references to the percentages deal but no explicit mention of the territorial carve-up.
  • CHAR 20/223: Churchill’s telegrams from the second Big Three conference of the war at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945. These are bound and in sequence and cover the range of issues at a conference, the name of which has since become – for many people – a synonym for betrayal. The idea that Churchill and Roosevelt gave Stalin Eastern Europe at this conference is problematic; Stalin already had much of the area. Nor were the agreements, at least on Europe, acts of appeasement. The real problem was Stalin’s failure to abide by them. If Churchill is to be criticized, it is for believing that the Soviet leader would keep his word. CHAR 23/15 contains the records of the War Cabinet for the first months of 1945 including Churchill’s detailed record of proceedings at Yalta.
  • CHAR 20/235: Churchill’s correspondence and reports of meetings relating to the Yalta Conference of February 1945. Look out for Stalin’s prediction (CHAR 20/235/7-11) that Churchill would win the British General Election that would follow the end of the war – he could not have been more wrong! Clearly, Stalin knew nothing about free elections, having never gone in for them.
  • CHAR 20/236: a record of the proceedings of the Potsdam conference of 17 July to 1 August 1945. It is a large, typed and sequential record of the official meetings. Although an important and informative resource, it does not include everything – not least the American and British reaction to the news of the first successful atomic bomb test (16 July 1945). In general, this record can be used to best effect in conjunction with the diaries of a) Lord Moran, b) John Colville, and c) Alexander Cadogan.

Churchill’s growing concern from 1944 onwards about postwar Soviet intentions

Churchill and Nuclear Weapons

Because of the ultra-secrecy surrounding the wartime development of an atomic bomb, most of Churchill’s TUBE ALLOYS input is to be found not in the Churchill Archive but in the PREM files at the UK National Archives in London, notably in the PREM 3/139 class. But the Churchill Archive includes some fascinating contextual material.

CHAR 8 – This class contains a mass of material relating to Churchill's literary pursuits – his books, articles and journalism. Nestling in this large collection is plenty of evidence of Churchill’s fascination with science and of his scientific imagination. Always on the lookout for ways in which science and technology could be put to the service of national defence and the armed forces, Churchill saw the atomic bomb as a model of the military appliance of science. Some highlights of CHAR 8 include:

  • CHAR 8/200B/202-206: a Churchill article, ‘Shall We All Commit Suicide?’, published in Nash’s Pall Mall, 1924, in which he predicted that one day ‘a bomb no bigger than an orange’ might be found ‘to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings, nay to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke’.
  • CHAR 8/301 (image 3) and CHAR 8/292 (image 23): examples of the extent of Churchill’s close collaboration with Oxford scientist Frederick Lindemann, in this case in an article from 1931 anticipating scientific and technological innovations over the next half-century. For the article, see Churchill, ‘Fifty Years Hence’, Strand, December 1931.
  • CHAR 8/567 (images 144 and 147): more examples of Churchill’s scientific imagination, and his fascination with the power of the atom, as Europe began drifting towards war in the late 1930s. Two articles from the News of the World: (a) ‘Vision of the Future through Eyes of Science’, 31 October 1937; and (b) ‘Life in a World Controlled by the Scientists: A Vision of the Future when Nature is Subservient to Man’, 7 November 1937.

CHAR 20 – This class contains a huge amount of material relating to Churchill’s wartime premiership, 1940–45, and although there is little directly connected with the atomic bomb, there is much on Churchill's attitude to so-called area or strategic bombing. He later acknowledged the linkage between the two issues when writing that the ‘hideous process of bombarding open cities from the air, once started by the Germans, was repaid twenty-fold by the ever-mounting power of the Allies, and found its culmination in the use of the atomic bombs which obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki[1]. Some highlights of CHAR 20 include:

  • CHAR 20/13/4: Churchill to Beaverbrook, 8 July 1940, in which he argued that the ‘one thing’ that would bring about Hitler’s downfall was ‘an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland’.
  • CHAR 20/67/2: this shows Churchill’s growing doubts in March 1942 as to whether strategic bombing, on its own, would be decisive in winning the war.
  • CHAR 20/209/4: Churchill’s strategic – and moral – qualms about continuing the strategic bombing of a nearly defeated Germany following the destruction of Dresden in February 1945.
  • CHAR 20/110/74: Churchill’s determination in April 1943 ‘to attack Tokio [sic] and other cities of Japan, and strip this cruel and greedy nation of their power to molest the civilized world’. The moral qualms he experienced following Dresden in February 1945 did not extend to the bombing, conventional or atomic, of Japanese cities.

Churchill–Attlee correspondence on the atomic bomb, autumn 1945

  • CHUR 2/3 (images 101 to 123) shows fascinating exchanges between Churchill and his successor as Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, in the autumn of 1945. Churchill favoured maintaining a US–UK monopoly of the bomb but Attlee was strongly drawn to international sharing and international control of atomic energy in an attempt to forestall a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union that could threaten the future of the world.

The Iron Curtain, 1946

On 5 March 1946, Churchill, now leader of the Conservative Party in opposition in Britain, delivered his most famous post-war speech at Fulton, Missouri. Formally entitled ‘The Sinews of Peace’, the speech is much better known as the ‘Iron Curtain’ speech. In drawing attention to the threat to peace from the USSR and to the way in which the Soviet Union was dominating – and denying basic freedoms to – half of Europe, Churchill urged the USA to take the lead in resisting Moscow's expansion. Although not the ‘declaration’ of the Cold War that it is often supposed, the speech certainly predicted what might – and did – come to pass. The Churchill Archive contains much material relating to the speech in a number of different record classes. The following are some of the highlights.

  • CHUR 2/230B/349-350: the original 3 October 1945 invitation to Churchill to deliver a series of lectures at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, and President Truman’s personal handwritten endorsement (‘This is a wonderful school in my home State’; ‘Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you.’).
  • CHUR 2/158 (images 78 to 79): Churchill cable to Truman (29 January 1946) shortly after arriving in USA to say he has ‘a Message to deliver to your country’ and to ‘the bewildered, baffled and breathless world’.
  • CHUR 5/4A/51-100: Churchill, ‘The Sinews of Peace’, speech notes, 5 March 1946.
  • CHUR 2/4 (notably images 7 to 9): Churchill to Attlee, 7 March 1946, confirming that Truman, who had claimed publicly not to have known what Churchill intended to say at Fulton, had been shown an early draft of the Iron Curtain speech. Churchill reiterated that Truman knew and approved of his speech in 1949 (see CHUR 2/210A-B (images 1053 to 1056), Churchill to Baruch, February 1949 (unsent).

The Cold War deepens

In the late 1940s the Cold War really began to bite. In 1947, the United States began – as Churchill had hoped at the time of his Fulton speech – to assume the leadership of the ‘free world’ in its response to Soviet expansionism. First, in March 1947, the Truman Doctrine was promulgated; then in June 1947 the Marshall Plan for the economic revival of Europe was announced. In 1948, when Britain, the USA and France decided to create a separate West German state, the USSR responded with the Berlin blockade and, for almost a year, war in Europe seemed only a miscalculation away. Eventually, in May 1949, Stalin lifted the blockade. Meanwhile, the previous month, the North Atlantic Treaty had been signed, and within a year this US-led grouping evolved into NATO, the shield of the West. Although in opposition, Churchill kept a close eye on the developing international situation and his reactions to events are dotted about the Churchill Archive.

Highlights from this period include:

  • CHUR 2/158 (images 53 to 55): Churchill to Truman, 27 September 1947, praising the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, and Truman’s reply, 14 October 1947, saying that the Fulton speech appeared ‘more nearly a prophecy every day’.
  • CHUR 2/148 (images 361 to 362): Churchill to Eisenhower, 27 July 1948, advising the use of ‘overwhelming force’ to bring about a settlement with the USSR, a coded reference to the need for the USA to exploit its atomic monopoly while it lasted.
  • CHUR 2/68A/84-89 (images 1 to 6): Churchill to Eden, 12 September 1948, in which he explicitly advocates a US ‘showdown’ with the USSR while the former possessed nuclear mastery.
  • CHUR 5/21A/1-68: Churchill’s notes for his speech, Conservative Party Conference, Llandudno, 9 October 1948, this being the nearest he came in public to calling for a showdown with the USSR and hinting at employing the A-bomb as politico-diplomatic or even military leverage.
  • CHUR 2/158 (images 16 to 20): somewhat differing Churchill–Truman estimates of the likelihood of war, summer 1949.
  • CHUR 2/28/45-46 and CHUR 2/28/45-51: Churchill urges Attlee in August 1950 to build up Britain’s conventional defences and endorses a paper by Lord Cherwell (Professor Lindemann as was, his scientific advisor) urging fast development in the atomic sphere now following the revelation the previous autumn that USSR now had its own A-bombs.

The Korean War and Nuclear Worries

CHUR 2/28 – This class contains a wealth of material relating to international affairs and, more particularly, atomic energy and nuclear weapons issues in the 1945–54 period. Of particular interest is the role of the atomic bomb in the Korean War context. At the end of November 1950, President Truman revealed that the use of the A-bomb in Korea or against Communist China was under active consideration. In Britain and elsewhere this caused a good deal of panic, especially since the USSR was popularly perceived to be a viable atomic power following its first A-bomb test in August 1949. Churchill, still in opposition, took solace in his wartime agreements with President Roosevelt, including an undertaking by both the UK and USA never to use weapons of mass destruction without each other’s consent. To Churchill’s mortification, in December 1950 Attlee told him that these agreements had been abandoned two years earlier, and that Britain no longer had any real influence over US nuclear policy or targeting. The highlights of this class as they touch on Korea include:

  • CHUR 2/28/121-124: in which Attlee (December 1950) informs Churchill that the Quebec Agreement of 1943, which made the use of the A-bomb a matter for mutual Anglo-American consent, had been allowed to lapse. The issue was a live one given Truman’s worrying A-bomb statement.
  • CHUR 2/28 (images 260 to 261): Churchill’s normally steadfast ally and scientific mentor, Lord Cherwell, agrees with Attlee that the Quebec Agreement had no real standing after the war.
  • CHUR 2/28 (images 251 to 257): Churchill–Attlee arguments in February 1951 over publication of the now defunct Quebec Agreement; Churchill is keen to prove that he was a defender of Britain's national – and nuclear – interests and that Attlee was a betrayer of them.
  • CHUR 2/28 (image 267-270), CHUR 2/28/126 and CHUR 2/28/127-128: Truman takes Attlee’s side against Churchill and vetoes publication of the Quebec Agreement.

Churchill back in power, October 1951

During the October 1951 General Election campaign, Labour sought to depict Churchill as a warmonger who, if elected, was liable to press the Americans to take advantage of their nuclear superiority to launch a so-called ‘preventive’ war against the Soviet Union. The consequences for Britain, which would be in the bull’s-eye of any Soviet nuclear retaliation, were potentially appalling. In the end, Churchill and the Conservatives won the election, but with a majority of less than twenty in Parliament.

Some highlights from the Archive from the early 1950s include:

  • CHUR 2/221/64: a writ issued on behalf of Winston Churchill against Daily Mirror Newspapers Ltd, alleging libel, 25 October 1951.
  • CHUR 5/46A-C (images 74 to 77): Churchill’s speech to the US Congress, January 1952, in which he affirms his faith in the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ and calls on the USA to protect its atomic supremacy.

The Churchill-Eisenhower correspondence 1953-55

CHUR 6/3A-C – This class contains a good deal of Churchill’s correspondence with President Dwight D. Eisenhower from January 1953, when Eisenhower was inaugurated, to April 1955, when Churchill stepped down as Prime Minister. The collection also includes a number of Eisenhower’s letters, making it possible for readers to experience the two-way correspondence. While the class does not include all their letters and cables, the gaps in the record can be mostly made good by consulting Peter G. Boyle (ed.), The Churchill–Eisenhower Correspondence 1953–1955 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990). These two years were tumultuous ones in the Cold War and are marked by, amongst other things, the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953 and Churchill’s renewed quest thereafter to convene a summit of the top powers on the Potsdam or Yalta model from the Second World War; Eisenhower’s scepticism that the change of leadership in the Kremlin occasioned a change in basic Soviet foreign policy, hence his reluctance to contemplate a summit; and Churchill’s mounting horror of the H-bomb, the destructiveness of which could wipe out Britain and much of the world, he feared, if Cold War ever gave way to Hot War. Needless to say, his worries about thermonuclear destruction fed and sustained his quest – ultimately a failed one – to arrange a summit. Some highlights from this class include:

  • CHUR 6/3A/124: Churchill’s hopes for détente in aftermath of Stalin’s death in 1953.
  • CHUR 6/3A-C (images 296 to 299): Eisenhower’s reluctance to take new Soviet leaders at face value and to insist on deeds not words as the test of a change of outlook on the part of the Kremlin, March–April 1953.
  • CHUR 6/3A-C (images 263 to 264): Eisenhower’s apparent readiness in February 1954 to contemplate a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union.
  • CHUR 6/3A-C (images 69 to 73): Churchill’s great concern about the H-bomb in March 1954.
  • CHUR 6/3C/234–235: Eisenhower’s lukewarm response to Churchill’s suggestion that he make a ‘solitary pilgrimage’ to talk to the new Soviet leaders without the US President, July 1954.
  • CHUR 6/3B (images 178 to 180): Eisenhower on the deterrent power of nuclear weapons, January 1955.

[1] Winston Churchill, The Second World War (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), p.12.

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