Friday marks the seventieth anniversary of Victory in Europe, or V-E, Day, when the Allies accepted Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender after six long years of war. No one should have savored that day in 1945 more than Winston Churchill, the wartime British prime minister. Yet he was to a considerable degree despondent.
Churchill’s road to May 8, 1945 was arduous. He became a political pariah in the 1930s, partly for warning against the rise of Nazi Germany, and then became premier in May 1940 and led Britain as it stood alone against Germany as it, supported by Russia, dominated Europe, with the United States neutral. Fortune turned only after Soviet Russia became an ally after invaded by Germany. Then America became an ally after Pearl Harbor. And then there were three and a half years more of war.
Yet, Churchill could not fully enjoy the victory. Since early 1945 he had suffered bouts of personal melancholia. More fundamentally, he worried for the world, fearing a rising Soviet threat while British power declined and America remained unpredictable.
On his way to the Yalta conference in February 1945, where he met Soviet leader Josef Stalin and American President Franklin Roosevelt, he wrote his wife Clementine, “The misery of the whole world appalls me and I fear increasingly that new struggles may arise out of those we are successfully ending.” Afterwards, he quickly became alarmed by Stalin’s violations of their Yalta agreement. Russia controlled Eastern Europe and had entrenched itself in Germany, while American and British troops were set to withdraw from the continent soon after the war. Churchill privately wondered, “What will lie between the white snows of Russia and the white cliffs of Dover?” He wrote Roosevelt that their countries must take “a firm and blunt stand” against Russia and ordered drafting of a contingency plan for defeated German troops to attack Russia. When the chiefs of staff rejected it, he settled for a plan to defend the British Isles from Russian attack.
Churchill thought it vital to reach a settlement with Soviet Russia through pressure or diplomacy, and at one point after Yalta he didn’t want to entertain the possibility that Russia’s word could not be trusted. This undelivered portion of a speech reflected his complex mood: “There are some who fear it [the world] will tear itself to pieces and that an awful lapse in human history may occur. I do not believe it. There must be hope. The alternative is despair, which is madness.” He at times was overeager to find glimmers of hope so as to avoid succumbing further to depression, and he feared Britons could not psychologically endure a world riven between East and West without the West first trying its utmost to prevent it. But this never led him to be weak or offer unnecessary concessions.
Britain was war-weary, having lost 450,000 lives in WWII and 700,000 in WWI, but Churchill thought it vital for his countrymen, and Americans, to persevere to ensure a safe and free world.
So, when he addressed the nation on May 8, Churchill spoke not only of victory achieved but of looming struggles—the need to defeat Japan, as well as, he alluded, the rising Soviet threat, “We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task, both at home and abroad. Advance Brittania! Long live the cause of freedom!” Five days later he warned more clearly “that there is still a lot to do, and that you must be prepared for further efforts of mind and body and further sacrifices to great causes if you are not to fall back into the rut of inertia, the confusion of aim, and the craven fear of being great. … Forward, unflinching, unswerving, indomitable, till the whole task is done and the whole world is safe and clean.”
Amid all the turmoil and strategic challenges in the Middle East and in other key strategic spots around the world, it is worth remembering Churchill’s warning against premature declarations of victory, his concern over nefarious forces filling vacuums, his refusal to allow desperate hopes to lead to weakness at the expense of realistic policy, and his determination to successfully address new pressing challenges. Can we learn the lessons of 1945?
Michael Makovsky is CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and author of Churchill’s Promised Land (Yale University Press).