Monday, September 15, 2008

The Churchill Series – Sept. 15, 2008

(One of a series of weekday posts about the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

Here are recollections of Sir Fitzroy Maclean, a British diplomat why held a number of posts during the 1930s and 40s. I’ll add a few words at the end.

[I served for almost three years as] Secretary of Embassy to Moscow, returning to London in the early summer of 1939 to take up an appointment at the Foreign Office. I hadn't been back long when I received an invitation to have lunch with Mr. Churchill at Chartwell, his home in the country. He wanted to hear about the Russians. War had by now come even nearer, and I found him more frustrated than ever by our own government's policy of appeasement.

He asked me whether I thought the Russians would come in on our side. This was in the summer of 1939. 1 replied that I was quite certain that they would not. In fact they were much more likely to come in on the other side.

At this Winston exploded. It was a large luncheon party and all at once I found myself a target for the full flood of Churchillian eloquence. If I couldn't count on Russian support, he said, and when, thanks to my fecklessness, we were totally unprepared for war ourselves, would I please tell him why I had guaranteed Poland and Rumania.

Why was I so calmly sending thousands of British boys to certain death in what was clearly a lost cause?

At 28 1 was even less articulate than I am now and it was an altogether alarming experience, but I was quite determined not to be blamed for a policy of which I disapproved every bit as strongly as he did, and with a formulation of which I had nothing whatever to do.

When I could get a word in edgewise, which was not easy, I replied that I had not been responsible for guaranteeing Poland or indeed Rumania, and had no wish whatever to send any British soldiers to their death.

But with the best,will in the world I didn't think that Marshal Stalin was likely to do something which he quite clearly regarded as contrary to his interest. "In that case," Winston replied ((why in heaven's name . . ." and off he went again.

I was thankful when luncheon came to an end and Mrs. Churchill took me for a walk in the garden.

When he said goodbye to me later, in the afternoon, Winston said he was sorry he'd been so explosive but he was desperately worried and frustrated at the way things were going. I said so was 1.

A month later, in gloomy confirmation of what I told him, came news of the Soviet-German pact, immediately followed by the outbreak of war.

The next time I met Winston was that same winter. By then he'd become First Lord of the Admiralty and I was asked to supper at Admiralty House, a prestigious 18th century building full of memories of British naval greatness. He looked 20 years younger. All his frustrations had disappeared at the prospect of action.

"Here," said Mrs. Churchill, "is Fitzroy. Do you remember how rude you were to him last time you saw him? What's more, he was right and you were absolutely wrong."

At which Winston gave a characteristic grunt and went off to run the war at sea, while Mrs. Churchill and I went off to the theatre together to see Vic Oliver, their new son-in-law.

Mrs. Churchill was one of the sweetest and most remarkable women I ever met, and all those years a marvelous wife to Winston, soothing him or bullying him as necessary and standing by him through thick and thin. …

Maclean’s entire recollections can be found here hosted by the Churchill Centre.

Maclean gives us a good sense of what the Churchill temper could be like; and how fortunate he was to have in Clementine a wife who admired and wanted him to succeed, and knew that standing up to him was in his best interests