CHURCHILL’S FIRST MEETING WITH STALIN
On 14th August, it will be exactly 79 years since Winston Churchill met Joseph Stalin for the first time. The historic meeting took place in Moscow. Churchill was deeply suspicious of the Soviet leader, not least because back in April 1939, Britain and France had, on Stalin’s suggestion, opened negotiations with the USSR to defend Poland against the Nazis. But four months later Stalin suddenly swapped sides, forming a new alliance with Hitler after agreeing that Germany and Russia could split Poland between them. Churchill regarded the Nazi-Soviet pact as an outrageous betrayal and the Bolsheviks almost as bad as the Nazis. Even Hitler’s subsequent shock invasion of Russia on Sunday 22nd June 1941, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, did little to quell his distrust of the Soviet dictator. Now that they had become dubious allies in the war against Hitler’s Nazis, Churchill felt obliged to embrace the ancient Sanskrit proverb – ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.
For his part, Stalin was furious with the allies, who he believed were doing nothing to divert the German onslaught on his Soviet troops in the Southern steppes of Russia. Stalin desperately wanted the allies to launch a ‘D-Day’ type landing in Northern France, to take the pressure off his Red Army. He had even sent his foreign minister Molotov to London and Washington in May 1942, to plead for their help in opening a second front. Terrified that Stalin might sue the Nazis for peace, Roosevelt had deliberately misled Molotov, assuring him that such an imminent invasion was being actively planned. But nothing had happened and Stalin, already suspicious of the Americans and the British, regarded this as another broken promise.
The deepening mistrust between the Soviets and their Western allies had been exacerbated in July 1942, when Churchill had suspended all British aid convoys to the USSR, following the destruction of 24 ships out of a total Arctic convoy of 39, after a series of devastating daylight attacks by the Germans. It was an inauspicious time for this first, pivotal meeting between two of the world’s most powerful wartime leaders. Churchill and William Averell Harriman, representing President Roosevelt as a special US envoy, flew first to Gibraltar, then Cairo, then on to Moscow, landing on August 10th 1942. The VIP’s were transported in an American B24 Liberator bomber that had been painted black in an attempt to disguise it from enemy fighters on its initial night flight out of London. As they emerged from this uncomfortable giant aircraft in Moscow, Molotov and a guard of honour met them. A military band played God Save The King, The Stars & Stripes and The Internationale, before the visitors were whisked off to the Kremlin for their first encounter with Stalin.
In a huge Kremlin conference room, Churchill’s ego was immediately dented when Stalin invited Averell Harriman to sit next to him, rather than the British Prime Minister. This, in Churchill’s eyes, was a serious breach of protocol, but perhaps reflected the Soviet dictator’s view that in respect of America he was dealing with a rising world power, whereas in Britain he was dealing with a crumbling empire. Things didn’t improve as the first meeting got underway with Churchill telling Stalin that his hopes of an allied invasion of Northern France in September, to open a second front and relieve the pressure on his Red Army, was not going to be possible. It was just too risky. The Soviet dictator retorted: “A man who is not prepared to take risks cannot win a war.”
For two days the talks in Moscow went badly, with an angry and frustrated Churchill threatening to cut short the visit and return to London. Persuaded by the British Ambassador to have one last attempt at reconciliation, Churchill accepted an invitation to join Stalin and Molotov in the Soviet Premier’s private apartments for a final dinner. At around 7pm on 14thAugust 1942, Churchill arrived at Stalin’s office in the Kremlin. Stalin preferred Cognac to vodka, but asked Churchill which he would prefer. The British Prime Minister opted for Cognac too. Stalin proposed a toast to the defeat of Hitler and allied victory. Both men drained their glasses. Stalin lit his pipe and Churchill lit his trademark large Romeo y JulietaCuban cigar. Wreathed in smoke, the two leaders began a lengthy discussion.
Soon the conversation turned once more to the need for a Normandy invasion. Churchill readily agreed that this was a priority but again tried to explain that the timing was not right and that the initial strategy must be to mount a massive allied invasion of North Africa to drive the Axis powers out. Around 9pm, Stalin suggested that they should move to his private apartment in the Kremlin where Molotov joined them. Churchill was impressed by the sight of a large table groaning under the weight of a sumptuous array of food and drink. The centrepiece of the feast was a large roast suckling pig.
Around 1am, Churchill sent for Sir Alexander Cadogan – the Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs - to join him in Stalin’s private rooms. Cadogan’s written description of the scene that greeted him on arrival was only released from the classified files in the UK’s National Archives in 2013. In a letter to his friend Lord Halifax, Cadogan wrote: “There I found Winston and Stalin and Molotov who had joined them, sitting with a heavily-laden board between them: food of all kinds crowned by a suckling pig, and innumerable bottles.” Cadogan reported that the party did not break up until 3am, but he concluded that the talks had yielded some positive results.
Cadogan’s assessment was correct. Churchill, who only hours earlier had been determined to return to London, exasperated by the Soviet dictator, had, over the course of a sumptuous Russian banquet, with copious quantities of wine, laid the foundations of a working relationship that would be an essential prerequisite if the allies were to defeat Hitler. Indeed, the meeting placed Churchill in an ideal position to broker a grand alliance between the USA and the USSR, a union that would ultimately win the war. Churchill’s legendary ‘dining diplomacy’ had paid dividends.