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the untold stories of international affairs

International affairs involve a great deal of ambiguity, hidden truth and organized dishonesty. Mainstream journalism wedded to the Who, What, Why, Where, Why and How of stories can rarely cover accurately, much less illuminate what is happening at any given time. Unable to unpack issues of motivation and strategy with intuition, well-honed guessing and a speculative leap or two, journalists are constitutionally ill-equipped to bring home to readers the reality of international affairs. To get around that we invoke on this page the license of the historian, which is to say, stories here seek above all to make sense of what is "past or passing or to come." The results are bound to be controversial, and if you have comments, please send them in using the information on the Contact page. If I get what you send (I haven't had a single comment since this site went on line in 2015), you will get an immediate acknowledgment followed by publication or a considered response.

Harry Truman and Winston Churchill at the Potsdam Conference at the end of WW II in Europe.  While the conference was in progress Churchill lost his majority in parliament and was replaced by Labor Party leader Clement Attlee. Also during the meeting the United States conducted the world's first nuclear explosion at Alamagordo in New Mexico (below). The bomb neutralized the Soviet Union's huge superiority in conventional forces and set Stalin scrambling to creat a buffer of client states along the Russian border. That set off the "Cold War." 

Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch was a Churchill buddy who was chairman of the War Industries Board during WWI. He was well positioned to rally the military industrial complex to support the political coup signified by the launch of the Cold War

14 years after Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the military industrial complex but it was far too late. 

This bit of war propaganda hid a deep antipathy between Churchill and Stalin but they were birds of a feather, hard-eyed cynics who thought nothing of murdering millions to achieve their ends. As World War II neared its end they met in the Kremlin plotting how to share its spoils.

Above: George Kennan the American diplomat in Moscow who sent the famous "long telegram" about changes in Soviet policy that he saw as requiring a forceful United States response.

Below: Two weeks after Kennan's cable from Moscow, Churchill made the same argument in his "iron curtain" speech at Truman's alma mater, Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.  

the atlantic charter

Churchill and Roosevelt met aboard a battleship anchored in Newfoundland's Placentia Bay to sign the "Atlantic Charter" setting out the advance of democracy as the primary aim of World War II. Churchill's reservations about its Empire were not reflected in the document, which became the first step towards the creation of the United Nations at the end of the war.

Admiral William Leahy who helped draft Churchill's Iron Curtain speech in 1946. He was the coordinator of American military services during World War II and continued in that role under Truman.

britain and the united states: the untold story

Part 1

Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the 1943 Tehran Conference

The United States and Britain have a long history of political animosity dating back to the War of Independence but the strong cultural ties between the two countries have obscured that record. Modern transatlantic differences first came into focus in August 1941, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) met on a battleship anchored in Newfoundland’s Placentia Bay to declare a set of common war aims.

They really had no common aims for Churchill represented the world’s largest empire and Roosevelt the strongest anti-imperial Power; their declaration, the Atlantic Charter, set out the uncompromising American position that the war was to advance democracy. Britain agreed because it had no choice: since March 1941 it had been entirely dependent on Washington’s “Lend-Lease” program to keep fighting.

In setting out “hopes for a better future for the world,” the Atlantic Charter said the two leaders desired “to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.” It expressed “respect” for “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live” and wished “to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”

Churchill’s reservations about the application of that language to the British Empire found no place in the text. However, he took great pains to obscure that fact by arranging a ceremony on the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales at which American and British crewmen sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” In a widely heard radio broadcast following the ceremony he lauded the transatlantic kinship of the “fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals, and now to a large extent of the same interests, and certainly in different degrees facing the same dangers.” The perception of the two countries as close allies masked to the public eye their fundamental conflict of interests; but Churchill and Roosevelt never lost sight of them. 

Roosevelt's Hardening Attitude

Roosevelt’s anti-imperial attitude hardened as the war progressed. As Japanese forces moved rapidly towards India in 1942, he infuriated Churchill by urging concessions to the nationalists led by Mahatma Gandhi and appointing a personal representative to visit the country. At one point, he had the British Ambassador in Washington summoned to the State Department and told bluntly “Gandhi must not die in prison.” (That probably saved the Mahatma’s life; but his wife and closest aide did die in custody.)

As the tide turned in favor of the Allies in 1943, Roosevelt became much less tolerant of Churchill’s imperial pretensions. He invited China’s Chiang kai-Shek (1887-1975) to the Anglo-US conference in Cairo in 1943, irritating Churchill who had arranged the bilateral consultation to give the impression of their unity prior to their subsequent meeting in Tehran with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879-1953). Churchill dismissed Roosevelt’s assertion that China would be a post-war “Big Power;” he saw Chiang’s inclusion as an attempt to get “a faggot vote on the side of the United States in any attempt to liquidate the British overseas empire.” Roosevelt’s anti-imperial aim came into firm focus at the Tehran Conference (28-30 November 1943), and Churchill’s response gave a disastrous turn to world events for most of the next half century. [In telling what happened in Cairo and Tehran in 1943 I draw on the 2003 book Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham.]

How World History Turned at Tehran in 1941

As the delegations gathered in the Iranian capital in 1943 there were rumors of an assassination attempt on Roosevelt and he decided not to stay at the United States Embassy which was outside the city. Both the British and Soviet legations offered to host him, and to Churchill’s chagrin Roosevelt chose to accept Stalin’s hospitality. His nose was put further out of joint because Roosevelt declined a tete a tete with him before the first meeting with Stalin. In fact, Churchill was the one excluded as the other two met prior to the trilateral session. When the three met together, Roosevelt went out of his way to join with Stalin in baiting Churchill. Things came to such a pass that the 69-year old Prime Minister stormed out of one meeting. (He used the wrong door and went into an ante-room without an exit where he sat fuming until Stalin came and cajoled him back.)

On the second night of the conference, as the three leaders met over dinner, Roosevelt was taken violently ill. He rose clutching at his throat, great beads of sweat breaking from his forehead, and collapsed. There was immediate talk of poison but that was quickly hushed up and it was given out that he had suffered a bout of “stomach flu.”

The initial suspicions were probably correct, considering what followed over the next year. Roosevelt suffered two similar attacks after his return to the United States; one while staying with Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch (1870-1965), a friend of Churchill who had chaired the War Industries Board during World War I and the other immediately after he won his final term in office. He died unexpectedly on 13 April 1945 – as he was having a bowl of broth. He reportedly died of a brain hemorrhage. ​After his death there were various reports that Roosevelt had been diagnosed with congestive heart disease and that he had cancer. None of those diagnoses, including cause of death, is verifiable because the president’s medical file disappeared from a locked safe at Washington’s Bethesda Naval Hospital and has never been found. Eerily, the news of Roosevelt’s death reached Churchill in London as he was lunching with Baruch. 

The United States Did not Fight to Save Imperialism

Shortly after returning to Washington from Tehran Roosevelt sent Churchill an extraordinary memorandum written by former Secretary of War Major-General Patrick Hurley. It doubled down on what Roosevelt had told Churchill about his anti-imperial postwar plans. The American people were fighting “not to save the imperialisms of other nations, nor to create an imperialism of our own.” British imperialism had “acquired a new life” because of “the infusion into its emaciated form of the blood of productivity and liberty from a free nation through lend lease.” In the First World War Woodrow Wilson’s policy was “designed ‘to make the world safe for democracy’ and to sustain Britain as a first class world power.” Sustaining Britain in that role had “for many years been the cornerstone of America’s foreign policy;” but that would not continue as the United States turned to the “effort to establish true freedom among the less favored nations, so many of which are under the present shadow of imperialism.”

The memo held out Iran as an example of US policy towards those nations. The US interest lay in helping “sustain Iran as a free, independent nation.” To that end, it looked forward to helping “in the creation in Iran of a government based upon the consent of the governed and of a system of free enterprise which will enable that nation to develop its resources primarily for the benefit of its own people.” The modern history of Iran showed that it was “dominated by a powerful and greedy minority” and “subjected to foreign exploitation and monopoly.” Washington would seek to safeguard “the unorganized and inarticulate majority from foreign and domestic monopoly and oppression,” and that could “become the criterion for the relations of the United States toward all the nations which are now suffering from the evils of greedy minorities, monopolies, aggression and imperialism.”

Churchill's "Iron Curtain" Speech

Roosevelt’s vision for the post-war world never had a chance. His untimely and unexplained death on the eve of the San Francisco Conference on the United Nations left the American presidency in the hands of Harry Truman who had no experience of international relations and was completely outmaneuvered by Churchill.

The two leaders first met when they joined Stalin at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 to take stock after the German surrender. As at Tehran in 1943, Churchill was again the odd man out. Truman was impatient of his studied eloquence and seemed much more at home with the laconic Stalin. Worse, on 25 July, Churchill was voted out of office and unceremoniously replaced at Potsdam by the victorious Labor Party leader Clement Attlee.

However, just as the rescue of the Empire seemed hopeless, fate offered a new opportunity: the Potsdam Conference was still in session when the United States conducted the world’s first nuclear explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Truman broke the news to Stalin, who seemed unconcerned, most probably because he had prior intelligence. But he was putting on an act for the detonation of the nuclear bomb was a devastating development from the Soviet perspective, neutralizing the massive superiority of its ground forces in Europe and convulsing the strategic concept that underpinned the United Nations Security Council.

Whether insecurity more than Marxist ideology motivated Stalin’s determined bid to dominate Eastern Europe in the wake of Potsdam will always be a matter of debate, but both were undoubtedly relevant. George Kennan (1904-2005), the American diplomat in charge of the Moscow Embassy, noted both factors in his legendary “long telegram” to the State Department in February 1946. He pictured the Soviet regime as being “committed fanatically” to the view that there could be no peaceful coexistence with the United States and predicted that it would seek to disrupt the “internal harmony” of American society and break its international authority. Kennan thought the only way to deal with Moscow was with the “logic of force” backing a policy of strong “containment.”

Two weeks after Kennan’s detailed report landed on the desks of Washington analysts, Churchill made the same argument much more bluntly in a widely publicized speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. In the most quoted part of his speech Churchill noted a dramatic new development in international affairs. “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.” He saw the threat extending far beyond Eastern Europe: “in a great number of countries, far from the Russian frontiers and throughout the world, Communist fifth columns are established and work in complete unity and absolute obedience to the directions they receive from the Communist center. Except in the British Commonwealth and in the United States where Communism is in its infancy, the Communist parties or fifth columns constitute a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilization.”

To face that threat, Churchill argued, there was need for a “special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire, and the United States of America.” Churchill’s view of Moscow had changed dramatically in a year; in 1944 he sat with Stalin in the Kremlin and, in blatant violation of the promise in the Atlantic Charter, plotted how exactly to share the spoils of war. As O. L. Sulzberger of The New York Times recounted, they “agreed to divide East Europe into military operational zones and even, as in a tick-tack-toe game, checked off accords dealing out predominant military influence as follows:

Romania – Russia 90 percent, the others 10 percent;
Greece – Great Britain 90 percent, Russia 10 percent;
Yugoslavia – fifty-fifty;
Hungary – fifty-fifty;
Bulgaria – Russia 75 percent, the others 25 percent.

"When Stalin put his little check of approval on the list agreed upon he looked at it a moment. Churchill said: ‘Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn this paper.’ ‘No, you keep it,’ said Stalin, handing it to Churchill.”

If the nuclear bomb had not scrambled all Russian strategic calculations, including that deal, Britain might have opted to play its traditional balancing game in Europe rather than choose the course Churchill set out in his speech at Fulton. The speech repackaged the idea Roosevelt had rejected so emphatically at Tehran and in Hurley's memo; it presented American support for Britain not as the resuscitation of a decadent and oppressive empire but as a measure of mutual benefit the United States could not ignore without imperiling itelf. There was even a hint of a threat: do not “underrate the abiding power of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Do not suppose that half a century from now you will not see 70 or 80 millions of Britons spread about the world united in defense of our traditions, and our way of life, and of the world causes which you and we espouse.”

That was submerged in a more resonant chord on the benefits of association. If the population of the English-speaking Commonwealths were to be added to that of the United States “with all that such cooperation implies in the air, on the sea, all over the globe and in science and in industry, and in moral force, there will be no quivering, precarious balance of power to offer its temptation to ambition or adventure. On the contrary there will be an overwhelming assurance of security.”

Churchill pitched his proposal for the “fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples” directly at what President Eisenhower would describe 14 years later as the “military-industrial complex,” a nexus of power created by the historically unprecedented “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.” Churchill noted that the “growing friendship and mutual understanding” between the United States and Britain would require “the continuance of the intimate relations between our military advisers, leading to common study of potential dangers, the similarity of weapons and manuals of instructions, and to the interchange of officers and cadets at technical colleges. It should carry with it the continuance of the present facilities for mutual security by the joint use of all Naval and Air Force bases in the possession of either country all over the world. This would perhaps double the mobility of the American Navy and Air Force. It would greatly expand that of the British Empire forces and it might well lead, if and as the world calms down, to important financial savings.”

None of the popular histories of the period argues that Kennan’s “long telegram” and Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech happened so close together by coincidence; nor has anyone argued that there is a definite connection. In view of how Churchill’s speech came to be written, the connection is undeniable and it is critical to understanding what followed. The British leader drafted that siren song to the US military and its corporate suppliers in close consultation with Admiral William Leahy who had retained under Truman his wartime role as coordinator of the three military services (making him, sans title, the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff).

The Strange Story of a British Hitman

How the leader of Britain’s parliamentary opposition came to be in Leahy's office is an important and interesting story. It involved one of the most underrated figures in modern history, Hastings Lionel Ismay (1887-1965), an India-born British operative who was a hitman in his early career and seems to have kept that function as he went on to become a key planner of the Second World War, Secretary of Churchill’s War Cabinet, Chief of Staff to Britain’s last Viceroy in India Luis Mountbatten, Adviser on Kashmir to the British Ambassador to the United Nations, and finally, the first Secretary-General of NATO.

Hitmen rarely have a paper trail but Ismay did leave one, perhaps because of a momentary late-life lapse into vanity. When he became NATO Secretary-General The Reader's Digest in a gushing piece cited a letter dated 21 December 1916 signed by Admiral William Reginald Hall, Director of British Naval Intelligence, thanking Ismay “for work done” during his leave. The “work” it referred to was the murder of the notorious Grigory Efimovich Rasputin the “mad monk” from Siberia who had gained access to the Russian Tsar’s family as a faith-healer and become the confidante – some said lover – of Tsarina Alexandra. The British government feared his pacific influence on Tsar Nicholas II would lead to a unilateral Russian withdrawal from World War I and sent Ismay to ensure that the amateurs plotting Rasputin's murder would actually carry it out. As it turned out, Ismay proved essential. Rasputin survived a large dose of potassium cyanide, a smashed skull and several stab wounds; it was Ismay’s bullet to the head that finished the job.

I read the Reader’s Digest article as a schoolboy in Calcutta but was unable to find it a few years later as a student at Columbia University in New York; that piqued my interest and led to the discovery of a career no novelist would dare invent. For Ismay was at the 1941 Tehran Conference and was most probably responsible for the first attack on Franklin Roosevelt. Six years later, he was in Delhi as a newly minted "Lord," Chief of Staff to Britain's last Viceroy in India, Luis Mountbatten, the key figure in the massively bloody division of India, the murder of Mahatma Gandhi and the genesis of the Kashmir dispute. (Details in a later piece.)

Through the war Ismay had been Secretary of the War Cabinet under Churchill, the pivotal link between the political and the military establishments in Britain and later, between them and the military authorities of the United States. In 1946, he was engaged in planning a major post-war reorganization of Britain’s military posture, and thus in an excellent position to broker the deal with Admiral Leahy. Churchill was ostensibly vacationing in Florida in February 1946 when he received an appointment to see Leahy, who noted in a file that the meeting was to draft a speech on “the necessity for full military collaboration between Great Britain and the US in order to preserve peace in the world.” Churchill returned to Washington in early March to consult further with Leahy and have him clear the final text.

The Beginning of the Cold War

The speech generated a storm of protest. Critics ranged from The Wall Street Journal on the right to The Nation on the Left; the hugely influential columnist Walter Lippman called it an “almost catastrophic blunder;” Stalin saw it as a “call to war.” Truman himself claimed that he had not known what Churchill would say. According to his biographer David McCullough, the President got a copy of Churchill’s speech on the train as he accompanied Churchill to Fulton on 4 March, but evidently did not read it. McCullough did not note how odd it was that Truman received so late, a speech on a critically important issue prepared by his primary military aide in consultation with a foreign leader. However, he did note that in the period after the speech Truman “seemed bewildered and equivocating, incapable of a clear or positive policy toward the Russians.” Although he talked of war if Moscow did not pull out troops it had sent into Iran as a wartime contingency, in private, he said the Soviet Union was not much of a threat. There is a good case that Churchill had, with the help of his Wall Street financier friend Bernard Baruch, executed a political coup in Washington.

All sorts of peculiar things happened in the early years of the "Cold War" (a term that Baruch coined). Churchill was made an honorary American citizen and took up residence in the White House for weeks; Baruch took to appearing on the sidewalk in front of the White House, boasting to tourists about his influence in the Oval Office. Senator Joseph McCarthy with his “Un-American Activities Committee” led a broad assault on civil liberties that numbed freedom of the Press and democratic dissent. “The “emaciated forms” of European empires shape-shifted into the leadership of the “Free World” and went about their business of oppression and exploitation.

South Africa descended into apartheid. Britain subjected India to a horrific “Partition” killing some 3 million people in the process and rendering 14 million homeless in their ancestral lands. In Burma (now Myanmar), the entire nationalist cabinet of Aung San was gunned down in parliament before the transfer of power. In Kenya the British killed some 100,000 people trying to suppress a nationalist movement claiming lands annexed by European colonists. A million Algerians died in claiming independence from France. In sub-Saharan Africa country after country attained independence only to be subjected to bloody insurrections, coups and assassinations that kept power with the former colonial rulers. Belgium engineered repeated genocides in Burundi and Rwanda and forced the newly liberated Congo into a welter of blood from which it has yet to emerge.

The United States closed ranks with the most thuggish colonial regimes and assumed an imperial role itself in Latin America and Asia, most disastrously in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States did not result in “overwhelming assurance of security” and “important financial savings” Churchill promised. On the contrary, it involved the United States in a ruinous arms race that had the world teetering on the edge of a precarious balance of terror maintained by the policy of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD).

The Cold War cemented into Washington’s power structure an unconstitutional military-industrial nexus that most Americans were unaware of until the surreal travesties of the McCarthy period advertised its capacity to trammel American freedoms. Eisenhower’s very specific warnings in his farewell address to the American people on 19 January 1960, came too late. (See video and text.) It was only after John Kennedy’s assassination that ordinary Americans woke up to the fact that very dark forces had taken hold of their country. The legacy of the McCarthy period prevented any of this from being honestly reported or discussed publicly.

(To be continued)

Roosevelt irritated Churchill by inviting Chinese leader Chiang Kai Shek to the Cairo Conference in 1943.

the tehran conference

The three leaders met to plan the last phase of the war but Churchill also had a secret agenda: preventing Roosevelt from dismantling the British Empire. There's good reason to believe he had Roosevelt poisoned at dinner on the second day of the meeting. FDR never recovered from the "stomach flu" he contracted at Tehran.

The Cold War allowed Europe's imperial Powers to shape-shift into the "leaders of the Free World" and gave them a free hand in dealing with their colonies. India was "Partitioned" killing 3 million people and rendering 14 million refugees in their ancestral lands. The photograph above shows a train carrying refugees across the new India-Pakistan border in 1947. As Mahatma Gandhi sought to heal the rift he was murdered.

(Below) South Africa sank into apartheid, hundreds of thousands of its people were herded into barren "homelands." Those who fought for freedom were thrown into prison, most prominently, Nelson Mandela. 

Hastings Lionel Ismay, the India-born British hitman who  was a key manipulator of the Partition of India, the murder of Mahatma Gandhi and the creation of the Kashmir dispute. He became the first NATO Secretary-General.