Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Toothless Lion: Winston Churchill and the Fate of Poland

The Big Three:
Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin

The English-speaking world has long celebrated Winston Churchill as a champion against tyranny and totalitarianism -- a democrat who strove to free enslaved nations from the oppressor’s yoke.  Yet this giant of history is not universally adored. 

Many Poles hold the former British statesman partially responsible for sealing Poland’s post-war fate, dooming it to almost half a century as a Soviet satellite.  These Poles, and their western supporters, allege that Churchill had a fiduciary duty to defend and advance Polish interests but failed to do so—choosing instead to yield to Stalin on the issue of Poland’s eastern frontier and ultimately failing to ensure Poland retained a truly democratic government. Careful consideration of the complicated diplomatic, military and strategic factors with which Winston Churchill, and by extension the British government, had to contend during the latter-half of the Second World War should give this view short shrift.  

An examination of the discussions between Winston Churchill, Polish Prime Minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, Josef Stalin and, to a far lesser degree, President Franklin Roosevelt, strongly suggests that among the leaders of the Great Powers, Winston Churchill was Poland’s best friend—albeit one who chose to practice ‘tough love’.  Rendered virtually impotent by his country’s military and financial exhaustion, restrained by the lack-lustre support of his American ally, out-maneuvered by a wily Soviet Politburo and frustrated by the intransigence and unrealistic attitude of the Polish Government in Exile, Winston Churchill was afforded very few options with which to defend Polish interests. Churchill’s unenviable predicament, through little fault of his own, would ultimately thwart his good intentions.

That Winston Churchill should have expended so much energy dealing with the exiled government of a distant Eastern European country whilst so many other issues also called for his attention—not least of which was fighting a war against Nazi Germany—may seem rather odd.  Among the Big Three powers, Poland was only of significant strategic importance to the Soviet Union, serving as a corridor between Germany and Russia and, by extension, between Western Europe and Eastern Europe.  British strategic interests were comparatively low in this region and were concentrated far more heavily in Greece and the Mediterranean.  

Winston Churchill and General Wladyslaw Sikorski,
Polish Prime Minister (1939-1943)
Yet Poland was not like other Eastern European nations.   Poland occupied immense symbolic importance for Great Britain; it had been the casus belli underlying Britain’s entry into the Second World War. The British Government was honour bound to preserve Polish independence and pledged to do nothing less.  The interpretation of this pledge and whether it committed Britain to defend Poland’s frontiers as well as its independence would later prove a major thorn in Anglo-Polish relations.  That the Polish Government in Exile was based in London, had many important British political allies, and commanded a significant Polish army ready to fight alongside the British were other factors of considerable weight.   

Winston Churchill also believed Poland to be of supreme importance as a ‘test case’ through which the Western Allies could gauge Soviet post-war intentions, trustworthiness and willingness to work with the west.  Not surprisingly, given British commitments to Poland and Soviet interests in Poland, the fate of this European nation was also a considerable threat to Anglo-Soviet relations.  The Polish issue was therefore of profound significance to Churchill.

Any hope Churchill may have had for sincere, committed American support in dealing with the Polish Government and negotiating with Joseph Stalin was short-lived.  The American attitude to the Polish question was at best one of casual interest.  The United States had not declared war over Poland and had not made any guarantees to the Polish Government.  Washington consequently felt little moral obligation to support either the Polish Government in Exile or Poland’s frontiers.  The United States did participate in some discussions regarding Poland’s future but any statement it made in support of Polish interests was largely due to its sizable ethnic-Polish voting population and the American-initiated Atlantic Charter. 

The Atlantic Charter bound the United States and the United Kingdom to oppose any territorial aggrandizement or territorial changes which ran contrary to the wishes of the people immediately concerned. It also supported the right of peoples to choose their own forms of government.  As far as Poland was concerned, however, Roosevelt did not believe the Atlantic Charter bound the United States to advocate for any particular Polish Government or territorial boundary.  Furthermore, the United States government viewed the Polish Government in Exile with suspicion.  As far as the Americans were concerned the fact that some members of the government had never been elected called into question claims that the government represented the Polish population. Its close relationship with the British Government also led some in Washington to suspect that the government would be manipulated by London.

Roosevelt’s primary diplomatic concern was to convince the Soviet Union that the west harboured no ill will towards them.  Eager to seek Soviet assistance in the war against Japan and also in the establishment on a United Nations Organisation, Roosevelt quite simply viewed the Polish dilemma as little more than an obstacle to the cementing of ties of friendship between the Soviet Union and the west.  Roosevelt was of the opinion that once close ties were established the Soviet Union would have little reason to worry about its security and therefore would be unlikely to be difficult in negotiations regarding the future of Eastern Europe.  With lack-lustre American support, the Polish problem was quite clearly one which fell largely upon Churchill’s shoulders.

After the war, when Poland’s fate was sealed, Churchill would gloomily write that this nation’s plight was “the first of the great causes which led to the breakdown of the wartime alliance”.  The first unmistakable signs of the impending breakdown became evident in April 1943 with the German discovery at Katyn of a mass grave containing approximately 10,000 Polish officers. The Polish Government, and unofficially the British Government, suspected the Soviet Union to have perpetrated the crime. It is from this point that Winston Churchill found it necessary to play an active role in attempting to find a solution to what would become known as the “Polish problem.”

Churchill had found the Soviet attitude towards Poland abhorrent but without the support of Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill knew the only possibility of the survival of a democratic Polish Government was for that government to make concessions. The Polish Government’s failure to agree to the settlement proposals put forth by Winston Churchill in the months between April 1943 and July 1944 destroyed any hope, however slim that hope may have ever been, of securing Poland’s independence in the post-war world.  Whether Poland could ever have escaped the clutches of Josef Stalin is, in hindsight, doubtful. But this cannot be blamed on Churchill. .

It was Churchill who offered the Polish Government a chance of survival as an independent government. Yet they chose not to avail themselves of what was undoubtedly their best chance of survival . It was Churchill who tried to cajole his American counterpart into throwing his considerable weight behind Poland. Yet Roosevelt was not interested. It was Churchill who stood up to Stalin in an attempt to extract as favourable a deal as possible for the Polish Government—in so doing, placing vitally important Anglo-Soviet relations in a most precarious position. Yet Stalin was content to let time work in his favour.

Winston Churchill was sailing the British ship of state between Scylla and the Charybdis.  The precious freight was the continued goodwill of Anglo-Soviet relations and also Britain’s honour-bound guarantee to protect Polish independence. The journey was perilous and even the most masterful captain would have been unlikely to save the entire cargo.


enquiries said...

I would just like to say how much I enjoyed your well written article.

I have recently published a book called What Churchill Would Do which touches on this same topic.

Gustavo Szwedowski de Korwin said...

I agree completely with your point of view, it is unjust to blame Churchill.
As you do, I believe he did as much as he could. Certainly, was Roosevelt who disdained Poland independence (as usually the Americans have done), I don’t know why, perhaps the answer is in their “special-relationship” with the powerful Zionist lobby.

Timothy J. Girard said...

I think we should not judge Roosevelt too harshly on this issue.

The problem for FDR and his successor, Harry Truman, is that America had just spent considerable treasure and many lives fighting a war in distant lands, even though the American homeland was never seriously threatened.

For America to challenge Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe it had to risk the possibility of war with the Soviets. This would have been extremely costly and would have demanded enormous additional sacrifices from Americans.

Soviet troops occupied all of Eastern Europe upon Germany's defeat. This was displeasing not only to many Poles, but to many Romanians, Bulgarians and others. Stalin and his foreign minister, Molotov, were instransigent in post-war negotiations in 1945-46 and this was a source of great frustration for Harry Truman and his foreign minister, James Byrnes. Indeed, Truman was furious that the proposed Romanian and Bulgarian governments would consist almost entirely of Soviet puppets.

Unfortunately, America did not have any cards to play short of war. Although a select few Americans, like George S. Patton, would have merrily gone to war with the Soviets, the vast majority of Americans were sick and tired of foreign wars and wanted to live in peace. With a touch of resignation, Harry Truman himself noted this in his memoirs.