If you’re 35 years old or more, you remember those fear-filled times of the Cold War era, how we expected some incident would turn the Cold War into a hot war between the United States and the Soviet Union. When do you think the two superpowers came closest to duking it out (or should I say “nuking it out”)? Was it during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962? Was it with a war involving proxies of the superpowers, like in Korea or Vietnam?
Early this year I learned that one of World War II’s biggest heroes, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had a plan to launch World War III between VE Day and VJ Day; in other words, he wanted to start it before World War II was over! Anyway, I did a little homework and composed a new section for Chapter 17 of my European history papers, to cover this crisis. Here is what I wrote, it now begins the chapter:
The wartime partnership between the USSR and the other Allied nations had always been an uneasy one. Britain and the United States remembered Joseph Stalin’s prewar behavior, and were always suspicious of Soviet secrecy; they gave detailed data on strategy and weapons to Moscow, but got little information in return. Stalin didn’t trust the West either, and expected the USSR to become the target of a capitalist invasion once the Axis was out of the way. Thus, when an Allied victory became a certainty, East-West relations started unraveling. As early as the Tehran conference (September 1943), Winston Churchill confided to one of his staff that he considered Germany already finished; "the real problem now is Russia." At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, Stalin promised to allow free governments in the nations Soviet troops entered, but afterwards did not do so. On April 1, 1945, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a telegram to Stalin protesting the violation of Yalta pledges.
That was all Roosevelt did because of his death eleven days later. In London, Churchill was growing alarmed because as the war wound down, the USSR was much stronger, and the British Empire was weaker, than he had expected. The Red Army had already occupied seven East European countries and part of Austria, so Churchill thought the American decision to leave all of Germany east of the Elbe River to the Red Army was a mistake. He could also see what was happening in Poland, where all of the current Polish leaders and partisans were communists; the rest had just disappeared. Obviously, Stalin had his own view on what the postwar world should look like, and it was a different view from that of Roosevelt and Churchill. All this prompted Churchill to send a long message of protest to Stalin in May, which concluded with this comment:
"There is not much comfort in looking into a future where you and the countries you dominate . . . are all on one side, and those who rally to the English-speaking nations . . . are on the other . . . their quarrel would tear the world to pieces."
Meanwhile, Churchill ordered Britain’s generals to prepare for the next war, immediately after World War II; they should now consider ways to "impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire" to secure "a square deal for Poland." This meant at a minimum, preemptive strikes on Red Army units in Germany and Poland, and a possible grand offensive to drive the Russians back to the USSR. July 1, 1945 was picked as the earliest date for the operation to begin.
The plan was called "Operation Unthinkable," and that turned out to be an appropriate name, for only Churchill thought it had any chance of succeeding. This was because the Soviets had a tremendous military advantage in Europe. In 1945 the Red Army numbered 11 million men, a 4:1 advantage over the troops of the Western Allies (the United States, Britain, France and Canada); Russian tanks also outnumbered Western tanks by 2 to 1, and to top it off, the Russians had more warplanes. To help even the odds, Churchill proposed re-arming 100,000 captured German soldiers, and enlisting them in a new pro-Western army; four Polish divisions were also available. In addition, Churchill knew the United States was researching nuclear weapons, and he figured that using them against the Soviet Union would give the Western Allies the firepower they needed to win.
Reality killed the plan before it got off the ground. To start with, Soviet spies informed Stalin that Churchill was up to something, and Stalin alerted his top general, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, so there was no way the attack could take the Soviets by surprise, like Hitler’s attack from four years earlier. Second, the British Chiefs of Staff told Churchill that they thought the numbers against them were too great to overcome, and they didn’t think the Germans, full of memories of eastern front battles like Stalingrad, would be willing to fight the Russians again. Third, on the other side of the world the United States was fighting the battle of Okinawa, and with a possible invasion of Japan coming up, the Americans didn’t want to keep their troops in Europe. As for the nukes, the Americans ended up building three atomic bombs; one was used for the July 16 test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, and the other two were dropped on Japan to make the Japanese surrender without invading their home islands. If any of those bombs had been used against the USSR instead, the end of the Pacific War would have come much later than it did.
Fourth, the Western generals had their doubts that even atomic bombs dropped on cities like Moscow would stop the Soviets. After all, the Red Army had taken everything the Germans had thrown at it, and like the Incredible Hulk, it came back stronger and more enraged than before. And if the Allies had to invade the USSR to teach the Russians a lesson, they would be up against Russia’s formidable natural defenses: winter, wide rivers that are only easy to cross when frozen over, and almost endless tracts of land, much of it mud. Nobody could guarantee that the Allies would fare better against those defenses than Charles XII of Sweden, Napoleon, and Hitler had done.
In all likelihood, if Operation Unthinkable had been launched, the Soviets would have taken their blows until they got a chance to inflict a crushing defeat on the Allies, and then they would charge across the European Continent, at least as far as France. The English Channel would stop them from invading the British Isles, but they could still hit Britain’s cities with fearsome bomber and rocket attacks. When the new US president, Harry Truman, heard about the plan, he made it clear that he would not allow American forces to take part in a new war against the Soviet Union. Without the Yanks on his side, even Churchill realized the plan was doomed to fail, and not long after that, he was voted out of office and replaced with a less hawkish prime minister, Clement Atlee. Operation Unthinkable was declared a military secret and filed away; it did not become common knowledge until it was declassified in 1998.
Throughout the period covered by this chapter, people feared that a politician or general would do something that would cause a devastating war between the world’s capitalist and communist nations, and that would be the end of Western civilization. Especially if nuclear weapons were used. Well, now we know there was a plan for World War III at the start, but it was immediately rejected as unwinnable, leaving bad East-West feelings that would last throughout the Cold War era.
Back in 1898, when Churchill was a young army officer and a colleague of his was fatally wounded, he said, "War, disguise it as you may, is but a dirty, shoddy business which only a fool would undertake." Nearly half a century later, those same words would apply to himself. He was one of the first to see that nothing good would come from the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, but now it would be the job of others to do something about it.