Toasting Winston Churchill’s Birthday

By Lewis E. Lehrman

November 27, 2013 – The Putnam County News & Recorder

Winston Churchill turned 69 on November 30, 1943 — only eighty years ago. The toasts at the summit conference in Teheran were interminable that night. It was the third night of the first summit attended by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, then 62, Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 61.

It was a bittersweet moment for the British prime minister. He was the founding member of the Allied coalition against German aggression — when the U.S. was neutral and Russia still bound to Nazi Germany by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. But in 1943 millions of Russians were advancing against the Germans on the eastern front. Thousands of Americans had crossed the Atlantic for a second front in Europe. Churchill’s Britain increasingly became the junior member of the coalition. Stalin and FDR, more interested in their goals, were dismissive of Churchill’s strategic outlook.

But Churchill steadfastly believed that in a face-to-face meeting, his powers of persuasion would prevail. His health failing, he had nevertheless flown around the world to meet individually with FDR and Stalin, but Teheran would be their first joint meeting. For a brief moment at Teheran, comraderie reigned. The Russians and the Americans knew the truth of what Stalin would say 14 months later at Yalta: “There have been few cases in history where the courage of one man has been so important to the future of the world.”

Winston Churchill cherished a good party and he loved to talk. At Teheran, the British prime minister toasted Russian dictator Joseph Stalin as one of “the great heroes of Russian history.” Churchill added that Stalin “had earned the title ‘Stalin the Great.’” Churchill had not always felt so kindly toward Stalin, having persuaded the allies after World War I to try to destroy Bolshevism. Now, the jovial leaders were in good form. “There could not have been greater cordiality, and Uncle Joe enjoyed himself as much as anybody,” wrote a Churchill aide. “UJ” was the term of affection that British and American leaders often used for the Russian leader, who often alternated between frostiness and friendliness. Unlike the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin and Roosevelt did not gang up on Churchill. Indeed, some good humor did prevail. At one point, Churchill, then leader of the Conservative Party, declared, “England is getting pinker.” Communist Stalin responded: “It is a sign of good health.” After Churchill declared: “I drink to the Proletarian masses,” Stalin responded: “I drink to the Conservative Party.”

A year later in 1944, a freshly-reelected Roosevelt wired Churchill on his 70th birthday: “Ever so many happy returns of the day. I shall never forget the party with you and Uncle Joe a year ago and we must have more of them that are even better.” Churchill aide John Colville diaried: “Everybody, from the Shah of Persia to Harry Lauder, from Queen Mary to Rosa Lewis, sent their good wishes.” But the stresses of the war were telling on Churchill, noted Colvillle. He “has seemed unable or unwilling or too tired to give his attention to complex matters.”

War took its toll on all the Allied leaders who frequently suffered from bronchial problems, strokes, even pneumonia. Polio-paralyzed FDR was clearly failing and would die of a stroke on April 12, 1945. Stalin, who had polio and other health problems as a child, would also die of a stroke on March 5, 1953. Churchill suffered pneumonia, too. The oldest of the three would survive the longest. Churchill had suffered several strokes — beginning in World War II. A final stroke in early 1965 led to his death on January 24. Just two months earlier, Churchill had celebrated his 90th birthday — with oysters and 60,000 messages of congratulations. His staff gathered before lunch to toast their boss with champagne. Champagne was the fitting tribute. In his lifetime, Mr. Churchill had enjoyed 20,000 bottles of champagne.

Lewis E. Lehrman is co-founder of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History and author of Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point (Stackpole Books, 2008) and “Lincoln by littles” (TLI, 2013).

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