It was time for someone with the guts to speak the truth about Russia. There were people around the president of the United States who didn’t want that to happen.
But Moscow was intent on thwarting the work of any alliance that would protect western values and a stable Europe.
So he would seize the moment, as he had done before when few people were ready to listen. He had an instinct for these things.
The opening came from an obscure place, in an invitation to speak at a small college in Fulton, Missouri. But the head of the college had first gained the approval of the president for the idea and the president had written in his own hand at the bottom of the invitation: “This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you. Best regards…Harry”
So that was how, on Monday, March 4, 1946, Winston Churchill found himself riding in the armored railroad car, originally built for Franklin D. Roosevelt, with President Harry Truman, from Washington to Missouri.
Truman had been president less than a year, still struggling to find his feet as leader of the free world. Churchill was struggling with the ignominy of having been stripped of power after losing an election seven months earlier.
Both men were still digesting the impact of a speech made by Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, on February 9. Stalin had declared that communism and capitalism were incompatible and that another war was inevitable.
But Truman was finding it hard assess how big a threat this really was and was prone to reflect the opinions of the last person he had spoken to about it.
Stalin had enjoyed years playing the role of “Uncle Joe” fighting the Nazis alongside the Allies in the war. Dwight Eisenhower, who before leading the D-Day invasion of Europe, had dealt directly with Stalin, described him as “benign and fatherly.”
The man in Truman’s cabinet who remained, even after the February speech, reluctant to see Stalin as a menace, was Secretary of State James Byrnes, who had called him “a very likeable person.”
Churchill saw nothing avuncular about Stalin. He now felt the same about the Soviet Union as he had about Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Back then, his was a lone voice from the wilderness warning of Hitler’s intentions. Appeasers prevailed. Until suddenly Europe buckled under a blitzkrieg and Churchill was recalled to power.
From Florida, where had been on vacation, Churchill had made a quick trip to the White House to give Truman a broad outline of his proposed speech. In the railroad car on the way to Missouri a final text was distributed to Truman and members of the White House staff traveling with them.
Truman showed no misgivings when he read it. He said it would “do nothing but good” and “make a stir.”
As Truman knew it would, the little city of Fulton impressed Churchill as a Norman Rockwell-type experience of the American heartland. Even though it was far away from any theater of war, its residents deeply felt the honor of receiving two great men. The presidential motorcade was cheered all the way to the college campus, where a podium awaited Churchill in the gymnasium.
In a preamble Churchill thanked Truman for traveling “a thousand miles to dignify and magnify our meeting” and then, signaling the seriousness of the moment, he added “it is his wish that I should have full liberty to give my true and faithful counsel in these anxious and baffling times.”
He made a token gesture to Stalin: “We welcome Russia to her rightful place among the leading nations of the world.”
But then, in a speech that is rightly seen as the moral foundation for the Cold War, he said: “From Stetin 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 call the Soviet sphere…The communist parties have been raised to preeminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control…”
This threat could only be contained, he said, by a renewed alliance led by the United States and Great Britain.
Truman openly applauded as did the audience. But within a few hours, as commentators and editors read the text, there was a blowback that immediately rattled Truman and disconcerted Churchill.
The influential columnist Walter Lippmann said Truman had made a serious blunder in aligning himself with Churchill. The Wall Street Journal said America had no need of alliances with any other nation. The Nation said Churchill had “added a sizeable measure of poison to the already deteriorating relations between Russia and the Western powers.”
Others, both in the U.S. and Europe, said it was the warmongering of a man embittered by losing power.
Truman’s response was shameful. He claimed not to have seen the speech in advance and said Churchill had “put me on the spot.” He wrote to Stalin inviting him to come to Fulton himself and rebut Churchill’s speech, offering to send the battleship Missouri to convey him to America. Stalin declined the offer.
But by the end of the summer of 1946 the White House had changed its view. Secretary Byrnes, once seen as a witless appeaser, hardened his line. Crucially American diplomats in Moscow foretold Stalin’s reign of terror in Eastern Europe. Churchill’s case was borne out by events.
Whenever the Fulton speech is mentioned now the hostile response to it is rarely recorded. That is a pity. Churchill’s experience has several pertinent messages for today.
First, it shows how hard it can be to call out a despot who has cultivated a completely false image of himself to disarm his adversaries. Second, it marked the beginning of the long and mutually corrosive contest of Russian and American power and cultures that continues to this day.
In 1946 it took Churchill to wake up America to the full implications of a former wartime ally becoming a sinister adversary, a wholly new kind able to deeply infiltrate American defenses by using espionage, most damagingly by getting access to the secrets of the atomic bomb. The covert war turned out to be as dangerous as the overt cold war.
In fact, Truman’s failure at first to grasp how right Churchill was can be seen as a pattern in U.S. history of not being prepared for or alert to imminent threats. The full ambition of Japanese imperialism did not register until bombs were falling on Pearl Harbor. The potency and range of jihadist terrorism was seriously underrated until jets flew into the Twin Towers.
We could be in another of those moments now.
Once more, as on 9/11, warnings are being ignored. Once more, asymmetrical warfare is the most serious challenge to our security. This time it is not Osama bin Laden but Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s attacks on the 2016 election were nimble, innovative and pervasive. The response was anything but.
According to the former FBI agent Clint Watts, in his new book Messing With the Enemy, “America sucks at information warfare. Absolutely sucks.”
The officially disclosed 2019 federal budget for cybersecurity is $15 billion, more than four percent higher than in 2018. (The actual total is higher, the remainder being concealed for security reasons.)
More than half of the total, nearly $8.5 billion, goes to the military. The rest of the budget is spread between 76 civilian agencies, the largest amount, $1.7 billion, going to the Department of Homeland Security.
One obvious problem lies in the way the money is dispersed – all those separate bureaucracies and fiefdoms without any central coordination. And, according to Watts, the Pentagon, notwithstanding its much greater resources, was caught napping by the sophistication of Russian information warfare.
The Pentagon bureaucracy still spends most of its effort planning and spending for traditional armed warfare. The 2019 defense budget is $717 billion, and one program alone, the troubled F-35 warplane, has cost $406.5 billion so far. Large amounts of money are allocated to nuclear weapons like the B61-12 guided nuclear weapon for the F-35 that could only conceivably be used in World War III.
More alarming is that Putin seems to know America’s weaknesses better than we do ourselves. Deeply embedded in his memory is the way that during the Reagan years America virtually bankrupted the Soviet Union by enticing it into a contest of arms spending that it could not win. And after the fall of the Soviet Union the tone of American triumphalism was unbearable to nationalists like Putin.
So Putin learned. His response has been twofold. He produces videos vaunting Russia’s new superweapons, copying the Reagan tactic of pushing his adversary’s defense spending to new heights. At the same time his real attack has been a relatively low-budget penetration of American politics through social media as well as carefully targeted cyber probes of crucial American infrastructure, like the power grid.
In all of this Putin has been abetted by Trump – in Russian terms “the useful idiot” – and the Republicans.
Some measure of how easy it remains for Russia to sabotage our democracy is the behavior of just a few individuals.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes has now been exposed in all his mendacity as the man who set out to destroy on entirely false grounds the credibility of one of the government agencies that Putin fears most, the counter-intelligence division of the FBI.
Then there is Jim Jordan, the belligerent and bone-headed congressman from Ohio. Turning down a request to spend more money on protecting our electoral system in this year’s midterms, he suggested that the whole problem could be solved by with voter ID.
What Trump, with his humiliating Helsinki performance, and these accomplices are delivering to Putin is a form of unilateral disarmament, a term once familiar in the Cold War when applied to weak powers ready to surrender, not great ones.
To save himself Trump is prepared to denigrate men and women who have given years of selfless service to provide the intelligence essential to national security. Loyalty to him supersedes any other allegiances, including those to the nation. In that characteristic, and in others, he resembles the man that Churchill warned the world about so decisively in 1946.