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Book Review: How the unthinkable almost happened

Jonathan Walker’s book is a chilling account of a secret British project to attack the Soviet Union in 1945, says TONY SIMPSON

Operation Unthinkable: British Plans To Attack The Soviet Empire, 1945
by Jonathan Walker
(The History Press, £16.99)

AS THIS book recounts, after the Soviet Union’s enormous sacrifices as an ally in WWII, with up to 25 million deaths, hopes that mutual mistrust with the West would be reduced were dashed even before the conflict ended.

Its author Jonathan Walker describes why this happened in this astonishing inside story of Operation Unthinkable, Winston Churchill’s plan to deal a crushing blow to the USSR.

His plan for total war, to commence in July 1945, was drawn up after the Big Three agreements at Yalta in the Crimea and when arrangements were being made for the Potsdam conference.

At that time the world was yearning for peace. At Yalta US President Franklin D Roosevelt, fatigued by illness and suspicious of Britain’s imperialist post-war ambitions, may have acted as a constraint on Churchill but he tragically died on April 12 1945.

Soviet successes, the takeover of Poland and the fate of the Polish underground leaders fuelled Churchill’s anti-communism. Walker sympathises with Churchill’s hardening attitudes on Poland and though describing the “apparent madness” of a plan that could later have involved the use of nuclear weapons, he curiously believes it “might have provided the Poles their last chance of freedom before total Soviet domination.”

While the book’s subtitle is British Plans To Attack The Soviet Empire, it was Britain in 1945 that had the empire. It was the US that would use atomic bombs and begin stockpiling A-bombs to achieve dominance.

At Potsdam, after Churchill received news of the successful test of the US bomb, Walker quotes Field Marshall Brooke as saying that Churchill “was completely carried away and was delighted to think that the bomb could redress the balance with Stalin.

“Now we could say if you insist on doing this or that well we can can just blot out Moscow, then Stalingrad, then Kiev, then Kuibyshev, Karkhov, Sebastopol. Nowhere are the Russians!”

That the plan was known as Operation Unthinkable suggests that the Foreign Office, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thought it a contingency and unachievable. Pro-Russian sentiment was still strong in 1945 and the general election robbed Churchill of any power to pursue such plans. Yet he did not give up. On March 5 1946 he gave his infamous “iron curtain” speech signalling the launch of the cold war and stoking a decade and more of anti-communism and McCarthyism in the US.

Fears about “communist domination” — the author’s phrase — had by early 1946 “become orthodox thinking in the British Foreign Office” under Labour’s Ernest Bevin.

US President Harry Truman followed Churchill in instructing the US Joint War Plans Committee to prepare contingency plans for operations against the Soviets, not excluding the use of the growing

US stock of atom bombs. Walker says Truman’s special counsel Clark Clifford concluded that Stalin believed “the only outcome was war.” Stalin may have said this but I can find no evidence of it, though he probably knew of Western leaders’ plans. Nor does the book provide clear evidence of the often repeated threat of Soviet invasion of western Europe, though this fuelled the cold war and was a justification for British atomic weapons.

As far as Soviet occupation of eastern Europe is concerned, Walker concedes that “some Western leaders had certainly let Stalin believe it was a done deal.” Indeed it can be argued that Stalin largely observed the territorial horse-trading that he believed the Big Three had agreed.

The invention of the Soviet bomb in 1949 changed everything. The cold war did not give way to a “hot” — nuclear — war, although Cuba and other crises made it a close-run thing. But continued decades of anti-Sovietism, followed by mistrust of Russia, resulted.

The present Crimea standoff may suggest the legacy of attitudes behind Operation Unthinkable continues.

Jonathan Walker talks about Operation Unthinkable at the Honiton Festival on Friday April 25 at the Beehive, Dowell Street, Honiton, East Devon. Details: (01404) 43716.

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