I have just finished reading Joshua Rubenstein's The Last Days of Stalin, a book I can thoroughly recommend to all who are interested in post-war European history. By and large the theme is not one for this blog but, as one would expect, Sir Winston Churchill appears in it and plays a slight equivocal role.

Chapter 6 is entitled A Chance for Peace? and deals with the opportunity the West, led by President Eisenhower, might have taken to create a more lasting peace or generally come to better terms with the post-Stalin leadership. Professor Rubenstein is inclined to blame Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, feeling more on the side of such people as the President's aide, Emmet Hughes who felt frustrated by the "obvious" opportunity created by Stalin's death, the new leadership's desire to introduce reforms (to save their own skins rather than because they had any liberal ideas) and to ease up relations with the West.

In actual fact, that window of opportunity lasted exactly two months from April 16, 1953 when Eisenhower delivered his Chance For Peace speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors to June 17 when the two-day East Berlin uprising broke out to spread to other parts of East Germany and to be put down fairly brutally by the Soviet army and the East German police. After that, any idea of German reunification on any condition could be shelved. Within less than ten days Beria was arrested and the Soviet leadership appeared to sink into another internecine warfare.

Even the two months in question were not exactly propitious. There were riots in Plovdiv, Khaskovo and Pilsen, news of discontent in the other East European colonies and uprisings in the political camps of the Gulag. The amnesty brought in immediately after Stalin's death affected only criminals with the exception of the Doctors' Plot whose "members" were released and all accusations were quashed. The politicals started demanding that their cases should be reviewed as well and in a number of camps there were genuine uprisings, usually led by Ukrainians, Balts and Poles. At first the authorities were prepared to negotiate but as they were not prepared to offer anything except slightly better working conditions there were no agreements and the uprisings were put down with great ferocity. Officially this was unknown in the West but I find it difficult to believe that some rumous had not crept out to the various security services.

Nevertheless, the book conveys a feeling of frustration and lost opportunity after Eisenhower's speech without making it very clear what concrete suggestions he should have made, except for one: a summit meeting with, possibly, Georgy Malenkov who appeared to be the leader, though only temporarily.

Eisenhower made it clear that the Soviet union should come up with some concrete proposals first but, above all, he was not a great supporter of summits, believing with some justification that during the war time ones the West had given away too much to Stalin and refusing to recognize, despite his desire to lessen the tension, that the new leadership might be more accommodating.

This is where Churchill hove into view, advocating summits, discussing with the Soviet ambassador to London, Yakov Malik, the possibility of a secret meeting with Malenkov, and speaking forcefully on the need to balance the needs of European countries with "Russia's" (i.e. the USSR's) desire for security. In the process he managed to make the Kremlin suspicious, antagonized Chancellor Adenauer and some other West European leaders and seriously annoyed the Americans. He did get a good press from the British newspapers, though.

On May 11, 1953, during the first big foreign affairs debate after Stalin's death Churchill made a speech [scroll up] in which he tried to reconcile several ideas.
Russia has a right to feel assured that as far as human arrangements can run the terrible events of the Hitler invasion will never be repeated, and that Poland will remain a friendly Power and a buffer, though not, I trust, a puppet State.

I venture to read to the House again some words which I wrote exactly eight years ago, 29th April, 1945, in a telegram I sent to Mr. Stalin: " There is not much comfort"

I said, "in looking into a future where you and the countries you dominate, plus the Communist Parties in many other States, are all drawn up on one side, and those who rally to the English speaking nations and their associates or Dominions are on the other. It is quite obvious that their quarrel would tear the world to pieces, and that all of us leading men on either side who had anything to do with that would be shamed before history. Even embarking on a long period of suspicions, of abuse and counter-abuse, and of opposing policies would be a disaster hampering the great developments of world prosperity for the masses which are attainable only by our trinity. I hope there is no word or phrase in this outpouring of my heart to you which unwittingly gives offence. If so, let me know. But do not, I beg you, my friend Stalin, underrate the divergencies which are opening about matters which you may think are small to us but which are symbolic of the way the English-speaking democracies look at life." I feel exactly the same about it today.

I must make it plain that, in spite of all the uncertainties and confusion in which world affairs are plunged, I believe that a conference on the highest level should take place between the leading Powers without long delay. This conference should not be overhung by a ponderous or rigid agenda, or led into mazes and jungles of technical details, zealously contested by hoards of experts and officials drawn up in vast, cumbrous array. The conference should be confined to the smallest number of Powers and persons possible. It should meet with a measure of informality and a still greater measure of privacy and seclusion. It might well be that no hard-faced agreements would be reached, but there might be a general feeling among those gathered together that they might do something better than tear the human race, including themselves, into bits.
The first paragraph would indicate a wilful misreading of what was going on in Eastern Europe (not a puppet state, forsooth!) and what had been going on in Poland in 1939. The rest of it mostly wishful thinking, as was a suggestion earlier in the speech that if Germany was reunited Britain could guarantee peace on the Continent - not a particularly rational suggestion in 1953.

Chancellor Adenauer showed himself to be unhappy with what he saw as an attempt to sacrifice West Germany, a democracy, in order to have some kind of an agreement with the Soviet Union. The Kremlin leadership distrusted Churchill, thinking of him, rather ironically, as the man who wanted to strangle Bolshevism at birth rather than the man who was Stalin's ally and, some would say, dupe. Molotov, the Foreign Minister, absolutely rejected the idea of a "secret" meeting between Churchill and Malenkov. Furthermore, as Pofessor Rubenstein notes, the Kremlin had a shrews understanding of Churchill's and Britain's real standing in the world despite the marks of respect paid to him.

The White House and the State Department paid their respects but pointed out that it was not clear who would represent the USSR and, in any case, the low-level talks about Korea were still getting nowhere. What would a summit achieve?
In Congress, Senate Majority Leader William F. Knowland compared Churchill's speech to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938, a shocking objection given Churchill's ringing opposition ot Chamberlain's negotiations with the Nazis.
Shocking maybe but it does raise an interesting question: just what was it about Stalin that made Churchill, the great anti-appeaser into a full-blooded appeaser? He returned from Yalta with assurances for all who doubted in the Cabinet and in Parliament that if there was one man to be trusted on the international scene it was "Premier Stalin". He preferred to ignore the problem of people being handed over to the Communists, both Soviet and Yugoslav. And judging by the comment he made about Poland in 1953 he did not quite understand the situation in Eastern Europe despite the Fulton speech, which brilliantly defined the situation.

To be fair, there was more sense to Churchill's 1953 desire to come to terms with the post-Stalin Soviet leadership, even though his assumption that Malenkov will go on being the undisputed boss turned out to be wrong - the heirs of Stalin did exhibit various signs of wanting to negotiate over Korea as well as, possibly, Austria and Germany. They even started allowing the Russian wives of Western diplomats and military officials out of the Gulag and out of the country. But a summit or secret meetings? Could they really achieve anything?

To a great extent one can understand that this was Churchill's attempt to restore the war-time situation when he did rush around the world, having secret meetings with Stalin, among others and the big three had several summits. Churchill was missing his and Britain's position at the top and was reluctant to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Sadly, others, the White House and Kremlin for instance, did acknowledge it.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that his comments about the need to acknowledge Russia's fears and longings for security were not that different from Germany's supposed needs in the thirties, needs that he had quite rightly dismissed at the time.

Nothing came of Churchill's suggestions. Molotov refused to agree to any meeting between Malenkov and Churchill, as did Eisenhower. The window of opportunity closed on June 17 with the uprising in East Berlin and at the end of June Churchill had a stroke, which was hidden from all though it put him out of action completely and much of his business was transacted in his name by his son in law, Christopher Soames and his secretary, Sir John Rupert "Jock" Colville. A "secret disability crisis" is one way of describing those events; I have also heard references to a coup, a very British coup. The idea of the summit, never very strong, was abandoned.

When the news came in March 2010 that one of the best loved, most admired but also most feared members of the House of Lords, Baroness Park of Monmouth, had died, there was a general mourning and not just in the House but also among the many people who had known, worked with or just sat and talked to Daphne Park over many years. These were people who had known her in the Service, naturally, and in the various sister Services (I recall meeting a Canadian former agent once who sent her all sorts of good wishes from the Mounties), people in various organizations to which she contributed whenever she could, people who had known her in Oxford and people who had met her and been overwhelmed by her knowledge, her history, personality and that impossible to define quality, charm. 

I blogged about her at the time of her death and her funeral. I tried to convey my affection and admiration for that great lady as well as the laughter that her stories generated (when it was not sheer terror).

The fact that she had been an important British agent (not a spy, if you please), rising to the position of Controller/Western Hemisphere before she retired from MI6 (SIS) was also fairly well known, as she had given interviews to a number of carefully chosen journalists and told tales to equally carefully chosen friends and acquaintances. According to Paddy Hayes, Daphne Park's biographer, some people, including her secretary and assistant of many years’ standing, regarded this with disapproval and there is some doubt as to whose idea all this publicity was. Daphne insisted that when some journalist let the cat out of the bag years after she had retired, senior SIS officers suggested that she should give those interviews; Paddy Hayes thinks it was her idea.

Whoever thought of it, the scheme was hugely successful: Baroness Park, the charming elderly lady with her firm and strongly expressed opinions, work in the House of Lords and her undeniable charm was the best possible advertisement for the Service, who could pretend in an oblique sort of way that a number of women had risen to the top or near it, a lie indirect, if ever there was one. Furthermore, Daphne never revealed more than she knew had been agreed on, as one can see from the various articles and interviews: they tend to repeat the same information, much of it reasonably well known with just the added savour of her personal experience, so far as she would talk about it. In private conversations or talks given to private organizations she tended to tell the most wonderful and exciting stories. I was privileged (as I said above) to be one of the recipients. She would swoop down on me when she felt like it in the corridors of the House of Lords where I had disconsolately collected some documents I had to read and write about, and announce that I would probably like a whisky. Of course, I did. Ensconced with a drink she would turn to me and say “I think you might be interested in my stay in Moscow (or Hanoi or DR Congo).” Off went her tales, all carefully shorn of any really secret information, but fascinating nevertheless.

The SIS (or MI6) are notoriously secretive about their history though some details do slip out. Paddy Hayes found it quite difficult to unearth really detailed information about Daphne Park’s career. He has instead, unfortunately in my opinion, decided to pad his text with speculations about how Daphne might have felt at certain moments and what she would have had to remember in a new job to prepare for the new environment. There is also a tendency for giving explanations of certain structures and activities by saying “in modern terms it means …”. This is a regrettable tendency in a number of history books that aim at the popular market. Surely even said popular market would produce readers who can cope with concepts without being told that “in modern terms that would be image management” or some such nonsense.

Daphne Park’s life story from her childhood in Tanganyika through her education in England, service in the SOE during the war (together with all the problems she had because of her stubbornness) and subsequent career in SIS where she seems to have served in some of the most difficult and interesting places, is of such interest that even a dull writer cannot make it otherwise and Paddy Hayes is far from being a dull writer. The book bowls along despite the clich├ęs and the padding. Nevertheless, with the difficulty of information gathering and reliance on personal memories, often internally censored, unanswered questions abound. Did Daphne go down to Odessa and Sevastopol to find out whether the Soviets were planning to intervene in the Suez crisis? She said yes and a number of historians have repeated that, her closest colleague of the time says no. Did she run agents in Hanoi and if so, how on earth did she manage it? No evidence seems available. What on earth was she doing in Ulan Bator? Was Marine Captain Douglas de Witt Bazata really the great love of her life? Hayes asserts this several times but produces no evidence, not even gossip. To what extent was she personally involved in the civil war that erupted in the Congo after independence and in the gruesome arrest and murder of Patrice Lumumba? Some of the answers to the last one could have been discovered through the American Freedom of Information Act but Hayes decided not to go down that path. The story he recounts is not substantially different from the one I read in my childhood in Soviet and East European newspapers.

Daphne was also involved in the negotiations with Rhodesia’s Ian Smith after UDI that led to the establishment of Zimbabwe. I am not sure she did not regret her role in it though it had grown out of her friendship with a number of East African leaders, as she fought ferociously in the House of Lords to help Zimbabwean dissidents, oppositionists to Robert Mugabe’s bloody rule and refugees.

Queen of Spies is the first biography of Baroness Park but one hopes not the last. It goes a little way beyond her retirement from SIS, telling the not altogether successful tale of her time as Principal of Somerville College and the more successful time as a Governor of the BBC. Then there is a rapid gallop through her various other achievements in the post-SIS years but not nearly enough about her time as Conservative peer with strong opinions in the House of Lords, which she loved, where she worked very hard,  and where she was much loved by colleagues and staff alike. The book would have become of unwieldy length if all this had been added in detail but let us hope that one day someone will continue Paddy Hayes’s excellent work and build on the foundation he has laid. 

Paddy Hayes:                          Queen of Spies
Daphne Park, Britain’s Cold War Spy Master

Duckworth Overlook              2015

[This is based on a review that will appear in the next issue of the Salisbury Review.]

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