Seventy-five years ago this month, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and Joseph Stalin gathered in Potsdam, near the smoking ruins of Berlin, to discuss the final showdown with Japan and the fate of the postwar world. The war in Europe had been won, but victory in the Pacific was still two months away.
But after nine meetings over eight days, and with another week of the conference remaining, Churchill had to return to London for the results of the general election that had been held a few weeks before. Millions of British servicemen stationed abroad had cast their votes, and it took weeks for their ballots to be received and counted.
Both Truman and Stalin looked on with some bemusement; the American president, who had recently succeeded the late Franklin Roosevelt, had the luxury of a fixed term of office, while the Soviet dictator never faced such concerns. Both were confident that Churchill would soon rejoin them; Lord Moran, Churchill’s personal physician, left most of his baggage behind in anticipation of a swift return.
And yet, there was trouble in the air: recent by-elections had seen Government candidates badly defeated. The British people had been denied a general election for a decade, and there was a palpable desire for change. Some wished to punish the Conservatives for their previous policy of appeasement, while others sought a more equitable future. An official government report by economist Albert Beveridge, calling for a massive expansion of the welfare state, became Labour’s blueprint for the years to come. The party’s slogan, “Let Us Face the Future,” caught the imagination of a people exhausted by war and ready to reap the rewards of peace. Labour was led by Clement Attlee, Churchill’s deputy prime minister in the coalition Government, whose quiet demeanor, obvious decency, and heroic service in the Great War insulated him from charges of radicalism.
But Churchill believed in his star and trusted that Britain would reward his valiant leadership.
The end of the war in Europe had spurred Labour to withdraw in May from the Coalition government formed five years before. The party chafed at their subordinate role and yearned for untrammeled power. Churchill was thus transformed from a national to a mere party leader, an uncomfortable shift for a man grown accustomed to speaking for his whole nation.
Churchill had been consumed with the fight with Germany and could not bring the same passion to bear on postwar domestic issues. This was ironic, as earlier in his career he had been one of the early architects of the welfare state.
The campaign was a difficult one, as the great war leader occasionally found himself confronted with hostile voters on the stump. And he did himself no favors when he declared in a speech that “No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some sort of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance.” This was a brutal attack on his loyal coalition partners, and unworthy of him.
Somehow he sensed the coming loss. He woke early on the morning of July 26—the day the results were to be declared—with what he later recalled was “a sharp stab of almost physical pain. A hitherto subconscious conviction that we were beaten broke forth and dominated my mind…The power to shape the future would be denied me.”
The results came in throughout that fateful day, and Churchill followed them from his map room in the Number 10 Annexe, his home for much of the war. It was soon apparent that he would not be returning to Potsdam. Labour won a crushing victory, with 393 seats to the Conservatives’ 213. To add insult to injury, a large majority of the service vote went for Labour, deserting the man who had led them for five years and sung their praises in immortal prose. Abraham Lincoln, by contrast, won reelection to the presidency over George C. McClellan in 1864 by an electoral college vote of 212 to 21 (55 percent to 45 percent in the popular vote), in part because of his overwhelming share of the soldiers’ vote.
Churchill’s wife, Clementine, tried to cheer him by up saying that the defeat might be “a blessing in disguise.” He grimly replied, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.”
King George VI had been reluctant to appoint Churchill in 1940, sharing the establishment’s disdain for him. But over the course of the war he grew close to his prime minister and was saddened by his defeat. In recognition of his peerless service and in consolation for his loss, the King offered Churchill the Order of the Garter, the highest honor in his gift. But Churchill declined, noting ruefully that the British people had just given him “the order of the boot”.
The British general election of 1945 has come to be seen as history’s greatest example of democratic ingratitude. Churchill had led the nation through its darkest hour and guided it to victory, only to be hurled from office. Americans especially have long been baffled by it. But he felt no bitterness toward the British people; with characteristic magnanimity, he said simply, “they have had a very hard time.”
Meet the Author
Michael F. Bishop is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society.
This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by Bank of America.