Table of Contents
- Main Source Material
- The Growing Tension between East and West
- The Promises Stalin Reneged on after the Yalta Conference
- The USSR’s Redeployment of Troops
- The Invention of the Atomic Bomb
- The Use of Salami Tactics
- Churchill’s View on the Post-War World
This essay investigates the question “How significant was Operation Unthinkable in the development of the Cold War?”
Operation Unthinkable was Churchill’s plan to attack the Soviet Union in 1945. Stalin was very suspicious of British actions and his intelligence soon discovered the document - although it is not clear when.
This investigation makes use of a variety of primary and secondary sources. The first source is a book written by the historian Jonathan Walker: ‘ Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War ’ provides an in-depth study of the plan and considers its role in key events of the Cold War. Another source referenced is the document itself. Declassified in 1998, it is used to try to understand Churchill’s fears of the Soviet Union at the time. The rest of the investigation continues to use a range of interesting sources in order to understand the significance of the plan.
The investigation is structured in the following manner: an introduction explains the historical and modern relevance of the topic followed by an analysis of key sources. From here, the essay investigates the significance of Operation Unthinkable by considering the tension it caused, the promises Stalin reneged on after Yalta, the USSR’s redeployment of troops, the introduction of the atomic bomb and the use of salami tactics. Also, the significance in terms of what it tells historians about Churchill’s views of the world is assessed. Finally, there is a conclusion to complete the essay.
The conclusion reached is that Operation Unthinkable was significant in the development of the Cold War as it contributed to the escalation of tension and hostility between the East and West, despite its secrecy. However, its significance is questioned throughout the investigation as it is unclear when Stalin found out about the document and whether it actually did influence his actions.
Note on Word Usage:
The document ‘Operation Unthinkable’ will be referenced as ‘Unthinkable’ hereafter.
The period after the Second World War is of great historical significance as its events led to the Cold War during the latter half of the twentieth century. Although the origins of the Cold War are being continually studied, Unthinkable is a cause which is unknown to most of the public despite being one of the most important documents in modern British history. Some historians claim this because of its potential result: it could have caused a Third World War.
Unthinkable is just as important in a contemporary sense because it was only released in 1998 and, therefore, there is still a considerable amount of research which needs to be undertaken. Due to its potential to completely change the world, it is very relevant in a contemporary sense. It became the blueprint for the Cold War, leading to the society we live in today. It is also important to recognise that the world is entering a new period of tension so it is crucial that we look upon the Cold War to prevent similar conflicts occurring.
Despite the fact that the plan was never executed, Unthinkable is still a contributing factor to the outbreak of the Cold War due to the tension it created and its effect on other events. The question left to answer, therefore, is “how significant was Operation Unthinkable in the development of the Cold War?” Its significance will be determined by using a number of factors such as the growing tension, the promises Stalin reneged on after Yalta, the USSR’s redeployment of troops, the introduction of the atomic bomb and the use of salami tactics. Also, it can be significant in terms of what it can tell us: it is a remarkable insight into Churchill’s view of the world and his supposed ally, Stalin.
Main Source Material
This investigation utilises a variety of primary and secondary sources. Below is the analysis of key sources referred to throughout the essay:
Jonathan Walker - Article - ‘Soviets targeted in Winston’s plan for World War Three’. 2 - Book - Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War. 3
This source is valuable as Walker is recognised as an authority on Unthinkable and the origins of the Cold War, meaning he has studied the period extensively. The purposes of both sources are to inform, although the article is an overview rather than an in-depth study.
However, the source also has its limitations. Walker is British and therefore has limited research from the Soviet point of view: he mentions himself that the Polish and Russian records were disappointing because documents have obviously been destroyed.4
Document - ’Operation Unthinkable’. 5
This document forms the backbone of the investigation. This is a primary source from the Joint Planning Staff who created this plan to inform Churchill of the chance of success or failure if Britain attacked the USSR. It is valuable as it shows Churchill was intimidated by Soviet threat, despite the fact they were supposed allies.
However, its limitations are that the plan was never implemented so it is uncertain whether Churchill was truly serious about executing it and the document could have been manipulated. Despite this, Unthinkable is a very valuable document as, unintentionally, it was a contributing factor to the Cold War.
The Growing Tension between East and West
Churchill was becoming increasingly worried about the European situation because the USSR was misinterpreting British and American intentions.6 Churchill believed that he had a responsibility to ensure that Poland had the opportunity to be democratic: he felt guilty that the Red Army had not aided the Polish during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
Thus, in the spring of 1945, Churchill instructed the Chiefs of Staff to produce a contingency plan to retrieve Poland and the eastern zone of occupation in Germany from the Soviet sphere of influence. The Joint Planning Staff 7 completed the plan which would have resulted in a Third World War on the 22nd May 1945. It was created to “impose upon Russia the will of the United States and British Empire” and get “a square deal for Poland.”8 In other words, Unthinkable was a scheme to attack the Soviet Union and neutralise the threat of communism.
However, Stalin’s suspicion of British actions is what makes Unthinkable a contributing factor to the Cold War, primarily because instead of disarming and disbanding German troops as stated at the Tehran conference, they cooperated with them. In fact, in November 1945, Marshal Zhukov “circulated a memorandum to the Control Council which accused [Field-Marshal Montgomery] of retaining organised units of the former German Army in the British Zone.”9 This source is valuable as it provides an intimate glimpse into the ACC.10 However, it is likely to be biased towards the British and there may be a distorted account of the events. Zhukov’s act in itself depicts the great deal of tension and suspicion that existed between the USSR and Britain. However, it was not necessarily misplaced because, in 1954, Churchill admitted that he had “telegraphed to Lord Montgomery directing him to be careful in collecting the German arms… so they could easily be issued again to the German soldiers whom [Britain] should have to work with if the Soviet advance continued.”11 However, despite what Churchill said, there is no evidence of this telegram existing and therefore the source’s validity is thrown into question.
The supposed Soviet interception of this telegram in May 1945 can be seen as a key event which contributed to the outbreak of the Cold War. Yuriy Rubtsov12 states that Stalin believed there were plans to use the German troops later in an attack against the Soviet Union before the final draft of Unthinkable was even completed.13 This shows the level of distrust between the ‘Allies’ and it led to the USSR treating the Western Powers as ‘capitalist adversaries’.14 This change in Soviet political and public opinion meant that both the US and Britain were viewed as potential enemies. Thus, Unthinkable was very significant as it heavily contributed to the tension caused by actions which were supposedly surreptitious. As a result of Churchill’s order to redistribute weapons to German soldiers, Stalin became increasingly wary and expanded the Soviet intelligence which would discover Unthinkable shortly after it was sent to the Prime Minister on the 8th June 1945.
Despite the British attempt at secrecy, Sakharov15 believes that Unthinkable had been leaked to Moscow within a few days of its commission in April 1945.16 However, the date is unlikely because the Chiefs of Staff only started creating the plan in late April. The skill of the Soviet intelligence may be exaggerated in the source as Sakharov is overtly nostalgic for the USSR. Despite this, it is probable that there was a suspicion of such a plan this early on. Walker believes Donald Maclean17 revealed information about the plan to the NKGB.18 However, “when the US faced up to the Soviet threat in 1946 with their own plans for a war with Stalin, the Soviet moles within the US State Department… kept their masters informed.”19 This source is quite valuable because, although it is from a newspaper, Jonathan Walker has been to the US and Soviet archives and studied the primary sources to form a holistic judgment.
The fact that the Soviets most likely knew about the plan or at least were suspicious means that Unthinkable is cast as a source of tension. Without this tension, many of the following events would have been changed drastically and therefore, the plan is very significant in the development of the Cold War.
The Promises Stalin Reneged on after the Yalta Conference
Another way in which Unthinkable is significant is in terms of the promises Stalin reneged on after the Yalta Conference. Although the conference was already over by the time the Soviets had learned of the plan, it had a momentous effect on the Potsdam agreements in July 1945 as the alliance between the US, USSR and Britain was clouded in mutual suspicion. Once the raison d ’ê tre no longer existed it came apart at the seams.20 However, despite their growing hostility towards each other, many agreements were made in the final years of the war at Tehran in November 1943 and Yalta in February 1945.
Tehran was the first wartime conference where issues such as the fate of Germany, Poland and Eastern Europe were discussed. Stalin’s main concern was security so he proposed that Germany unconditionally surrendered, the USSR received land from Poland and kept the territory in Eastern Europe which had been gained by 1940. Reluctantly, the British and Americans agreed these terms in order to create the United Nations. At Yalta, the Polish borders were confirmed to be the Oder-Neisse and Curzon lines but the main controversy was over the government. Eventually, a deal was made:
“The Provisional government which is functioning now in Poland should therefore be reorganised… This [new government] shall be pledged to the holding of free and unfettered elections.”21
However, Stalin reneged on his promise to provide free elections and, instead of being held in summer as previously anticipated, they were ‘postponed’ until January 1947 and then manipulated. As explained under the title ‘The Growing Tension between East and West’, Stalin knew that Britain had plans to use the German forces against them and may have even known about Unthinkable itself, as in May 1945 Stalin ordered Zhukov to leave Germany and return to Moscow.22 Therefore, the plan is very significant as it was a contributing factor to Stalin’s decision not to hold the elections. Stalin felt betrayed by the British and, consequently, refused to do as they had requested at Yalta. If Stalin’s decision to make the government primarily out of ‘Lublin Poles’23 was influenced by Unthinkable, then it was an extremely important document due to the fact that this decision is considered to be one of the main causes of the Cold War: Gaddis reveals that “Stalin imposed [a pro-Soviet government] - the cost, though, was… a growing sense among his American and British allies that they could no longer trust him”24, suggesting the animosity that would characterise the Cold War was already visible. This source can be deemed as valuable because Gaddis is an authority on the Cold War and has extensively researched the period. The limitation is that he is an American historian and the Soviet archives are limited, meaning he is likely to favour the US.
However, Unthinkable may also be less significant when considering this event because there is evidence that Churchill sent a telegram as early as the 28th April 1945 showing his frustration that Stalin had not reorganised the government as planned at Yalta.25 This means that Stalin’s decision not to hold free elections cannot be based upon the NKGB’s discovery of Unthinkable as this had not yet occurred. However, Churchill commissioned the document by this time so Stalin’s suspicion could have led him to make the decision he did. Despite this, the most likely reason that no free elections were held was because Stalin’s main aim was security: he could ensure this by having a communist dominated ‘buffer zone’ between the West and the USSR. Overall, it is quite an ambiguous subject as there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that Stalin knew about Unthinkable (although it is proven he recalled Zhukov because of his suspicions). Therefore, the plan is reasonably significant in the development of the Cold War as the suspicion of the document is likely to have been a contributing factor in Stalin’s decision to antagonise the West.
It is also important to consider the ‘Percentages Agreement’ of 1944.26 Churchill’s so-called ‘naughty document’ divided up the Balkans into proposed spheres of influence, one of which was a fifty-fifty split of Yugoslavia. Walker writes that:
“it was not only Poland that grieved Churchill; Yugoslavia was also a worry… [Churchill wrote to Stalin], ‘I must say the way things have worked out in Yugoslavia certainly does not give me the feeling of a 50:50 interest between our countries.’”27
Churchill is suggesting that Stalin reneged on his promise to have only fifty percent of the influence over Yugoslavia. As this telegram was sent at the beginning of May, it is likely that Stalin had heard or was suspicious of British plans to attack. Therefore, Unthinkable is significant in the development of the Cold War as it contributed to Stalin’s decision to break his promise and expand his sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
Overall, when considering the promises Stalin reneged on after the Yalta Conference, Unthinkable is significant because Stalin’s suspicion is likely to have contributed to his decisions to dominate Poland and, to a lesser extent, Yugoslavia.
2 Walker, Jonathan, 2013. ‘Soviets targeted in Winston’s plan for World War Three’, Western Daily Press, 1 October.
3 Walker, Jonathan, 2013. Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War, Gloucestershire: The History Press
4 Walker, Jonathan, 2013. Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War, Gloucestershire: The History Press. p.177.
5 Found in The National Archives of the UK (TNA): CAB 120/691. See Appendix 1 for the transcript
6 As suggested in a telegram to Anthony Eden. See Appendix 2 for telegram transcript, (Paragraph 2. for reference).
7 The Joint Planning Staff were(the Directors of Plans for each of the three services.
8 ‘Operation Unthinkable’, CAB 120/691, TNA. p.1 (See Appendix 1 for full transcript of p.1).
9 Montgomery, Bernard, 1958. The Memoirs of Field-Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, K.G., Cleveland: The World Publishing Company. p.361.
10 The ACC stands for the Allied Control Council which was set up to administer the four zones of occupation.
11 Churchill, Winston, 1974. Winston Churchill: His Complete Speeches, ed. Robert Rhodes James, New York: Chelsea House Publishers / R.R. Bowker Company, (8 vols). viii. pp.8604-5.
12 Yuriy Rubstov is a professor at the Military University of the Russian Ministry of Defence.
13 Rubstov, Yuriy, (Date accessed 21/07/2015) www.globalresearch.ca/world-war-ii-operation- unthinkable-churchills-planned-invasion-of-the-soviet-union-july-1945/5451842.
14 Roberts, Frank, 1991. Dealing with Dictators. The Destruction and Revival of Europe 1930-70, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. pp.90-1.
15 Alexander Artem Sakharov is the son of Stalin’s adoptive son.
16 Sakharov, Alexander, 2016. Personal Conversation on 31/01/16.
17 Donald Maclean was a member of the Cambridge Five spy ring who passed secrets to the People's Commissariat for State Security in the Soviet Union.
18 Walker, Jonathan, 2013. ‘Soviets targeted in Winston’s plan for World War Three’, Western Daily Press, 1 October, p.17.
20 McCauley, Martin, 1995. The Origins of the Cold War 1941-1949. 2nd ed. London: Longman. p.57.
21 Szkpjak, Zygmunt, 1986 (ed.). The Yalta agreements: Documents prior to, during, and after the Crimea Conference, 1945, London: Polish Govt. in Exile. ‘Section VI Poland. Report of the Crimea Conference, Yalta, 11 February 1945’.
22 Rubstov, Yuriy, (Date accessed 21/07/2015) www.globalresearch.ca/world-war-ii-operation- unthinkable-churchills-planned-invasion-of-the-soviet-union-july-1945/5451842.
23 The Soviets supported the Communist-dominated ‘Lublin’ committee in Poland whereas the British supported the ‘London’ Poles who had fled to England in 1939.
24 Gaddis, John, 2007. The Cold War, London: Penguin. p.22.
25 See Appendix 3 for the part of the telegram which is commented upon.
26 See Appendix 4 for ‘Percentages Agreement’ (PREM 3/66/7, TNA).
27 Walker, Jonathan, 2013. Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War, Gloucestershire: The History Press. p.83.