Churchill, The Iron Curtain, and the Perils of Poker

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On this day in 1946, Winston Churchill made one of the most momentous speeches of the 20th century; he did so while on American soil, at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.

The former prime minister noted that iconic European capitals -- Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Bucharest -- were under increasing pressure and control from Moscow.

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” Churchill proclaimed. "This is certainly not the liberated Europe we fought to build up. Nor is it one which contains the essentials of permanent peace.”

And with that, the Cold War was unofficially engaged.

If that’s the effect Benjamin Netanyahu was going for in his warnings to Congress this week about Iran, he didn’t succeed, at least not immediately. Then again, the circumstances of the two foreign leaders’ visits were nearly the opposite.

The idea that Churchill receive an honorary degree, along with the obligatory speech, had been suggested by a close aide to Harry Truman -- not a rival American political leader -- and the specific college in Truman’s home state was the president’s own idea. Truman introduced Churchill to the audience that day, remained on the platform while he spoke, and listened intently to the speech. Moreover, he had personally accompanied Churchill on the train trip from Washington, D.C., to Missouri. It was an uneventful journey, but a notable one for the high-stakes poker that occurred in those railway cars.

First, some background. The summer before Winston Churchill’s momentous, post-World War II visit to the United States, the citizens and leaders of the Western allies were simply happy the fighting was over. Polls in mid-1945 showed that a majority of Americans trusted the Soviet Union. In Great Britain, the electorate expressed their gratitude to Churchill by voting his party, and the country’s iconic wartime leader, out of office.

Restless and at times melancholy, Churchill turned to painting. He also traveled, seeking sun and a change of scenery. He found both in Florida, where he liked to vacation. But the world wasn’t done with Churchill -- nor he with it.

The British lion accepted Truman aide Harry Vaughan’s honorary degree offer, and Truman’s choice of locale. (“This is a fine old college in my state,” Truman had written. “If you’ll come out and make the speech, I’ll take you out and introduce you.”)

Taking him out there, in this case, meant a traveling Anglo-American railroad trip, complete with the common diversions of the day. This meant drinking and, for the Missourians, poker, a game at which they excelled. When I mentioned “high-stakes” gambling earlier, I wasn’t using a metaphor. I was talking about stud poker.

As soon as the president’s train pulled out of Washington’s Union Station at midday on March 4, 1946, President Truman served drinks to his guests. As Truman aide Clark Clifford recalled in his memoir, “Churchill drank scotch, with water, but no ice, which he viewed as a barbaric American custom.”

But the former prime minister was half-American, so he fancied himself a poker player, as well. This was a mistake.

Over dinner, Churchill told Truman he’d first played poker during the Boer War and asked if a game might be conjured up. These were magic words to the Missourians. “Winston,” Truman said, “the fellows around you are all poker players, serious poker players, and would be delighted to provide you with a game.”

If Winston Churchill had learned poker in South Africa while in the British Army, Harry Truman’s apprenticeship was nearly as long. In the early 1920s, while a Jackson County judge, Truman had been a regular participant in established game in downtown Independence, Missouri. H was considered a player who stayed too long in games because he liked seeing the hole card, but who didn’t lose much because he was uncommonly lucky. Or maybe he knew when others were bluffing.

He almost certainly played poker while serving as an infantry officer in World War I. But even earlier, he wrote about his love of cards (without specifically mentioning gambling) in a letter to his future wife, Bess Wallace.

The date of the letter was February 7, 1911, which would have made Harry Truman 26 years old. He described himself a religious man, with a few caveats. “I like to play cards and dance,” he wrote, “and go to shows and do all the things [religious people] say I shouldn't, but I don’t feel badly about it.”

On March 4, 1946, however, he was about to feel bad—for a reason he didn’t expect. 

When Churchill excused himself briefly after dinner, Truman turned to his pals and told them that if their guest had been playing poker for 40 years, he was probably a cagey and excellent card player. The president told them that the honor of American poker was at stake and they should do their duty.

Led by Harry Vaughan, the U.S. contingent rose to the challenge. But after about an hour, it became clear that Churchill was in over his head.

During a bathroom break, Clark Clifford later recalled, Truman changed his tune. “Now look here, men. You are not treating our guest very well,” the president said while looking at Churchill’s dwindling pile of chips. “I fear that he may have already lost close to $300.”

Hearing this, Vaughan started laughing. “But boss, this guy’s a pigeon,” he said.

Vaughan added that if Truman really wanted them to play poker for the nation’s honor, Churchill would be sitting at the table in his underwear long before they reached Fulton.

So they decided to ease back on the throttle a bit. Churchill wasn’t allowed to win, but he didn’t lose any more. And an alliance, if not an empire, was preserved.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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