In 1953, they scoffed when Sir Winston Churchill proposed a summit conference between East and West. Today, as Britons buy the final volume of his biography, they're not scoffing.

The last volume of Martin Gilbert's "Winston S. Churchill," which went on sale Tuesday, illustrates the foresight that often placed the British statesman so far ahead of events that he invited ridicule.The work recounts how Churchill tried to bring about a summit meeting similar to the one this week in Moscow. Britain's wartime prime minister even coined the term "summit."

Yet he was rebuffed by his own Cabinet and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Churchill - who also foresaw the Nazi threat, the end of British global pre-eminence and the atomic bomb - wrote to Eisenhower in 1953 pleading for a summit with the Soviet leadership that took over after Joseph Stalin died.

But it was the height of the Cold War, and Eisenhower replied that a summit would serve only the Soviet "propaganda mill."

In a speech to Parliament, Churchill envisioned a summit, held in a secluded setting, in which "there might be a general feeling among those gathered together that they might do something better than tear the human race, including themselves, to bits."

Anthony Eden, Churchill's foreign secretary, viewed the summit offer as a signal of weakness to the Soviets and wrote in his diary: "It must be long in history since any one speech did so much damage to its own side."

Churchill also asked Eisenhower to approve a message to Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, offering to go to Moscow for informal talks.

The president rejected the idea, expressing "a bit of astonishment" and the "suspicion that anything the Kremlin could misinterpret as weakness or over-eagerness on our part would militate against success in negotiation."

Churchill left office in 1955 and died 10 years later, aged 91, having failed to bring about a summit.

Gilbert said in an interview: "Churchill had a belief which is now, if you like, fulfilled in Moscow . . . a belief that if only the leaders could sit down together, progress could be made.

"This was belittled by all the politicians as absurd and fanciful, and yet Reagan and Gorbachev are sitting down, new agreements have been signed, a whole new atmosphere has been created, and Churchill set it all out in 1953, 1954 and 1955 to Eisenhower."

Critics have acclaimed "Never Despair," the final volume, and compared the biography to "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire."

It fills eight volumes and 8,664 pages and took 25 years to write. Still to come are 13 companion volumes of documents.

With the companion volumes, "Winston S. Churchill" was in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's longest biography even before the final 1,359-page installment was published in Britain.

Gilbert, 51, is an Oxford University historian. He began as an assistant to Churchill's son Randolph, who wrote the first two volumes, and took over when Randolph died in 1967.

The final lines of Gilbert's book, quoting a letter to Churchill from his daughter Mary Soames, are a fitting commentary on his leadership in the dark years of World War II:

"In addition to all the feelings a daughter has for a loving, generous father, I owe you what every Englishman, woman and child does - Liberty itself."