Winston Churchill was prime minister of the United Kingdom when I was a boy. That was during his second of two stints in the top job, 1951-1955. The first had been ten years earlier, during the Second World War.
I saw Churchill as a distinguished, therefore stuffy, personage, because he was old, wore funny clothes, smoked big cigars, and was called “sir.”
Distinguished he was. But stuffy? Assuredly not.
I have just worn myself out reading Andrew Roberts’s 982-page tome Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Roberts mines a huge lode of facts, stories, recollections, inferences, opinions, and quotes to sketch a stunning and well-rounded portrait of this remarkable statesman. Churchill became the giant of the twentieth century by being the quintessential nineteenth-century man.
We have seen Churchill twice in recent years: As the unbeatable war leader brought to life by Gary Oldman in the film Darkest Hour (2017), and as the aged lion embodied by John Lithgow in the Netflix TV series The Crown (2016 and later). Both performances were first-rate.
But they were performances. Roberts’s book fills in the actual dimensions of Churchill’s greatness. If I sketch that story for you here, you won’t have to read the Roberts book—unless you happen to be afflicted, like me, with History-Reading Syndrome (HRS).
Winston Spencer Churchill was born in 1874, at the height of the Victorian era. His place of birth was Blenheim Palace, ancestral seat of the Dukes of Marlborough.
Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a reckless, meteoric figure in British politics, was disdainful toward the boy, treating him with such coldness as ought to have wilted his self-esteem. But Winston’s self-esteem was unwiltable.
Born into the top tier of British society and immune to any middle-class self-doubt, Churchill set out in 1897, when he was 23, to “devote my life to the preservation of this great Empire and to trying to maintain the progress of the English people.”
He was a champion of tradition and old-fashioned Englishness. He never thought to apologize for defending the British Empire, the concept of noblesse oblige, the “white man’s burden,” and his exalted notion of the destiny of “the English-speaking peoples”—under which rubric he included not only the Commonwealth nations but the United States as well.
After attending Harrow, one of England’s leading public schools, Churchill skipped university studies and joined the Army. He trained at Sandhurst and served as a young officer in India, then Egypt and Sudan. Less than two years later he fought the Boers in South Africa while also serving as a war correspondent for the Morning Post of London.
Having gained fame through his newspaper dispatches, he stood for election to the House of Commons. From 1901 onward, Winston Churchill, enfant terrible of the aristocracy, rambunctius and irrepressible, tilted at every available windmill in the high councils of British government. He changed positions, contradicted himself, fought his own party, even crossed the floor twice to join the opposition. People marked him down as a self-seeking opportunist.
He made a serious study of oratory and mastered the art thoroughly. He was the embodiment of active energy, indefatigable, as willing to battle over trifles as over the great issues of the day. Almost everyone who knew him thought him brilliant, and everyone did know him.
He was obviously destined to be prime minister someday, if only one could trust his judgment. Like his father, Winston was liked, respected, and feared, yet seen as erratic.
He believed his life would be short; therefore he was in a rush to achieve greatness. He was pushy and intransigent. As first lord of the Admiralty in the First World War, he browbeat his naval colleagues into supporting an invasion of Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula. It made strategic sense, but in execution it was a ghastly failure costing 250,000 caualties. Winston resigned the Admiralty and went to France to serve as a junior Army officer in the trenches.
For decades, whenever Winston seemed on the brink of political success, people would whisper, “Remember Gallipoli,” and he would be passed over. He became an embarrassment to the government, which was run by his Conservative colleagues.
When Hitler came to power and started re-arming Germany, Winston warned incessantly of the need to confront him. Neville Chamberlain’s Tory government followed a deliberate plan of appeasement, allowing Hitler to claim more and more European territory. Chamberlain was not alone; appeasement was blessed and praised by the whole British establishment. Only Churchill and a few sidekicks, though Tories and thus theoretically on Chamberlain’s team, spoke against it.
The Führer invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Chamberlain dithered for two days before declaring war, but when he did, he appointed a War Cabinet that included Churchill—ironically, in his former position as first lord of the Admiralty. For eight months Churchill toiled loyally in Chamberlain’s government. But by May 1940, Chamberlain had lost the confidence of the Labor Party. His wartime coalition dissolved and he had to resign. Viscount Halifax would have been Chamberlain’s logical successor, but Halifax had been a leading architect of appeasement.
Churchill thus became inevitable. For a decade or more, his had been the only significant voice raised against appeasment. Only Churchill’s prodding had raised up a Royal Air Force with a bare chance of challenging German bombers. Now, against frightful odds, with France on the verge of collapse and Hitler on the march, King George VI asked Winston to form a government.
“The important point about Churchill in 1940,” says Roberts, “is not that he stopped a German invasion that year but that he stopped the British Government from making peace. If Churchill had not been prime minister, Halifax undoubtedly would have been, and he wanted at least to discover what Hitler’s terms might be.”
Churchill’s decades of practicing the art of public rhetoric now paid off. In speech after speech he gave voice to Britain’s desire not to be enslaved by a foreign power. The bred-in-the-bone aristocrat who defended tradition, yet who flouted convention, gained the ear of the man in the street. And people gave him their allegiance.
There followed five years of Herculean effort. At the beginning of the war, Churchill had no idea how England would prevail; he knew only that it would. Because he knew this, everybody else knew it too. He welcomed Russia and the U.S., however tardily, into the war. Often irritated with his allies—Roosevelt, Stalin, and especially the insufferable Charles DeGaulle of France—he swallowed his pride again and again to preserve Allied harmony.
“The only occasions on which Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill were all together were at Teheran in 1943 and at Yalta in 1945. Yet Churchill and Roosevelt met on eleven occasions, and Churchill and Stalin on three, whereas Roosevelt and Stalin never met alone except on the margins of the two trilateral meetings. Churchill’s travels during the Second World War provided the glue that held the Big Three together.” So says Roberts in his concluding chapter, evaluating the sum and substance of Churchill’s impact.
As soon as the war was won, the British electorate turned out Churchill and his Tories, giving a mandate to the Labor Party under Clement Atlee. Churchill was philosophical. When a colleague spoke of the people’s ingratitude, he replied, “Oh, no. I wouldn’t call it that. They have had a very hard time.”
At seventy and out of office, Churchill found himself with time on his hands. He launched into writing The Second World War, six volumes of memoirs totalling 4,200 pages. This was a small fraction of his lifetime written output of 6.1 million words—more than Shakespeare and Dickens combined— in thirty-seven books, not to mention screenplays he wrote for Hollywood and the British film industry. It was his writing income, not government pay, that enabled Churchill to live a lifestyle widely noted for its extravagance.
Though short and incresingly rotund as the years went by, Churchill was large in every other respect. He wept at the drop of a tissue. He forgave betrayals by political friends and enemies, often appointing them to new positions where they might do better.
His consumption of alcohol was not excessive so much as unceasing. A friend opined that Winston was not an alcoholic, because “no alcoholic could drink that much.”
He was a serious painter whose works sold for substantial sums. He derived great satisfaction from the craft of laying bricks, which he used to improve his home at Chartwell.
He was an expert on military subjects. In the First World War he was the father of the armored tank as well as the Gallipoli disaster. Later, in the early 1920s, he may have been the first politician to grasp the military significance of nuclear fission.
He confessed to making many mistakes but kept things in perspective. “I’ve done a lot of foolish things that turned out well,” he said, “and a lot of wise things that turned out badly.”
In 1951 he was returned to the office of prime minister and served until 1955, when he was eighty. Roberts sums up this period: “Churchill’s Indian Summer premiership had seen the end of the Korean War, a million houses built, the abolition of rationing, the end of austerity and the beginning of a return to prosperity. Britain had become a nuclear power; no part of the British empire had been liquidated; the Coronation [of Queen Elizabeth II] had been a great success, and Mount Everest had been conquered. In retrospect . . . the first half of the 1950s were something of a golden age for Britain, and at least some of the credit for that must go to the Prime Minister of the day.”
The queen had offered him a dukedom in his own right, but he refused. He did, however, accept the Order of the Garter, Britain’s highest order of knighthood, having turned it down twice before. So in 1953 he became Sir Winston.
Health problems slowed him down. He resigned in 1955 but lived another ten years in retirement, dying at age ninety.
So much for his fear that he would live a short life. The hurly-burly political warfare of his early years prepared him for major historic contributions, which all came after he was sixty-five.
And the causes he won, he won through stubborn, unflagging determination. In October 1941, addressing that year’s students at his old alma mater Harrow, he said—
Surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished. All this tradition of ours, our songs, our School history, this part of the history of this country, were gone and finished and liquidated.
Very different is the mood today. Britain, other nations thought, had drawn a sponge across her slate. But instead our country stood in the gap. There was no flinching and no thought of giving in; and by what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, though we ourselves never doubted it, we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere to conquer.
Something to think about.
Larry F. Sommers
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