Jacob Heilbrunn

Winston Churchill In America

Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman of the twentieth century. Uncontroversial as that statement may seem, there have always been historians, particularly in England, whether on the right, who object to World War II and the loss of empire, or on the left, who see him as an imperialist scoundrel, intent on knocking the great man from his pedestal. But in the land of the free and the home of the brave, Churchill, whose mother Jennie was a New Yorker, remains the subject of veneration as President Obama discovered when he returned a bust of the Churchill to the British embassy, only to face an outcry from the British prime minister's admirers on the American right. Most recently, a new Battle of Britain erupted when the White House tried to contradict Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer's contention that Obama had given Churchill the heave-ho. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said this was "patently false." Pfeiffer ended up issuing an apology to Krauthammer.

Whether or not Obama thinks the special relationship is really that special, the truth is that neocons have tried to hijack Churchill. They bristle at what they see as Obama's contumelious approach toward Churchill. Many venerate Churchill for his support for the Jews and Israel. But Churchill was always more of a realist than a crusader. He had no interest, for example, in the human rights of Indians. His aim was to hold the British Empire together, not to go about bestowing self-determination upon ethnic minorities. He wasn't an inflexible cold warrior, either. He wanted to see if a deal could be cut with Stalin's successors to unify Germany and end the cold war, only to have Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, responding to the pleas of West German chancellor Konrad Adeanuer, put the kibosh on any attempts at a detente with the Kremlin.

Now the Morgan Library in New York is staging an exhibition dedicated to Churchill. As Andrew Roberts reports in the Telegraph, it offers an illuminating glimpse into Churchill's prowess as a writer and journalist. The exhibit is called Churchill: the Power of Words. The title is an apt one. As the redoubtable Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who is completing a book on the fascination with Churchill among Americans, notes in the July 20 Times Literary Supplement, the old boy was indeed a journalist and author of, as he puts it, "great precocity and prolificity." In 1895, for example, just shy of his twenty-first birthday, Churchill traveled to Cuba to report on the rebellion against Spain on commission from the Daily Graphic. The star of the show, more often than not, was Churchill himself. In the World Crisis, for example, Churchill offered a history of World War I, which Arthur Balfour said was "Winston's brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe." It was all a warm-up for the main act, his years as the leader of England at its moment of greatest peril, when the Nazi war machine hurled its mighty Luftwaffe at the island nation, only to be repelled, both by the British air force and by Churchill's magnificent oratory, which did much to keep up morale on the home front.

Churchill relied heavily on assistants to work up his drafts. As David Reynolds explained in In Command of History, he had a team of writers who helped cook up the six-volume The Second World War. Churchill also worked out an arrangement that allowed him to avoid the confiscatory taxes that he would normally have owed to the British government. His history won him the Nobel Prize for literature, but its reliability may be doubted. But it is fun to read, which isn't something that can be said of many historical works. His works represent a decoction of Gibbon and Macaulay translated into slightly more modern form. He was the last Victorian.

Still, Churchill has always drawn censorious remarks. Evelyn Waugh said of his defense of his ancestor the Duke of Malborough, “It is a shifty barrister’s case not a work of literature.” That verdict is somewhat excessive. It is a work of literature masquerading as history, which is what makes Churchill a compelling writer. He was a literary exhibitionist. So it should hardly be surprising that visitors are flocking to see the new exhibition examining his feats. Roberts, himself a Tory historian, speculates

With Mitt Romney promising to ask for the Churchill bust to be returned to the Oval Office, from where it was unceremoniously expelled by President Obama in his first week in office, it is clear that the popularity and reputation of the Greatest Briton is alive and well in America. Is it because people crave courageous, eloquent leadership in difficult times? Or maybe it is a simple extension of the classic American Anglophilia we saw with the royal wedding and Jubilee and are seeing with the Olympics.

Might Obama reconsider his decision to oust Churchill from the White House if he wins a second term?