Endless Churchill

December 1, 2002 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: SpiesSuez Crisis

Endless Churchill

Mini Teaser: Churchill remains a figure of fascination, especially for Americans. Five new books should sate our appetites for awhile.

by Author(s): Harvey Sicherman

Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), 736 pp., $28.

Geoffrey Best, Churchill: A Study in Greatness (Rio Grande, oh: Hambledon Press, 2002), 384 pp., $21.

John Keegan, Winston Churchill: A Penguin Lives Biography (New York: Viking Press, 2002), 208 pp., $19.95.

John Lukacs, Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 200 pp., $15.

Klaus Larres, Churchill's Cold War: The Politics of Personal Diplomacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 592 pp., $40.

Winston Churchill would be pleased. His age has vanished but the memory of him has not. The German wars, the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the "balance of terror" and even-alas, he would say-the British Empire now belong to history. Churchill himself, on the other hand, continues to excite enormous interest, especially on this side of the Atlantic.

American fascination with Churchill has much to do with our own character. We greatly admire leaders who do the right thing despite overwhelming odds, such as those faced by Churchill's Britain in 1940. We dislike politicians as a rule, except for the colorful and talented ones. Few have ever matched Churchill's range-orator, author, painter, wit, bon vivant, sage and seer.

For these reasons, too, Churchill still attracts the best authors. The five books reviewed here, all published within the past two years, were written, respectively by Lord Roy Jenkins, an acclaimed British biographer; Geoffrey Best, John Keegan and John Lukacs, all distinguished historians; and Klaus Larres, a younger German scholar who is currently the Henry A. Kissinger Fellow at the Library of Congress. But do these books (some 2,200 pages in toto!) tell us anything new about the man? And more importantly, does Churchill have anything to say through them to us about our world?

Only one of the authors (Larres) claims to break fresh ground. The others offer different perspectives on that which is already well known, some of which tell us more about the writer than the subject. Thus, John Keegan's brief but elegant Penguin history has a captivating introduction that explains why, to young Britons in the 1940s and 1950s, Churchill not only represented the past, but a past they were eager to be rid of-and for whom the Suez disaster, under his successor Anthony Eden, was "finis to all for which Churchill had stood." But a year later, alone in New York, old recordings of Churchill's wartime speeches cast a spell, and Keegan became an admirer.

John Lukacs is, well, John Lukacs: he commits many a drive-by shooting en route to the main controversies. He is especially good at exploding the absurd argument that Churchill should have made a deal with Hitler in 1940, thereby preserving the Empire and avoiding that ultimate horror, American domination. Lukacs also reminds us that Churchill understood both Stalin and Soviet Russia (he rarely said Soviet Union) much better than did Roosevelt, Truman or Eisenhower. He knew the evil of the Soviet empire, but he also appreciated the historic caution and fear of superior force that ran through the Kremlin.

Geoffrey Best's well-written and nicely balanced biography contains his own elegy for the Churchillian virtues that he finds lamentably lacking in modern Britain. It is clear that his was a labor of both love and longing.

Lord Jenkins' massive thousand-page tome offers his special insight as a veteran Labour Party parliamentarian who observed Churchill from the opposition benches; he understood Sir Winston's passion for the House of Commons and the way it shaped his life. But Jenkins, too, becomes self-indulgent, concluding on the curious note, perhaps of interest only to himself, that Churchill, by a small margin, was a greater man than Gladstone, the subject of an earlier magisterial Jenkins biography.

Once beyond the reflections of the authors' special proclivities-like so many mirrors in a fun house-Churchill re-emerges much the same as before. As even his early photographs reveal, he was a man of defiant determination animated by the ceaseless energy of a questing ego.

Churchill's ego, which might have made him a monster, was civilized instead by two taskmasters. The first was a sense of destiny informed by English patriotism. A man hell-bent for action, Churchill narrowly survived numerous brushes with death in India, Cuba, the Sudan and South Africa-all before he was thirty. He was nearly killed on the Western Front in World War I and badly injured in a 1931 New York traffic accident. Churchill interpreted his survival as proof that he was marked by a special Providence to advance the cause of Britain, which was in turn, as he saw it, the cause of freedom and civilization. No wonder that on May 10, 1940, the day he became prime minister, he concluded that all his life had been merely a preparation for the supreme test that awaited him. Otherwise, he thought, his "luck" was inexplicable.

The other lash to his ego was the notable Churchill humor. His favorite target was himself, not only because he found his own foibles amusing but also because it disarmed his critics. His rhetorical set pieces, the product of a massive effort to overcome a lisp and stutter, were ill-suited to parliamentary jibes and interruptions. A self-deprecating wit was, therefore, both indulgent and useful in depriving opponents of material. Geoffrey Best offers a less well-known example of such humor in Churchill's first speech as Leader of the Opposition in 1945. Churchill took on the humiliation of his electoral defeat, and the notoriously difficult captainship of the losing Tories, with this little vignette:

A friend of mine . . . was in Zagreb when the results of the late general election came in. An old lady said to him, 'Poor Mr. Churchill, I suppose now he will be shot.' He said the sentence might be mitigated to one of the various forms of hard labor which are always open to His Majesty's subjects.

Such, Churchill declared to the House of Commons, was now indeed his fate.

Churchill had reason to be self-deprecating. The Great Man was often the greatest obstacle to his own success. Time and again, as Stanley Baldwin once put it, the enormously gifted Churchill lacked the gift of judgment. Had he died in 1939, his life would have been accounted a failure. His prescient warnings about Hitler, for example, were discounted by some, in part, because they came from a man who stood doggedly by that least worthy of men, King Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, during the December 1936 abdication crisis. A mesmerizing orator, who was himself sometimes the most mesmerized, Churchill misjudged that occasion completely, turning the whole House against him.

Lord Jenkins includes such episodes and others in a generally admiring book that also gives us much inside information about Churchill the private man: a doting father and husband but often impossible to live with; a great earner but a much greater spender, short of money most of his life; a man of very few close friends, really a club of one. Then there was the Churchill method. His relentless questioning of the generals during World War II was an essential part of his leadership, as Eliot Cohen has recently observed.1 But there was a price to be paid. Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, said, "Winston had ten ideas every day, one of which was good, and he did not know what it was." All ten, however, had to be staffed while the war raged on.

To make matters worse, Churchill's work habits were grotesquely inconvenient for his subordinates. While others worked through the day, he was either in bed, in the bath or at table, almost always attended by those most faithful of his companions, scotch and cigars. When others wound down at nightfall, he wound up. Clementine Churchill observed that her husband knew nothing about how other people lived.

Churchill brought another more constructive, indeed vital, quality to his work. He was inured to mistakes and a veteran of defeat. After a brilliant early career he rose and fell several times. Never a real party man, he used the Liberals to ascend and then the Tories as a refuge after the Liberals shriveled. By the early 1930s he had no prospects; but "never despair." It took the catastrophes of 1940 to hoist into office the British politician most experienced in catastrophe. And then he became, as his most severe critic, the Labour radical Aneurin Bevan, put it, "the great advocate who put the case of Britain to the world and the destiny of Britain to the British."

The advocate knew the strengths and weaknesses of the case. Best writes of Churchill's "sense of his beloved country's resources in manpower and everything else being squeezed till the pips squeaked." And this provides the context for Klaus Larres to assert that Churchill's personal diplomacy, later known as "summitry", was his favored and most important diplomatic tool to ease the strain on Britain and to achieve objectives seemingly beyond reach. His most interesting example is the generally less well-known Churchillian effort (1953-55) to convene a Big Three meeting with the Americans and the Russians to ease the Cold War.

Essay Types: Book Review