How Well Do We Know Winston Churchill?

How Well Do We Know Winston Churchill?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s Churchill’s Shadow: The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill offers a spirited reinterpretation of Winston Churchill's posthumous reputation.


Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Churchill’s Shadow: The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company). 624 pp. $40.00.

LIKE HIS most irritating ally, Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill was, as Andre Maurois wrote of le grand Charles, “a man of the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow”—a product of a traditional pre-World War I sensibility whose moral confidence and patriotic credo armored him with a certitude that was alien to many of the bright young things who came of age in the cynical, morally ambivalent, and ideologically splintered interwar years. Churchill, who saw England through the struggle against Adolf Hitler, de Gaulle, who salvaged French honor and stabilized post-war French politics, and Konrad Adenauer, the elderly, conservative anti-Nazi who presided over the moral and material rebirth of Germany, were all men of “the day before yesterday” who shepherded their countries to a better “day after tomorrow.” But in the English-speaking world—which includes not just Britain and the United States, but also Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and large parts of the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia—Churchill has a globe-spanning, semi-cult status unequaled by Adenauer or even de Gaulle.


I vividly recall attending the memorial service for Churchill at Washington’s National Cathedral in January 1965, with British military attaches in glittering dress uniforms, the Marine Band in attendance, large contingents of the diplomatic corps, and Adlai Stevenson delivering the eulogy. Everybody who was anybody in Washington society—and a number of people who weren’t—thronged the cathedral that day. Even now, fifty-seven years later, I am reminded of Churchill’s impact on the American imagination every time I pass his statue in front of the British Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, not far from the cathedral. The statue, by sculptor William M. McVey, was unveiled the year after Churchill’s death. It was quite an event, with Secretary of State Dean Rusk delivering the dedication speech. The sculpture depicts a war-time Winnie resolutely striding forward with his right hand raised in the “V for Victory” sign and his left hand firmly grasping a walking stick and a cigar.

The cigar almost didn’t make the cut. Some of the American donors who paid for the statue questioned its inclusion on health grounds. Their objections were overruled by Churchill’s daughter, Mary Soames, who insisted that it was “indicative of my father’s personality.” The cigar stayed. Indeed, in anticipation of possible anti-cigar vandalism, an extra five bronze cigars were cast and placed in the custody of the late William Howland, head of the local branch of the English-Speaking Union. I don’t know whether any of the duplicate cigars were ever needed, or if Howland, who was a neighbor of mine in his last years, took them with him to his grave. Whichever the case, the statue has never had to go smokeless. Cigars aside, for many years after its unveiling, an unseen, anonymous admirer would place a fresh flower in Churchill’s right hand each day in time for morning commuters to witness the small Churchillian floral tribute on their way to work. Appropriately, the statue is positioned with its left foot on the soil of the British embassy and its right foot extended a few inches onto American ground, symbolizing both Anglo-American friendship and the fact that Churchill’s mother, the lively, slightly louche Jenny Jerome, was an American.

SO MANY books have been produced about the figure that Time magazine once dubbed “The Man of the Century” that it is difficult for writers to find a new angle or perspective on Churchill. Enter Geoffrey Wheatcroft. An accomplished English journalist and an author of well-received books including The Controversy of Zion, The Randlords, and The Strange Death of the Tory Party, Wheatcroft tackles one of the most significant political figures of the past century in Churchill’s Shadow: The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill. He mostly succeeds but—like Lord Copper, the fictitious press baron in Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel Scoop—only up to a point. His book is stylishly written and filled with sharp opinions but suffers from an urge to cut the great man down to size. Wheatcroft contends that, despite his renown,

Churchill remains in some ways a mystery. He was the most famous man of his century, but one of the most elusive. We seem to know everything about him, and nothing. We know his quips and quirks, we know about his cigars and his champagne. His dragon dressing gown, his silk underwear, his velvet siren suits and his innumerable hats, his paintings, his pigs and his budgerigars. But do we know his inner essence? Books have been written about the meaning of Hitler, but what was the meaning of Churchill – or the reality?

But figuring out the “inner essence” of Adolf Hitler—a one-dimensional monomaniac who lived a relatively short life, appealed to the worst in his followers, inflicted terrible damage on the human race, and committed suicide rather than face the consequences of his misdeeds—is an unproductive exercise.

Churchill, on the other hand, was born fifteen years before Hitler and outlived him by another twenty-one years. He played many roles in his long lifetime: soldier, journalist, historian, politician. He was a Victorian believer in the imperial mission, an instinctive conservative who, like his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, also favored humanitarian reforms, and, above all, he was a wartime leader of a beleaguered but dogged island nation. In a lengthy political career—six decades as a member of Parliament beginning in the reign of Queen Victoria and ending in that of her great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II—he suffered countless crippling setbacks.

Many of them were of his own making, but he almost always had the last laugh. And, quite aside from his personal good humor, courage, and resilience, Churchill successfully summoned up the unselfish, heroic resolve of millions of his ordinary fellow countrymen at a time when they truly stood alone against the Nazi dictatorship. He and the people he led lived their finest hour together, united in spirit, if only temporarily. When it mattered most, Churchill was a positive and inspiring leader because he himself was a positive, inspired man who believed in the justness of his cause. His success in doing so—and the many setbacks, inconsistencies, and human failings he encountered or demonstrated over nearly a century of life—tend to bring out the worst in a certain breed of authors. They have trouble comprehending the very qualities that Churchill and so many of his fellow Britons across the socio-economic spectrum intuitively shared when their backs were to the wall and their survival hung in the balance. They find Churchill’s ability to channel a unifying sense of “Britishness” both puzzling and annoying, and they resent an enigma they cannot explain away. At times, Wheatcroft himself seems to share their peevishness, pecking away at Churchill’s smoking, his drinking, his taste for a luxurious lifestyle, and for a general lack of what today is called “wokeness.”

He even carps about how “the 1941 portrait photograph by Karsh of Ottawa which now adorns the five pound note seems … osententious, the jaw jutting a little too deliberately, the defiant glare a touch too blatant,” as if Churchill had been striking a cheap theatrical pose when the picture was taken. The truth of the matter, as Karsh would reveal in a later published commentary on the photo, was that Churchill, far from hamming it up, had been staring placidly into the camera until Karsh raised his ire by snatching the great man’s omnipresent cigar—a real one, not a bronze one—from his grasp and capturing the resultant angry bulldog scowl on film.

WHEATCROFT SPENDS a lot of time grumbling about theatrical and cinematic misrepresentations that Churchill not only had no hand in, but which have mostly appeared many years after his death. Thus we read that,

One of the more absurd travesties of Churchill on screen is in The King’s Speech, where Timothy Spall [playing Churchill] is not only an unlikely incarnation but is seen encouraging the Duke of York [the future George VI] against his elder brother the king [Edward VIII, soon to abdicate and eventually become Duke of Windsor]. This is the exact opposite of what happened: Churchill took up Edward’s cause with reckless zeal.

It is quite true that Churchill did rally to the defense of Edward VIII against his parliamentary and Fleet Street foes, probably seeing himself as a romantic heir to his cavalier ancestors who had supported Charles I against the “city interests” in the English Civil War two centuries earlier. At the time, Churchill was out of office and just one more powerless, rather frustrated backbencher with time on his hands and no particular obligation to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin—a virtual political freelance with seemingly bleak prospects for the future. Interestingly, years later, the insufferable Lord Beaverbrook reminded Churchill that one of the few times in the 1930s that the two of them had agreed on anything had been supporting Edward VIII and opposing his abdication. Without missing a beat, Churchill conceded that this had, indeed, been a case when he and Beaverbrook had agreed—quickly adding that it was also a case when they’d both been wrong. Right or wrong about the abdication, Churchill certainly bears no responsibility for the blunders and fabrications of a twenty-first-century filmmaker’s docudrama produced nearly half a century after his own death.