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.


Wheatcroft describes another comedy of errors involving Churchill—but one for which he assigns him no blame—which occurred during the war years. The Oxford scholar Isaiah Berlin, whose Russian-Jewish family had narrowly escaped the early Soviet terror to find refuge in England, did his bit for the war effort like almost everyone else in England at the time. As Wheatcroft tells it,

Berlin was attached to the British embassy in Washington, and the sharp, stylish commentaries on the American political scene signed “I. Berlin” had caught the prime minister’s eye. When a Downing Street aide noticed that “Mr. I. Berlin” was staying in London he was bidden to lunch. Mutual incomprehension grew, as the prime minister put more and more searching questions about the mood of Congress to his baffled visitor, until at last Churchill asked Berlin what was his favorite among his own works and was told “White Christmas.”


“This story of the confusion of Isaiah with Irving is authentic,” Wheatcroft assures us, while adding rather snarkily that the real Isaiah Berlin, despite a lot of lavish public praise for Churchill, privately admitted that “he had never really liked Churchill” because he was “too brutal.” This, or something very like it, comes across as Wheatcroft’s own attitude towards Churchill in many pages of Churchill’s Shadow.

Thus he diminishes the importance of Churchill’s wartime radio addresses to the British public with a mixture of cynicism and condescension: “You might as well think that victory is attainable, even if on any objective consideration it wasn’t,” adding that, “No doubt the British people wanted their country to win, and admired Churchill, but not a few people also saw that ‘he thinks that a speech is a substitute for victory,’ as one listener put it.”

In the end, however, even Wheatcroft grudgingly agrees with Clementine Churchill—whom he seems to admire a great deal more than her husband—when she said years later that Winston had become a legend, adding that, “I think it was those speeches in 1940.” If the speeches achieved immortality, writes Wheatcroft, “it wasn’t by accident.”

After reading a Foreign Office draft later in the year, Churchill regretted that “The ideas set forth appeared to me to err in trying to be too clever, to enter into refinements of policy unsuited to the tragic simplicity and grandeur of the times and the issues at stake.” No one could miss the tragic simplicity and grandeur of his own speeches. While he was happy to use ghostwriters for much of his journalism and books, he would never have imagined using a speechwriter. The speeches were all his own work, and he treated them as literary compositions, dictated first, typed and revised and retyped, often in short lines so that they looked like blank verse, or “like the printing of the Psalms,” as they struck Lord Halifax.

When Wheatcroft stresses how much Churchill “drew on his own wide reading, with his very retentive memory,” I was reminded of my own work as director of presidential speechwriting for Ronald Reagan from 1981–1983. The sheer volume of presidential speaking events—usually several a day and sometimes more—made it physically impossible for Reagan to write all of his own speeches and still have time to attend to his many other presidential duties. But he would often sit down with a legal pad in leisure hours in the White House family quarters and compose one of his weekly radio speeches from scratch. The yellow sheets of lined paper, filled with his steady, clear script and with very few cross-outs or corrections, would arrive at my desk in due course, always exactly the right length for the five-minute format of the Saturday broadcasts. Aside from running a cursory fact check to make sure that any quotes or statistics were perfectly accurate and up to date, those speeches never needed any reworking and remain some of the best examples of Reagan’s oratory, written as well as delivered by him during his presidency. The same can be said for Churchill’s wartime radio speeches as prime minister.

THERE ARE times when a writer, quite without knowing it, can be his own harshest critic. Wheatcroft is such a writer. In Churchill’s Shadow, Wheatcroft sets himself up as an objective arbiter of Winston Churchill’s life and legacy. But the more one reads it, the less his book resembles history and the more it comes across as an artful but unbridled polemic.

Occasionally, the polemics bite back. In dismissing Churchill’s biography of his great ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough, who brilliantly commanded a vast, complex European military alliance at the dawn of the eighteenth century—one that would be unmatched until the Napoleonic era, if not the twentieth century—Wheatcroft writes, “There is much to enjoy in it, particularly the vivid descriptions ... but it displays Churchill’s defects at least as much as his qualities.” Substitute “Wheatcroft” for “Churchill” in the above passage and you have a perfect thumbnail critique of Churchill’s Shadow. Churchill’s Marlborough was, indeed, a deliberate effort to vindicate his ancestor, a victim of character assassination at the hands of the great Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose prose Churchill admired as much as he despised his politics. According to Wheatcroft, “While he tried to demolish Macaulay, Churchill learned much from that master of narrative, that combative controversialist, that confident, cocksure, and sometimes barely honest partisan. In all these respects Churchill was an enthusiastic pupil, quite as biased as his model.”

Wheatcroft stresses Churchill’s reliance on talented younger scholars and writers in producing Marlborough and his other historical works adding that “although they could assist Churchill with books and documents, they could never teach him the virtues of true scholarship or objectivity.” One such bright young man was Oxford scholar Maurice Ashley, later a prominent historian of Stuart England in his own right. “It was Ashley,” Wheatcroft writes, “whom he asked for the facts which he could twist ‘the way I want to suit my argument.’ Said to shock, this was a true word spoken in jest.”

Or was it? Without analysis and interpretation, history would be nothing more than a massive pile of names, dates, and statistics. Acknowledged or unacknowledged, every true historian sees the facts he accumulates through the lens of his own historical perspective and provides his own vision, his own interpretation, of what the facts mean, what the data adds up to. That is certainly how Wheatcroft seems to approach the bare facts in Churchill’s Shadow, and that is how Winston Churchill approached them in his study of Marlborough.

As it happens, I knew Ashley and had a number of interesting conversations with him at the Reform Club during several visits to London in the 1970s. While far from an ardent political admirer of Churchill, Maurice had nothing but praise for his former patron’s skill as a narrative historian and never claimed that he “twisted” history. Another Churchill collaborator I had the pleasure of working and socializing with was Alan Hodge, founding and long-time co-editor, along with the poet and historian Peter Quennell, of History Today, for which I have written many articles over the years. Meetings begun in the magazine’s cramped, Dickensian office on the Strand, complete with a creaky old lift with wrought iron cage and doors, and a highly aromatic, somewhat dingy old highland terrier belonging to Quennell, would inevitably spill over into conversations in a nearby pub. Alan, too, admired Churchill as a writer and had clearly relished working with him.

FOR ALL his complaints about Churchill, Wheatcroft is on to something about the Churchill myth. He deftly explores the uses and misuses of that myth by Churchill’s more bellicose American votaries. Over the years, the very real threat of future Munichs—of appeasement leading to aggression leading to war—has been misapplied to so many inappropriate situations as to render it almost meaningless. In the hands of some of the more trigger-happy neocons, for example, it became a blank check rationale for pointless and often disastrous interventions in the name of “nation-building” and restoring democracy in parts of the world where democracy has never existed and where externally-imposed attempts at “building” nations in our own image have invariably imploded and led to more rather than less human suffering. Wheatcroft’s analysis of this phenomenon is judicious and incisive, as he recounts, among other things, the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous foray into Iraq.

It almost goes without saying that just because advocates of such policies have often invoked Churchill’s “shadow,” this in no way discredits the latter’s legitimate criticisms of the appeasement that led to Hitler’s escalating aggression and, ultimately, World War II. Like all complex figures with long public lives, Churchill changed his views on many things many times. On occasion, he even switched parties. Inevitably, he made many enemies and generated a lot of malicious envy along the way, often from critics with considerably less courage, character, and talent than himself. But the incandescence of his great moments more than makes up for his many peccadilloes in a way best summed up by a political cartoon Wheatcroft himself cites. Churchill, he observes, was always