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Churchill or Bust?

1.

But what did happen to the bust in the White House—or was it busts? One of the subplots to last year’s often dispiriting presidential election campaign was the fate of a bronze bust of a foreign politician born 138 years ago. As The New York Times reported, “the question of whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will occupy the White House has been overshadowed at times by the question of whether Winston Churchill will do so.” According to some accounts, a bust of Churchill has been at the White House since the 1960s, but Margaret Thatcher says that she subsequently presented President Reagan with another bust, and then Tony Blair presented President Bush the Younger with yet another, which Bush put on prominent display. The plot thickens: Just how many busts were there?

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Fox Photos/Getty Images
Winston Churchill with his daughter Mary on his way to receive the Freedom of the City of London, June 1943

At any rate, when Obama was inaugurated, he removed the bust (or one of them) and replaced it with one of Lincoln. But Romney promised to restore Churchill if he won. This was at the time last summer when one of Romney’s advisers said how much the Republican candidate valued the “special relationship” with Churchill’s country, in which case Romney had an odd way of showing his esteem. He visited London to suggest, most insultingly and, as it turned out, quite wrongly, that the British were incapable of staging a successful Olympic Games. And another of Romney’s team spoke of a shared “Anglo-Saxon heritage” insufficiently “appreciated” by Obama, words so laden with none-too-hidden meaning that even Romney had to repudiate them. Needless to say, Paul Ryan managed to find a way (plausibly or otherwise) of enlisting the same holy name as a fiscal conservative: “follow Churchill’s advice: Prudently restrain government spending, while avoiding the kind of tax hikes that would stifle economic growth.”

Just how and why Churchill became not only the honorary American citizen that Congress made him at President Kennedy’s behest but also a tutelary idol for so many American politicians and polemicists is an interesting question. So is another: why images of Churchill should be so ubiquitous today, and not only in Washington. An entire exhibition, “Churchill: The Power of Words,” at the Morgan Library in New York City this summer was devoted to his visage, his voice, and much else associated with him; its huge popular success seems to have taken the Morgan by surprise. And a new statue of Churchill has just been unveiled in Jerusalem, in the presence of his great-grandson Randolph Churchill, while Benjamin Netanyahu has told an admiring interviewer from the London Daily Telegraph that, although he was “worried” about the British today, he nevertheless “has a portrait of his greatest British hero, Winston Churchill, on his shelves,” and posed beside it for the photographer. Oddest of all was the bizarre Olympics closing ceremony, in which Timothy Spall, an excellent actor who had already been wildly miscast as Churchill in The King’s Speech, appeared as a giant Churchill reciting Shakespeare.

And yet, with all this vast iconography and ceaseless invocation, Churchill remains elusive. The political historian Vernon Bogdanor has said that no satisfactory biography of Churchill exists to this day, which might seem sweeping but has some point to it. That has not deterred hopeful biographers. The late William Manchester, who first made his name with The Death of a President, his authorized account of the assassination of President Kennedy, embarked on a three-volume life of Churchill, to be called The Last Lion, but by the end of his second volume, published in 1988, he had only reached 1940 and Churchill’s final ascent to the leadership of his country. Manchester found himself unable to finish the biography well before his death in 2004.

Some years before he died he had found a successor, Paul Reid, even though Reid was a newspaperman and had not written a book before. Reid took over, tried to make sense of Manchester’s vast horde of material, and set about finishing the book, although he says that he decided not to try emulating Manchester’s style. That’s just as well. Churchill himself was condemned by stern critics as “a master of sham-Augustan prose,” who wrote with false or artificial eloquence, but in that case Manchester was sham-sham, and his eloquence falser still. The flavor of the whole may not unfairly be judged from the last sentence of his second volume:

And now, in the desperate spring of 1940, with the reins of power at last firm in his grasp, he resolved to lead Britain and her fading empire in one last great struggle worthy of all they had been and meant, to arm the nation, not only with weapons but also with the mace of honor, creating in every English breast a soul beneath the ribs of death.

As the late Christopher Hitchens observed, “Never in the field of human biography can metaphor have been more epically mixed.”

All the same, Reid has his own penchant for grandiloquent fine writing: “The honorable fight for British survival made the war great for Churchill,” or “Britons, pummeled since 1940, stood by their Winnie.” There is also a good deal of floral decoration: “In tiny Luxembourg, the beauty of the gladioli was unprecedented…. Paris, always Europe’s most colorful city, had joined the dazzling spectacle with cannas, dahlias, daffodils and freesias,” which is one way of ensuring that you write more than a thousand pages. With an iron sense of obligation to the editor and readers of The New York Review, I nevertheless resolved so to brace myself to my duties, and so bear myself, that if I lasted the thousand pages, men would still say, This was his finest hour.

A great deal of work has gone into Reid’s book, and apart from a detailed narrative he makes some effort at objectivity, for all those gushing phrases. He recognizes Churchill’s failings and looks candidly at the question of his drinking, acknowledging that “outright drunkenness,” although rare, did occur, while asserting that “Churchill was not a drunk.” Whatever quite that means, there is no doubt that almost any doctor today presented with a detailed description would say that it was the intake of a functional alcoholic. The best answer to that might be that Churchill did, after all, win the war, and the nonsmoking teetotaling vegetarian Adolf Hitler lost it.

Few books of this length are entirely free of error, but it’s unusual for the mistakes to begin on the dedication page, with a doubly posthumous dedication, as it were, from Manchester to the late John Colville, “Etonian, Civil Servant, Fighter, Pilot, Scholar.” Colville was Churchill’s assistant private secretary during the war, except for a time when he managed to escape from Downing Street to train and fly with the RAF, and he kept the fascinating diaries published in 1985 as The Fringes of Power. He was not an Etonian—he was educated at Harrow, Churchill’s old school—and “Fighter, Pilot” surely has a superfluous comma. Or again, Sir Robert Vansittart was not a Conservative MP; when Churchill met Roosevelt at Placentia Bay in August 1941 he was wearing the esoteric uniform of an Elder Brother of Trinity House, not “the mess dress of the Royal Yacht Squadron”; and Churchill’s adversary Aneurin Bevan came from Tredegar in South Wales, not the little-known “North Wales coalfields.”

A more serious problem is that Reid’s book is lopsided. In February 1937, Churchill wrote to Clementine, his wife, on the perennially fraught subject of domestic finances and whether they could afford to keep their house at Chartwell. He conceded they might sell it, “having regard to the fact that our children are almost all flown, and my life is probably in its closing decade.” Churchill was then sixty-two. In the event, he became prime minister at sixty-five, returned for his improbable second premiership in 1951 before finally leaving Downing Street at eighty, and lived to be ninety. That means that this volume ostensibly covers twenty-five years. But nine tenths of its pages are devoted to the years between 1940 and 1945. And while there’s little to be said about his last decade of decline after 1955, Churchill’s postwar decade in active politics is of great interest.

Then Reid has fallen into a well- known trap by allowing biography to become general history, in this case a general history of the war. But there is no shortage of such histories: several recent full-scale books on the war by the English historians Anthony Beevor, Max Hastings, and Andrew Roberts have been well researched, well written, and well received, not to say best-selling. Again the question may be asked why there is such an insatiable appetite for books about the war. This craving for a heroic age and for leaders of giant stature surely reflects on the most unheroic age in which we now live, and our diminished rulers.

While he grasps some essential points, Reid misses others. For his first eighteen months as prime minister Churchill spoke continually as though the United States was about to enter the war, which was not the case. Before Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt expressed words of sympathy for the British, and supplied some materiel. And yet he not only refrained from going to war until Hitler solved the problem by declaring war on the United States; when he did extend aid, he did so with great ruthlessness, stripping Great Britain of its overseas investments and export trade. In late 1940 Roosevelt went so far as to propose sending an American cruiser to Cape Town to collect $20 million of British gold bullion as a down payment, which Reid aptly likens to “a noncombatant lifting the boots and pocket watch from a dying trooper.”

Then Reid says that Churchill “knew Hitler could not be crushed without American troops.” But the truth was that Germany could not be crushed with American troops. Those other recent histories have been marked by unsparing realism, not least in their most un-Churchillian emphasis on the inadequacy of the British Army as a fighting force (and the US Army also) when faced with the Wehrmacht, and on the plain fact that the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army. In dealing with Churchill’s strategy, or what passed for it, Reid is for the most part too indulgent. Although he recognizes that invading Italy from the southern end was a most laborious proceeding, he bafflingly writes that “Churchill’s plan was simplicity itself, to drive Italy from the war in order to induce Turkey to enter it.”

In the nearest he comes to sharp criticism, Reid wonders why Churchill and Roosevelt entirely failed to make plans that addressed “the possible—probable, even—consequences to Europe of their alliance with the Russian dictator.” But this was not something Churchill could be unaware of, as opposed to ignore: his embrace of the Soviet Union as an ally in June 1941, and his subsequent endless prevarication over an invasion of northern Europe, ensured that most of the fighting against Germany would be done by the Soviets, who would thus be expected to reach Berlin, Prague, and Vienna before the Anglo-American allies did. Anne Applebaum’s new book Iron Curtain describes the revolting means Stalin and his agents used to consolidate his power in Eastern Europe, destroying civil society in the process, but it was already obvious and inevitable that Stalin would not let go of the territories his armies occupied.

Before the war ended, Clementine wanted Churchill to retire, and so did many of his senior colleagues. But with his usual obstinacy he hung on, and when he returned to Number 10 in 1951, it was with an almost obsessive belief that he who had so long made war could now make peace and avoid the horror of nuclear annihilation. Against American opposition, he desperately wanted “a parley at the summit” with Stalin, whom he had not seen since Potsdam in the summer of 1945. In fact they never met again, and no such summit conference was held after Stalin’s death in March 1953 and before Churchill left office at last two years later, consumed with apprehension for the future.

2.

After the toil, sweat, and occasionally tears of Manchester–Reid, it’s a pleasure to reach the broad sunlit uplands of A Daughter’s Tale. Churchill’s last surviving child, the remarkable Mary Soames, celebrated her ninetieth birthday in September. She was younger by some years than her sisters and brother, Diana, Randolph, and Sarah, and her birth in 1922 healed a wound after the shattering death from diphtheria the previous year of the Churchills’ two-year-old daughter Marigold. Having already written a valuable biography of her mother, and edited her parents’ letters (Speaking for Themselves, 1998), she now tells her own story, from her childhood at Chartwell, which Churchill bought, impetuously and to Clementine’s great vexation, in the year of Mary’s birth, up to her marriage “on a freezing February day” in 1947 to Christopher Soames, a military attaché at the Paris embassy who subsequently entered Parliament and became Churchill’s aide and closest confidant during his last years in politics.

What makes Lady Soames’s book so appealing is its artless authenticity. Quoting liberally from her letters and diaries, she gives the pure tang of the period, at least as it was known by the rich—and Churchill, although poor compared with the millionaires he cultivated, was very well-off indeed by the standards of most British people, with a literary income several times that of a doctor, let alone a miner. For Mary, there were nannies, horses, skiing holidays, all punctuated by public events, though the most memorable aren’t necessarily those that political historians relate. On the last night of November 1936 she was woken and taken downstairs to stand on the lawn at Chartwell and watch the vast glow to the north as Paxton’s Crystal Palace, originally built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, burned down. “I think perhaps this had the same effect on me as the sinking of the Titanic had on an earlier generation: the unthinkable could happen.”

Most interestingly, Lady Soames says that “the book which made the deepest impression on me” as an adolescent was Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (the mother of Shirley Williams). Both memoir and pacifist tract, it did indeed profoundly influence a generation when it was published in 1933, with its unbearably poignant account of how all the young men closest to the author, along with another three quarters of a million British soldiers, had been consumed in the charnel house of the Great War. Churchill had an uphill task when he began to preach the need for rearmament and resistance to growing German might, but is it strange that few English people wanted another war?

There is more to this family chronicle, and A Daughter’s Story is notable for what it leaves unsaid as well as for what it says. Even the admiring Reid admits that Churchill could be rude or downright nasty; there was a darker side to his personality and, whatever his other qualities, he was a frankly unsuccessful father. Mary Soames is not only the one surviving child, she was in any case the only one who grew up safe and sound, while her siblings’ lives were all marred by amorous and alcoholic turmoil. She tells of her delight when her sister Diana was married to John, son of the South African mining magnate Sir Abe Bailey, who was one of Winston’s rich cronies, with Mary as a bridesmaid, and then her shock when the marriage soon ended.

As to Randolph, he embarked in the 1930s on a lifelong career of boisterous, bibulous troublemaking. Mary associates his spasmodic visits to Chartwell “with shouting, banging doors, and rows,” and, during the war, when Randolph sometimes accompanied his father on foreign journeys, Reid records the intense dislike and contempt felt for him by the prime minister’s senior colleagues. He was “a dreadful young man,” Sir Alexander Cadogan, the permanent under-secretary of the Foreign Office, wrote from Cairo in 1943, “an incubus on our party.”

As you might expect, Lady Soames’s book really comes into its own in 1939, and there is an exhilarating account of London life during Blitz and blackout. Her gang of friends met at the Players’ Theatre in Covent Garden, where the young Peter Ustinov performed an “intimate and cliquey” cabaret, making their way home as best they could at 2 AM, until the bombing intensified and patrons were encouraged to bring pillows and blankets and stay the night. After she joined the ATS, the women’s army corps, Mary had decidedly more of “a good war” than her brother. She too accompanied her father as an aide-de-camp, to the Quebec Conference in 1943, but that was only an intermission between serving devotedly with her antiaircraft battery, shown in a delightful photograph. Sentimentality about “the greatest generation” is a besetting temptation. But damn it all, they were wonderful, and we who came after have not lived up to them.

3.

Twenty years ago, Sir Michael Howard wrote a stimulating essay entitled “The End of Churchillism?: Reappraising the Legend.”1 He was reviewing Churchill: The End of Glory by John Charmley, the most intellectually respectable of several “revisionist” or hostile biographies appearing around that time, as well as the splendid collection of essays called simply Churchill, edited by Robert Blake and Wm. Roger Louis, which had originated in a colloquy at the University of Texas in Austin. The only thing wrong with Howard’s essay was the implication of its title.

So far from ending, “Churchillism” is ubiquitous, as we have seen, from Washington to New York to Jerusalem and places between, for all that Churchill is continually misunderstood, misprised, and misappropriated. And there has most certainly been no end of Churchillian studies. To the contrary, that colloquy might seem to have marked the start of a new flowering, although what more likely stimulated it was the fact that Churchill’s papers had been released at last to other scholars from the dead hand of his official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, who had enjoyed sole access to them until the last volume of his monumental, not to say mausolean, work wearily emerged in 1988.

Two books that I reviewed here in 2008 were out-and-out assaults, one from left and one from right, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, and the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker and Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost the Empire and the West Lost the World by Patrick Buchanan.2 But for the most part recent books have been evenhanded as well as scholarly, acknowledging that Churchill really was the savior of his country, and of civilization, but at the same time candidly dissecting his colorful and sometimes deplorable career. David Reynolds’s marvelous book In Command of History (2005) described the way Churchill wrote—in fact supervised the writing of—The Second World War, the internationally best-selling six volumes that gave a version personal to the point of distortion, and Reynolds’s book has just been complemented by the excellent Mr. Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke, relating Churchill’s life as a writer up until then who earned huge sums by means that were sometimes barely honest.

Other books have titles that speak for themselves, almost identical titles with two: Winston’s Folly by Christopher Catherwood (2004) and Churchill’s Folly (2003) by Anthony Rogers deal respectively with the creation of the entirely artificial country called Iraq, devised under British tutelage at the time of Churchill’s brief but crucially important tenure as colonial secretary in 1921–1922, and the forgotten, misbegotten, and simply ridiculous campaign in the Aegean in September 1943. This is the escapade that Hastings in Winston’s War (2010, published in England as Finest Years in 2009), an examination of Churchill as wartime strategist, calls “a case study in a folly which was overwhelmingly Winston Churchill’s responsibility.”

Then there is Churchill’s Promised Land by Michael Makovsky (2007) on his complicated relationship with Zionism, which has already been the subject of two books, both called Churchill and the Jews, by the Israeli scholar Michael J. Cohen in 1985 and Martin Gilbert in 2007.3 The one bleak note in that Texas anthology was struck by Sarvepalli Gopal’s essay “Churchill and India,” and anyone who wants to know why few Indians share the veneration for “the Old Man,” as Reid irritatingly calls him, should read Churchill’s Secret War (2009) by Madhusree Mukerjee about the appalling Bengal famine of 1943, which Churchill did not cause but did nothing to alleviate, and in which several million people died. The Last Lion will not confute that generalization about there being no good biographies even now, but one book that might is Paul Addison’s Churchill: The Unexpected Hero (2005), in less than 260 pages a minor masterpiece of concision, and of detachment.

Not that such skepticism has impinged on the American cult of Churchill. It flourished mightily under the Reagan administration, when the president quoted Churchill endlessly, from his inaugural onward, and Casper Weinberger, Reagan’s defense secretary, kept a large Churchill library and frequently attended Churchill dinners. Weinberger was indicted over the Iran-contra caper, and there is a most enjoyable photograph taken during that crisis of Reagan in the Situation Room of the White House, with a classic 1940 poster behind him on the wall showing Churchill over the words, “Let Us Go Forward Together.”

Political Churchillism enjoyed another vigorous lease of life under the administration of Bush the Younger, who likewise invoked Churchill whenever he could. Douglas Feith had one more bust of Churchill in his office when he was under secretary of defense, Lewis Libby kept a portrait of Churchill in his office, William Luti, another Pentagon ideologue, claimed flatly that “Churchill was the first neocon,” while Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote after September 11 that we were rediscovering in the past “the idea of greatness—great individuals, great causes, great civilizations. It is no accident that Churchill has re-emerged now, at a time when the West is again under assault.”

Even before Gerhard Schröder called the “special relationship” so special that only the English know it exists, that relationship was not looking in good health. The phrase was promoted by Churchill, and he still is something of a totem, at least on one side. When President Obama visited London in 2009, there was a ritual—and rather humiliating—exchange of gifts with Gordon Brown, the prime minister. Someone at Downing Street had imaginatively found a penholder carved from the timbers of HMS Gannet, which conducted the Royal Navy’s campaign against the slave trade with her sister ship HMS Resolute, a desk made from whose timbers already sits in the Oval Office. Obama was given this, as well as outfits for Sasha and Malia from a fashionable London children’s shop. In return he gave Brown some DVDs of American movies, and his children toy models of Marine One, the presidential helicopter, which must have been worth several dollars each.

But Brown also gave Obama the seven-volume official biography of Churchill. The previous year, when Obama was touring Europe as part of his first presidential campaign, he met David Cameron, then Tory opposition leader, now prime minister, who gave him a set of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill’s last and least distinguished book, a frankly tactless present to someone of Obama’s background. Mind you, it could have been worse. Cameron might have given Obama My African Journey, the 1908 book based on newspaper pieces that Churchill wrote while visiting Kenya as colonial under-secretary, his very first ministerial job.

He writes in a high vein of paternalist imperialism, suggesting that the colony was ideal for “a practical experiment in State Socialism” to improve its backward peoples, who had to be taught the merits of hard work, if need be by compulsion. More than forty years later, during Churchill’s second prime ministership, the ferocious Mau Mau rising in Kenya was brutally suppressed by the British, and more than a thousand miscreants, or suspects, were hanged. Even before that, the president’s grandfather Onyango Obama had been detained and beaten by the Kenyan colonial police. And people wonder why his grandson isn’t an ardent Anglophile.

Come to think of it, this might be one indirect but beneficial consequence of Obama’s reelection: maybe we shall see “the end of Churchillism” after all. Might it not be time to put away the bust or busts, and with them the rhetoric of “special relationship,” “English-speaking peoples,” and “the idea of greatness”?

  1. 1

    Foreign Affairs, September/October, 1993. 

  2. 2

    See “Churchill and His Myths,” The New York Review, May 29, 2008. 

  3. 3

    Connoisseurs of the odium academicum may also enjoy Cohen’s assault on Gilbert, “The Churchill-Gilbert Symbiosis: Myth and Reality,” in the learned journal Modern Judaism, May 2008.