Action This Day: Working With Churchill
Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill
Churchill Revised: A Critical Assessment
Churchill as Historian
Churchill in His Time (to be published on October 24 by Houghton Mifflin as Churchill in Power: As Seen by His Contemporaries)
Books about Churchill continue to lollop out of the publishing houses. Sometimes they are reminiscences, sometimes family studies, sometimes assessments of him as statesman, strategist, historian—we shall soon probably have an assessment of him as a painter. By far the most agreeable reminiscence in Action This Day is by his private secretary Jock Colville, who has a lively sense of comedy. His description of Churchill adding every few months to his set of gadgets and working in bed with sponges attached to his elbows makes one realize that the great man had a touch of eccentricity that one associates with that bizarre Victorian philosopher, Herbert Spencer.
One of the reasons why Colville’s account is so agreeable is that he conveys the bubbles in Churchill’s mind, his delight in play upon words, the schoolboy fun, and at the same time gives in a few pages a better account than any other yet available of Churchill’s role in his last administration and of his last astonishing act of will power in partially recovering from a sizable stroke. Incidentally Colville and Normanbrook in their accounts of these last years of Churchill’s power give Moran, Churchill’s doctor, a working over which admirers of his rash book ought to consult.
The first volume of Ralph Martin’s biography of Churchill’s mother, which is boudoir reading, contains the not too interesting speculation that, as her healthy first son was born “only seven months after marriage” (it was in fact seven-and-a-half months), Churchill was conceived out of wedlock. The trouble about this book is that though it contains a lot of unpublished material it cannot compare with Robert Rhodes James’s biography of Lord Randolph Churchill in its understanding either of the political background or of the peculiar horror, vacuity, and boredom of London Society under the leadership of the Prince of Wales. On the other hand, Martin is a good deal more explicit than James, writing in Churchill’s lifetime, was able to be, about the disease—tertiary syphilis—which killed Lord Randolph Churchill and of the nightmare of his last years.
Brian Gardner has had the interesting idea of showing Churchill during the Second World War in the looking glass of other men’s opinions. He quotes in particular from the speeches of the opposition, both of the right-wing die-hard Chamberlainites and of the left-wing critics of Churchill’s war policy such as Aneurin Bevan and Shinwell. The opposition was important because it worked on Churchill as the same sort of irritant as he himself used upon the Chiefs of Staff. But the criticism also reminds one of how the almost unbroken series of Allied defeats in 1941 and 1942 subjected Churchill’s strategy and plans to pressures which surprisingly made virtually no impact upon his ability to control Cabinet, Coalition, and Parliament. Gardner’s book has the curious effect of making one wonder how Churchill could ever be said to have won the war when his strategic mistakes were so numerous and American domination at the end so absolute. In fact he does not sufficiently stress how ably until the last years of the war Churchill controlled the military—a lesson which President Johnson failed to learn when dealing with the incompetent Westmoreland.
Gardner begins his study of Churchill as a war leader by quoting Isaiah Berlin’s description of him as “a man larger than life…a gigantic historical figure during his own lifetime…a mystical hero who belongs to a legend as much as to reality, the largest human being of our times.” Gardner then announces that the time has come to debunk the legend. Very much the same spirit inspires the authors of Churchill Revised. A.J.P. Taylor and Robert Rhodes James both contribute excellent essays on Churchill as statesman and politician. They go over the long list of pugnacious actions, imprudences, and apparent changes of policy which made men write Churchill off in the Thirties and which also explain some of his mistakes during the war.
There is also an excellent assessment by J. H. Plumb of Churchill as a historian, which is much more severe and much nearer the mark than Maurice Ashley’s assessment. This is perhaps hardly fair to Ashley, who begins by giving an entertaining account of what it was like to be a young radical taken into Churchill’s home to devil for him on his Marlborough book and which is partly descriptive in that it shows how Churchill set about the task of knocking the drafts of his researchers into Churchillian form and shape. Ashley shows how much Churchill’s own experience enabled him to discern how men act in politics and how reciprocally the knowledge he culled from reading history influenced his style of politics when he became Prime Minister. Plumb judges Churchill by looking at him from the standpoint of a professional historian. Ashley looks at Churchill’s historical works as a reflection of his character.
One of the most interesting contributions to Churchill Revised is the assessment by Anthony Storr, a psychiatrist, of Churchill’s mental state: it is refreshingly free from jargon and pretentiousness, and throws a good deal of light on Churchill’s fits of depression (what he called “Black Dog”), his aggressiveness, and his inability to follow for any length of time a reasoned argument submitted to him. For Storr these recurrent fits of depression are the key to Churchill’s character. He conquered them by courage, a courage which enabled him to overcome the handicap of his insignificant physique and left him unbattered by the diatribes of his critics. But the endemic depression, which was hereditary to his family, was intensified by his lonely childhood, in which he yearned for encouragement and affection and found neither in his parents. Even at the height of his fame Churchill could easily convince himself that all he had achieved was worthless. He feared no one but Fortune. Every time she threw him down he believed that the end had come. He had no inner life; everything was part of a grandiloquent public performance, for to look inside himself was the road to despair.
After these books it may be a good deal easier than it was for Americans to see the titanic national leader in perspective. During the first few months after America’s entry into the Second World War, anxious American liaison officers would take their British counterparts aside and tell them that, although British admiration for President Roosevelt was greatly appreciated, it would be wise for them to remember, if they happened to be speaking to American officers about him, that the President was a not entirely uncontroversial figure. At that time, with Churchill’s popularity at its height, there was no need for the British to reciprocate; but it is probably true that around 1910 Churchill was hated by upper-class conservatives almost as much as was Roosevelt in his day, and that only at the very end of his career did he have a strong base of political support from which to operate.
The two characteristics for which Churchill was almost universally condemned in his years in the wilderness were his pugnacity and lack of judgment. His pugnacity was an extension of his gargantuan egoism. Not that his egoism took the form, which egoism often does, of pompous self-importance: even in the days of his glory he had a streak of humility because he saw himself as an historical figure in relation to the tide of events, to his own age, and to the past. But his egoism diminished his capacity for personal relations to simple expressions of loyalty. He was intensely loyal to the Churchill family in true aristocratic style, and also to his small circle of friends, from whom he demanded unquestioning allegiance to whatever cause or policy he was at the time espousing. For the rest he had little consideration: neither for colleagues or party or civil servants, nor for women. His personal relationships were political relationships. “I see you are against me” was the glum response to anyone who challenged the policy which he was momentarily pursuing.
His first fight was against his own metabolism. He was a narrow-chested, short, delicate-skinned creature who by will power turned himself into a slashing polo player and the toughest of political opponents. If the opportunity was lacking for a fight with his country’s enemies, or his immediate political enemies, he would find it among his colleagues or in his ministry. His life was a series of blazing battles. As a young officer he took on Kitchener in the Sudan, the Boers, and then the Conservative party for their line on the pacification of South Africa and on Free Trade when he had just been returned to Parliament in their interest; then (when a Liberal) the aristocracy and the rich over reform of the House of Lords and social welfare; then the militant working-class movement over strikes in South Wales, and the suffragettes over the franchise; next Carson on the Ulster opponents of Home Rule, thus adding to his enemies the top Army brass when he had already infuriated the oak-bottomed admirals of the Royal Navy, who opposed his naval reforms. His opponents seemed finally to have defeated him over the ill-conceived Dardanelles operation, but after a few years in the shadows he emerged as a leading member, with his friend Birkenhead, of the Lloyd George coalition and nearly put a war-weary Britain into an armed conflict with Turkey over the Chanak incident.
Then came the General Strike, which Churchill treated as a declaration of war. So did the rest of his class, but they saw they could win it with the appearance of conciliation, whereas Churchill wanted to smash the whole trade union movement. Whether it was his feud with Baldwin over India or with Chamberlain over Germany or finally with Hitler, the impression that he enjoyed the fight, indeed the war, weakened his ability to convince the nation that the ultimate objects of his policy were just or wise. “I ask for no quarter,” he growled after the war at a young Labour M.P. who diffidently excused himself for having made a biting speech. He asked for none, he gave none, he bore no ill-will to his former foes, some of whom, like Smuts, became his allies. Too many, however, could never forgive him for his devastating, exceedingly funny, and mordant phrases by which they were transfixed like butterflies and by which other men remembered them. Churchill was always knocking men down and was mildly incredulous when, after he picked them up, they failed to shake hands.
All this was part of his famous “bad judgment.” In the Thirties, when men wrote him off, they cited a long list of his impetuous actions from the slightly absurd Sidney Street siege when Churchill called in a detachment of Guards to shoot it out with a few mad anarchists, to his attempt to threaten the flank of the German army in 1914 by landing with a handful of naval troops, to the numerous miscalculations of the Dardanelles operation, to his miscalculation of public opinion over the intervention by British troops at Archangel in 1919 against the Bolshevik government, to his sentimental support for the Indian princes against Baldwin’s policy, which was no more than a faint promise to transfer power at some distant date to Indians, and to his even worse-timed intervention on behalf of Edward VIII. Even when he returned to the Admiralty at the beginning of the war the fiasco of the Norwegian campaign, which was his blind, instinctive riposte to the Nazi initiative, was not such as to persuade discerning judges that if the direction of the war was in his hands it would be for the best. That was why well-informed judicious men hoped that Halifax and not Churchill would succeed Chamberlain.