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In the Churchill Museum

Once again, Gilbert is too scrupulous and exhaustive a chronicler not to give us some of that evidence of less than perfect harmony which Churchill deliberately forgot. He shows us, for example, a dinner at the White House on Christmas Eve 1941 when Roosevelt delighted in “needling Churchill for having been on the wrong side in the Boer War.” He gives a glimpse of Roosevelt in April 1944 instructing his staff neither to acknowledge nor to reply to one of Churchill’s cables. And he shows us Churchill in March 1945 making an almost desperate attempt to reestablish personal contact with the dying Roosevelt, whose personal telegrams were, Churchill felt, now being written almost entirely by his staff.

He does not, however, quote Churchill’s most bitter outbursts. For instance, his description of the September 1944 Quebec Conference begins and ends with Churchill’s characterization of it as “a blaze of friendship.” Yet according to one witness Churchill was at one point during that conference reduced to asking the President, “What do you want me to do—stand up and beg like Fala?” (Fala being the President’s dog).7 He gives an extremely detailed blow-by-blow account of the very sharp Anglo-American controversy in June 1944 about the wisdom of diverting troops from Italy to invade southern France (“Anvil,” later “Dragoon”), emphasizing (as throughout this volume) the significance of British intelligence decrypts of German military communications which Churchill could not mention in his memoirs. Now a glance at Kimball’s edition shows that at the height of this controversy Churchill drafted an extremely angry and bitter telegram to the President, including an extraordinary threat of resignation:

The whole campaign in Italy is being ruined…. If my departure from the scene would ease matters, by tendering my resignation to The King, I would gladly make this contribution….

…no one ever contemplated that everything that was hopeful in the Mediterranean should be flung on one side, like the rind of an orange, in order that some minor benefice might come to help the theatre of your command…. There is nothing I will not do to end this dead-lock except become responsible for an absolutely perverse strategy. If you wish, I will come at once across the ocean to Bermuda, or Quebec or, if you like, Washington. The very first weather that can be found, and the very swiftest aeroplane that can be got shall be my chariot.

This brimstone draft concluded: “Therefore I think I have a right to some consideration from you, my friend, at a time when our joint ventures have dazzled the world with success.”8

The next day, after discussions with the Chiefs of Staff, this was simmered down to a much milder, more measured and suppliant text, concluding in sorrow, not in anger:

It is with the greatest sorrow that I write to you in this sense. But I am sure that if we could have met, as I so frequently proposed, we should have reached a happy agreement. I send you every personal good wish. However we may differ on the conduct of the war, my personal gratitude to you for your kindness to me and for all you have done for the cause of freedom will never be diminished.

In his extremely detailed account, Gilbert reveals that Churchill actually ordered aircraft to stand by for a trip across the Atlantic, and quotes at length from the final version of the telegram, but he neither quotes from, nor explicitly refers to, the first draft.

Now of course the selection of material to quote or not to quote is a matter of fine judgment. Even in 1417 pages the biographer cannot give us everything. Probably he has excellent reasons, unknown to this reviewer, for not referring to what is, on the face of it, an extraordinary document. But one is left with a nagging sense of unease. The point, once again, is that knowledge of the full characteristic Churchillian sequence—explosion of anger, reflection and discussion, eloquent resentment softened into sterling magnanimity—will rather enhance than diminish our respect for Churchill. Only thus can we appreciate the full largeness of the man, subordinating those mere personal emotions, the conditions of friendship for most ordinary human beings, to the Friendship that History required. (“Our friendship is the rock on which I build for the future of the world.”) One is also left wondering if future historians may find more material in the private family papers—and particularly in those of Clementine Churchill—to illustrate, as it were in three dimensions rather than two, this very special relationship.

The best starting point for a truly analytical and critical interpretation of Churchill might be the fact that he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953—and deserved it.

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent…

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.

The English language lived in Churchill, and he still lives in it. His mastery of English was of an unusual kind. It was mastery of the dictated word. Virtually everything he wrote was dictated: starting with the essays he dictated to a senior pupil at Harrow in return for help with his Latin translation. His books were dictated. His speeches were dictated. His memorandums were dictated. Most of his letters were dictated. Even his conversation was a kind of dictation. Of him the conventional phrase, “never at a loss for words,” seems to have been literally true.

Witness one funny and revealing moment early in this volume. Churchill is staying at the White House on the Christmas 1941 visit mentioned above. “One morning,” an aide recalls, “the Prime Minister wanted to dictate while he was in his bath—not a minute could be wasted—He kept submerging in the bath and when he ‘surfaced’ he would dictate a few more words or sentences.”9 Emerging from the bath, he went on dictating, pacing up and down his enormous bedroom, wrapped only in a towel. The towel fell to the floor. Still he paced. Still he dictated. Suddenly President Roosevelt entered the room, to find the British prime minister marching up and down stark naked. Churchill said: “You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to conceal from you….”

Faced with such presence of mind and such command of language in the most intimate and surprising circumstances, let alone in official or public dealings, the biographer or historian can only find it exceptionally difficult to discover the “real,” “true,” private Churchill. We can follow with admiration the virtuosity of the maestro, using his instrument, the English language, not just to inspire millions but also to persuade and cajole allies and opponents, to charm in a small circle, to encourage or to console an individual (which last he found the time to do often, personally and with much sensitivity). At his most pure and inspired, Churchill could place “the best words in the best order,” beautifully. But he was also ever ready with the parliamentary skills of grand imprecision and seduction by metaphor: a master of terminological inexactitude.

When he describes the prospect of a thrust up into Italy from North Africa as striking at the “soft underbelly of the crocodile,” even Stalin is intrigued. Posterity is charmed. The metaphor is irresistible: we can hear him say it (“the shhoft underbelly”) and we at once see the point. How brilliant to strike at the monster’s most vulnerable part, at the soft underbelly! Only a pedant would rather hearken to those carping geographers and military historians who meanly object that few places on the continent of Europe bear less a resemblance to a soft underbelly: that, in fact, an advance up the hard, mountainous spine of Italy was more like crawling up the crocodile’s tail than striking at its belly.

With a clear head, we may resist the charms, but then we desire even more to know what Churchill was really thinking. (How far, for example, was he seduced by his own metaphors?) This it is exceedingly hard to say. Perhaps the “truest” source we have are his private letters to his wife, and the extracts that Gilbert prints from these are the most interesting and moving in the book. (May we hope to have a separate edition of them soon?) There is one leitmotif which, it seems to me, sounds most plangently from these extracts (and other glimpses of the “private” Churchill) and which is not, for obvious reasons, a leitmotif of Churchill’s own memoirs. This is what I might call, at the risk of sounding like a Palm Court compère, the “Imperial Sunset” theme.

Churchill’s whole life was bound up with that of the Empire. They grew old together. When he came to manhood, the imperial sun was at its zenith. The Boer War, in which he fought, was the first clear public signal of decline. When he died, the sun had set. His funeral—this reviewer’s first political memory—was the Empire’s Last Post. He believed in the Empire in a way that was rare already—even anachronistic—by the time of the war; incomprehensible to most foreigners (especially, perhaps, to Americans); and is today almost impossible to re-create emotionally as well as intellectually (to “nachempfinden“).

Two concepts are central: liberty and glory. He truly believed that the Empire meant liberty. Even in his Fulton speech, addressing an audience unlikely to be sympathetic on just this point, what he chose as a contrast with the lost freedoms of Central and Eastern Europeans was “the liberties enjoyed by individual citizens throughout the British Empire.” In his lectures on Churchill’s political philosophy Martin Gilbert convincingly demonstrates that—strange though it may seem, perhaps offensive, even, to some former subjects of that Empire—this was Churchill’s constant and sincere belief.10

Churchill also believed that the Empire was glorious. Its feats of arms would be inscribed on gilded pages; they would echo down to the last syllable of recorded time. Malory and G.A. Henty, C.S. Forester, Walter Scott, and Shakespeare are somehow all rolled up together in this bold, simple, brightly colored vision of chivalry: a vision that, even for some of his contemporaries, teetered on the border line between the sublime and the ridiculous. What he loved about the Italian campaign was that here you had “the Army of the British Empire”—and it was glorious. Yet it was “being pulled to pieces by American strategy,” as he wrote to his wife in August 1944. “The only times I ever quarrel with the Americans,” he wrote to her eight months later, “are when they fail to bring us a fair share of opportunity to win glory.” And he continued: “Undoubtedly I feel much pain when I see our armies so much smaller than theirs. It has always been my wish to keep equal, but how can you do that against so mighty a nation and a population nearly three times our own?”

I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” he declared in November 1942. Why did he say this? Because that is what he felt that he was being called upon to do—and not just by Roosevelt. As we follow him through 1944 and into 1945 (this “new, disgusting year”) with the proliferation of complex and intractable regional problems, the growing preponderance of the United States and the Soviet Union, and the exhaustion of Britain, we feel in him the growing, gnawing sense that to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire is precisely what History has called upon him—of all people—to do:

Hark, the dominant’s persistence till it must be answered to!

Waiting at Malta, en route to Yalta, in February 1945, he reads Beverly Nichols’s Verdict on India, a book recommended to him by one of his private secretaries, Jock Colville. He writes to Clemmie:

I have had for some time a feeling of despair about the British connection with India, and still more about what will happen if it is suddenly broken. Meanwhile we are holding on to this vast Empire, from which we get nothing, amid the increasing criticism and abuse of the world and our own people…. However out of my shadows has come a renewed resolve to go fighting on as long as possible and to make sure the Flag is not let down while I am at the wheel [my italics].

In these last months his secretaries note that he is often distracted and heavy with cares: in the dispatch boxes, the papers pile up unread. Colville records a dinner at Chequers ten days after the end of the Yalta Conference:

Then we sat in the Great Hall and listened to the Mikado played, much too slowly, on the gramophone. The PM said it brought back “the Victorian era, eighty years which will rank in our island history with the Antonine age.” Now, however, “the shadows of victory” were upon us…. After this war, continued the PM, we should be weak, we should have no money and no strength and we should lie between the two great powers of the USA and the USSR.

Lunching with President Benes and his foreign minister, Jan Masaryk, he told them that “a small lion was walking between a huge Russian bear and a great American elephant.” A small lion! He saw the reality of decline sooner and more clearly than most of his fellow countrymen, because he saw it from the inside and because he cared so passionately about it. Of course he was not led to conclude that this reality should be admitted and accepted. No, it must be denied and fought! The Special Relationship would be his Excalibur.

In the preface to the last volume of his memoirs he wrote, “I have called this Volume Triumph and Tragedy because the overwhelming victory of the Grand Alliance has failed so far to bring general peace to our anxious world.” The word “tragedy” in his title has been especially, and justly, applied to the fate of the hundred million Europeans who exchanged one dictatorship for another. No one would speak more movingly of their plight. But is it altogether absurd to suggest that for Churchill himself, personally, in the inner core of his being, the “tragedy” of his title referred rather—and perhaps only subconsciously—to the plight of Britain?

On V-E Day (with which Martin Gilbert ends this volume) Churchill broadcast to the British people, and to the world, from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. He concluded with the words: “Advance, Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King.” One of his secretaries noted: “The PM’s voice broke as he said ‘Advance, Britannia!”’ For in sober truth, from that day forward it was: Retreat, Britannia.

I shall discuss Churchill’s attitude to Central and Eastern Europe and his relations with Stalin—both richly documented by Gilbert—in a later review, concentrating on the transition from world war to cold war and on Hugh Thomas’s Armed Truce.

  1. 7

    The issue was the second stage of Lend-Lease, the witness: Harry White. See John M. Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries: Vol. 3, Years of War 1941–1945 (Houghton Mifflin, 1967), p. 373.

  2. 8

    Warren F. Kimball, ed., Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, Vol. 3, pp. 225–226, giving as his source PREM 3/271/8/531–532. Presumably this is one of the documents that Churchill’s original research assistants either did not find, or did not select, for copying and inclusion in the “Churchill papers” (see footnote 3 above).

  3. 9

    The aide was Patrick Kinna. Once again we owe this memorable anecdote to the assiduousness of the biographer in eliciting testimony from all those who came into contact with Churchill.

  4. 10

    Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s Political Philosophy: Thank-Offering to Britain Fund Lectures, November 24, 25, and 27 1980 (published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 1981).

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