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Winston Agonistes

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill Volume II, Alone, 1932–1940

by William Manchester
Little, Brown, 756 pp., $24.95

Churchill’s War: Volume I, The Struggle for Power

by David Irving
Veritas (Bullsbrook, Australia), 666 pp., A$49.95

Winston S. Churchill Volume VIII, ‘Never Despair,’ 1945–1965

by Martin Gilbert
Houghton Mifflin, 1,438 pp., $40.00


When Sir Winston Churchill died at the age of ninety in January 1965, he was accorded the most magnificent state funeral that a grateful and grieving Britain could give him. In life he had received, or refused, every available honor, and his death occasioned a final display of national thanksgiving and global homage, unique in its intensity and unrivaled in its scope. Setting aside both precedent and precedence, Queen Elizabeth II attended in person to mourn the passing of her greatest commoner and most illustrious subject. Never before, not even for the funeral of President Kennedy, had so many kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, assembled to do honor to one dead man. In Britain itself, and around the world, millions watched and wept before their television sets. At the end of the same year, the final volume of the Oxford History of England set down its authoritative verdict on Churchill’s life and achievements. It was written by A.J.P. Taylor, a historian known for his dissenting opinions and provocative irreverence. But in his eulogistic description of Churchill as “the saviour of his country,” there was not the faintest suggestion of irony or mockery.

Throughout the last decade of his life, Churchill was almost universally esteemed as “the greatest Englishman of his time.” As a soldier, journalist, biographer, historian, painter, orator, politician, parliamentarian, and statesman, he seemed prodigiously endowed with gifts of mind and spirit. Whether predicting history, making history, or writing history, he dwarfed the pygmy ploddings of ordinary mortals. As a young Liberal minister, he was responsible for social reforms that helped to lay the foundations for the modern welfare state. As first lord of the Admiralty, he had devised the scheme to force the Dardanelles, the only original strategic initiative of World War I. In the 1920s, and again in the late 1940s, he had been the first Western statesman to understand the nature of the Communist threat. During the 1930s, he had fought an almost single-handed campaign to alert the Western democracies to the evils of Hitler. In 1940, his “finest hour,” he expressed in unforgettable phrases Britain’s resolve never to surrender to Nazi tyranny. And thereafter, his many-sided genius led a united people, a united government, and also—in a harmonious collaboration with Roosevelt—the United States, onward to victory. In Isaiah Berlin’s famous words, this Churchill was “a gigantic historical figure…, superhumanly bold, strong and imaginative,… the largest human being of our time.”

Yet in fact, it took Churchill almost the whole of his astonishingly long and controversial life to persuade his contemporaries to accept him at his own magniloquent self-evaluation. During the 1900s, he was hated by the Tories as a turncoat who put personal advancement before party loyalty, and by the Liberals as an unprincipled adventurer whose commitment to social reform was never more than skin-deep. During World War I, his career almost collapsed when he was forced to leave the government in the aftermath of the Dardanelles fiasco. During the 1920s, he was, on his own admission, a singularly unsuccessful Chancellor of the Exchequer, who took the controversial decision to restore Britain to the gold standard. During the 1930s, he forfeited public confidence by his sustained and belligerent intransigence over Indian constitutional reform. In 1945, his hour of supreme triumph, he was abruptly dismissed by the British electorate. During his second prime ministership of 1951–1955, which was widely felt to have been a mistake, there were constant murmurings in the press and in the Tory party that he was no longer up to the job. And even during the apotheosis of his last years, the publication of the Alanbrooke diaries suggested that his wartime relations with the military had been much more acrimonious than he had revealed in his memoirs.

So it was hardly surprising that immediately after Churchill’s death, his career and achievements were once again looked at in a more critical and less flattering light. Robert Rhodes James’s “study in failure,” published in 1970, examined Churchill’s fluctuating reputation and questionable achievements between 1900 and 1939, and convincingly demonstrated why he was so widely distrusted by so many people for so much of his career. In the same vein, Brian Gardner’s study of his wartime premiership noticed that from 1941 onward, Churchill was constantly subjected to criticism and attack inside Parliament, was on far from cordial terms with certain sections of the press, and was no longer in close touch with the people as a whole. More sensationally—and quite without evidence—Rolf Hochhuth suggested, in his play Soldiers, that Churchill had actually connived at the death of the wartime Polish leader, General Sikorski, in 1943. And the diaries of Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, vividly depicted his patient as aging and infirm, burnt out by 1945, and struggling for survival thereafter.

With varying degrees of plausibility, these works began the essential process of demythologizing Churchill, by treating him seriously as a complex historical person, rather than as the legendary and Olympian hero he had in fact become only in retirement. As historians have begun to work through the mass of twentieth-century government papers that have become available during the last two decades, Churchillian revisionism has inevitably intensified. And, very often, the result has been to show that things were not quite as Churchill or his apologists later claimed, that his part in events was less significant or less prescient or more mundane or more controversial, and that those who disagreed with him were not necessarily wicked or stupid, but on occasion had a serious point of view.

This is especially so in the case of Churchill’s record as an opponent of appeasement. We now know that when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, his insistence on economy in military expenditure during the Twenties cast its dark and baleful shadow into the next decade. During the Thirties, he was an admirer of Mussolini and he supported Franco in Spain. He was allowed access to government intelligence with the consent of MacDonald, Baldwin, and Chamberlain. His estimates of relative superiority of the German air forces over the British were sometimes wildly exaggerated. Above all, there was a serious case for appeasement: ever since the 1880s, the British had been making concessions to one great power or another. By the 1930s, Britain’s empire was overextended while the economy was in deep depression. There were compelling reasons for trying to placate Hitler, which are seldom considered in the celebrations of Churchill’s career.

In the same way, Churchill’s wartime record was more fallible than it became fashionable to suppose in the aftermath of victory. When Chamberlain appointed him first lord of the Admiralty after war broke out in September 1939, his performance was more vigorous than welljudged, and his handling of the disastrous Norway campaign of 1940 was disquietingly reminiscent of the Dardanelles fiasco. Churchill’s friendship with Roosevelt was far less cordial than he himself often claimed it to be, and his clumsy effort to arrange a partition of Eastern Europe with Stalin showed he was not as clearsighted about the growing Soviet menace as he later implied. His relations with the military were often strained to the point of incoherence, and many of his own pet ventures—in Greece, Crete, Dakar—were impetuous. At home, life during the Blitz was monotonous or terrifying rather than heroic or sublime, and politically the country took a decided shift to the left. In the Cabinet, the Labour ministers virtually monopolized all of the domestic appointments, Churchill and Eden did not always see eye to eye, and Robert Menzies, the Australian prime minister, became extremely critical of Churchill’s imperious conduct during 1941.

Yet while Churchill’s own account of his deeds has been substantially modified in many cases, there are other phases of his career in which research has vindicated his record and enhanced his reputation. It is now clear that as colonial undersecretary, president of the Board of Trade, and home secretary before World War I, he took a major part in the imperial and domestic reform programs of the Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. The contemporary criticism that was heaped upon him in the aftermath of the Dardanelles disaster was excessive. According to David Moggridge, Churchill’s performance as Chancellor of the Exchequer during the 1920s was less inept than has often been supposed: the overwhelming weight of official opinion in 1925 was in favor of the return to the gold standard.1 Despite his notorious speech in which he accused Labour of acting like the Gestapo Churchill was not—according to Henry Pelling—personally responsible for the defeat of the Conservatives at the general election of 1945: the reasons were much more deeply rooted than that. 2 And it has recently been argued by Anthony Seldon that his peacetime government was not the flop it is generally supposed to have been, but was actually the most successful postwar Tory administration—until Mrs. Thatcher’s.3

One result of all this revisionism has been altogether salutary. For by scraping off the veneer of mythology, one can begin to appreciate Churchill’s complexity as a full historical personality; instead of being a two-dimensional man of destiny, he becomes a three-dimensional man of flesh and blood. But in other ways, the extended analysis of Churchill’s life has been less successful, partly because these details of revisionism are often devoid of a broader context and have not yet been brought together to produce a fundamental reinterpretation of the man and his career. Moreover, they have made absolutely no impact on Churchill’s popular image. In Britain—especially Thatcher’s Britain—he remains the essential hero. Hundreds of thousands of people each year visit Blenheim Palace, Chartwell Manor, the Cabinet war rooms, and Bladon Churchyard. Ships in the Royal Navy, cigarettes, and public houses are named after him. And—as these three vast volumes under review weightily but disappointingly demonstrate—he remains irresistible material for the biographer.


William Manchester’s book is the second installment of what promises to be a three-volume life. Although not uncritical, its essentially admiring attitude may be guessed from the acknowledgments, where Manchester writes that he has been “honored” and “moved” by the friendship and support of Churchill’s relatives and entourage, especially Lady Soames (Churchill’s daughter, now the presiding matriarch of the family), Martin Gilbert (Churchill’s official biographer, whose monumental work has just been completed), and the late Sir John Colville (Churchill’s former private secretary and greatest champion). He has spoken to almost all of the “surviving Churchillians”: politicians like Lord Boothby, civil servants like Sir David Pitblado, and five of Churchill’s secretaries. And he describes another authority as the “International Churchill Society’s keeper of the flame.” In addition, Manchester has consulted over one hundred private archival collections, as well as the official papers of the British, French, German, and US governments. And out of this mass of material, he has fashioned an epic drama in messianic prose, of which even Churchill the writer might generally—though not fully—have approved.

  1. 1

    D.E. Moggridge, British Monetary Policy, 1924–1931 (Cambridge University Press, 1972).

  2. 2

    Henry Pelling, “The 1945 General Election Reconsidered,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1980), pp. 399–414.

  3. 3

    Anthony Seldon, Churchill’s Indian Summer: The Conservative Government, 1951–55 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981).

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