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Churchill and His Myths

The most awful people” were significant words, and they relate to the problem with Olson’s story. “People talk of rearming,” Anthony Powell’s character Widmerpool tells Nick Jenkins over lunch. “I am glad to say the Labour Party is against it to a man—and the more enlightened Tories, too.”

Olson’s heroes by contrast were a very mixed bunch. Some were politically lightweight, like Harold Nicolson, some were obscure, like Dick Law and Ronald Cartland, and some were thoroughly dubious. Cartland is forgotten for a poignant reason. An amiable, earnest young MP (in a party which didn’t care for prigs: Macmillan’s earlier group of leftish Tories had been sneeringly known as “the YMCA”), he had bravely criticized appeasement before the war, and then voted against Chamberlain in the Norway debate. Unlike our present-day saber-rattlers at Westminster or on Capitol Hill, Cartland at least practiced what he preached by joining the army, and was killed in action during the retreat to Dunkirk.

One day Churchill would win the Nobel Prize for literature (largely on the strength of The Second World War, much of which, as David Reynolds has shown in his splendid book In Command of History, was ghostwritten), but Churchill the writer also divided opinion. Lukacs mentions several eminent English writers who dismissed Churchill’s “sham-Augustan prose,” as it was called by Waugh, who added at the time of Churchill’s death that he had been “always surrounded by crooks.” His phrase comes to mind when Olson attempts to make another hero out of Churchill’s hanger-on Robert Boothby, while relating the story of Harold Macmillan’s unhappy marriage to Lady Dorothy Cavendish, and her decades-long liaison with Boothby.

If truth be told Boothby was decidedly one of Waugh’s “crooks”: a bumptious charlatan who had been a parliamentary aide to Churchill, although when he got in trouble through shady financial dealings he was abandoned by Churchill (in a way which didn’t say much for any “magnanimity”). A buccaneer himself, Churchill was all his life attracted by others. The fact that so many of his associates verged on the disreputable never did his career much good; in those crucial years, it may have done the nation harm.

Such cronies apart, Churchill had very little personal following in the 1930s; and Lukacs knows enough to be aware that his hero had been one of the most disliked and distrusted men of his age. From an early stage, Churchill had acquired two reputations—as an ambitious, unprincipled careerist and as an impulsive, reckless adventurer—which are the more striking for being on the face of it mutually exclusive. A large anthology could be compiled of the contemptuous things said about him from the 1900s to the 1940s, by colleagues and friends as well as by enemies; at times contempt shaded into hatred. At the 1922 general election, he was defeated in Dundee by two candidates, one of them the only Prohibitionist ever elected to Parliament as such (a nice touch in view of the great man’s own habits), and the other the foreign policy radical E.D. Morel, who said, “I look upon Churchill as such a personal force for evil that I would take up the fight against him with a whole heart.”

Just as telling in its way was the verdict of Sir Basil Bartlett, well known in theatrical and social London—“the actor baronet” to the popular newspapers—and a very astute observer. “Winston Churchill is making inflammatory speeches again,” he wrote in his diary in May 1936, months before the abdication fiasco.

He is a curious character. A sort of Mary Queen of Scots of modern politics. He is bound to emerge historically as a romantic and glamorous figure, but he is surrounded by corpses. No one who has ever served him or been in any way connected to his career, has ever survived to tell the story.*

That is what plenty of civilized, intelligent Englishmen thought.

Even after Churchill had become prime minister he inspired alarm. “Chips” Channon, the American-born Chamberlainite MP and social diarist, may have been unusual in thinking Churchill’s accession “perhaps the darkest day in English history,” but Lukacs cites plenty of other witnesses that spring of 1940 who called Churchill “unscrupulous,” “unreliable,” and “lacking political judgement.” Not only appeasers and pacifists were dismayed about what kind of war he might wage. The situation after the retreat from Dunkirk at the end of May 1940 was desperate; was it not likely that Churchill would resort to desperate measures?


So he did. After the Luftwaffe attacked London in September 1940, Churchill broadcast an eloquent denunciation of “these cruel, wanton, indiscriminate bombings.” He always had a capacity for believing what he wanted to believe, sometimes to the point of cognitive dissonance, and that phrase was rich coming from him. Two months earlier he had told Beaverbrook (one more of his disreputable circle) that the only thing that could now defeat Hitler was “an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers.”

Those words are quoted by Nicholson Baker in Human Smoke, a genuine curiosity (which has already appeared on The New York Times best-seller list, while being denounced as “a bad book” by Lukacs). It is an anthology or collage that the novelist has compiled from contemporary sources—notably the old newspapers he collects—and is made of short items, mostly from the years 1939–1941. One dated “It was June 15, 1940” will tell us that the war cabinet was discussing the merits of poison gas (whose use against “uncivilised tribes” in Iraq Churchill had defended in 1920), another, “It was July 2, 1941,” that Reinhard Heydrich had issued murderous instructions to the SS.

These clippings are printed usually without comment, though not without purpose. In reply to the phrase “selective quotation,” Conor Cruise O’Brien once observed that all quotation was selective, otherwise it wouldn’t be quotation, but Baker’s method is not so much selective as openly polemical: his items are presented in such a way as to defend those who opposed the war, and indict those who waged it. This doesn’t always work. The admirable Jeanette Rankin, Republican of Montana, the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, one of fifty who voted there against the declaration of war in April 1917, and the only one who did so in December 1941, comes out well. As William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette wrote, one may entirely disagree with her vote after Pearl Harbor, “But Lord, it was a brave thing!” Gandhi comes out badly, on the other hand, with his offensive advice to the European Jews to accept their fate: “I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of the dictators”—fatuous words, admittedly said before millions rather than thousands were immolated.

Was it a ‘good war’?” Baker asks. “Did waging it help anyone who needed help?” He doesn’t present a precise or a consecutive argument in reply. But there are really several more distinct questions. Is all war wrong? Was this war wrong? And even if it was justified, was it waged with means which defiled its purpose? In Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, Patrick Buchanan raises further questions almost more unusual than Baker’s, while his thesis is still more provocative, insisting that this particular war was needless.

Although Buchanan’s argument isn’t stupid, it requires something like a historiographical sleight of hand, and is conducted backward, as it were. He cannot say that there was nothing wrong with Hitler, and he doesn’t argue, as some right-wing English historians such as John Charmley and the late Alan Clark have done, that Hitler represented no threat to England and the British Empire and that he should have been given a free hand in Europe. And from his position as an American conservative nationalist, Buchanan is scarcely going to follow Charmley and Clark and say that the real enemy of Great Britain and its empire was the United States.

Instead he says that Hitler would never have come to power had it not been for the previous war followed by the vengeful Versailles settlement, and that the war in 1914 had itself been mistaken, or even provoked by British policy, however little the English ostensibly wanted it (apart from Churchill, needless to say; Buchanan quotes Sir Maurice Hankey: “He had a real zest for war”). This is not new. Between the wars it was regularly asserted by high-minded Englishmen and Americans that no country was ever more responsible than any other for any war; that Germany had been at least as much sinned against as sinning; and that the postwar settlement was a grave injustice. Since these were specifically liberal doctrines, it is amusing to see them reiterated by Buchanan, who is not specifically liberal.

What Buchanan seems unaware of is how much those views have been undermined by recent scholarship. One may well think the whole idea of war guilt foolish, and the clause in the Versailles Treaty attributing such guilt to Germany “caddish,” as Harold Nicolson called it. And yet many historians in the field now concur that Germany bears the principal responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914. As Bernard Wasserstein shows in Barbarism and Civilization, his excellent recent history of the twentieth century, a belief that war was the only way that Germany could achieve its rightful aims had “become deeply entrenched in the collective mentality of the German political elite by 1914.”

As to the postwar settlement, Margaret MacMillan in Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World and Zara Steiner in The Lights That Failed: European International History, 1919– 1933 (to take but two recent learned studies) concur that Versailles wasn’t really such a vindictive treaty in the circumstances. Buchanan has a point when he indicts the entire Wilsonian creed of self-determination, and its hypocritically partial application after 1918, quoting another critic for whom Versailles “draped the crudity of conquest…in the veil of morality.” But it is mere rhetoric for him to say that “France and Britain got the peace they had wanted. Twenty years later, they would get the war they had invited.”

Where Buchanan, in his vehement way, is obviously right is that the war to defeat Hitler had largely unintended and immensely destructive outcomes. In a chapter entitled “Fatal Blunder,” he condemns as utter folly the British guarantee to Poland in 1939, the proximate cause of the war, thereby allowing himself another swipe at Churchill, who said that “the preservation and integrity of Poland must be regarded as a cause commanding the regard of all the world.” These words sounded very hollow after the alliance with Stalin and its consequences, including the repressive Communist regime in Poland. (Buchanan makes free with the word “blunder”: he also calls Hitler’s horrible Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 “an historic blunder.”)

Whether or not one follows Buchanan’s apocalyptic vision of the West in terminal decline—like other conservatives, he doesn’t seem to have noticed that communism has been routed—it is of course true that World War II led to the cold war and the forty-year subjection of Eastern Europe. But then much of what he is saying was said more concisely by A.J.P. Taylor long ago, in a throwaway line glossing the very speech that is Lukacs’s main text, and the one phrase “victory at all costs.” Taylor writes:

This was exactly what the opponents of Churchill had feared, and even he hardly foresaw all that was involved. Victory, even if this meant placing the British empire in pawn to the United States; victory, even if it meant Soviet domination of Europe; victory at all costs.

Here was the nub of the problem. To defeat Hitler meant paying a very heavy political price, and meant waging war, when there seemed no other way in 1940–1941, with methods which would have seemed atrocious not long before. “At all costs” for Churchill also meant the ruthless bombing of German and Japanese cities and the killing of their civilian inhabitants. Nothing is more chilling in Human Smoke than Churchill’s language about this, especially since, as Baker puts it, Churchill saw bombing in pedagogic terms:

Let them have a good dose where it will hurt them most…. It is time that the Germans should be made to suffer in their own homelands and cities…. The burning of Japanese cities by incendiary bombs [will bring home their errors] in a most effective way.

Why, it might almost be Hillary Clinton threatening “to totally obliterate” a distant country.

And yet the strangest thing is that Churchill knew what a hateful regression all this was, or a part of him knew that. In My Early Life, his most engaging book, he writes a romantic reverie about cavalry warfare in the good old days, cast aside in “a greedy, base, opportunist” manner by

chemists in spectacles and chauffeurs pulling at the levers of aeroplanes…. War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid…we now have entire populations, including even women and children, pitted against one another in brutish mutual extermination.

Ten years after writing that, Churchill led the way in cruel, brutish, and exterminatory war-making against women and children, partly thanks to his uncompromising personality, partly thanks to what was seen as the logic of the situation. Three years after he hoped for “devastating, exterminating” attacks on civilians, he was shown blazing German towns filmed from the air, and exclaimed, “Are we beasts? Have we taken this too far?” And two years after that he tried (not very creditably) to dissociate himself from the destruction of Dresden by Bomber Command. He was the same man—the same immensely complex man—in 1930, 1940, 1943, and 1945. He was the same man still when, in his last speech as prime minister before his final retirement in 1955, he wondered sadly, “Which way shall we turn to save our lives and the future of the world?”

Those words are quoted by John Lukacs at the end of his essay, though he doesn’t draw any further moral. Lynne Olson does. In the best sentence in her book, about the Suez adventure of 1956, she writes, “Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the lessons of Munich and appeasement were wrongly applied to a later international crisis.” Likewise, having rightly observed that “there has arisen among America’s elite a Churchill cult,” Patrick Buchanan devotes a chapter, “Man of the Century,” to denouncing the cult, and the man. He not only looks askance at Churchill’s saying in September 1943 that “to achieve the extirpation of Nazi tyranny there are no lengths of violence to which we will not go”; he chastises the administration of George Bush the Younger—who installed a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office—for having emulated “every folly of imperial Britain in her plunge from power,” and having drawn every wrong lesson from Churchill’s career. There is by now an entire book to be written about the way that “Munich,” “appeasement,” and “Churchill” have been ritually invoked, from Suez to Vietnam to Iraq, so often in false analogy, and so often with calamitous results.

Which of us knows for sure whether any war can ever be “good”? The conclusion one might well draw from the story told in different ways by these books is that there may never be good wars or just wars, but that there may be necessary wars; and that the war in which Churchill led his country, awful and inexcusable as its means sometimes were, and grim as many of its consequences, really was a “war of necessity,” just as much as the present war in Iraq was not. We should almost be grateful to George Bush and Tony Blair for illuminating the distinction.

  1. *

    I am grateful to my friend Selina Hastings for this fascinating passage, which she found while reading Bartlett’s unpublished diaries for the purpose of her forthcoming life of Somerset Maugham.

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