Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill; drawing by David Levine

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 The trouble about this book is that though it contains a lot of unpublished material it cannot compare with Robert Rhodes James’s biography of Lord Randolph Churchill in its understanding either of the political background or of the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.

How few of his strategic initiatives in the war bear examination in the cold light of hindsight! Alanbrooke, by far the ablest British commander in the three armed services, used to complain that the Prime Minister could not keep in his head the overall strategy dictated by logistics, geography, modern weapons, and enemy dispositions, none of which he really comprehended. Off Churchill would go chasing dreams of glory. “Look at the glittering prizes” he said of the Mediterranean when the collapse of Italy threw German plans into confusion. So British troops were sent to capture Greek islands without air support and a few hundred more were put in the bag by the swift German reaction. Looked at piecemeal, his career, surpassed in length only by that of Gladstone, seems to display none of that inner consistency or development which is normally associated with statesmenship.

And yet…is the verdict of well-informed judicious men always to be the measurement of man? “Good judgment” is in most cases the anticipation of the opinions of others. It is, of course, in some degree indispensable for success in any venture, but as a virtue it is grossly overrated. The crucial shifts in policy which remove injustice, or improve conditions of life, or even those which realign alliances, are seldom made by men renowned for their good judgment. Good judgment all too often is the quality discerned in those who oppose change until events have either made the change inevitable, or until, after years of injustice and inefficiency, the older generation of public opinion grudgingly acquiesces in what the younger demands. Churchill was determined to impose his will upon events. The extent to which any man can do so is circumscribed by the impersonal forces of history, but the reason why he fascinates the public imagination is that people still sense that here was a man who was not gray, dim, well-meaning, sound, and prudent, but who delighted in action almost for its own sake.

Such men breed resentment because they disturb other people too much. Churchill might be at times starkly reactionary, he might lack any consistent thread of policy, but he was the enemy of the Establishment, the bien pensants, the apologists for the status quo. He was never in any meaningful sense a liberal, still less a radical, nor was he guided by a philosophic conservatism. He was obviously not a technocrat. But he had many of the instincts of a technocrat: he got hold of ideas, found others to hammer them into shape, reshaped their offerings, and when he was in office forced these policies through by hard work, diligence, and political intuition.

He was not all that inconsistent. In 1909 he opposed naval rearmament. Three years later he was advocating it. In the Twenties, as A.J.P.Taylor is fond of reminding us, it was Churchill who made permanent the instructions to the service chiefs that they need not plan for a major war in the next ten years. He was thus responsible for the British disarmament which he was later to denounce. But is this as inconsistent as it may appear at first sight? For all his bellicosity Churchill rightly put expenditure on welfare before armaments in times when there was no immediate foreign threat to Britain. It was the judicious well-informed men who failed before the Second World War to relate armaments to the international situation. Or indeed after it: for the maniac policy of the British since 1945 of expenditure on armaments and of attempting to act as policemen of the Middle and Far East has more than anything else led the country to its present state of perennial economic debility.

And when the worst is said about Churchill’s impulsiveness and his egoism, which made him ignore the art of acquiring a political following, who was there, in his generation or after, among the men of sound judgment who can be shown to have been much wiser in their analysis of events? The peaceable, lazy Baldwin? The despicable Simon? Either of the mundane Chamberlains? Certainly not Keynes, who was more consistently wrong about political events than Churchill. The only candidate is Lloyd-George. And of Lloyd-George it can only be said that after 1919 and for the rest of his lifetime he was justly discredited as a corrupt, opportunist power-seeker who had lost all touch with the principles in which he had once believed or with the changes in social institutions and structure which had largely made those principles out of date.

The more one reflects on Churchill’s career the more one wonders whether the legend is not more important than the facts. Of course historical analysis will justly destroy the more fanciful parts of the legend. He will hardly qualify as a simple Cincinnatus, recalled from tilling his fields or from bricklaying at Chartwell to save his country. To the economic or the social historian he will be less interesting than a dozen other figures of his generation. But the political historian, or those who attempt from time to time to portray the rise and decline of the English nation, will be unable to neglect him.

The legend will be intertwined with the Churchill family. The English like to think of themselves as rising once again to fame after the defeats of the Hundred Years War under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. But in fact during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which absorb so much of the energy of British historians, England was still a peripheral European power, and it was only the victories of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, with Prince Eugen over the French, that put England among the concert of the Great Powers. Under Chatham—the statesman whom Winston Churchill most resembles—England emerged as the leading imperial nation and a decisive world force. During the nineteenth century she had the most powerful navy, was the first to industrialize, and was the most important commercial power in the world. Even after the disaster of the First World War she still kept the peace in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East, and was one of the few stable powers in Europe. But since the Eighties her economic and industrial strength had been sapped, and also after the slaughter of the First World War had her self-confidence: she no longer was able to act, as she had done at times during the previous century, as the arbiter in world disputes.

In the confusion of appeasement and the defeats of 1940 Britain could have gone the way of other European states. That she did not was in great measure due to Churchill, and he added a noble chapter to Britain’s history as a world power. But it was the last chapter. He was resourceful, adaptable, resilient in adversity, and the great animator of the nation at war. But by nature, by his advanced age, and by conviction he looked back to the past. How could he do otherwise? Not for him the romantic notions of a new structure of European society, not for him the new notion that the working classes were no longer to be objects of charity but were finally incorporated into society not merely politically by franchise but socially through the welfare state. Both A.J.P. Taylor and J. H. Plumb as distinguished historians note that what in a sense misled Churchill was his own passionate devotion to the history of his country. For he was inspired by a vision of history that had long been exploded by professional historians. Nevertheless as long as political history continues to be written, he will symbolize the end of an epoch just as his ancestor, Marlborough, is the symbol of its beginning.

It is just possible that he will be remembered in another way. Perhaps every age is the prisoner of its own conception of history, and our own conception, with its analysis of social forces and emphasis on movements rather than men, diminishes our belief in the value of the individual. To this distrust of individual initiative even historians such as Taylor contribute. For Taylor shows a strong Tolstoyan tendency to discredit the power of ideologies and inexorable historical processes in favor of a blind contingency whereby political action and in particular calculated reforms produce results totally different from what their authors intended. One of the most attractive parts of the Churchill legend is that he did in fact make an impact upon events by his own will power. The stream of minutes, memoranda, speeches, and above all executive action through the Chiefs of Staff gave the appearance of a man setting his stamp on events and not suffering them to dictate to him.

His mind was not only pre-Marxist. It was pre-Freud. Plutarch would have described him admirably because Churchill accepted as virtues those by which Plutarch judged the great men of antiquity. He felt himself bound to follow honor, renown, clemency, and dignity. He drew no distinction between private and public virtue. Plutarch judged Alcibiades, Agis, Aristides, Brutus, or Sulla in relation to Aristotle’s model of Magnanimous Man. Magnanimous Man scorns to take petty revenges or to act dishonorably—though he may have to act sternly—in defense of his country. Magnanimous Man burns with the desire to leave an imperishable name behind him. Plutarch said of one of his heroes: “Ambition and the passion for distinction were implanted in Lysander’s character.” Churchill had a strongly developed moral instinct and, as Baldwin noted years later, was incapable of wily dissimulation or of telling a lie. He could be severe with his staff because he expected them to adhere to the tenets of this straightforward morality. He could be ruthless: Beaverbrook said that when he had the bit between his teeth he was of the stuff that tyrants are made. But Plutarchian virtue and his intense awareness of the verdict of history restrained him.

Hochhuth’s play might have been excused if it had been justified as a variant on Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan. What is inexcusable is the ludicrous libel, supported by rubbishy conjecture and strings of falsehoods, that Churchill actually ordered the murder of Sikorsky. His life is a refutation of the charge. In a curious way Churchill may impose upon historians in the future his own vision of history. They may be able to discern some broad principle which reconciles some of the more startling changes in policy, but apart from his brief spell in the field of social insurance it is hard to associate him with any of the movements of change in his country. But they will never be able to convey the true sense of British politics in the first half of this century without often referring to this astonishing phenomenon who, almost totally ignorant of how the rest of his countrymen lived, exhibited so many of their characteristics in a most memorable form, and was hailed in his old age, after a lifetime of unfulfilled promise, as the savior of his country.

And yet…. The hammers of a new generation are tapping and the chips of marble are beginning to fly. Suppose you extend the line which Taylor took about Poland, where does the argument lead? If the war to “save” Poland ended with her population decimated, her army exiled, her frontiers transformed, and the country chained to Stalinist Russia, was Britain “saved”—and at whose expense, and with what false dreams of glory during the next twenty years? To those who lived through those days and believed in the justice of the war against Hitler, the question seems absurd. But to a new generation which rejects authority and tradition, regards the politics of compromise as equivocation and equates war with world destruction, Churchill will seem to be an anachronistic and hostile figure. As Keynes said when reviewing The Aftermath, one almost became a little envious of Churchill’s sublime certitude that the pursuit of power and the arbitration of war were the most important of the eternal verities.

If Britain during the next fifty years becomes a small nation of very limited power, the sensibility of her people will change and with that her conception of her historical role. What then will become of the reputation of her national heroes, of Chatham and Churchill? In that case it is just possible that Churchill will find his place as the last Plutarchian leader, and in the new national myth the apotheosis will no longer enshrine the statesman exultant in his triumph but will reveal the figures of philosophers, reformers, and dreamers.

This Issue

July 10, 1969