In response to:
Excelsior! from the July 15, 1982 issue
To the Editors:
In his review of Churchill: Young Man in A Hurry: 1874-1915 [NYR, July 15] A.J.P. Taylor states that “in 1909 they [Churchill and Lloyd George] also worked together to oppose the increase in expenditures in the Royal Navy, an episode that Randolph Churchill entirely omits from his biography. Was he ashamed that his father took this line or did he regret that the resistance failed? In any case a curious omission.”
May I refer A.J.P. Taylor to volume II of the official biography by Randolph Churchill: Young Statesman 1901-1914, pp. 496-503 where he will find an adequate account of Churchill’s attempt to cut the estimates, beginning with the passage: “In 1908, Churchill’s naval views appeared to change. He joined with Lloyd George in seeking to cut down the McKenna naval estimates.” The passage is hard to miss, for every other page has a heading at the top of the page such as “Smashing McKenna’s Estimates” and “Four Dreadnoughts or Six?”
Elsewhere in his review, A.J.P. Taylor states that “the reader who has struggled through the ten volumes of Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert will find few surprises in the single volume by Ted Morgan but I doubt whether this is a highly numerous group.”
If it is a group that includes A.J.P. Taylor, why did he not “struggle through” the pages on the naval estimates instead of charging Randolph Churchill with a nonexistent omission? And if A.J.P. Taylor did not “struggle through” the ten volumes, then how does he know the number of surprises in my book?
In attributing various motives to “a curious omission” which is in fact dealt with for seven pages, A.J.P. Taylor has gone out of his way to display his own carelessness and unreliability. What is one to think of an established authority in the field, standing on the pedestal of his many published works, who is tripped up by his own eagerness to find a “curious omission” that does not exist? Should one give him the benefit of the doubt in his other assertions or should one be on guard against a pattern of unreliability and carelessness?
I won’t dwell on minor errors of fact (it was not 1909 but in a period extending from December 1908 to February 1909 that the navel estimates were thrashed out) but on the tone of the review, which uses some of the cheapest tricks in the reviewer’s bag.
The first is to lift the entire review from the book (even the last anecdote when Churchill calls the war delicious) without attribution and then to dismiss the book.
The second is to distort what the author has said. Surely A.J.P. Taylor knows (unless he is even more muddled than I think) that Asquith’s passion for a young girl had a bearing on Churchill’s dismissal as First Lord in 1915, but he gives the impression that I brought the whole matter up to titillate the reader. Surely he knows, if he “struggled through” my single volume, that far from being mesmerized by admiration for Churchill I concluded that “this is how Churchill was seen by his contemporaries, not as a great man but as a flawed man whose defects of character and judgment were as alarming as his gift of leadership was authentic.” My book is in fact highly critical of Churchill, and takes the point of view that greatness is not retroactive, but of this you will find next to nothing in A.J.P. Taylor’s review. I call that a curious omission.
New York City
A.J.P Taylor replies:
My apologies to Ted Morgan and to the shade of Randolph Churchill for getting the “curious” and entirely erroneous idea into my head that Randolph passed lightly over the conflict over the naval estimates in the winter of 1908-1909. I dreamed the whole thing and must be getting senile. Of course I took most of my review from Ted Morgan’s book—that is what reviews are for. However I am unrepentent at showing some skepticism over the story that Asquith mishandled the political crisis of 1915 because Venetia Stanley, his girl friend, sprang on him the news that she was going to marry Edwin Montagu. I think the story was blown up later by Asquith’s daughter, Lady Violet Bonham Carter.
October 21, 1982