Churchill as Liberty's Champion
As their subtitles reveal, most of Churchill's biographers acclaim him as a hero: Isaiah Berlin's mystical tribute, A Portrait of a Great Man at a Great Moment; Geoffrey Best's balanced praise, A Study in Greatness; Martin Gilbert's meticulous volumes, including The Prophet of Truth and Finest Hour; William Manchester's virile adventure story, The Last Lion. Memoirs like Violet Bonham-Carter's intimate portrait, Pug Ismay's loyal account, and Jock Colville's reminiscences argue the same case. And of course, of all the mythmakers, no one did more than Churchill himself to construct the heroic "Churchill."
A torrent of facts proves their conclusions: that Churchill was a great man and the savior of his country; a farsighted statesman; a brilliant politician, orator, and writer; a loving husband and father; a man with a few endearing faults--or if not endearing, excusable.
No leader did more for his country than Winston Churchill. Brave, magnanimous, traditional, he was like a king-general from Britain's heroic past. His gigantic qualities set him apart from ordinary humanity; there seemed no danger he feared, no effort too great for his limitless energies.
Churchill's finest hour came in 1940. After warning for years against the Nazi threat, he rallied Britain to stand alone against Germany--after France and so many countries had fallen, and before the Soviet Union and the United States could be prodded into action. Churchill--with his tremendous gifts of eloquence, energy, and refusal to compromise and with his colorful symbols of cigar, whiskey, and V sign--became an icon of courage and liberty. In the greatest conflict in human history, which consumed the lives of 55 million people, Churchill alone saved England and the world.
But the famous triumphs of 1940 are just a small part of his story. Churchill burst into public life as a war hero and journalist and entered national politics at age twenty-five. Within a few years, he was a leading English figure--in fact, the first Churchill biography appeared when he was merely thirty-one years old. In his sixty-two years in the House of Commons, Churchill held every major government office, with the exception (ironically, given his tremendous influence in Foreign Affairs) of foreign secretary. This experience gave him an unparalleled grasp of the workings of Britain's civil and military machinery.
Churchill's abilities weren't exhausted by political administration. His voluminous writings and speeches were of remarkable quality and influence; he was an accomplished painter, a fast bricklayer, an airplane pilot, a polo player, and a crack shot; he was also a devoted husband and loving father.
The facts of Churchill's life are fabulous in their sweep--a pageant of English life. His earliest memory was of watching scarlet soldiers on horseback while his grandfather, the Duke of Marlborough, addressed a crowd in Ireland. India, primogeniture, the trenches, Windsor Castle, silver trays, labor strikes, puddings, rose gardens, lions, umbrellas . . . all these weave through his story.
Winston Churchill was born on November 30, 1874. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a gifted politician and a descendant of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough and the greatest British general of the eighteenth century. His mother Jennie, a beautiful, accomplished American, was the daughter of New York financier Leonard Jerome.
From boyhood, Churchill had craved adventure, and in 1896, he sailed with the Fourth Hussars to India. There, restless with a cavalry officer's light duties, he pored over works by Macaulay, Gibbon, Darwin, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as records of parliamentary debates and his father's speeches, in a rigorous program of self-education. Impatient to make his name, to see action, and to earn money, Churchill also won assignments as a war correspondent. This began his career as a writer; over his lifetime, he would write acclaimed books about military campaigns he'd seen, biographies, histories, essays, and even a novel as well as innumerable magazine and newspaper articles.
In 1899, Churchill set off to report from the Boer War, where he was captured during a brave attempt to rescue an armored train. He soon managed to escape and, as he stole across enemy countryside, happened by pure luck to knock at the door of a British-born coal-mine manager, who arranged his passage to safety. He received a hero's welcome, and the thrilling story of a Duke's grandson outfoxing the enemy made him a national celebrity.
But Churchill knew he wanted to be a politician, not a soldier. Back in England in 1900, he won his first election and entered the House of Commons as a Conservative at age twenty-five, as his father had done at the same age.
Because of his strong support for free trade, in 1904 Churchill switched from the Conservative to the Liberal Party. His talents shot him into prominence, and, already a Cabinet member at age thirty-three, he would go on to hold a remarkable array of offices. His tremendous abilities, forcefulness, and trenchant wit were acknowledged by everyone. In no time, Churchill made himself into an outsize public figure famous throughout Britain; he wasn't even thirty-five years old when Madame Tussaud's added his life-size wax figure to its displays.
In 1908, after a whirlwind courtship, he married Clementine Hozier, to whom he remained happily married for the rest of his life.
In his early Cabinet posts, Churchill helped build the foundation for the modern welfare state; then, in a move that marked a shift from domestic to military policy, he became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. Although his tenure there was among the most satisfying in his career, it ended in frustration.
During World War I, Churchill championed a daring plan to break the war's bloody stalemate by taking the Dardanelles Straits, which lie between the Turkish mainland and the Gallipoli Peninsula. By forcing the Dardanelles, the link between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and by seizing Constantinople, the capital of Britain's enemy, Turkey, the allies could ship supplies directly to Russia's Black Sea ports--and by helping the Russian armies, reduce pressure on the Western Front.
The War Cabinet approved Churchill's plan but failed to ensure sufficient support, and despite Churchill's monumental efforts to save the campaign, it failed. When the Liberal government fell, the Conservatives insisted on Churchill's ouster as a condition of coalition. Out of office, discouraged by his inability to contribute to the war effort, Churchill went to serve at the Western Front (no other politician of his stature served in the trenches). His war against lice, his improvements to conditions, and his fearlessness under fire won the admiration of his men. Too capable to be allowed to remain in the field for long, he returned to London in 1917 to take up a series of important positions.
After returning to the Conservative Party, Churchill ascended in 1924 to Chancellor of the Exchequer--a post second only to the Prime Minister. He'd nearly reached the summit of power.
In the "wilderness period" of the 1930s, however, the political tide turned against him. From the sidelines, he hammered against the menace of German rearmament and the policy of appeasing dictators, but for years, no one listened. Over time, though, as Hitler's treachery confirmed his predictions, Churchill's authority grew. He'd long urged a confrontation with Germany, and when Britain declared war, it was clear that Churchill must join the fight. He returned as First Lord of the Admiralty.
When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's government fell in May 1940, the nation turned to Churchill. At last his unique qualities were brought to bear on a supreme challenge, and with his unshakable optimism, his heroic vision, and above all, his splendid speeches, Churchill roused the spirit of the British people. Years later, Churchill recalled this time: "There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end." Churchill lit that glow.
On June 16, 1940, France collapsed. Britain stood alone, under constant air attack and threat of invasion, while Germany controlled all of Europe. "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties," Churchill exhorted, "and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.' "
On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and Churchill immediately pledged British aid. On December 7, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and Britain declared war on Japan even before the U.S. Congress did. The three great Allies were then engaged, to fight to the end, despite their profound differences. Slowly, the Allies began to turn the tide, and after years of battle, Germany capitulated. On May 8, 1945, as Churchill announced victory in Europe, an enormous crowd gathered to cheer him. "In all our long history," he thundered, "we have never seen a greater day than this."
Churchill wasn't allowed to savor victory. Within weeks, to the shock of the entire world, he was voted out of office by a public determined to put memories of the war and its sacrifices behind them. With remarkable prescience, Churchill had observed in 1930: "The Englishman will not, except on great occasions, be denied the indulgence of kicking out the Ministers of the Crown whoever they are." In 1945, the British people showed him just how well he understood them.
On August 14, 1945, after two strikes by atomic bombs, Japan surrendered.
After the war, Churchill devoted himself to writing, but he wasn't content merely to comment on history. He continued to be an influence on foreign affairs and in March 1946, on a visit to the United States, gave his famous speech: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." The public called Churchill back to power in 1951, and he remained Prime Minister until old age finally halted him in 1955. He took leave of Queen Elizabeth, whose great-great-grandmother had reigned when he received his army commission.
Still active in retirement, in 1962, at age eighty-seven, he broke his hip while abroad. A French hospital prepared a bed for him, but he said, "I want to die in England." The Prime Minister sent a Royal Air Force Comet to bring Churchill back to London. Churchill kept his seat in the House of Commons, the institution he loved so much, until 1964.
Winston Churchill died on January 24, 1965, at age ninety, and in a rare honor, received a state funeral. Hundreds of thousands of people stood in line for hours to pay their respects to the man who'd done so much, in so many capacities, for his country. Afterward, his body was carried by train through the winter countryside to Bladon churchyard, where he'd chosen to be buried beside his father.
"We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be," Churchill had vowed in June 1940. "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds . . . we shall never surrender." His service to his country will never be forgotten, and his words will be celebrated as long as the world rolls round.
Churchill as Failed Statesman
Laboring beside the Churchill mythmakers are the demythologizers, who challenge the heroic accounts by exposing a different set of facts. Clive Ponting, for example, emphasizes Churchill's reactionary, arrogant ideas; John Charmley argues that Churchill's unrealistic dedication to war and trust in the United States led to the collapse of British power; and David Cannadine amasses evidence of Churchill's many character flaws. Diaries and letters, such as those by Lord Moran and General Sir Alan Brooke, divulge Churchill's failings as an administrator, a strategist, and a colleague.
Together, these describe an opportunistic, antidemocratic, warmongering, spendthrift egotist who, with his obstinate belligerence and sentimental trust of the United States, fatally undermined the Empire.
Churchill was a crossbreed of English aristocracy and American plutocracy.
On his father's side, the Churchills were a textbook example of a blue-blooded dynasty in decline. Though the Marlborough line was ancient, family members distinguished themselves mostly by debts, gambling, drinking, philandering, and scandal. Churchill's father Randolph shared many of these faults. He was a brilliant but unstable demagogue who rocketed his way to early political prominence and then threw away his career when, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he resigned over a budget issue. He never held office again and died young and insane, likely from syphilis.
The family of Churchill's American mother, Jennie Jerome, was also inclined toward gambling, profligacy, and infidelity (Jennie was named after one of her father's mistresses, Swedish soprano Jenny Lind). Jennie escaped none of these undesirable family traits. She had numerous lovers, many of whom would be conscripted to boost her son Winston's career. Throughout her life, her extravagance would keep her on the brink of financial disaster.
Randolph and Jennie met on August 12, 1873, and married the following April. Winston was born only seven months later--according to the Times, prematurely, but not everyone believed that.
Too busy with their fashionable lives to take an interest in their children, Jennie and Randolph left their two sons mostly in servants' care. Churchill depended on his nanny Mrs. Everest--whom he called "Woom" or "Woomany"--for affection and attention. Already at boarding school at age nine, Churchill wrote his negligent mother, "It is very unkind of you not to write to me before this, I have only had one letter from you this term." When his parents did concern themselves with Winston, he disappointed them with school reports of tardiness, laziness, and misbehavior. He also lisped on the letter s, which gave his speech a slurred, unattractive sound.
His father arranged for him to go into the army--not out of any belief in Winston's military abilities but because he'd concluded his son wasn't clever enough to become a lawyer. Even so, Churchill twice flunked the entry exam for the military academy at Sandhurst and barely squeaked through after six months with a London "crammer." He qualified only for the cavalry--where, because financial demands on officers were greater, intellectual demands were lower than for the infantry.
Churchill's regiment arrived in India in 1896. Churchill had skated through school, but at this point he decided that to achieve the fame and power he craved, he must educate himself. In a crash course of self-improvement, Churchill read through an assortment of books sent by his mother. Throughout his life, he showed the undisciplined intelligence typical of autodidacts; he was incapable of rigorous analysis, and after making his conclusions, clung to them too stubbornly.
Over the next few years, Churchill schemed to join Britain's "little wars." He relished these battles: "This kind of war was full of fascinating thrills . . . at the worst thirty or forty, would pay the forfeit; but to the great mass of those who took part in the little wars of Britain in those vanished lighthearted days, this was only a sporting element in a splendid game." (The "fascinating thrills" were perhaps less obvious to those fighting the British. In the Battle of Omdurman, for example, British losses were 25 dead and 136 wounded; Muslim dervishes had 10,000 dead and 15,000 wounded.)
Copyright © 2003 by Gretchen Rubin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.