Winston Churchill is probably more revered today in the United States than he is in Britain. For the British he is a great statesman, certainly, and one to whom we owe it that 1940 was our finest hour rather than a year of humiliation and disaster. But he stands in a line of other great statesmen-the two William Pitts, the Duke of Wellington, perhaps David Lloyd George-who brought us through comparable trials.
In the United States, however, Churchill is seen as a chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, surpassing any comparable American figure-with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln-in his goodness and greatness. Shrines to his memory proliferate across the United States. American presidents from Kennedy to Bush, perhaps unable to find appropriate figures among their own predecessors, have taken him implicitly or explicitly as a role model, focusing on his supposed shrewdness of judgment in peacetime and his undoubted qualities of leadership in time of war. The well-founded suspicions felt for him by his American contemporaries, that he was primarily concerned with harnessing American power to the service of British interests, have largely melted away. Churchill is now seen as the last great leader of the West, one whose like we shall not see again.
This is understandable enough. In spite of his indomitable John Bullishness, Churchill took far after his American ancestors far more than his English ones, something for which anyone who reads, in the Blake-Louis volume reviewed here, David Cannadine's hilarious account of the drunken, degenerate, spendthrift family from which he sprang has cause to be grateful. His arrogance, his egocentricity, his flamboyance, his emotionalism, his unpredictability, his remorseless energy, not least his eccentric taste in friends and generous indulgence in drink made him an outsider to the British "establishment" from the moment he entered politics at the beginning of the century until the day in May 1940 when they turned to him in despair because there was no one else to whom they could turn.
More importantly, Churchill is remembered in Britain for a political career that was checkered, to use no stronger a term. He switched parties with a nonchalance that few found endearing, and was given office, as often as not, because he was more of a nuisance outside the government than inside it. His judgment on major issues was frequently terrible. Even his credibility about the danger posed by Hitler's Germany was eroded, for his contemporaries, by his stubborn resistance to the granting of self-government to India and by his lone stand in defense of King Edward VIII. By the 1930s the fact that Winston was on one side of an argument was seen by most sensible people as a good reason for being on the other. One of his most perceptive biographers, Robert Rhodes-James, wrote a study of Churchill's career up to 1939 and entitled it quite legitimately Churchill: A Study in Failure. The problem for the historian is not, as so many Americans believe, why Churchill's advice was ignored for so long, but how it was that a man with so unpromising a background and so disastrous a track record could emerge in 1940 as the savior of his country.
Of the two volumes under review here, the first is by a group of established, if not "establishment," historians containing few surprises, and the second by a scholar of a younger generation who tries to pack as many controversial judgments into his 650 pages of text as the volume can hold.1 The American contributors to the edited volume include Gordon Craig writing on Churchill and Germany; Warren Kimball on Churchill and Roosevelt; Stephen Ambrose on Churchill and Eisenhower; and Roger Louis, one of the editors, on Churchill and Egypt after 1945. The British contributors are too numerous to mention here individually, but they-sorry, we-are all immensely eminent, and there is one Indian scholar, Sarvepalli Gopal, who writes about Churchill's disastrous record with respect to his own country more in sorrow than in anger.
Although there are few surprises, there are a number of points that may come fresh. One, made by no less an authority than Ronald Hyam, is how little real interest Churchill took in the British Empire by which he set so much store. Such knowledge of it as he possessed had been gained during his brief tours of duty at the Colonial Office in 1905-1908, when he had to deal mainly with South Africa, and in 1921-1922, when he focused on the settlement in the Middle East. He never visited India after he left it as a cavalry subaltern in 1897, taking with him a collection of prejudices that he was never to change, and he never penetrated farther east at all. Robert O'Neill confirms in his essay that the Pacific region was a faraway country of which Churchill knew nothing, and points out the calamitous results that his neglect of British defenses, naval and military, in Southeast Asia was to have for British strategy-and Commonwealth relations-in the Second World War.
It may, however, come as a surprise for those who think of Churchill primarily as a great war leader to find how much interest he took in domestic affairs, and, as Paul Addison shows in his contribution, the leading part he played in social reform; both under Asquith between 1908 and 1912, when the foundations were being laid of "the welfare state," and under Baldwin between 1924 and 1929, when as Chancellor of the Exchequer he collaborated closely with Neville Chamberlain at the Ministry of Health to extend a scheme of comprehensive social insurance. Almost the only American president who has not yet cited Churchill as a role model is President Clinton. He is better entitled to do so than some of his predecessors.
But there are two outstanding contributions that should be read by all uncritical admirers of Churchill: Richard Ollard's "Churchill and the Navy" and Donald Cameron Watt's "Churchill and Appeasement." In a beautifully balanced piece, Ollard shows how Churchill, by his long-overdue reforms at the Admiralty before 1914, made the Royal Navy ready for war, but also, by his detailed meddling with every aspect of its activities and harassing of its officers, very nearly wrecked it. His bullying of his wretched subordinates to make them endorse his project for forcing the Dardanelles, a major enterprise undertaken with minimal examination of the operational problems involved, was all too typical of his conduct of affairs. It was to be repeated in the disastrous Norwegian fiasco of 1940; and any admiral tough enough to stand up to him won his undying enmity. He preferred somnolent yes-men like Dudley Pound, who played Keitel to Churchill's Hitler, or flamboyant heroes like Roger Keyes, who shared his own cavalry-subaltern approach to naval strategy. Here Ollard's profound knowledge of British naval history provides valuable illumination:
Cunningham continued to be amazed at how little this great war minister of unrivaled experience understood the nature or application of sea power. Churchill remained, as he had been in his youth, a cavalry officer, looking on naval men, however eminent, as narrow-minded experts, unfit to have a say in the larger use of their unsurpassed professional skill. Essentially it was the view of the pre-Pepys navy when officers were generally classed as Gentlemen, whose function it was to lead men and fleets into battle, and Tarpaulins, who supplied the expert knowledge necessary to work the ships and fire the guns. In the twentieth century ministers such as himself and Lloyd George were the Gentlemen, the admirals the Tarpaulins.
As for "appeasement," Professor Cameron Watt firmly sets the record straight. "The Churchill critique [of Neville Chamberlain's policy]," he writes, "can be reduced to three propositions: that a greater rate of British rearmament would have deterred Hitler; that a more aggressive style would have deterred him at critical moments in his advance; and that a grand coalition would have deterred him or led to his overthrow." As to the first, we now know that from 1935 onward the British government was pushing rearmament as fast as economic constraints would permit, and the only aspect of it that Churchill wished to see speeded up was in the air. In fact, Hitler never showed the slightest signs of being impressed by the growth of British air power, and Churchill never showed the slightest interest in pressing for the only kind of rearmament that might have impressed him, the building up of a large continental-style army that would have reassured the French and presented the Germans with a real deterrent to initiating a war on either their eastern or western fronts. Nor did Churchill show any interest in building up the navy, to whose obsolescence his own policy, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, had made so major a contribution. Even in the air, Churchill showed no interest in the development of the defensive fighters that were to save England during the Battle of Britain, while his confidant Professor Lindemann initially did his best to delay the development of radar that was to make that victory possible.
As for a more aggressive policy, the evidence shows that when Britain did stand up to Hitler the result was not to deter him but to make him speed up his timetable of conquest. Revelation of the extent of British rearmament in 1937 made him lay out his accelerated program of aggrandizement to the east as reported by the Hossbach Memorandum, while the British guarantee to Poland of March 1939 provoked him into, rather than deterring him from, attacking that country. As to whether a more stalwart attitude would have provoked a general's putsch in Germany, or whether such a putsch would have been any more successful than that of Herr Kapp in 1919, we enter the realm of wishful thinking. For most historians of Nazi Germany, such a belief betrays a complete incomprehension of the strength of the totalitarian regime that the Nazis had established since 1933.
In light of what we now know of Hitler's intentions, it can thus hardly be argued that Churchill's policy would have prevented the war; nor can it be said that the kind of rearmament he was advocating-a massive increase in bomber strength of a kind already obsolete by 1939-would have put Britain in a better position to fight it. This does not mean that the policy of appeasement pursued by Chamberlain was necessarily right: insofar as it was animated by a desire to avoid war at all costs it was certainly wrong. But insofar as it was an attempt to gain time, to test Hitler's intentions and to build up British military strength to the point where war might be threatened as a serious option and conducted with the support of a virtually unanimous public opinion, there was a lot to be said for it. And there was even more to be said for it when we consider the economic predicament in which Britain found herself in the 1930s-a predicament not eased by the total disinterest displayed by an American government long on expressions of moralistic opinion but short on any intention to risk a single dollar or a single American life in backing up its declaratory policy. Churchill was able to act as he did in 1940 because he was prepared to take the huge gamble that the United States, in spite of all its professions of disinterest, would be prepared to come to the aid of Britain now that the worst had come to the worst. There was nothing whatever to suggest that this was the case either in 1938 or 1939.
THE CHARMLEY CRITIQUE
That brings us to John Charmley's book, an account of Churchill's career down to "the end of glory" in 1945. It is based on a commendably thorough trawl through the archives, although to find within the first few pages a reference to John Duke of Marlborough as "the greatest soldier of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries" and a quotation from Tennyson to the effect that nature was "careless of the individual, so careful of the type" indicates a cavalier disdain for accuracy of detail. Although Charmley is an avowedly "revisionist" historian and determined never to give Churchill the benefit of the doubt, much of his book is no more controversial than the revisionist views expressed by the contributors to the Blake-Louis volume. Further, such controversy as the book did arouse on publication was largely the consequence of a review by Alan Clark, a wealthy right-wing maverick and former junior minister, who expressed his own view that Churchill made a great mistake in rejecting Hitler's peace terms in 1940, since they would have preserved Britain's status as a world power far more effectively than did his policy of selling out to the Americans. Charmley does not exactly say this, though he comes very near it.
Charmley's thesis is, basically, that Churchill was a romantic and his opponents were realists; to adapt the deathless description of Cavaliers and Roundheads in 1066 And All That, he was Wrong but Wromantic, while they were Right though Repulsive. But Churchill's romanticism, Charmley maintains, was to destroy the independence of Britain and the power of the British Empire far more surely than did the caution of his adversaries. He draws a very interesting comparison between the controversy over India that divided Churchill from his colleagues in the Conservative Party and that over the appeasement of Germany a few years later. In both cases his opponents were conscious of the limitations of British power-limitations imposed partly by the weakness of the British economy and partly by their appreciation of what the British electorate (which since 1927 comprised every adult man and woman in the United Kingdom) was likely to stand. These limitations made it impossible to hold down India by force, and so Indian nationalism had to be "appeased," that is, Gandhi had to be treated as a serious interlocutor, with whom some compromise had to be reached. This Churchill denied: the prestige of the Empire made compromise impossible, its power made it unnecessary. So it was, in their eyes, with that other troublemaker, Hitler. Like Gandhi, Hitler had a certain amount of right on his side; like Gandhi he was making unacceptable demands that might be scaled down by negotiation; but neither the state of the British economy nor that of public opinion in the 1930s made possible the kind of uncompromising stand advocated by Churchill. It was not as clear to contemporaries as it may seem to us with the benefit of hindsight that Churchill was wrong on the first issue but right on the second.
WRONG BUT ROMANTIC?
In what he has to say about appeasement Charmley is thus no more controversial than Professor Cameron Watt. It is when we get on the issues of 1940 that his views become more interesting. With the defeat of France, he maintains, the sensible, farsighted conservatives, led by Chamberlain and Halifax, were in favor of cutting their losses and making as good a peace with Hitler as they could get, and a bewildered British public would probably have followed them, as they had followed them over appeasement. It was only Churchill, by his success in hypnotizing the British people into sharing his own romantic vision of their country as a great, unconquerable nation, who prevented this from happening and persuaded them to follow him in the enormous gamble of carrying on with the war.
Most of us think that this was a good thing; Charmley clearly does not. "The posture of stern, heroic defiance of Germany," he points out, "could be purchased only by the most servile grovelling to the Americans," and as later events were to show, "far from securing Britain's independence, he had mortgaged it to America." The same shortsighted policy was to be pursued when, a year later, Churchill supported unconditionally the resistance of the Soviet Union: "In his determination to see Germany defeated, Churchill neglected to ask himself, until too late, what the result of the total destruction of German power would be upon the balance of power for which he had fought in the 1930s." Finally, with the Soviet Union dominating Eastern Europe and the United States calling the shots in the West, "it was hard to argue that Britain had won in any sense save that of avoiding defeat." All Churchill's fine words could not save the British Empire from extinction or preserve Britain herself as a great nation independent of the support of any foreign power.
Well of course they couldn't, and nobody with any sense has ever argued that they could. Britain had not been independent of allies since the beginning of the century. She had not fought a great continental war without allies ever-except disastrously between 1776 and 1783. In 1940 she found herself without allies; by 1942, partly by good luck, partly by good management, Churchill had put together the strongest alliance the world had ever seen. Britain's new partners were certainly stronger than she was, and had divergent war aims. After the war-as after every war-there would be major problems in sorting out their differences, and Britain had painfully to come to terms with her own shrunken position in the world. But Nazi Germany had been defeated, and that was more important than Charmley seems to think. And Nazi Germany might well not have been defeated if Churchill had not persuaded his fellow countrymen to carry on fighting against all odds, persuaded the United States at least to underwrite British independence, and given the Soviet Union his wholehearted support.
The implication throughout Charmley's book, though he never comes clean and states it, is that the reasonable conservatives like Chamberlain and Halifax were right, not only in their policy of appeasement in the 1930s, but in their inclination to seek terms from Hitler in 1940. But this is a view tenable only by someone who knows nothing about Hitler and the New Order he intended to impose upon a conquered Europe. Britain might have survived with at least part of its empire, but it would have been very much as Vichy France survived: as the agents of German power, its independence a sham.
In realizing this and preferring to take the gamble of standing alone in the hope, however forlorn, that the United States would one day come to his rescue, Churchill was not being unrealistic. Under the admittedly theatrical heroics there lay a very shrewd assessment of the world balance, one far shrewder than that of his Eurocentric opponents in the Conservative Party for whom the United States, even more than Czechoslovakia, was a faraway country of which they knew nothing. It was entirely due to Winston Churchill that Britain was to emerge from the Second World War not only undefeated but enjoying, in the United States and everywhere else in the world, a measure of respect and, occasionally, affection-perhaps a greater measure than she altogether deserved.
You are reading a free article.
Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.
- Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
- Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
- Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions