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Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Literary Essays Churchill By Paul Johnson

We Shall Defend Our Island
It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of a book’s opening paragraph. It must transport the reader out of his or her everyday reality, over a threshold, and into the world depicted in print. Like the riveting first paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, Paul Johnson’s beginning of Churchill is amazing. We are immediately captivated. A man of piercing intelligence who writes exceptional prose has appropriated as his subject the most prominent and colorful leader of the 20th Century. Following is merely one example of the result of this combination of author and subject: “Of all the towering figures of the 20th Century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity and also the most likable. It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it. None holds more lessons, especially for youth: How to use a difficult childhood. How to seize eagerly on all opportunities, physical, moral, and intellectual. How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put failure behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion, and decency.”

Johnson continues in his second paragraph: “No man did more to preserve freedom and democracy and the values we hold dear in the West. None provided more public entertainment with his dramatic ups and downs, his noble oratory, his powerful writings and sayings, his flashes of rage, and his sunbeams of wit. He took a prominent place on the public stage of his country and the world for over 60 years, and it seemed empty with his departure. Nor has anyone since combined so felicitously such a variety of roles.”

It is the human Churchill, the man within the towering statesman, that is Johnson’s primary concern. At the same time he masterfully depicts a meteoric and turbulent political career.

Winston Churchill was born on November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace, his ancestral home. Planned to take place in London, in a Mayfair mansion suitably prepared for a lying in, Winston’s birth occurred two months prematurely while his mother was at Blenheim for a ball. The aura of the unexpected, of haste, of danger, and of drama surrounding the birth foreshadowed aspects of the infant’s future.

It was from his mother that Winston received “his salient characteristics: energy, a love of adventure, ambition, a serious intellect, warm feelings, courage, resilience, and a huge passion for life in all respects.”

Obvious in his childhood was Winston’s loving nature. His father refused to send him to his own alma mater, Eton, because he did not consider his son to be bright enough. Winston went instead to Harrow, a school known for excellence in the Classics. Johnson tells us that Winston spent three years in the bottom form, never mastering Greek or Latin. “But,” says Johnson, “he achieved something much more worthwhile: fluency in the English language, written and spoken.”

Johnson continues, “Winston became not merely adept, but masterly in his use of words…No English statesman has ever loved them more or made more persistent use of them to forward his career and to redeem it in a time of trouble.”

After attending Sandhurst, Winston spent the next five years of his young life finding wars around the globe, fighting in them, or in some cases merely observing them, and reporting them for London newspapers or writing books chronicling the battles and politics. He also collected medals.

In 1900, when Churchill was 26 years old, he returned to London a hero. His efforts to make himself conspicuous in the public eye had paid off. Johnson notes that Winston’s photograph appeared over 100 times in newspapers in the year 1900. But by this time Winston had accumulated enemies as well as fans. He had developed a reputation as brash, arrogant, and boastful.

During this portion of his book, Johnson underscores the fact that Churchill’s war experiences intensified his imperialism. Churchill maintained that “the empire was a splendid thing: enormous, world-embracing, seemingly all-powerful, certainly gorgeously colorful, exciting, offering dazzling opportunities for the progress and fulfillment of all races, provided the white elite who ran it kept their nerve and self-confidence.”

Johnson makes clear, however, that Churchill also acknowledged the darker side of power. “He saw the horror of empire as well as its splendor.” And despite the relish Churchill seemed to take in battles and in medal collecting, he was never blind to the disaster of all war and he took every opportunity to warn others of its nature. It is Johnson’s contention that Churchill warned against war just as urgently as he warned against unpreparedness for it.

Winston entered Parliament in 1901, and appointments and promotions followed hand over fist. He was Undersecretary for the Colonies, next Colonial Secretary, and later, President of the Board of Trade. At this point Johnson interrupts his chronicle of Churchill’s career to describe his personal life: “An eligible bachelor, he had dutifully fallen in love with various girls, or thought he had, and waltzed around Mayfair ballrooms…In August, 1908, he proposed to Clementine Hozier, daughter of the late Colonel Sir Henry Hozier…Clemmie suited him, and he loved her.”

It is Johnson’s contention that of all the 20th Century ruling elites, the Churchills had the most successful marriage. “Given Churchill’s adventurous and reckless nature and his appetite for sensation, his fidelity is notable,” Johnson writes. And the secure Winston-Clemmie bond contrasts markedly with his father’s life of adultery and her mother’s marital infidelity.

In 1911 Churchill was serving as Home Secretary when Prime Minister Asquith named him First Lord of the Admiralty, a position Churchill relished. Wisely, he perceived that Germany “possessed the best professional army in the world…Moreover, Germany was now easily the largest industrialist power in Europe and, with a large and rapidly growing population, capable of expanding her war machine dramatically.”

When the Great War broke out, the vast fleet and myriad bases for which Churchill was responsible, were prepared. Yet Churchill predicted in speech and print that the war would be a catastrophe for humanity. Johnson points out that: “…the first of the two world wars proved the worst disaster in modern history, perhaps in all history, from which most of the subsequent problems of the 20th Century sprang, and many of which continue, fortissimo, into the 21st.”

In one of his books, The World Crisis, Winston wrote: “All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them…Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win. Germany, having let Hell loose, kept well in the van of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity and international law was repaid by reprisals – often on a greater scale and of longer duration…”

The war proved a catastrophe for Winston personally just as it was for humanity. Johnson tells us: “…The Dardanelles disaster became identified with Churchill, and the fury this aroused persisted until 1940 and even beyond, especially among the Tories and a huge chunk of the public.”

The Dardanelles fiasco meant Winston lost his job. When he was dismissed from the Admiralty, the months that followed were the darkest in his life. Clemmie said, “I thought he would die of grief.” But thanks to his innate resilience he found a hobby that cheered him. Winston took up painting, first watercolors and next oils. Painting prompted his misery to retreat. Johnson tells us that Winston’s mind, his self-respect, and his confidence were restored. “Painting, after politics and the family, became his chief passion, and he painted for the rest of his life, as the perfect relaxation from his tremendous cares.”

In 1916, when Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister, Churchill, though holding no office, became his unofficial advisor on the war. A year later when Lloyd George appointed him Minister of Munitions, Churchill made himself one of the most efficient departmental ministers in British history. To perform his job, Winston visited the front constantly. “Within a year,” Johnson relates, “the British army was better supplied with weapons of their choice than either the French or Germans.”

Soon after the armistice, Lloyd George put Winston in charge of the army and air force. His formidable task was to bring soldiers and sailors home as quickly as possible. To accomplish this he devised a brilliant scheme whereby priorities were decided by length of service, wounds, and age. As Winston put it simply, “I let three out of four go and paid the fourth double to finish the job.”

Churchill’s record of World War I, the enormous book titled The World in Crisis, earned him a great deal of money. These earnings, combined with a legacy from an elderly Marlborough duchess, allowed him to buy Chartwell, a stately Elizabethan residence on 300 acres. A mere 25 miles from Parliament, the house had a spectacular view of rural Kent. By this time Lloyd George’s coalition government had been ousted from power, thus once again putting Winston out of work. He was nearing age 50 and found himself less agile in weathering the vicissitudes of political life. But time spent at Chartwell consoled him immeasurably.

Soon the wheel of fortune turned again when Churchill was made Chancellor of the Exchequer, an office second only to that of Prime Minister. The Churchills moved into the prestigious Eleven Downing Street address. Johnson relates, “…the population as a whole felt that the man in charge of the national accounts blended prudence and generosity, compassion and common sense, with art and grandeur.”

Churchill’s most controversial decision as Chancellor was to put Britain back on the gold standard. And history remembers him for actions during the General Strike. When a mining strike escalated into a general labor walkout, he worked unstintingly both as an organizer and as a worker to squash the debilitating strike. In 1929, after serving five years as Chancellor, Winston once again found himself out of politics when the Baldwin government fell. He turned to the business of making money on a large scale. He profited enormously from lecture tours in the U.S. and from gambling in the stock market, but, of course, lost all his profits and more when the market crashed. Johnson recounts another unlucky moment for Winston: “On December 13, 1931, crossing Fifth Avenue in the dark, he looked the wrong way, as in England, and a fast car, coming from the opposite direction, knocked him down. [He was badly injured and in a great deal of pain.] But he remained conscious and when a policeman asked what had happened, insisted it was entirely his own fault. He was, in fact, lucky to be alive. A taxi took him to hospital and he was a long time recovering. He was very down.”

Characteristically, Winston wrote an article philosophizing about the mishap. It concluded not with a warning to “be careful” but with a general admonition of a different sort: “…live dangerously, take things as they come. Fear naught, all will be well.”

When World War II broke out, Churchill was invited to accept his former post as First Lord of the Admiralty and to become one of a war cabinet of six. Rumors flew that he was “looking old” and “past it.” His level of activity belied the rumors. Most days he inspected the fleet, attended a late night Naval Conference, and then dictated notes into the wee hours of the next morning.

The war “languished in inactivity” until the Norwegian campaign, which was a disaster. PM Chamberlain was the target of criticism from all sides. He resigned on Friday, May 10, 1940, and by 6:00 pm that day Winston Churchill had become Britain’s Prime Minister. He later wrote about that fateful evening: “I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial. Ten years in the political wilderness had freed mw from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the past six years had been so numerous, so detailed and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all and I was sure I would not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.”

As both Prime Minister and Minister of Defense from 1940 to 1945, Churchill wielded a vast amount of power. At this point in the book Johnson examines his impact on the war’s outcome: Were Churchill’s genius and exertions essential to Britain’s survival and eventual victory?

Johnson underscores the influence Winston’s personal example of productive action at Number Ten Downing Street had on the British people. He was capable of amazing physical and intellectual activity over extended periods of time. At age 65 he looked and seemed “the embodiment of energy.” Johnson notes “He worked a 16-hour day. He sought to make everyone else do likewise.”

As we know, Churchill turned his gift for oratory on to its full power during the war years. Memorably, after Dunkirk he insisted: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

And after France capitulated he again brandished his affecting words: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years men will still say ‘This was her finest hour’.”

As far as Churchill saving Britain, Johnson holds that the answer is a resounding “yes.” He writes: “This was what was felt at the time by the great majority of British people, and it has been since confirmed by the facts and documents at our disposal.”

Johnson cautions that we should not think that Churchill was just some kind of implacable machine making war: “He never lost his humanity. His jokes continued and were repeated in ever-widening circles like stones dropped in a pool, until they became the common currency of wartime Britain.”

One example of Winston’s sense of humor is his quip about Clement Atlee, his deputy PM. “Yes, he is a modest man. But then he has so much to be modest about.”

Churchill was 70 at the end of the war, and the nation voted him out of power. Though the vote was more against the Tory Party and the upper classes in general than against Churchill, he considered it a slap in the face. Clemmie’s comment to him was, “Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise.” To which he replied, “It appears to be very effectively disguised.”

Churchill celebrated his 90th birthday in November, 1964, and died on the 24th of January, 1965. It is fitting that Johnson’s epilogue to this excellent biography is every bit as gripping as the book’s opening paragraphs: “On January 27, 1965, Churchill’s coffin was taken from his house in Hyde Park Gate to Westminster Hall, where it lay in state. Over three hundred thousand people filed slowly past the catafalque. At 9:45 on January 30 the coffin was taken from Westminster to St. Paul’s on a gray gun carriage last used at the funeral of Queen Victoria. The state funeral ordered by Parliament was the first for a politician since Gladstone’s. But in its somber magnificence its only precedent was the burial for the Duke of Wellington in 1852.”

In summation, Johnson writes: “In his 90 years, Churchill had spent 55 years as a member of Parliament, 31 years as a minister, and nearly nine years as Prime Minister. He had been present at or fought in 15 battles, and had been awarded 14 campaign medals…He had been a prominent figure in the First World War, and a dominant one in the Second. He had published nearly 10 million words, more than most professional writers in their lifetime, and painted over 500 canvases…How many bottles of champagne he consumed is not recorded, but it may be close to 20 thousand. He had a large and much-loved family, and countless friends.”