Churchill: A Life

By PAUL JOHNSON

Acclaimed historian Paul Johnson (A History of the American People) has written a highly-personal and elegantly concise biography of the man whom Johnson — among others —  believes saved Britain during the perilous days of World War II.This is an unabashedly admiring life of  “the towering figure of the twentieth century,” who qualifies in his biographer’s words as “the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likeable.” Johnson shows us a Churchill who was from the beginning of his career in the army and as a journalist/writer, ambitious, fun-loving, and relentlessly contradictory. In politics, he’d switch parties and become a spellbinding speaker. Johnson recalls listening to Churchill’s wartime radio broadcasts with his father: “The combined effect was electrifying and transforming.”

Churchill was, in Johnson’s view, defined by the kind of resilience he called on from his countrymen in his most famous speech. After he pushed the British military into the disastrous Gallipoli campaign during World War I, Churchill carefully plotted his political comeback while enthusiastically pursuing stress-relieving hobbies like painting and collecting butterflies. He would redeem himself by speaking out against Hitler from 1933 on, and demanding that Britain rearm in preparation for a war he considered inevitable. After Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to treat with Hitler resulted in cataclysm, the hard-liner Churchill took the reins. Johnson offers ten detailed reasons why Churchill saved Britain from the jaws of wartime defeat, citing his energy, his humor, his hard-won friendship with FDR, his strategic foresight, and, of course, the inspiring power of his oratory.

Churchill’s greatest wartime achievement, Johnson says, may have been his insistence that the Allied forces be fully ready before they launched the D-Day assault: “With the costly failure of Gallipoli always in mind, [Churchill] insisted that D-day should not take place until overwhelming strength was established and there was a near certitude of success.” Stalin wanted D-Day to begin in 1942, but Churchill wisely demanded the painstaking preparations that led to Allied victory.

Reverential, yes, but also insightful   –a short biography that’s worthy of its larger-than-life subject.

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