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Churchill and History
CHURCHILL, to those who were young in the wartime years, could seem a figure of exaggerated stature. The young seek heroes, and-to this schoolboy citizen of a Britain besieged-the prime minister seemed anything but heroic. Heroes strode the streets in khaki or navy or air force blue, lean, fit, laughing, recently returned from battle or ready to depart. Churchill, in his shapeless siren suit and comic stovepipe hat, signatory cigar wedged between flabby fingers, looked wholly unsoldierly. The adulation of adults irritated: "Winston, good old Winston." A schoolboy in wartime Britain did not want an old Winston but a young Winston, someone as dashing as the pilots who flew from the local airfields, the commandos who sprinted in training down the local lanes, the torpedo-boat captains who sailed from the local ports to do battle in the narrow seas. Portly Winston, with his jowls and grating voice, appeared a poor fellow beside such paragons.
The Winston of the postwar years was worse. There was ungraciousness in his response to the people's will, which turned him out of office in 1945, an aura about him of the bad loser. Whatever their parents' political opinions, whatever their own, the young could not help but be touched by the excitement of the social revolution the winning Labour party promised. Churchill the opposition politician put the worst possible face on the socialism it preached. The young took the offers of socialism at face value. A free health service for all sounded self-evidently a good thing, as did school and university scholarships for the clever and hardworking, irrespective of parental ability to pay; better state pensions for the old and the poor; new housing for slum dwellers; and secure employment for the survivors of the prewar slump. The Labour party said that it stood for a better Britain, and the young believed. Churchill's warning that a socialist Britain would be worse aroused disbelief, at least among the generation of the future.
I was a member of that generation and remained quite immune to the Churchillian legend throughout my school and university years. Churchill was returned to office in 1951 and, despite several setbacks to his health-one almost disabling-remained prime minister until 1955. His was an extraordinary display of recovery and resilience. He was succeeded by his political son and heir, Anthony Eden, who brought with him into ministerial appointments many of the younger men who had learned their political trade in junior appointments during Churchill's wartime premiership. Despite that rejuvenation, Eden's continuation of Churchillian postwar government failed to appeal to the new electorate. He and his colleagues seemed to them heavily Conservative in the old-fashioned sense: traditionally imperialist abroad, selfishly capitalist at home. "Suez," as the British still call the attempt in 1956 to reimpose semicolonial control over the Suez Canal and the state of Egypt, through which it runs, seemed the touchstone of last-gasp Churchillianism. The Suez crisis divided the country. To the older, the military attack may have seemed a proper reassertion of the imperial power that Britain was entitled to exercise by virtue of its history; to the young, it appeared a crass attempt at exerting an imperial authority that belonged to its historical past. One way or another, the failure at Suez marked the termination of the overseas epic of which Churchill, throughout his long life, had been standard-bearer. Suez spoke finis to all for which Churchill had stood.
Such, certainly, was my outlook as I came to the end of my education. Then, in a hot summer in New York City in 1957, a chance episode transformed my appreciation of the statesman under whom I had grown up. I had begun a journey through the United States, funded by a philanthropic American graduate of my Oxford college. I was waiting to join another beneficiary of the traveling scholarship he had established. It was the first time I had been by myself in a foreign country, previous expeditions to France having been spent with schoolmasters or family friends. The apartment I had been lent overlooked Union Square, then the center of a drab commercial district. The owners were away, and I knew no one in the city. I was, for a few days, at loose ends, lonely, and-in a postadolescent way-depressed and disoriented. America was unsettling, materially so much smarter and more modern than backward, war-worn Britain; spiritually so much more energetic and self-confident. The Britain I had left a few weeks before was undeniably in decline, the America I had entered so evidently booming, in wealth and in enjoyment of world power. My absent hosts belonged, moreover, to the American elite: the Ivy League, the Social Register, the chic world of New York intellectual life. The class of which they were members was about to inherit the earth, while mine, after a century of global dominance, was taking its farewell.
I found, among their stock of long-playing records-another novelty to this British visitor-music to indulge self-induced melancholy, such as Beethoven's Eroica and Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. The heavy chords reinforced the lethargy that came with unfamiliar semitropical heat. Then I turned up something else: a record called The War Speeches of Winston Churchill. What on earth, I asked myself, was anything so unchic, ponderous, and pompous doing among the possessions of smart New Yorkers? What could the ex-prime minister's long, punctuated periods have to say to them? Out of pure curiosity-for I was too young to remember Mr. Churchill in 1940-I put the disc on the turntable and began to listen.
The effect was electrifying. The needle chose the track of Churchill's speech of May 19, 1940, broadcast to the nation by the BBC. The voice was instantly recognizable. The power, the inspiration of his words was not. "I speak to you for the first time as prime minister," he began. Today I can recite the passage by heart; then it came to me with the same force as it must have done to his anxious listeners in the disastrous days of the Battle of France, when the Third Republic was about to give up the ghost and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was already in full retreat to Dunkirk. "I speak to you for the first time as prime minister [pause] at a solemn hour in the life of our country, of our Empire, of our Allies, and above all of the cause of freedom." Three heavy beats-"country," "Empire," "Allies"-and the dramatic rallentando: "cause of freedom."
I felt my spine stiffen. Then the voice changed tempo, from rallentando to recitative:
A tremendous battle is raging in France and Flanders. The Germans [Churchill had a way of pronouncing the word German that combined menace with contempt] by a remarkable combination of air bombing and heavily armoured tanks ["remarkable" was a Churchillian adjective that often conveyed contempt also-"a remarkable example of modern art" was his verdict on the Graham Sutherland portrait of himself presented by Parliament in 1954] have broken through the French defences north of the Maginot Line, and strong columns of their armoured vehicles are ravaging the open country, which for the first day or two was without defenders. They have penetrated deeply and spread alarm and confusion in their track.
Behind them there are now appearing infantry in lorries, and behind them, again, the large masses are moving forward.
Even as the crisis pressed upon Churchill the prime minister, Churchill the soldier could not resist recounting the sweep and drama of military maneuver, with brilliant if chilling effect.
Then the mood changed again, to a call for national unity: "We have differed and quarrelled in the past; but now one bond unites us all-to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and agony may be." Finally, there was a promise: "Conquer we must; conquer we shall."
The record ran on, as I leaned on the windowsill in the heavy heat of a New York June evening. There followed the speech of June 18, 1940, delivered on the same day that the exiled de Gaulle made an appeal to his own people to fight for a free France and to believe in final victory. Churchill was in bulldog mood: Hitler [there was a spluttery, glottal pronunciation of that name, which was to become familiar] knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him [echoes of Vitai Lampada, the Victorian poet Henry John Newbolt's epic of schoolboy sportsmanship, which had inspired more of the British than might care to admit to it] all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States...will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.... Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties 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."
I was suffused with an unaccustomed sense of pride in country, and then with pride in common citizenship with a man who, at a time when ordinary mortals might have looked for accommodation with an overpowering enemy, could feel such courage and call for equal courage from those he led. That he represented the spirit of true leadership I thereafter had no doubt. The themes were constant. Those thrown down as a challenge in the darkest days, when Hitler's army loomed across the Channel, were repeated at every stage through the war's five years, recounted in the words the record repeated: hardship and agony, but also sunshine and hope and the promise eventually of conquest and victory. In his first speech as prime minister to the House of Commons he had offered only "blood, toil, tears and sweat," but he had proclaimed almost in the same breath a policy and an aim of breathtaking scope. "You ask: What is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war by sea, land and air with all our might.... You ask: What is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory! Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be." That was said on May 13, 1940. On June 4 he made to the Commons the most celebrated speech of his life. The evacuation of the BEF from the beaches of Dunkirk was just reaching its end; its soldiers had recrossed the Channel with little more than their rifles, leaving behind all the heavy equipment-guns, tanks-needed to meet an invasion of Britain by the Wehrmacht. There were no replacements at home, no reserves, no fortifications. A citizen militia, the Home Guard, belatedly called into being, was equipping itself with pitchforks and pikes. Heavy bombing was imminently anticipated, a cross-Channel armada of German landing craft expected at any moment. The island was effectively defenseless. By any objective assessment defeat stared Britain in the face, and all rational judgment was for making peace on any conditions offered. Churchill, however, rejected capitulation in absolute terms.
"We shall not flag or fail," he insisted. "We shall go on to the end.... 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." Those who heard those words, it is said, never forgot anything about them: the rhythm of his sentences, the timbre of his voice, above all the magnificently defiant "never" of "We shall never surrender." They were electrified; and that sensation, transferred by word of mouth from members of Parliament to common people, began the process that Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford philosopher, was to identify as the imposition of Churchill's "will and imagination upon his countrymen." It was transmitted "with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideals and began to see themselves as he saw them."
How did he see them? Churchill the aristocrat was also Churchill the populist; in either guise he was always, close beneath the skin, Churchill the romantic. He romanticized the history of his country and, in so doing, easily romanticized its people. Churchill the subaltern, as a young officer of the 4th Hussars, had known Kipling's Tommy Atkins, the long-service private soldier of Empire. Kipling's Soldiers Three-Learoyd, Ortheris, Mulvaney (the dour Yorkshireman, the cynical Cockney, the wayward Irishman)-were Churchillian familiars. He must, as Kipling did, have perceived their defects: social surliness, chauvinism, contempt for racial inferiors. He also perceived their virtues: patriotism, loyalty even to resented superiors, courage, and the prevailing value of fair play. His acquaintance with the working-class Tories of the constituencies he had contested in his youth, Oldham, Manchester, Dundee, reinforced his belief in the devotion of the British to the idea of their own United Kingdom. As a soldier he learned of British manliness. As the son, beloved charge, and husband of strong women-Jennie Jerome Churchill, Mrs. Elizabeth Everest, Clementine Hozier, the first an American who had made herself British-he had come to understand the deep Britishness of the opposite sex, Britishness to him standing for courage, tenacity, and an ultimate moral decency.
Hence the recurring themes of his great wartime speeches: the call to sacrifice, the warning of hardships in store-"the British," he said in June 1941, "are the only people who like to be told how bad things are"-and, repeated time after time, even when it defied reality, the promise of victory. On May 13, 1940, three days after the great German offensive in the West had opened with disastrous effect on the Anglo-French armies, he had proclaimed the aim of "victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be." On May 9, 1945, the day five years later when victory was finally proclaimed in Europe, he spoke from a balcony in Whitehall to salute the crowds below: "God bless you all! This is your victory.... Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the independent resolve of the British nation. God bless you all!" The promised victory had been brought home, and he at once gave it as a thanks offering to the people. Yet it was quite as much his as theirs-without his determination, conceived at the conflict's outset and sustained throughout its long and turbulent course, to "wage war"; without his conviction, during the eighteen months of "standing alone," that allies would be found to redress the balance of German military power; without his belief that evil would not triumph over good and that his country embodied virtue; without his restless energy and relentless will, the harvest of victory would not have been brought in. "I was brought up," he told the U. S. Congress in December 1941, "in my father's house to believe in democracy. 'Trust the people,' was his message." On becoming leader of the Conservative party in December 1940, he also said, "I have always faithfully served two public causes...the maintenance of the enduring greatness of Britain...and the historical continuity of our island life." He had certainly trusted the people and taught them to trust him. On that trust, given and won, the historical continuity of British life had been assured.
The idea of history-as he knew and perceived it-had by 1940 come to suffuse Churchill's being. It now supplies the key to any understanding of his behavior, mature character, and even personality. Certainly little else suffices; Churchill's inner life would otherwise remain a mystery. He was not religious. "King and country," his doctor, Lord Moran, recorded, "was about all the religion Winston had." That did not mean that he was unmoved by either the moral or the spiritual. On the contrary, he had a profound moral sense and deep spiritual feelings. Neither, however, had a metaphysical basis. He altogether lacked an interest in abstractions, philosophical as well as political, and was not introspective. His beliefs were therefore instinctual rather than the product of private reflection, conventional and inherited rather than derived from debate over first principles, as they might have been had he had a university education.
Churchill had had, partly through his own fault, very little education at all. His beliefs had simple origins, in the piety and goodness of his beloved nanny, Mrs. Everest; in the code of schoolboy fair play; in the ethic of manliness learned at the Royal Military College (RMC) at Sandhurst and in his regiment; in the strictures of the Commandments, preached in the Old Testament language that was to be one of the strongest of influences on his own, in Harrow School chapel. From all those sources Churchill derived an undoubted sense of sin; his horror of wrongdoing was to inform his political life, particularly as it brought him eventually to confront the crimes of the dictators. He appears, however, to have carried no burden of personal sinfulness, that besetting affliction of thinking Victorians, perhaps because his physical nature exempted him from sexual temptation, the cause of much Victorian neurosis. Churchill, as he himself recognized with uncharacteristic insight, had a weak sexual drive. He was innocent in his judgment of others' sexuality and apparently personally innocent of sexual experience until his marriage, at the age of thirty-four, to Clementine Hozier, herself serenely pure minded. Churchill was a moral oddity: a man who was worldly-wise without being a man of the world. It may have been his indifference to the lures of the flesh that heightened his susceptibility to the seduction of words and to the spell of history conceived as romance.
If challenged, Churchill might have said that his morality derived from historical universals and his spirituality from humanist tradition. The mature Churchill, however, was not challenged. Deliberately or not, as the years went on, he avoided intimacy, outside his intense but essentially secret relationship with Clemmie, as much imperious mistress as cherished wife. He did not confide, he did not confess-except to the emotion of public setback, which he could discuss with comrades in political life. Comrades, moreover, were not friends. Indeed, Churchill's life is remarkable for its paucity of friendships: few in youth, eventually none at all. Of friendship he often spoke, but those supposed to be friends-particularly the "three Bs," lawyer and politician Lord Birkenhead (F. E. Smith), newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken), and his parliamentary private secretary Brendan Bracken-Clemmie rightly identified as at best collaborators, at worst cronies. She disapproved strongly of their influence on him, which she correctly recognized as encouraging his regrettable tendency to boastfulness and rash judgment.
Real friends might have tempered those faults in reasoned conversation. Churchill did not allow it. He loved company, but he talked to command attention and to win. As his life drew out, moreover, and increasingly during the lonely years before his sudden elevation to the premiership ensured the attention of every ear, conversation increasingly became monologue, to listeners chosen because of their ability to keep silent or express agreement with his views. Theirs was not an ordeal. Churchill's exposition of his views was eloquent, arresting, allusive, often very funny. It was his own views in which he was interested, however, not the responses of others.
Those views were drawn above all from his lifelong reading of British history and his own writing of it in later life, particularly The World Crisis and his four-volume biography of his great ancestor, Marlborough. Completed before his accession to office as prime minister in 1940, each concerned Britain's struggle to achieve or sustain its status as a great power during a major conflict, the War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-14, and the First World War, respectively. He had, however, already during the nineteen-thirties embarked on a much larger undertaking, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which-though it was not to be completed for twenty years-had allowed him to begin thinking of the historical processes that had formed not only his own country, but also his mother's American homeland, in the widest terms. He saw them, justifiably, as intimately intertwined. Perception of that relationship, sometimes hostile, sometimes merely aloof, but always and of its nature indissoluble, was to determine the direction of his career as politician and statesman in the last and most important phase of his public life.
Famously, Charles de Gaulle begins his memoirs with the declaration: "I have always had a particular idea of France." Churchill, similarly, had a particular view of Britain, and his ultimate indulgence of the pretensions of the leader of Free France may have been founded on a recognition that they had a common historical outlook: a devotion to the idea of national identity as an absolute value. Churchill loved France and admired its great men, particularly Georges Clemenceau and Joseph Foch, with whom he had waged the First World War; but he loved France as a place of wartime adventure and of subsequent distraction and pleasures, above all painting. His feelings for his own country were different altogether: fierce, protective, dutiful, proud. De Gaulle's were no doubt closely similar. While his war memoirs, however, when they eventually appeared, were essentially an explanation of how a great nation had preserved its spirit despite defeat, Churchill had another story to tell when he came to write The Second World War: how a great nation, often threatened by tyrants, had in the severest of its ordeals staved off defeat and emerged once again victorious. De Gaulle's war memoirs are a magnificent apology, Churchill's a paean of triumph.
Yet he indulges in no self-aggrandizing. Hold great office though he did, it was the greatness of others that he sought to proclaim, the greatness above all of the British people, stalwart and uncomplaining, and of the country to which they belonged. Churchill saw Britain as the incarnation of its own history, told in terms of its institutions, laws, and achievements. Its institutions he venerated, Parliament above all. Its laws he saw as the means by which Parliament, and therefore the people, gave force to the fundamental principles on which their society was founded: the freedom of the individual, the sanctity of justice, the limitation of the power of the state. Britain's achievements-the defeat of Continental imperialists, the foundation of its own Empire, victory over European warlords and dictators-he viewed as the process by which its constitutional values were enforced in the international arena and transmitted to the wider world.
Churchill's historical vision was simple and direct-too simple to be taken seriously by professionals. Professional historians see complexities and ambiguities; Churchill saw certainties. Those certainties derived directly from the sources he used to teach himself the island's story, historians Henry Hallam, W. E. H. Lecky, Thomas Babington Macaulay, champions all of the Whig view that British life broadened down from precedent to precedent, each precedent an advance toward the desired ends of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, on which the Whig fathers of his mother's country had founded their commonwealth. They derived also from the mighty rhythms of the prose in which he learned the history he loved, made it his own, and transmitted it to his people in literature and rhetoric. No influence was more pervasive than the prose of Edward Gibbon, whose opening epitome of the Antonine age furnished him with his vision of how enlightened empire might transform the future of mankind. No influence was stronger on his mode of thought than the prose of the Old Testament, through which the epic of a warrior people covenanted with God had been given to the world. In the end the personality of Churchill and the prose that inspired his being so interpenetrated each other as to be indistinguishable and mutually inextricable. The inner voice of words shaped his thought and determined his choices. Prose was deed, prose was outcome. Churchill the war leader was literature in action and written history in realization. When the terrible ordeal of conflict was over, the magnificent language of Exodus and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire welled up into an epitome of his own and his nation's life, in his speech to the Commons at the moment of victory: Once again the British Commonwealth and Empire emerges safe, undiminished and united from a mortal struggle. Monstrous tyrannies which menaced our life have been beaten to the ground in ruin, and a brighter radiance illumines the Imperial Crown than any which our annals record. The light is brighter because it comes not only from the fierce but fading glow of military achievements but because there mingle with it in mellow splendour the hope, joys and blessings of mankind. This is the true glory, and long will it gleam upon our forward path.
The glow of military achievement and the splendor of empire have almost faded away, but a true glory continues to gleam over Churchill's life, works, and words.
from Winston Churchill: A Penguin Lives Biography by John Keegan, Copyright © October 2002, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.