In August 1940, Winston Churchill likened the relationship between Britain and America to the Mississippi: ‘It just keeps rolling along,’ he told the Commons, ‘full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant.’ In the car afterwards he sang ‘Ole Man River’ (out of tune) on the way back to Number Ten.
Sixty years later, one might say the same about Ole Man Churchill, whose reputation just keeps rolling along. The tide of books is unceasing – I could have added several more to those discussed here – as are the movies and documentaries, with Albert Finney following Richard Burton and Robert Hardy as a screen Churchill. As for approval ratings, in an admittedly contrived phone-poll BBC2 viewers last November voted him the greatest Briton of all time.
Most Churchill biographies have been massive: Roy Jenkins’s weighed in at 1.5 kilos and a thousand pages. A great virtue of John Keegan’s is its brevity. Here is the saga in miniature. Keegan’s Churchill is pre-eminently a man of war and a man of words. The Army made him physically, intellectually and morally – Sandhurst and the years in India and Africa ‘must be counted among the most significant of his life’. The long afternoons spent in Bangalore immersed in Gibbon and Macaulay formed his mind and shaped his style; the self-promoting war journalism made his name, boosted his bank balance and launched him into Parliament.
Rather surprisingly for a leading military historian, Keegan does not really develop the martial theme he sets out so vividly early on. Yet it mattered enormously in 1940 that Britain’s Prime Minister was a man who knew, and even relished war. The same could not be said of the two alternatives for the Premiership, Neville Chamberlain and Edward Halifax. ‘I was never meant to be a War Minister,’ Chamberlain told his sisters in October 1939, whereas Winston was ‘enjoying every moment of the war’. As for Lord Halifax, no shrinking violet in political argument, the thought of being a war leader made him feel sick. Equally important, however, were the limits of Churchill’s military experience. He had charged with the cavalry at Omdurman and led hazardous patrols on the Western Front, but he never commanded any unit larger than a battalion, did not attend staff college and learn to plan operations, and showed little interest in logistics. Many of the battles he fought with his own commanders during World War Two revolved around these gaps in his military experience: at root he remained a subaltern, lecturing generals. Subaltern studies have their place, however, and Churchill was often right that more audacity and less analysis was the key to victory.
Churchill the orator, however, is a theme that informs the whole book. In an autobiographical opening, Keegan evokes a bolshie young student killing time in a loaned Manhattan apartment, who found among the stock of records there The War Speeches of Winston Churchill. ‘The effect was electrifying.’ As he listened to the orations of 1940, with their artful changes of tempo and their portentous yet simple themes, he was ‘suffused with an unaccustomed sense of pride in country’. In the rest of his biography, following what Isaiah Berlin wrote back in 1949, Keegan treats those war speeches as the fruits of a lifelong immersion in the ‘heroicised history of his own nation’. Churchill had developed these themes in the 1930s, in his four-volume biography of his ancestor Marlborough and his unpublished but largely complete History of the English-Speaking Peoples. In 1940 he imposed that heroic image of the national past onto the present. ‘Through his extraordinary oratory’, Keegan writes, Churchill ‘determined the victorious outcome of the greatest threat his country had ever faced’.
By contrast with Keegan, John Ramsden shifts our attention firmly to the postwar decades. Like Robert Rhodes James thirty years ago, he argues that if Churchill had died in 1939, his life would probably have been construed as a spectacular failure – more promise than performance. Gallipoli, 1915, was still held against him; since 1929 he had been railing in the wilderness – sometimes presciently, as on Germany, sometimes ludicrously, as in support of the King over abdication – without getting back into office. From young man in a hurry to old codger going nowhere: his hour on the stage of history seemed to be over.
If anything, Ramsden goes further than Rhodes James. In itself 1940 was not a lasting turning-point for Churchill. His first months as leader coincided with a supreme moment of national drama. But after the epic came the soap opera. Any prime minister who accedes to power on a surge of national relief and enthusiasm – think of Thatcher or Blair – discovers that such a mood cannot last. As his henchman Brendan Bracken observed in April 1941, ‘the honeymoon is over. The grim realities of marriage must now be faced.’ In 1942, there was much talk in Westminster about divorce – Winston has done his bit, time for new and younger men – but no one could agree on who should take his place. Although Churchill surged again in the latter part of the war, this could not discount what Ramsden calls ‘the real evidence that his special status was inevitably temporary and largely conditioned by the transience of the war crisis itself’. On VE-Day, Churchill stood with the King and Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, acknowledging the cheering crowds. But so had Chamberlain after Munich. Less than three months later, Churchill was evicted from Number Ten by the electorate. In public he put the best face he could on his humiliation; in private he never forgot or forgave. His defeat was a sobering reminder that his place in history could not be taken for granted.
Ramsden’s theme is the making of that reputation in the two decades after 1945. More than half his book traces its development in individual countries across the English-speaking world. Sometimes the detail takes over: he documents the number of streets named after Churchill (more than 150 in Australia, only one in Cornwall). And many readers may find three chapters on Australia and New Zealand more than they need, especially when the complex reactions to him in France and Germany are covered in one broad-brush chapter on ‘Churchill and the Europeans’. The book is invaluable nonetheless, as the first substantial attempt, based on extensive research, to document and explain how the rejected Prime Minister of 1945 became the Greatest Living Englishman long before his death twenty years later.
How was the legend secured? Partly, Ramsden admits, by sheer longevity. Most of the other leaders – Roosevelt, Hitler and Mussolini – did not survive the war’s end; Stalin lasted only until 1953. Sixty-two years in the Commons (11 more than Edward Heath) helped make him a national institution. Yet time alone cannot explain it. What mattered was how Churchill used it, especially after 1945 when, entering his seventies and discernibly more fragile in health, he might have been expected to rest on his laurels. But he never took his reputation for granted. Between 1945 and 1955 he cultivated it as assiduously as in any decade of his life. He acted, Ramsden says, as his own spin-doctor.
His ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946 was especially significant, and Ramsden devotes nearly thirty pages to it. Not only did Churchill there popularise perhaps the most famous slogan of his career, he also confirmed his prophetic status. I was right about appeasement in the 1930s, he told his worldwide audience; now I’m right about the Cold War. Initial reaction, especially in America, was sceptical, but after the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Blockade Churchill felt he had been amply vindicated.
Most politicians would have been delighted with one Fulton speech in a lifetime; Churchill managed two in a year. In Zurich in September 1946 he called for Franco-German amity and a ‘United States of Europe’. This launched him as a spokesman for European integration – the image of Churchill that is still widely held in continental Europe. The Zurich speech, like the one in Fulton, left a misleading impression of his ideas, against which he had to struggle at times during the rest of his career. What matters more, however, is that these two speeches, barely six months apart, echoed round the world, reviving Churchill’s career and confirming his place as an international statesman.
If, in 1946, Churchill proved he still had something to say about the present, he had even more to say about the past. Between 1948 and 1954 he published six massive volumes of memoirs, entitled The Second World War – more than two million words, if you choose to include the indexes (and he did). By no means all these words were Churchill’s – many came from his research assistants and more than a few from the Cabinet Secretary Norman Brook, who vetted the volumes for the Government and paraphrased sensitive passages. The composition and impact of the memoirs, their value to Churchill in monetary terms and the cost they imposed on his health, are worth a book in themselves.
Churchill had many reasons to write – not least to secure his family’s finances – but the chief one was self-vindication. When involved in political controversy he liked to say, ‘All right, I shall leave it to history, but remember I shall be one of the historians.’ He had made a pre-emptive strike on the verdict of posterity before, with six volumes on The World Crisis of 1911-22; now he did it even more massively. When his account was criticised, Churchill retreated into the conceit that he was offering only a personal view of the war, from the vantage-point of Number Ten. But the combined effect of the mass of contemporary documents he cited and the sweeping panoramas of battles such as Alamein and episodes such as the hunting of the Bismarck seemed overwhelmingly authoritative. Moreover, the whole story was gloriously one-sided. Churchill quoted his own instructions at inordinate length; rarely did he include the replies. As Norman Brook privately observed, this created ‘the impression that no one but he ever took an initiative’. By the time Volume VI appeared, he had written what many regarded as the definitive account of the war, with himself triumphantly at its centre.
While playing this dual role of statesman and historian, Churchill also kept up his political career. He remained in the limelight at Westminster for another ten years after 1945. Most senior Tories wished he would retire after the war; many expected him to. They couldn’t push him, because that would have seemed like rank ingratitude (Tories were tougher in 1990), but they assumed he would see sense and go quietly. Winston, however, would not budge. As he liked to joke, he preferred to stay in the pub until it closed. The man with the greatest incentive to call ‘time’, his heir-apparent Anthony Eden, lacked the nerve and nastiness to do so. On numerous occasions Churchill toughed it out with his frustrated deputy, conning Eden into handling most of the Parliamentary business while he maintained titular leadership of the Party (and got on with his memoirs). Of course, it would have been easier on Churchill himself if he had decided to concentrate on writing and speaking: after an unpublicised stroke in August 1949, his health steadily deteriorated. But there was a score to settle, as important to him as vindicating his war leadership. In 1940 he had gained the Premiership after a political coup; when he sought a mandate from the electorate in 1945, they turned him down. Churchill wanted, desperately, to win at the ballot box, to be an elected Prime Minister.
Using all his energy and guile, he strung Eden and the Party along, enhancing his public profile by occasional but telling speeches against the Labour Government. After the Health Minister Aneurin Bevan dismissed the Tories as ‘lower than vermin’, Churchill dubbed Bevan ‘the Minister of Disease’, whose morbid class hatred was a candidate for treatment under the new NHS. He narrowly lost the election of February 1950 but then returned to Downing Street in October 1951. Although colleagues still hoped and prayed that his exit would be a matter of months, now that he had been vindicated, he soldiered on until April 1955. What might have been the turning-point – his serious stroke in June 1953 – proved not to be because Eden was incapacitated at the same time, by a botched gall bladder operation. The stroke was hushed up and, whatever the frustration in the corridors of power and the verdicts of subsequent historians, the second period in office did not seriously damage Churchill’s reputation.
Thereafter, it was a slow march to the state funeral of January 1965, carefully choreographed since 1953 but constantly reworked because, as Mountbatten observed, ‘Churchill kept living and the pall-bearers kept dying.’ Ramsden devotes a lengthy chapter to Churchill’s eventual exit. His final illness lasted two weeks, giving commentators and the media ample opportunity to celebrate a life and mourn an era. They did so in overwhelmingly Churchillian terms. No one can write his own obituary, but Winston came closer than most.
Throughout his political career, the most vigilant guardian of Churchill’s reputation was his wife, Clementine. Their youngest daughter, Mary Soames, published an official biography of her mother in 1979, which was justly praised for its blend of empathy and detachment and has now been updated with new material and many additional photographs. In her youth, Clementine was an accomplished linguist, with university aspirations. But after her marriage in 1911 she became a professional wife, subordinating her own needs, and often those of her children, to Winston’s career. A woman of charm and vitality, she lacked his stamina, lived on her nerves and needed periodic breaks from his demands in order to recover. Some of the most revealing evidence of the nature of their relationship comes from the letters exchanged when they were apart and Soames includes more of these in her new edition. Clementine fervently hoped Winston would retire in 1945: his postwar political career, and especially the second spell as Prime Minister, was particularly hard on her. Yet, as her daughter shows, she still retained the capacity to swing from near hysteria to total poise within the space of an hour. Promoting Winston also grated on her own political convictions: Clementine remained an ardent Liberal, and passionately opposed her husband’s acceptance of the Tory leadership after Chamberlain’s death in 1940. When made a life peer in 1965, she caused surprise by taking her seat in the Lords on the cross-benches.
Whatever the personal cost, she regarded Winston as her life’s work and believed fervently in his genius and destiny. She managed the domestic side of his life completely, worrying endlessly how to meet the bills for his conspicuous consumption. Though herself prone to depression, she helped ‘kennel’ Winston’s ‘black dog’. She was also his sternest critic – sceptical of cronies like Beaverbrook and ready with forthright comments on the drafts of his speeches and books. She was, for instance, adamantly opposed to his ‘Gestapo’ slur on Labour during the 1945 election campaign. Above all, she defended him fearlessly against his critics. In the new edition Soames adds vivid evidence from the Asquith family papers of how Clementine tried to save her husband’s career during the Gallipoli crisis. She harangued the Prime Minister’s wife, Margot, like ‘a fish-wife’; she begged Asquith not to throw Winston overboard in what he called ‘the letter of a maniac’. These remarkable entreaties had no effect: Gallipoli hung round Churchill’s neck for decades as evidence of impulsiveness and lack of judgment.
After Churchill’s death there was a new challenge to his reputation: critical memoirs that had been withheld during his lifetime. In the late 1950s Sir Arthur Bryant had published a study based on the diaries of Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1941 t0 1945. Many entries were sanitised and it wasn’t until 2001 that an almost unexpurgated edition of Alanbrooke’s War Diaries appeared. Even so, Bryant’s two volumes of 1957 and 1959 caused an outcry and discouraged further revelations during Churchill’s lifetime. In 1966 Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, published Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965, which was billed as being based on Moran’s diaries. Churchill’s family and friends were appalled and Moran was censured by the British Medical Association for breaking his Hippocratic oath. One result was a counterblast of essays by members of Churchill’s inner circle, Action This Day, which in her first edition (but not the second) Lady Soames said was written at Clementine’s express wish. The first third of Moran’s book has now been reprinted as Churchill at War, 1940-45, with some additional material from his papers and a new introduction by his son John.
As his son acknowledges, Moran did not keep a diary: he jotted down occasional notes, wrote them up, and then reworked them as a book. He intended to publish after Churchill’s death, which the 1953 stroke suggested was imminent, but Churchill obstinately refused to die and by the late 1950s Moran feared he would go first. Marking time, he kept revising the book. Consequently, his son admits, it is sometimes ‘difficult to determine what was written at the time and what was added later’.
Alanbrooke’s diaries documented his endless arguments with Churchill over strategy and operations, and acted as a safety-valve for his anger at Churchill’s ‘midnight follies’. Moran’s original book, by contrast, was weighted to the postwar years, when the real struggle for survival set in. The chapters on the war years contain some revealing material on wartime conferences – for instance, on the oscillations of Churchill’s mood during his visit to Stalin in August 1942 – but Moran did not attend any business sessions. ‘The worst of these trips is that I am the only one of the party who has nothing to do,’ he complained at Casablanca in January 1943, in one of the passages added in the new edition. Whereas Alanbrooke was recording meetings he actually attended, Moran’s accounts rested heavily on secondary sources.
It is a pity that the publishers have not reprinted the whole of Struggle for Survival. Perhaps they are saving the years after 1945, where Moran’s insights are most valuable, for a separate volume. Yet even on 1940-45 he is an important source, illuminating aspects of Churchill that other observers never saw. Moran also had literary flair and was a perceptive, if tart, analyst of character. Among the passages included for the first time here are comments on Mountbatten (‘a horrid, pushy go-getter’), Pug Ismay, Churchill’s ever patient Chief of Staff (‘a born courtier’), and his favourite general, Alexander (‘a charming character with mediocre talents’). Also new are revealing asides on both Clementine and Winston. ‘She does not like the President,’ Moran noted in August 1943. ‘Once she confided to me that she does not like any great man except Winston.’ And the following month: ‘With Winston, war is an end in itself rather than a means to an end. It fascinates him, he loves it . . . he neither believes in nor is interested in what comes after the war.’
Moran’s Churchill was a man of war who hung on to power after 1945 because he couldn’t face oblivion. This came out particularly in his account of the second Premiership and the almost endless struggle to make Churchill retire. Such pettiness and egotism accorded ill with the Great Man image that Churchill had fostered, and this side of Moran’s book was especially resented by the family. Historians, however, have generally echoed his judgment. Although ‘gloriously unfit for office’, Roy Jenkins wrote, Churchill clung to it with ‘limpet-like’ obduracy from October 1951 to April 1955. He lived increasingly in the past, populating his Government with wartime colleagues and trying to resurrect the special relationship with FDR in his dealings with Truman and Eisenhower.
Klaus Larres’s study of Churchill’s Cold War takes a different line. He doesn’t discount the elements of nostalgia and bloody-mindedness, but argues that Churchill’s policies should be taken seriously, especially his search for détente with the Soviet Union, and his proposal for a Big Three summit reminiscent of Tehran or Yalta, on the principle that ‘to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.’ Much of this story has already been analysed, more succinctly, by John Young in Winston Churchill’s Last Campaign: Britain and the Cold War 1951-55 (1996), but Larres spreads his net wider – bringing in important German material, particularly on the East Berlin uprising of 1953, and also insisting that Churchill’s search for a summit was not an old man’s vanity but consistent with a lifelong leitmotif of his diplomacy. Larres begins, in fact, with Churchill’s desire to go to Berlin in 1912, to thrash out Anglo-German naval rivalry face-to-face with Admiral Tirpitz, and sees the pattern continue in his wartime globetrotting to meet Roosevelt and Stalin. As for the bid for a Big Three summit in 1951-55, Larres, like others before him, emphasises Churchill’s fear of thermonuclear conflict. But he also argues that Churchill believed that if tension with the Soviet Union were eased, Britain would be able to limit its dependence on the United States. Summitry would enhance British influence; détente would reduce bipolarity and shore up Britain’s global role. Larres presents Churchill’s diplomacy as ‘an imaginative and perhaps even visionary policy through which he attempted to reverse his country’s declining fortunes’.
It is, however, hard to ignore the evidence that Churchill kept using the imminence of a summit as an excuse not to resign. Nor did he really address the question of what was to happen if the Big Three did meet. To the alarm of the Foreign Office he abhorred fixed agendas, and seems to have regarded a meeting as an end in itself. Although Larres mentions it only in passing, Churchill seems to have held a surprisingly positive view of Stalin almost to the end. He did not blame the Soviet leader for the Cold War so much as dark, mysterious forces lurking in the Politburo and the military. In further contradiction of his image as a resolute Cold Warrior, Churchill was pragmatic about the future of West Germany. For a while in 1953, he advocated a unified, neutral Germany as a central element in European détente. This was also the line being pushed by Beria and Malenkov in the months after Stalin’s death.
Although the bid for a summit came to nothing, these efforts cast a revealing light back on the rest of his career. On appeasement, for instance. Aware of the apparent contradiction with his position in the 1930s, he argued in December 1950 that ‘appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.’ Nor was he a blinkered Cold Warrior. The Fulton speech was not entitled ‘The Iron Curtain’, but ‘The Sinews of Peace’: in it Churchill urged that Western strength be used as the basis for negotiation. Larres’s account also reminds us that he was not an uncritical advocate of the ‘special relationship’. There were times, in the mid-1920s, for example, when he evinced deep hostility to American ambition, and he always saw the alliance not as an end in itself but as a way of winning influence and bolstering British power. Nor was Churchill simply a man of war. After the H-bomb, war was no longer for gentlemen; the costs outweighed the benefits; the alternative to talk was annihilation. In all these respects Churchill was more complex than the stereotypes suggest.
Above all, Larres’s book invites us to reflect more closely on Churchill the man of words. Robert Menzies observed in 1941 that Churchill’s ‘real tyrant is the glittering phrase – so attractive to his mind that awkward facts may have to give way’. During the war Allied soldiers in Italy paid a heavy price for the ‘soft underbelly’; after it, the ‘iron curtain’ proved a barrier to Churchill’s would-be mediation in the Cold War. The extra decade in the limelight after 1945 allowed him to write the lexicon of his own reputation in memoirs and speeches. If that reputation is to be understood, however, the story of what John Keegan calls Churchill’s postwar ‘apotheosis’ deserves closer attention.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.