World’s Greatest Statesman

Edward Luttwak

  • Churchill: The End of Glory by John Charmley
    Hodder, 648 pp, £30.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 340 48795 X
  • Churchill: A Major New Assessment of his Life in Peace and War edited by Robert Blake and Wm Roger Louis
    Oxford, 517 pp, £19.95, February 1993, ISBN 0 19 820317 9

The highly practical Hellenistic solution to Britain’s insatiable Churchill/Finest Hour cravings would have been to establish a regular cult, with its own dedicated priests, rituals and sanctuaries. Facing a brazen engraving of the famously pugnacious 1941 Karsh photograph, surrounded by appropriate symbols or even original relics of Spitfires, Sten guns, Home Guard pikes and Montecristo cigars, listening to quadrophonic recordings of the major speeches in His own voice, peering into side-chapels dedicated to His companions (Beaverbrook, Birkenhead, Bracken), the average gent thrown into despair by the latest debacle of the British economy could swiftly revive his flagging spirits. Then on his way out of the shrine he could perhaps pause to purchase a Churchill amulet from one of the attending priests robed in 1940-style battle dress, with tin helmet and gas-mask satchel.

As it is, there are only television’s (almost weekly) World War Two documentaries and assorted World War Two romances to mitigate the withdrawal symptoms, as well as the steady output of Churchill books. Because so many are so ready to protest so much over anything not entirely uncritical written of Winston in World War Two (or WWW2 for short), there was no possibility whatever that Charmley’s 648 pages for 30 quid would pass by quietly, attracting deadly praise of ‘the best one-volume Churchill biography published this fortnight’ variety. Inevitably, the suggestion that post-1945 world events might have turned out more favourably had it not been for the errors and obsessions of WWW2 has started a very noisy debate which is being enjoyed by many, though the genuinely anguished cries of true devotees can also be heard above the din. When Lord Moran published his take-the-temperature-and-tell memoirs in 1966, not only breaching doctor-patient confidentiality but also revealing that WWW2 was sometimes ill as well as often tipsy, not to say smashed (things, to be sure, entirely unexpected of a hard-living lush in his middle sixties), everybody did their best to pretend that the news was actually new and even shocking, so that the controversy could occupy British public discourse for months on end, providing wonderful distraction from the grim realities of 1966. One Churchillian evocation or another likewise offered distraction from the grim realities of 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972 and so on, and on. Now that the Charmley debate has come along to afford relief from the grim realities of 1993, one hesitates to spoil the fun but some elementary observations are in order.

1. Charmley can legitimately argue that Churchill was an inveterate war-lover who flatly refused to consider a negotiated exit from the June 1940-June 1941 Anglo-German war. That Churchill was addicted to war is certainly beyond dispute. One reading of his often brilliant observations about nuclear weapons (the 1955 ‘Balance of Terror’ speech said it all) is that he deplored them more than most people, as the final and complete ruination not just of mere boring peace, but of the splendid (non-nuclear) warfare he had known and loved so well – for not even Churchill foresaw the emergence of the ‘post-nuclear’ era, in which combat would once more be feasible on a large scale and at high intensity. It is also beyond dispute that Hitler said he wanted peace with Britain, and that he said his terms would be mild, not much more than a retrocession of the lost African and Pacific colonies, and of course loyal co-operation with Hitler’s ulterior plans for Europe and the world.

2. By contrast, it cannot reasonably be argued that Churchill should have pressed for a separate peace during the September 1939-June 1940 period, when the Anglo-Franco-German war was conspicuously not raging after Poland’s rapid defeat. Newly-elevated into the government after so long an exclusion, with a well-deserved reputation for bellicosity being his only claim to office, Churchill could hardly exceed Neville Chamberlain’s enthusiasm for peace. It was of course Chamberlain who had started the war, as peace-lovers often do, not just by formally declaring war on Germany while Germany was merely waging war on Poland, but by having issued the unilateral guarantee that was activated by the German invasion of Poland. Had Churchill tried to start a peace-at-any-price Cabinet revolt, he would have merely repeated his father’s ruinous trajectory by being swiftly tossed out of the Government, the Party and his constituency.

3. Nor can it reasonably be argued that Churchill should have extracted Britain from the war after 22 June 1941. The Soviet-German war would have continued after a British separate peace, but not indefinitely. Sooner or later, the succession of German winter defeats followed by Soviet summer defeats would have given way to a more definite outcome. Even the permanently warring frontier that Hitler delighted to imagine, where Germanic youth could be tested and culled before procreating, presumed a defeated Soviet Union replaced by Slavic chieftains and roaming bands of neo-Cossacks. Helped by a timely peace with Britain, it is just possible that Nazi Germany would have won its Soviet war – although it is not at all clear that Hitler would have made the right decisions in the fall of 1941, even if freed of the rather minor British distraction. No matter – whoever the victor, he would certainly have become the unchallenged master of continental Europe. That in turn would have left Britain perfectly isolated and entirely dependent on Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, as the case might be, for any access at all to the Continent. The victorious continental power, moreover, would have been free to demobilise significantly on land, thus releasing ample resources to strengthen its maritime forces. From then on, the collapse of Britain’s maritime security would have been only a question of time: the few years needed to raise, equip, train and deploy aero-naval forces capable of closing the sea lanes to and from Britain. Without need of combat, or much combat, any terms agreed beforehand would then have been revoked, to define Britain’s new status as a client state at best. Thus there would have been no possibility of salvaging Britain’s imperial power or tangible interests by a separate peace after June 1941.

4. A fortiori, Britain could not have advantageously left the war after 7 December 1941, when the United States was finally forced into combat in spite of FDR’s malevolently self-interested vacillations and hesitations (it is true that the non-interventionist camp was very strong in Congress, but it is also true that FDR was unwilling to pay even the smallest political price, or accept the slightest political risk, to force the pace of events). With or without Britain, the Americans and Russians would still have defeated the Germans as well as the Japanese. If a denial of bases on British soil had made an American invasion of the Continent impossible, the Americans would have won by using fission bombs on Germany. In any case, a self-neutralised Britain would have been left impotent, isolated and irrelevant by Germany’s defeat.

5. Thus Charmley’s entire case necessarily rests on the possibility that Britain might have successfully exited from the June 1940-June 1941 Anglo-German war by way of a separate peace. Was such a peace ever feasible? Hitler’s 1940 offer to allow Britain to keep its empire was not ungenerous – as a sentimental racist, he undoubtedly admired that vast archipelago of sentimental racism – and of course the different British species were all right racially, once sundry Jews, Lascars, Maroons and Tinkers were weeded out. But again, this alternative outcome would have required Hitler to abjure war with both the Soviet Union and the United States, for otherwise considerations No 3 and No 4 above would again become operative. In other words, Charmley must have a Hitler who was willing to keep the peace. Could Nazi Germany have lived on without war, as Franco’s Spain lived on after 1945? Culturally, economically and socially the answers might be yes – ‘structuralists’ may even speculate about a slow process of liberalisation analogous to Spain’s, albeit without the push of turismo. But politically that outcome was always impossible because Nazi Germany was Hitler’s Germany, and Hitler wanted war even more than he wanted victory – his own post-Munich reaction was an outburst of rage, because Chamberlain had made a war with Czechoslovakia impossible by giving him the Sudetenland. More particularly, Hitler wanted the killings and destructions of war even more than war itself, ultimately being quite satisfied to oversee and prolong the killing of Germans and the destruction of Germany, once his ability to inflict harm on others had waned. Churchill was of course entirely different, because he had no use at all for destruction as such, and wanted to wage war and victory in that order – characteristically, Churchill was forever trying to get up to the front, while Hitler was most reluctant to visit even frontal headquarters. In other words, Charmley’s optional past requires not merely a Britain without Churchill but a Germany without Hitler.

The immediate reaction to seeing a book subtitled, not merely blurbed, ‘A Major New Assessment’ is irritation at so much presumption, but then one notices that it is an ed. by, and that the contributors’ list amounts to almost a full platoon of historians of wide reputation at least, with a good many ranking the full three stars. It appears that in March 1991, amid the as yet unalloyed relishings of the Desert Storm victory, a meeting of the world’s leading Churchillists was convened in Austin, Texas, undoubtedly at the initiative of Professor Wm Roger Louis, whose Kerr Chair of English History and Culture at the University of Texas was one of the two principal sponsors (along with the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library), although the president and staff of the hyper-rich Pennzoil Company and sundry U of T outfits are also thanked for their ‘support’. America may be undergoing Thirdworldisation but it cannot catch up with Britain’s faster progress. Thus academics summoned all the way from the UK to Austin, Texas to chat yet again about WSC – if they did not hold out for First Class fares they were fools – must have marvelled yet again at the oceanic gap between their mean circumstances (even if Oxbridge supremos mit peerage) and those of Wm Roger Louis, who as a mere professor (he boasts of being 1992 recipient of the Liberal Arts Student Council Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Texas) could organise such a costly affair, no doubt raising the necessary $upport by prospecting a gathering of the World’s Greatest Historians to discuss the World’s Greatest Statesman in the World’s Greatest State of Texas.

Louis himself is the not undistinguished author of a good book on Leo Amery among other things, but his co-editor Lord Blake is ... Lord Blake, former Chairman of the Rhodes Trustees, former editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, former ... no, the Disraeli biographer and Tory historian of the Tory Party. Although Lord Blake is Lord Blake, it is exceedingly surprising that Louis did not instead procure the co-editorial services of the World’s Greatest Biographer of the World’s Greatest Statesman; one wonders – utterly consumed by curiosity – what happened in the retroscena to give us this Hamlet without the Shakespeare. The Preface is all suspicious brevity on the matter: ‘We regret that Martin Gilbert was unable to come to the conference.’ Perhaps Gilbert was simply busy, or recuperating from a white-water rafting or a hang-gliding contretemps. But of course the words can also be interpreted to mean that Gilbert was invited, but not offered the co-chairmanship. One must be practical after all: the gentlemen of Pennzoil might never have heard of M. Gilbert – or of R. Blake the author of Disraeli either, but they would instantaneously recognise Lord Blake as a Lord. And then again, perhaps that is nothing but crude, unfair and badly dated regional prejudice while a completely different reason was at work: Gilbert bestrides the Churchillist scene in so monumental a fashion that to invite him might have diverted the entire purpose of the gathering to a reappraisal of the World’s Longest Biography rather than of the World’s Greatest Statesman.

From Stephen Ambrose, the indispensable Eisenhowerist who naturally writes of the WSC-Eisenhower relationship, to Philip Ziegler, the tactful Mountbatten biographer who does for WSC and the monarchy, the contributors cover almost every imaginable WSC facet and interface, sometimes with considerable factual detail. The late D.J. Wenden provides chapter and verse and lots of numbers on Churchill’s use of radio and the cinema. Out of office, WSC might have been a TV news/chat-show host had he lived in the TV age. Certainly he was better at what in Clinton’s America we call ‘outreach’ than at attracting the support of his fellow Tories, who distrusted him so very thoroughly that in the end it was only the close alliance of two non-Tories, Attlee and Hitler, who made a PM of WSC; the King, as well as most Tories, wanted Halifax, who indeed would have been PM in 1940 had he wanted the job – as Lord Blake trenchantly reaffirms in his contribution (‘How Churchill became prime minister’). There but for the grace of Lord Halifax, Churchill almost went, eventually to have ended his days with no greater renown than half an Asquith, two Birkenheads or three Inskips – very much not as the plausible object of costly Texan gatherings fifty years on. Britain would probably have pulled through in 1940 anyway (we now know just how fragile the Luftwaffe was), and the greatest party of them all, the party of mediocrity, would have scored one more triumph – Baldwin as PM. There is, by the way, no specific treatment of WSC’s relationship with the Tory Party in this book, although the subject comes up all over the place.

Even in élite platoons some sections are better than others. Michael Howard (‘Churchill and the First World War’), F.H. Hinsley (... and the Use of Special Intelligence), R.V. Jones, the happy beam-hunter of 1940 and premier intelligencer thereafter (... and Science), Norman Rose (and Zionism) and Roy Jenkins (the Government of 1951-55) are predictably good. The uneven John Keegan (... ’s Strategy), though seemingly disqualified by his recent published confession that he cannot understand Clausewitz, nevertheless succeeds here, correctly citing the one document that proves conclusively that WSC was the Greatest Strategist after all: to wit, the WSC-Portal exchange on the would-be strategic bombing of Germany, in which Portal plays brilliant-stupid McNamara (X bombers, dropping Y bombs, will ‘defeat’ Germany in Z days), while Churchill shows an exquisite understanding of the dialectical interplay of war and of its paradoxical logic. Memo to aspiring strategists: read the Portal-WSC exchange of memoranda word by word. The platoon also has a section of biographers, with Robert Rhodes James, of C: A Study in Failure 1900-1939 and Lord Randolph Churchill, here present in a chatty round-up that is mere fluff; Paul Addison, who once worked with Randolph S. on editing the C papers, here useful on C and social reform; the navalist Richard Ollard, who has written on the Churchill-impacted Admirals Fisher and Cunningham (and the Navy), John Grigg (and Lloyd George), etc.

The platoon’s roll goes on, with Gordon A. Craig, America’s Germanist and Prussianologue naturally offering us ‘... and Germany’, Douglas Johnson doing the same for ‘... and France’, and Peter Clarke doing C’s Economic Ideas 1900-1930. WSC was wrong but not as rigidly wrong as the Treasury, which in 1930-31 was doing exactly what it would do again sixty years later, i.e. upholding the sublime sanctity of the currency while firmly ignoring the whining of the smelly unemployed. (If a future Labour government does not begin in office by shutting down that factory of economic errors and fumigating the premises, then to bring in a team of MITI industrial policy/full-employment experts, it too will have been elected for nought.) And the platoon’s roll still goes on, with David Reynolds on 1940 (not this book’s finest chapter), Henry Pelling on ‘... and the Labour Movement’ (Commies are included), Max Beloff on ‘... and Europe’, and Sarvepalli Gopal on ‘... and India’ – Gopal unaccountably holds a grudge against WSC, merely because WSC lucubrated darkly on Indians and India until 1947 at least, while never even visiting the place after 1897 (odd that he was so little desirous of enjoying the Jewel first hand). Actually WSC’s 1897 Indian ideas were rather old-fashioned even then, let alone forty and fifty years on, having been formed in back-country regimental messes rather than in fast Calcutta or practical Bombay. Ronald Hyam (... and the British Empire) does better than Gopal on India, and he also does the rest. Still the roll goes interminably on: Robert O’Neill, Oxford’s Aussie-born Professor of War, does ‘C, Japan and British Security in the Pacific 1940-42’, Warren Kimball the Rooseveltist does the Special Relationship, the Sovietologue Robin Edmonds provides a serviceable ‘... and Stalin’ that stops abruptly in 1945 (WSC was soft on Stalin through 1945, but not on Stalin’s policies thereafter), the inevitable Field Marshal Michael Carver and D.C. Watt each do their own inevitable subjects, while David Cannadine actually opens the book with ‘... and the Pitfalls of Family Piety’, which stops one short right at the start by quoting one of the silliest pronouncements of C.P. Snow, that unchallenged master of pompous vacuity and sheer nonsense: WSC was ‘the last aristocrat to rule – not just preside over, rule – this country’.

In Austin an even greater number of Churchillists had gathered, but not all penned contributions in the aftermath, with Winston S. Churchill MP being only the best-named among them. What a great symposium that must have been! What surpassing historical insights must have emerged! This book, however, is much more of a Cena Trimalchionis than a Symposium, offering as it does roast boar and suspect fish, whole pig with sewn-in sausages, a boiled turnip and dabs of mustard. Perhaps the U of T might have done better after all by inviting over just M. Gilbert to do some serious after-dinner musing over a bottle of the best.