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Churchill by Paul Johnson
Posted By Julia Braun Kessler On December 1, 2009 @ 10:46 am In Biography,Great Britain,History,Non-Fiction Reviews | 2 Comments
How often is there the temptation to contemplate our greatest figures as re-introduced into history? To see them transplanted into another period and confronted with the challenges of this age? Just how might they have handled our dilemmas? Can we picture Napoleon coping with the sudden fall of France in WW II, imagine Franklin Roosevelt tackling today’s American health care muddle, or Ronald Reagan addressing Iran’s tyrants, Khomeini and Ahmadineajad?
Especially tempting for such an exercise is someone like Winston Churchill. To think of possibilities for this giant, commonly regarded as the statesman who did more to preserve Western civilization and to maintain the freedoms inherited from the Enlightenment than anyone else, stuns the imagination! How would he have dealt with religious fanatics, nuclear weaponry, and more particularly the war in Afghanistan, the re-emergent Russian corporate state, among other striking challenges of the era.
It is even difficult to conceive how any biographer can convincingly depict this hero’s prescience and stamina during his long life, forever surrounded by the menaces of democracy’s destruction. Yet Paul Johnson manages just that, in a book that runs no more than 160 pages!
His is a unconventional, unorthodox, a quite maverick approach. Johnson’s grasp of the complexity of Churchill’s character, together with a selection of anecdotes and idiosyncratic detail dramatize his humanity. He brings to life for us a faulted, troubled, yet altogether real person. His canny personal reflections call attention to the man’s vicissitudes, his several rises and falls from power; they illustrate his extraordinary talents in oratory, demonstrate his turns of stunning wit, as well as his many public displays of care and kindness, all mixed with impatience and rage, during his some 60 years of public life.
Johnson never falters. His pages shine with surprise information about this larger-than-life 20th Century leader. A notable achievement, following longer histories and scholarly studies that took up each and every aspect of Churchill’s life. The wonder of this slim volume is Johnson’s clarity by which his singular method succeeds in rendering the man’s true genius.
Beginning by asking how any individual could have accomplished so much, he sketches the portrait of one who was born into a prominent political family, yet was regarded as the lesser of its progeny.
“He was not a boy who did naturally well at school and his reports were mediocre. His father soon wrote him off as an academic failure. After his poor performance at private school Lord Randolph decided not to send him to Eton: not clever enough.”
Instead, he chose Harrow for him, which presumably harbored the less brilliant students of those times. Johnson tells us that Winston’s performance there unfortunately confirmed “his father’s belief he would come to no good. He never got out of the bottom form, spending three years there, until he was transferred to the Army Class, to prepare him for the Cadet School at Sandhurst.”
During that same period, his father’s letters to him are “crushing,” “brutal,” discouraging and painful. His mother’s were a bit less so; but she had the same view. Any of this might have discouraged this “second fiddle” of the family, his older brother Jack having been “brought up from infancy” as the preferred son.
Meanwhile, the family itself was disgraced when his grandfather antagonized the Prince of Wales and they were quickly dispatched into exile in Dublin.
Nor did the boy see much of his parents then or after. His early influences came from his nurse, Mrs. Elizabeth Anne Everest, a Kentish woman of modest background whom he referred to as ‘Woomany’ or ‘Woom,’ and who offered him affectionate and loyal support over the years.
Despite his failures at school, (three years in the first form!) Johnson observes that Churchill matured emerging “not merely adept but masterly in his use of words. And he loved them. They became the verbal current coursing through his veins as he shaped his political manhood.”
Writing, in fact, was among his first steps towards public recognition, and by the time he was 21, he was earning his principal livelihood by his writing. He wrote scores of magazine and newspaper pieces, vast numbers of speeches, remarkable works of history, altogether some forty books. Many of the latter were successful and earning well for him. With the assistance of his fearless mother in “begging for help,” for her son, he obtained his earliest assignments. Winston wrote to her at that time, “This is a pushing age, and we must push with the best.”
And that was but the beginning of his unceasing search for fame. His army career began when Winston went into the cavalry, The Fourth Hussars, infuriating his aging father who had preferred the Infantry. Yet by that time Lord Randolph could exert little influence over his prospering son. And when there didn’t seem enough action for an ambitious Winston under his commander Colonel Brabazon, he once more turned to his mother to pull some strings to get him transferred from India to Cuba, where war was raging; and from that front immediately to embark upon reporting for the Daily Graphic with his dispatches on it.
It was his first experience of combat and it came as something of a shock. Of it he reported as follows, “I heard shots fired in anger and heard bullets strike flesh or whistle through the air,” and learned to take cover. There were many times Churchill faced open battle in his life yet he never faltered. After, he was to be awarded a Red Cross medal by the Spaniards. And meanwhile, he collected his twenty-five guineas for five articles in the Graphic.
He continued to write covering campaign after campaign. He produced his first book during that period, about the British struggle to punish Sir Bindon Blood, who’d tried to steal the Crown Jewels under Charles II. He then turned his attention to Africa, which was in a constant state of war.
He wrote: “A few months in South Africa would earn me the SA medal and in all probability the Company’s Star. Thence hot-foot to Egypt—to return with two more decorations in a year or two—and beat my sword into an iron dispatch box.”
On he went at a great pace, determined to make his name. And each one of his military achievements made him more conspicuous and solicited for his leadership talents. He next took to giving speeches about his ventures and became the returning hero of those wars. His performances earned him considerable sums and turned him into one of “the best known young men” of that era.
At this point, the biographer interjects with a note that he was even reportedly discussed by the legendary Rudyard Kipling, the “Orpheus of the empire,” and one of its great builders, Cecil Rhodes. Johnson laments that that conversation was never recorded.
His notoriety brought about notice by London’s debutantes as well. A handsome young man from such an important family with a fine estate at Chartwell in Kent was obviously thought an attractive bachelor. Winston had already, as Johnson reports, “dutifully fallen in love with various girls, or thought he had, and waltzed around Mayfair ballrooms.” But it was in August of 1908 that he proposed to Clementine Hozier, the love of his life; whereas other, more influential girls in society had set their minds on him, she suited him; he loved her, and their happiness would never wane. They married at St Margaret’s, Westminster, Parliament’s parish church.
His social successes turned him toward politics. In his first steps along this road he managed to win for the Tories in 1899 and to take his seat in the House of Commons for the first time in 1901. It was the very seat his father had once occupied years earlier. He was a mere 28 years of age.
A creature of his age, he saw Empire for his nation as the “splendid thing.” Yet, Johnson points out “He saw the horror of Empire as well as its splendor and felt for the underdog.” And in his subsequent political career, there were many times when he failed to gain support for his policies, due to his persistence in discussing situations with full candor. Churchill’s stance was hardly a characteristic one for a politician seeking broad support, and often self-defeating. For example, of one of his earlier books, The River War, which Johnson termed “an accurate account of what he saw in the scramble for Africa,” Churchill himself admitted:
“I do not think the book will bring me many friends [but] in writing the great thing is to be honest.”
Indeed, it angered Kitchener, whom he criticized harshly, and of whom he said to his mother, “A vulgar, common man — without much of the non-brutal elements in his composition.” There were others too, many influential others whom he offended with blunt and forthright statements, which led to running reports regarding Churchill’s “unreliability.” They were to haunt him for the rest of his political life. And his perpetual battles to keep a seat in the House of Commons had much to do with his lack of caution. Over the years, his spoken words as well as his written works brought him countless powerful enemies whose influence could bring him down. They continually cost him that seat in Parliament.
Churchill persisted nonetheless, his ambition never diminished during long years. It was as though he was compelled to prove his father wrong. He even wrote a book about his family and his father’s achievements. Johnson quotes Winston’s cousin Ivor Guest’s quip: “Few fathers have done less for their sons. Few sons have done more for their fathers.”
The advent of the first of the World Wars was when Churchill exhibited his visionary self. He was one of the few who could foresee it as a catastrophe. Though he entered that war and willingly fought for his nation, he wrote devastatingly of it in his The World Crisis.
“All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them. The mighty educated states involved conceived—not without reason— that their very existence was at stake. 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 ultimate avenging nations she had assailed. …. The wounded died between the lines: the dead moldered into the soil.”
And so he continues, concluding, “When all was over, torture and cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific Christian states had been able to deny themselves, and they were of doubtful utility.”
It was during those years that Churchill, Johnson reports, was most pressed by the heavy “weight of War.” His contributions to the action on the front were much consulted by Asquith, the Prime Minister of those times, a man who, according to Johnson “had no conception of the right way to win a world war.” There was disaster after disaster; in the Dardanelles, for instance, and then there was underestimation of the Turks as fighting men. Asquith proceeded against Churchill’s considered opinion. And in the course of that war too, was Asquith’s own fight for survival, which demanded, as Johnson explains, “the sacrifice of Churchill at any cost.”
Yet again Winston Churchill was fired. He was “out and had to watch, impotent and silent while the politicians, admirals and generals compounded their mistakes and the operation after a quarter of a million casualties ended in ignominious evacuation….” And worst of all, it was he who was to become the fall guy.
At such moments, Churchill was at his “lowest,” as he faced starting his career over! It was evident too in the portrait he had been having painted just at that time by one of the great artists of the period, William Orpen, who remarked solemnly as he finished that the face he saw and depicted there was truly a “man of misery.”
Johnson breaks to alert us to a turn of events in which “providence intervened.” By pure chance, down at Hoe Farm in Surrey, while visiting with his sister-in-law, “Goonie” Churchill (Lady Gwendeline Bertie), Churchill came upon her quietly painting in watercolors in her garden. Here, we again note this biographer’s great appreciation of the nuances in the character of this dedicated statesman, the display of his resilience of spirit. His imagination never abandoned him, when one part of his life failed him, he sought other paths to follow.
As he watched his sister-in-law that day, sitting comfortably before an easel and painting the bright English countryside, he was captivated. They chatted briefly about how it was done; and his enthusiasm was such that Goonie suggested he try it for himself. The tale told is that he barely got home before providing himself with art supplies. And ever after, Churchill, despite the pressures of public life yet to come, pursued the pleasure he took in painting for his entire life.
“Soon, misery began to retreat,” the biographer goes on, “His mind, his self-respect, his confidence were restored. He found he could paint strikingly and loved it; his efforts improved with each canvas.” He even entered a contest for amateur artists anonymously and was awarded the prize unanimously, by judges like Kenneth Clark, Lord Duveen and Oswald Birley .
Still another diversion for Churchill was his new-found skill in bricklaying. His attempts, at one point, to set brick for a garden wall at Chartwell introduced him to the craft. The work so attracted him that he took it up whenever his garden demanded it. He even tried to join a bricklayer’s union to legitimate his occasional work.
Of course, the most trying of all periods of Churchill’s public life was yet to come, the troubled days for which the world, and history largely knows him by. His role during World War II can never be understated. Although Churchill observed the ominous developments in Germany for years, it was only in 1933 when Hitler came to power that there was some corroboration of his long foreseen views. Only then did such facts begin to make sense to these common mortals, those mere politicians around him.
He had been forever insisting, for example, that the Treaty of Versailles was being violated again and again by the Germans. He had demanded that it be declared null and void.
“I have written it thousands of times.” he said, “No human being has ever declared or recorded what he wanted more than me.” Since the Germans had been re-arming themselves for some years, getting heavy weapons from the Soviet Union, Hitler had merely “accelerated the process.” Johnson remarks that few people had read Mein Kampf, and those who had, didn’t believe it. Altogether, there was a general complacency. Hitler was thought of as an obscure adventurer, who would soon fade from the scene.
Churchill continued his feisty self. He spoke out after a debate over the matter at the Oxford Union in 1935, which had concluded rejecting the danger of that upstart ruler.
“…That this House refuses in any circumstances to fight for King and Country,” Churchill called, “that abject, squalid, shameless avowal… a very disquieting and disgusting symptom.”
Certainly it took all his efforts to rally his nation in that struggle, which Britain and the entire Empire, as we well know, subsequently fought through valiantly and continued to fight alone until they were much, much later joined by the United States and the Soviet Union. Theirs was clearly the major role in that war to defeat the Nazi onslaught against Europe and Africa.
His relentless rhetoric continued as well urging a policy of a strong and rearmed Britain able to stand firm against a ferocious and vengeful enemy. Britain, he explained to his people, will be “fighting for its life.” He added that “Greedy appetites have already been excited. Many itching fingers are stretching and scratching at the vast pillage of a derelict empire.”
Another and later speech talked of “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.” He spoke eloquently and feelingly. He meant every syllable.
And Johnson reminds us of the memorable words he spoke after France capitulated:
“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 their finest hour.’” Here the biographer also observes, “So the first true victory Britain won in the war was the victory of oratory and symbolism. Churchill was responsible for both.”
Johnson admires Churchill’s military brilliance as well, his intuition of the importance of airpower; his tactical prowess displayed in the attack on Mussolini’s tyranny on the Continent in preparation for full scale attacks on the Nazis themselves (when more air power should be available); his assault of Crete. He takes up the leader’s continual search for allies (Greece, for instance) to help in his battle so as to gain force from every direction. There were endless and ingenious ways to thwart the enemy, and ways of devising means to pull the enemy into many simultaneous battles.
The biographer presents the phases of Churchill’s genius:
“By this time, thanks to possession of the Nazi encryption machine Enigma and the British decoding center at Bletchley, he was getting regular intercepts of top-level Nazi messages. This was the most closely guarded secret of the war, and it says a lot for the precautions Churchill personally took, his own discretion, that the Nazis never suspected their codes were broken and continued to use them to the end.”
It was, in fact, that means by which Churchill discovered Hitler’s intention to invade Russia. Because he had the codes, Churchill could warn Stalin. The latter paid no attention whatsoever, calling it a “capitalist trick” to drag him into war.
When that attack came through, Churchill was primed and happy to learn of it. He immediately embraced the Soviet Union, his long-time enemy, as an ally, with a typical Churchillian quip,
“And why not, after all, if Hitler invaded Hell, at least I would ensure that in the House of Commons I made a favorable reference to the Devil.”
So did strategies proceed as battle after battle in World War II raged. Churchill fought through each, vigilant and wary to the end.
Johnson observes regarding the mistrust of Franklin Roosevelt for Churchill just after their remarkable victory had been achieved:
“He often suspected Churchill of being guided by imperialist motives when all he wanted to do was win the war. But generally, if FDR was over-suspicious of Churchill, he was under-suspicious of Stalin. He had had no direct experience of Bolshevism, as Churchill had, and did not hate Communism with every fiber of his being, as Churchill did. In meeting with Stalin, especially at Yalta in January 1945, he blocked Churchill’s attempts to coordinate Anglo-US policy in advance: he did not wish, said Averell Harriman, to ‘free Soviet suspicions that the British and Americans could be operating in concert.’ Churchill sadly accepted this. As the Red Army began to push the Nazis back in Eastern Europe, Churchill noted:
“It is beyond the power of this country to prevent all sorts of things crashing at the present time. The responsibility lies with the United States and my desire is to give them all the support in my power. If they do not feel able to do anything then we must let matters take their course.”
The rest is history, as we say —and we have had to live with it during the last 50 years of the 20th century. Our recent celebrations for the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the dismantling of some 2,500 miles of barbed wire stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea) should remind us of how right he was! Ever prescient, Churchill could see what was to come, the enslavement of Eastern Europe behind ‘the Iron Curtain.’
Johnson concludes, “Everyone who values freedom under law, and government by, for, and from people, can find comfort and reassurance in his life story.”
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