November 17 ,2018
New York Times Book Review: Andrew Roberts on Sir Winston Spencer Churchill–A Man of Courage
Walking With Destiny
By Andrew Roberts
Illustrated. 1,105 pp. Viking. $40.
In April 1955, on the final weekend before he left office for the last time, Winston Churchill had the vast canvas of Peter Paul Rubens’s “The Lion and the Mouse” taken down from the Great Hall at the prime ministerial retreat of Chequers. He had always found the depiction of the mouse too indistinct, so he retrieved his paint brushes and set about “improving” on the work of Rubens by making the hazy rodent clearer. “If that is not courage,” Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord, said later, “I do not know what is.”
Lack of courage was never Churchill’s problem. As a young man he was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery fighting alongside the Malakand Field Force on the North-West Frontier, and subsequently he took part in the last significant cavalry charge in British history at the Battle of Omdurman in central Sudan. In middle age he served in the trenches of World War I, during which time a German high-explosive shell came in through the roof of his dugout and blew his mess orderly’s head clean off. Later, as prime minister during World War II, and by now in his mid-60s, he thought nothing of visiting bomb sites during the Blitz or crossing the treacherous waters of the Atlantic to see President Roosevelt despite the very real chance of being torpedoed by German U-boats.
Churchill had political courage too, not least as one of the few to oppose the appeasement of Hitler. Many had thought him a warmonger and even a traitor. “I have always felt,” said that scion of the Establishment, Lord Ponsonby, at the time of the Munich debate in 1938, “that in a crisis he is one of the first people who ought to be interned.” Instead, when the moment of supreme crisis came in 1940, the British people turned to him for leadership. Here was his ultimate projection of courage: that Britain would “never surrender.”
So too did political controversies, like turning up in person to instruct the police during a violent street battle with anarchists, defying John Maynard Keynes in returning Britain to the gold standard or rashly supporting Edward VIII during the abdication crisis.
His views on race and empire were anachronistic even for those times. The carpet bombing of German cities during World War II; the “naughty document” that handed over Romania and Bulgaria to Stalin; comparing the Labour Party to the Gestapo — the list of Churchillian controversies goes on. Each raised questions about his temperament and character. His drinking habits also attracted comment.
Such is the challenge facing any biographer of Churchill: how to weigh in the balance a life filled with so much triumph and disaster, adulation and contempt. The historian Andrew Roberts’s insight about Churchill’s relation to fate in “Churchill: Walking With Destiny” comes directly from the subject himself. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny,” Churchill wrote of that moment in May 1940 when he achieved the highest office. But the story Roberts tells is more sophisticated and in the end more satisfying. “For although he was indeed walking with destiny in May 1940, it was a destiny that he had consciously spent a lifetime shaping,” Roberts writes, adding that Churchill learned from his mistakes, and “put those lessons to use during civilization’s most testing hour.” Experience and reflection on painful failures, while less glamorous than a fate written in the stars, turn out to be the key ingredients in Churchill’s ultimate success.
He did not get off to a particularly happy start. His erratic and narcissistic father, Lord Randolph Churchill, saw the boy as “among the second rate and third rate,” predicting that his life would “degenerate into a shabby, unhappy and futile existence.” His American mother, Jennie, was often not much kinder, sending letters to him at Harrow.
By the late 1930s, out of office and despised for his opposition to appeasement, Churchill seemed finished once and for all. But he was ready. “The Dardanelles catastrophe taught him not to overrule the Chiefs of Staff,” Roberts writes, “the General Strike and Tonypandy taught him to leave industrial relations during the Second World War to Labour’s Ernest Bevin; the Gold Standard disaster taught him to reflate and keep as much liquidity in the financial system as the exigencies of wartime would allow.”
Winston Churchill later claimed that Turing had made the single biggest contribution to allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.
Alan Turing and the Ultra decrypters in the second war; the anti-U-boat campaign of 1917 instructed him about the convoy system; his earlier advocacy of the tank encouraged him to support the development of new weaponry. Research for a life of Marlborough (a book that Leo Strauss called the greatest historical work of the 20th century) taught Churchill the value of international alliances in wartime.
If Churchill’s entire life was a preparation for 1940, “the man and the moment only just coincided.” He was 65 years old when he became prime minister and had only just re-entered front-line politics after a decade out of office. It would be like Tony Blair returning to 10 Downing Street today, ready to put lessons learned during the Iraq war to work. Had Hitler delayed by a few years, Roberts suggests, Churchill would surely have been away from front-rank politics too long to “make himself the one indispensable figure.”
Experience certainly did not make success inevitable. In France, Marshal Pétain, revered as the “Lion of Verdun” for his glorious career in World War I, made all the wrong decisions as prime minister from June 1940 onward, equating peace with occupation and collaboration.
Churchill was the anti-Pétain, but what was it that made him “indispensable”? Hope, certainly, and an ability to communicate resolve with both clarity and force. Recordings of wartime speeches can still provoke goose bumps. In the end, Roberts sums up Churchill’s overriding achievement in a single sentence: It was “not that he stopped a German invasion … but that he stopped the British government from making a peace.”
That turned out to be the whole ballgame. After the Battle of Britain was won and, first, the Russians and, then, the Americans came into the war, Churchill knew that “time and patience will give certain victory.” But it also meant a gradual relegation to second if not third place. Britain had entered the war as the most prestigious of the world’s great powers. By its conclusion, having lost about a quarter of its national wealth in fighting the war, Britain had become the fraction in the Big Two and a Half, and was effectively bust.
Roberts is admiring of Churchill, but not uncritically so. Often he lays out the various debates before the reader so that we can draw different conclusions to his own. Essentially a conservative realist, he sees political and military controversies through the lens of the art of the possible. Only once does he really bristle, when Churchill says of Stalin in 1945, “I like that man.” “Where was the Churchill of 1931,” he laments, “who had denounced Stalin’s ‘morning’s budget of death warrants’?”
Some may find Roberts’s emphasis on politics and war old-fashioned, indistinguishable, say, from the approach taken almost half a century ago by Henry Pelling. He is out of step with much of the best British history being written today, where the likes of Dominic Sandbrook, Or Rosenboim and John Bew have successfully blended cultural and intellectual history with the study of high politics. But it would be foolish to say Roberts made the wrong choice. He is Thucydidean in viewing decisions about war and politics, politics and war as the crux of the matter. A life defined by politics here rightly gets a political life. All told, it must surely be the best single-volume biography of Churchill yet written.