|A painting of Winston Churchill in his
famous boiler suit
|A library edition of his six-volume history
of World War II
Winston Churchill and World War II
The New York Review of Books, May 29, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat
The Dire Warning
Basic Books, 147 pages
Troublesome Young Men
The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 436 pages
The Beginnings of
World War II, the End of Civilization
by Nicholson Baker
Schuster, 566 pages
Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary
How Britain Lost the Empire and the West Lost the World
by Patrick J. Buchanan
Crown, 544 pages
Winston Churchill was already famous in 1900 when he entered Parliament at
the age of twenty-five. He was home secretary at thirty-four and went on
climbing the ladder until the outbreak of the Great War. Then in 1915 he was
saddled with the blame for the Dardanelles debacle and left government to
command an infantry battalion on the Western Front. A heroic account of his
"wilderness years" in the 1930s has him as the noble lone voice crying out
while his countrymen willfully ignored his warnings about the need to rearm
against a resurgent Germany.
John Lukacs is preeminent among
intellectually respectable Churchillians, and he returns to the beginning of
Churchill's premiership in May 1940. Lynne Olson adds an account of how a
number of Conservative MPs helped get him there. But for both Nicholson
Baker and Patrick Buchanan, Churchill is the villain of the piece, a
warmonger or an incompetent blunderer.
Lukacs takes as his text the
first speech Churchill gave as prime minister on May 13, 1940, with its
bleak warning of sufferings to come, telling Parliament and people "that
immediately ahead of them loomed the prospect not of a Good War," as Lukacs
puts it, "of triumphs near or faraway, but the prospect of plight and
suffering in the face of disasters." But there was no more haunting passage
in that speech than the promise "to wage war against a monstrous tyranny,
never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime."
Churchill had recognized the nature of the Third Reich from the beginning;
and in the autumn of 1938, still in the political doldrums, he staked all on
opposing the Munich Agreement. The man who rescued his career and his
reputation was Hitler. When Czechoslovakia disintegrated in March 1939 and
Hitler arrived triumphant in Prague, he stood exposed for perfidy as well as
brutality. Chamberlain's entire policy was discredited, and Churchill was
vindicated. The London press called for his return to government.
Apart from the famous words "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears
and sweat," that speech proposed Churchill's succinct and forthright war
aims: "It is victory, victory at all costs, victory, however long and hard
the road may be." And it distilled both Churchill's insight into the nature
of Hitlerism and his honesty in not promising easy answers. Lukacs has
argued that the Third Reich was in many ways characterized by its
"modernity" and that Churchill's sense of history and his high conception of
Christian civilization — in a cultural sense rather than from the viewpoint
of a believing Christian, which he was not — gave him his intuition about
that heart of darkness.
Churchill was brought to power by the
military disaster following Hitler's invasion of Norway on April 8. On May
7–8 the House of Commons debated the failure, and within two days
Chamberlain was replaced by Churchill.
Churchill won the Nobel Prize
for literature largely on the strength of The Second World War, although
much of that six-volume work was ghostwritten. Lukacs knows enough to be
aware that his hero had been one of the most disliked and distrusted men of
his age. From an early stage, Churchill had acquired two reputations — as an
ambitious, unprincipled careerist and as an impulsive, reckless adventurer.
Even after Churchill had become prime minister he inspired alarm.
Lukacs cites plenty of witnesses in the spring of 1940 who called Churchill
"unscrupulous," "unreliable," and "lacking political judgement." Not only
appeasers and pacifists were dismayed about what kind of war he might wage.
The situation after the retreat from Dunkirk at the end of May 1940 was
desperate. Was it not likely that Churchill would resort to desperate
So he did. After the Luftwaffe attacked London in September
1940, Churchill broadcast an eloquent denunciation of "these cruel, wanton,
indiscriminate bombings." Two months earlier he had said the only thing that
could defeat Hitler was "an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by
very heavy bombers."
Those words are quoted by Nicholson Baker.
Patrick Buchanan raises further questions. His thesis is more provocative
than Baker's, insisting that this particular war was needless. Buchanan's
argument requires a sleight of hand. He doesn't argue that Hitler
represented no threat to England and the British Empire and that he should
have been given a free hand in Europe. And he doesn't say that the real
enemy of Great Britain and its empire was the United States.
he says that Hitler would never have come to power had it not been for the
previous war followed by the vengeful Versailles settlement. This is not
new. Between the wars it was regularly asserted by high-minded Englishmen
and Americans that no country was ever more responsible than any other for
any war. Since these were specifically liberal doctrines, it is amusing to
see them reiterated by Buchanan.
What Buchanan seems unaware of is
how much those views have been undermined by recent scholarship. One may
well think the whole idea of war guilt foolish. And yet many historians in
the field now concur that Germany bears the principal responsibility for the
outbreak of war in 1914. A belief that war was the only way that Germany
could achieve its rightful aims had "become deeply entrenched in the
collective mentality of the German political elite by 1914."
the postwar settlement, Versailles wasn't really such a vindictive treaty in
the circumstances. Buchanan quotes a critic for whom Versailles "draped the
crudity of conquest ... in the veil of morality." But it is mere rhetoric
for him to say that "France and Britain got the peace they had wanted.
Twenty years later, they would get the war they had invited."
Buchanan is right that the war to defeat Hitler had largely unintended and
immensely destructive outcomes. He condemns as utter folly the British
guarantee to Poland in 1939, and allows himself another swipe at Churchill,
who said that "the preservation and integrity of Poland must be regarded as
a cause commanding the regard of all the world." These words sounded very
hollow after the alliance with Stalin and its consequences.
or not one follows Buchanan's apocalyptic vision of the West in terminal
decline, it is true that World War II led to the cold war and the forty-year
subjection of Eastern Europe. But then much of what he is saying was said
more concisely by A.J.P. Taylor long ago: "Victory, even if this meant
placing the British empire in pawn to the United States; victory, even if it
meant Soviet domination of Europe; victory at all costs."
Hitler meant paying a very heavy political price. It meant waging war with
methods which would have seemed atrocious not long before. "At all costs"
for Churchill also meant the ruthless bombing of German and Japanese cities
and the killing of their civilian inhabitants. Churchill saw bombing in
pedagogic terms: "Let them have a good dose where it will hurt them most.
... It is time that the Germans should be made to suffer in their own
homelands and cities."
Churchill knew what a hateful regression all
this was, or a part of him knew that. He led the way in cruel, brutish, and
exterminatory war-making against women and children, partly thanks to his
uncompromising personality, partly thanks to what was seen as the logic of
the situation. Three years after he hoped for "devastating, exterminating"
attacks on civilians, he was shown blazing German towns filmed from the air,
and exclaimed, "Are we beasts? Have we taken this too far?"
words are quoted by John Lukacs at the end of his essay, though he doesn't
draw any further moral. Having rightly observed that "there has arisen among
America's elite a Churchill cult," Patrick Buchanan devotes a chapter to
denouncing the cult, and the man. He looks askance at Churchill's saying in
September 1943 that "to achieve the extirpation of Nazi tyranny there are no
lengths of violence to which we will not go." And he chastises the
administration of George Bush the Younger — who installed a bust of
Churchill in the Oval Office — for having emulated "every folly of imperial
Britain in her plunge from power," and having drawn every wrong lesson from
Which of us knows for sure whether any war can
ever be "good"? The war in which Churchill led his country, awful and
inexcusable as its means sometimes were, really was a war of necessity.
Winston Churchill as Warlord
By Michael Howard
The Times Literary Supplement, July 15, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
Warlord: Churchill at War, 1874–1945
By Carlo D'Este
Churchill 1940–45: Under Friendly Fire
By Walter Reid
Carlo D'Este reminds us how the young Churchill deliberately courted danger,
partly because he enjoyed it, but even more because he saw a chestful of
medals as the best possible introduction to the world of politics. D'Este
aims to conduct "an objective, total examination of his life as a military
leader", from Churchill's early years as a subaltern on the North-West
Frontier until the Second World War.
Walter Reid reminds us that
apart from a very few weeks in the summer of 1940, Churchill had to fight to
impose his will: on a Conservative Party that disliked and mistrusted him,
on a restive House of Commons, on his recalcitrant military advisers, and on
a United States that did not consider "the relationship" as nearly so
special as Churchill himself tried to pretend.
D'Este points out that
"had the Second World War not erupted, Britain and the United States would
never have been allies". Throughout the war the United States consulted her
own interests, and these did not extend to helping Britain either to remain
solvent or to retain any part of her empire once the war was over.
Reid stresses the importance of Churchill's stint at the Ministry of
Munitions, and the experience it gave him in mobilizing the resources of the
nation for total war. He also makes the point that Churchill's long
experience in Whitehall, where he had served in virtually all the great
offices of state, gave him a grasp of the business of government greater
than that of any of his contemporaries.
enjoyed war, and never made any bones about it. Otherwise he could never
have inspired the British people in the way that he did. His pugnacity made
him plan to take the offensive from the moment that he came into office, and
to harry his military advisers until they did.
The trouble with
Churchill was that he never understood logistics. It has been well said that
amateurs do strategy but professionals do logistics. Churchill certainly did
strategy very well. As Reid says, he "developed the strategy that won the
war". In implementing that strategy, Churchill "favoured opportunities that
could be exploited rather than allowing logistics to dictate". But although
strategy may propose, it is logistics that ultimately disposes.
root of the differences between the American and British Chiefs of Staff
over where and when to attack Fortress Europe was based less on their
military philosophies or national perceptions than on a simple historical
fact. In 1942 the British Army had experienced fighting the Wehrmacht in
insufficient numbers and without command of the air, and the Americans had
not. The most imaginative of strategies, and the most impeccable of
logistics, could do little to help if the army was regularly and soundly
trounced by a very much better opponent, which the Germans most certainly
D'Este's conclusion is irresistible: the temperament and
experience of a soldier of fortune, inspiring though it might be for a
people in arms, was not in itself sufficient qualification for the conduct
of twentieth-century war.