Winston Churchill
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

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
The New York Review of Books, May 29, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat
The Dire Warning
by John Lukacs
Basic Books, 147 pages

Troublesome Young Men
The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England
by Lynne Olson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 436 pages

Human Smoke
The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
by Nicholson Baker
Simon and Schuster, 566 pages

Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War"
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 78 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 measures?

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.

Instead 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."

As to 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.

Whether 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."

To defeat 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?"
Those 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 Churchill's career.

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, 18741945
By Carlo D'Este

Churchill 194045: 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.

Temperamentally, Churchill 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.

The 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 were.

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.