Churchill, by Paul Johnson, A Book Review by Don Sweeting for Books, Culture, Media, Life in the 21st Century (3rd edition), a journal of Colorado Christian University.
Of the making of Churchill biographies, there is no end! But the best concise one-volume biography, in my opinion, is Paul Johnson’s Churchill (Penguin, 2009).
Why is Churchill’s life (1874-1965) the best documented life in the 20th century?
Think about this for a moment. He started serving when Queen Victoria reigned, and died when Elizabeth II reigned. He served for 64 years in parliament, under six monarchs, with two tours as Prime Minister, but held other significant cabinet offices as well. He is regarded as one of the greatest war time leaders of the 20th century. He was a prominent figure in the First World War, a dominant one in the Second World War. He was partly responsible for reshaping the Middle East. Along with all this, he published some ten million words, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. For relaxation, in his spare time, he painted over 500 canvases, more than most professional painters. He was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States. And no one did more to preserve freedom and democracy in the 20th century than did Winston Churchill.
So why read a biography of Churchill now? Not only because January 2015 is the 50th anniversary of his death, but also because there is much to learn from his life.
Paul Johnson’s biography is outstanding for many reasons. First, because Johnson is a great, conservative historian (meaning, he believes in permanent things). So many of his books are worth reading (among others: Modern Times, (2001); History of the Jews (1988), A History of the American People (1999). Second, Johnson knows how to be concise with a large subject in a way that doesn’t jip the reader of essential content. He actually writes this book with young readers in mind, taking us on a quick tour of Churchill’s life, even highlighting lessons of his life at the end of the book. And third, Paul Johnson actually knew Winston Churchill.
This biography’s chief flaw is that it is still too short for such a fascinating subject. The reader is left wanting more.
Be that as it may, here are some of the things Johnson highlights that impressed me most about Winston Churchill.
First, although Churchill was born into an aristocratic family, he did not waste his privileges. His father was Lord Randolph Churchill, the 7th Duke of Marlborough.
His mother was an American. Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace near Oxford. But sadly, in his childhood, his parents spent little time with him and often disappointed him. Churchill’s father even wrote Winston off as an academic failure. And yet, the son transcended both the privilege and the hardship of his background and actually built upon them, going far beyond the achievements of his father.
Second, Churchill not only wrote history, he made history. He was a man of words and action. He wrote 42 volumes of history, memoir, essay, as well as countless articles, (Churchill said, “words are the only thing that last forever”). But he was never content with mere words. He wanted to be in the political arena. “Politics,” he once said, “is not a game. It is an earnest business.”
As an officer, Churchill saw action in British India, in the Sudan and South Africa. His early military career included one of the last open cavalry charges in the history of the British army (1898) (he came under fire 50 times in his life). He was captured and imprisoned during the Second Boar War. He then returned home and entered parliament at age 26 reaching cabinet rank at age 34.
Not long after, Churchill sensed Britain was heading for a great war with Germany and that it would be a catastrophe for Europe. During World War One, he was Lord of the Admiralty. He was responsible for creating the naval air service, as well as getting British ships to switch from coal to oil. In the process, he took the government and Britain into the oil industry in Persia and helped develop the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP). He experienced failure (The Dardanelles disaster) but resiliently bounced back and helped pull America into the war.
Many people do not realize Churchill’s role in shaping the Middle East as the Ottoman Empire was falling apart. Along with France, Britain helped divide up the spoils. There Churchill came into contact with radical Islam for the second time (the first time was in Sudan in 1899). He also supported the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which helped make possible a Jewish homeland. Says Johnson, “without Churchill it is very likely Israel would never have come into existence.”
Third, who cannot be impressed by Churchill’s prophetic sight and voice? This came, in part, because he was such an avid student of history and understood human nature.
After reading Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Churchill was one of the few European leaders who believed that this represented Hitler’s actual intentions. Many of his generation had been so traumatized by World War One, that they wanted to avoid another conflict at all costs. Britain and France lost its moral courage to stand up for liberty and civilization. When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain entered into a pact with Hitler in 1938 promising “peace in our time,” Churchill criticized the Munich Agreement from the floor of the House of Commons. Given Hitler’s rapid rearming and his aggression in the Rhineland and Austria, this agreement was part of a policy of appeasement that would pave the way for other invasions. Hitler would not honor his pledges and Churchill was one of the lone voices warning Britain of the Nazi aggression. Not long after, Hitler would annex Czechoslovakia, call for the genocide of the Jews, and invade Poland, touching off World War Two.
This was a dark moment in the history of the West. With Germany gobbling up territories, people began to listen to Churchill. When Neville Chamberlain resigned in 1940, Winston Churchill at last became Prime Minister.
Churchill entered this office with a profound sense of destiny as if all his life had prepared him for this hour. The 65 year old Churchill went to work with feverish activity, employing his military skill and powerful oratory to instill a sense of resolve in the British people.
Though, at the time, things looked desperate, Churchill called the nation to sacrifice. His first speech as Prime Minister was electrifying: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” he said. He called the nation to “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.”
Did Churchill personally save Britain, Johnson asks? After setting forth his case, he replies, “The answer must be yes.” It was Winston Churchill’s personal leadership, courage, resolution, and ingenuity, says Johnson, that made the difference and helped win the war.
After six years of total war Britain was exhausted. In a new era of peace, the Labor party ascended and Churchill was voted out of office. He was 70 years old.
During the post war period, Churchill’s voice was not silent. He warned the world of the dangers of Stalin’s USSR and spoke of “an iron curtain” descending across the continent. A cold war with Russia replaced the hot war with Germany. Again, Churchill saw it coming. But in a dangerous new nuclear age he advocated for strength and dialogue, believing that, as he put it, “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”
One final thing that strikes me about Churchill is that he thought, not just in national, but in civilization terms. He knew that certain qualities were necessary for preserving Western civilization. Churchill argued and stood for an ordered liberty that was rooted in custom, history and tradition. This, along with a belief in human rights and dignity, is what distinguished the West from other civilizations. But this order was fragile. It had to be renewed in each generation and required courageous resolve to stand before “barbaric and atavistic forces.” Civilization, said Churchill, was always in danger of being devoured by barbarians from without or weakness from within. It required a moral courage and a readiness to take up arms when it was threatened.
Despite his brilliant leadership, Churchill had feet of clay. Early on Churchill was a poor student. He could be rude and impossible with those who assisted him. His early career was fueled by raw ambition. He lost more elections than any other British politician in the 20th century. In some ways, Churchill was a “mass of contradictions.”
And yet, one wonders what the 20th century would have been like without him.
Churchill survived the war by twenty years. On January 27th, 1965, shortly after celebrating his 90th birthday, he died. His last words were, “I am bored with it all. The journey has been enjoyable and well worth making—once!”
Who can blame him for saying that after such a remarkable life.