Books & Critics April 2002

The Medals of His Defeats

Our author takes the Great Man down a peg or two—and still finds that Churchill was a great man

In the early 1970s I was working at The New Statesman, in London, very near the Public Record Office, when a fresh tranche of Churchill's wartime papers was released. These covered the discussions between Churchill ("Premier," as the official papers called him) and Stalin about the future of postwar Eastern Europe. It was already known that Churchill had proposed, on the back of an envelope, a deal with Stalin for 90 percent British control of Greece in exchange for an equivalent communization of the Balkans. But it was not quite clear whether he had also deliberately traded Poland into Stalin's "sphere of influence." The matter had moral as well as historical importance, since it was in defense of Poland that Britain had finally declared war on Hitler, in September of 1939. A.J.P. Taylor prompted me to examine the documents, but the authorities informed me that the entries for Anglo-Soviet discussion of wartime Polish policy had been unaccountably mislaid. That sort of thing happens a lot in a state with an Official Secrets Act, but this was flagrant; and Poland had recently begun to stir and shift again as an actor for itself in European politics. "They always say that when it's important," Taylor told me about the "loss" of the critical records. I briefly considered titling my New Statesman article "The Churchill-Stalin Pact" but swiftly appreciated that this would make me look like a crank. There was no Churchill-Stalin Pact. There could not have been a Churchill-Stalin Pact. The necessary three words could not be brought into apposition. Heroic and improvised pragmatism—yes. Degraded and cynical statecraft? Not yet thinkable.

The Churchill cult in England, however, is mild and reflective in comparison with the Churchill cult in the United States. (I don't think any British school would be so artless as to emulate the Winston Churchill High School in the upscale D.C. suburb of Potomac, Maryland, which has a yearbook titled Finest Hours.) The aftermath of September 11 only reinforced a series of tropes that were already familiar to students of ready-made political rhetoric. "We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail," President Bush proclaimed as the bombing of Afghanistan began. "We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire," Churchill said—somewhat more euphoniously—sixty years before. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has outdone even his Churchill-obsessed predecessor Caspar Weinberger, announcing to the staff of the Pentagon on September 12, "At the height of peril to his own nation, Winston Churchill spoke of their finest hour. Yesterday, America and the cause of human freedom came under attack." Only a week earlier, this time speaking in favor of a missile-defense system, Rumsfeld had informed a Senate committee, "Winston Churchill once said, 'I hope I shall never see the day when the forces of right are deprived of the right of force.'" On September 25, asked whether the Defense Department would be authorized to deceive the press in prosecuting the war, he unhesitatingly responded, "This conjures up Winston Churchill's famous phrase when he said ... sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies." Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, later to be described as an American Churchill, laid the groundwork for his own plaudits by announcing, just after the aggression of September 11 against his city, that he was reading a book about Churchill's wartime premiership "and nothing is more inspirational than the speeches and reflections of Winston Churchill about how to deal with that." Ronald Reagan hung a portrait of Churchill in the Situation Room of the White House soon after taking power; the first President Bush allowed Jack Kemp to compare him to Churchill during the Gulf War; the second President Bush asked the British embassy in Washington to help furnish him with a bronze bust of Churchill, which now holds pride of place in the Oval Office. The legacy-obsessed Bill Clinton can only whimper at the lack of Churchillian analogy to his own tenure, but the rest of us might wish that if the United States is going to stand for something, it (or its overpaid speechwriting class) would try to come up with some mobilizing rhetoric of its own.

This prevailing line, which teeters between grandeur and kitsch, is followed with reasonable fidelity by American historians and commentators. A few weeks before September 11 a fairly banal development earned a front-page story and an editorial in The New York Times. It became known that William Manchester, debilitated by two strokes, would not be completing his trilogy on the life of Churchill. This trilogy, generically titled The Last Lion, had run to two volumes, Visions of Glory and Alone. If these titles are insufficient to convey the flavor, one might cite, as did The New York Times in its editorial, the closing staves of the second and now final book: "And now, in the desperate spring of 1940, with the reins of power at last firm in his grasp, he resolved to lead Britain and her fading empire in one last great struggle worthy of all they had been and meant, to arm the nation, not only with weapons but also with the mace of honor, creating in every English breast a soul beneath the ribs of death."

Never in the field of human biography can metaphor have been more epically mixed. Yet The New York Times regarded the lack of a sequel as a cultural event worthy of reverent coverage and a deferential editorial. The latter, unsigned, described the incomplete work as leaving "Churchill somehow suspended, poised in the midst of a great arc whose outcome we know but whose details we would like to savor over again in Mr. Manchester's words." Or, to put it another way, there can never be too much reinforcement of a familiar and useful morality tale. In the quite recent past at least two books have been published to general acclaim—Churchill: A Study in Greatness, by Geoffrey Best, and Five Days in London, May 1940, by John Lukacs, which assist in this ramming home of an already near unassailable myth. And these, together with Lord Jenkins's tome, only continue a process begun by Churchill himself when he annexed the papers of his time in office to write his own version of events. He could emerge as a historic figure—as he put it in one of his many and likeable moments of self-deprecation—by making sure of writing the history himself. The names of his early research assistants and drafters—Alan Bullock, F. W. Deakin—are testimony in themselves to what might fairly be called a conscription of the historians' professional mainstream. Yet upon reflection one might perhaps decide that the term "conscription" is unfair. "Churchill the historian," said the late Sir J. H. Plumb, "lies at the very heart of all historiography of the Second World War and will always remain there." Donald Cameron Watt commented dryly seven years later, in 1976, "For the bulk of the historical profession in America, Sir Winston Churchill's view of British policy before 1939 has hardly required a moment's critical examination." It would be no insult, then, to describe certain authors not as conscripts but as volunteers.

Manchester's series proposed itself modestly as only the condensed (or large-print) version of the ur-text of approved Churchilliana: the eight-volume official biography, by Sir Martin Gilbert, the doyen of Churchill historians. Unlike the grave and measured work of which it is the flickering Platonic shadow, Manchester's unfinished labor is overwrought in the sentimental, para-historical Camelot style that its author helped to originate. Once again, action is judged by reputation rather than reputation by action. In an extraordinary gesture Manchester rendered Churchill's wartime speeches as blank verse, with carefully incised line breaks and verse settings. This was to make explicit what had been latent heretofore, and it was also to pay Churchill the compliment he would probably have most valued and desired. (Remember that he received his 1953 Nobel Prize for literature.) In the English-speaking world, at any rate, his lapidary phrases and rolling flourishes have achieved the familiarity and renown enjoyed by some passages of the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the "kingship" plays of William Shakespeare. These excerpts or verses have the peculiar and potent faculty of recurring to our minds in time of trouble or when they seem relevant or poignant (or simply useful). And they are associated above all with fortitude, staunchness, and stoicism, salted with a little gallows humor. Imperishability of that sort descends on human beings very rarely indeed. And the audience does not mind a little exaggeration if the aim is flattering to the groundlings. "After he had spoken to them in the summer of 1940 as no one has ever before or since," Isaiah Berlin wrote in this magazine, in one of his many courageous stands for the conventional wisdom, "they conceived a new idea of themselves which their own prowess and the admiration of the world has since established as a heroic image in the history of mankind." How true. In bidding a gracious farewell to Neville Chamberlain, Churchill nobly called him "the packhorse in our great affairs." Accepting the compliment, Chamberlain pointed out that the line comes from Richard III and not, as Churchill had alleged, from Henry VI. But no matter. The thing is not to be right about Shakespeare. The thing is to be Shakespearean. Blood, toil, tears, sweat—and some immodest populism.

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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