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 flush of the "finest hour" in 1944 Laurence Olivier produced and starred in his patriotic movie version of Henry V. This film constituted (and still constitutes) subliminal propaganda of a high order. Shakespeare, Saint George, and the Almighty are yoked together against minatory Continental power. Some deference to contemporaneous Gallic sensibilities resulted in a downplaying of the original quarrel over the Salic law and the French throne, and the scene at Agincourt involving the ruthless massacre of all Prince Hal's civilian and military prisoners was thoughtfully excised. Indeed, who today cares about the true foundation of Henry's opportunistic claim, or about the heaps of dead on both sides, or the eventual ruin of his plan for the mainland? What is this when set beside the marvelous evocation of the Feast of Crispin, or the five-to-one numerical odds against the English at Agincourt ("we few, we happy few"), or the splendid words in which the terms of surrender are twice refused by Harry, or the glorious and seductive notion that sacrifice and wounds are to be envied and that "gentlemen in England, now a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here"?

These very words were muttered by living (and dying) men on the shores of Dunkirk and Dieppe and Normandy, along with the whispered accompaniment that those absent would "hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day." And for at least a generation after World War II they had a stilling effect on all politicians who had apparently temporized about the last—or, indeed, the next—European conflict. In a secondhand form they exist in our vernacular as taunts about "Munich" or "appeasement," the Munich analogy having extended itself through the "Iron Curtain" address in Fulton as a reproach to all those who were soft on communism. Manhood was the least of it; the taint of treason lay behind the suggestion of a want of virility.

In his time Churchill was very "soft," as well as very hard, on both fascism and communism. His protean, volatile character has allowed him to escape most of the moral and political consequences. So it must count as a minor irony of history that his reputation and rhetoric, both of them highly serviceable to conservatives, have come under sustained attack from a determined school of British right-wing historians—for the intelligible reason that the salient grievance of these historians is the loss of the British Empire. Nevertheless, some American circles retain anti-Churchill suspicions, because of Churchill's lifetime role in embroiling the United States in European wars. And beneath all this is a more utilitarian critique that simply inquires whether World War II could or should—because of its appalling cost—have been averted.

I earlier employed the term "profane," knowing that I should be in need of it again. The argument about World War II and its worthwhileness is the most apparently settled and decided of all major questions in our culture. There may be an occasional flinch (about the obliteration of Dresden, say, or the incineration of Nagasaki, or the wisdom of demanding unconditional surrender). But the evidence adduced at Nuremberg has the effect of retrospectively annulling all such doubts. Even the standby argument of some anti-Churchill Tories (and others, including George Orwell), about the callous collusion between Churchill and Stalin, seems almost anachronistic in view of the eventual implosion of the Soviet system. Finally, nostalgia for the British Empire is not so strong either in Britain or in its former colonial possessions as to evoke much rancor or regret at the loss of dominion.

Churchill and his right-wing critics, from John Charmley to David Irving, have something in common. They unite around the two propositions that communism was to be opposed and British imperialism was to be upheld. For the first few decades of his political career Churchill was happy to be counted an extremist—if not, indeed, a fanatic—on both these counts. He helped to organize the brutal, abortive invasion of Lenin's Russia in 1918, and published at least one subsequent article blaming the Jews for Bolshevism. He also wrote and spoke until quite late in the day (though more as an anti-Communist than an anti-Semite) in favor of Mussolini, Franco, and even Hitler. His fundamentalism about India, and the racist language in which he opposed the smallest concession to the Indian independence movement, were among the many reasons for the wide distrust that hampered him in the 1930s, and for his exclusion from the Tory Cabinets of that decade. Thus we face an intriguing question when we ask ourselves how it was that he came to embrace a cause that not only transcended those two elemental commitments but eventually negated them.

The hagiographer and the hatchet man are in unspoken agreement here. William Manchester and David Irving lay considerable stress on the near eclipse that overtook Churchill in the mid-1930s. The consensus politics of the so-called National Government had no appeal for him, and no need for him either. He was popularly (and correctly) regarded as one of those whose calamitous earlier policies had made coalition and compromise so necessary. And he was further distrusted as one who was predisposed toward grand-opera or militaristic solutions. Already in his sixth decade, Churchill was also (as some have a tendency to forget) on the verge of bankruptcy. Locust years indeed, in which Churchill ("so surfeit-swell'd, so old, and so profane ...") was more Falstaff than Hal. The blunt conclusion, encouraged by a reading of Manchester no less than of Irving, is that the Last Lion needed a last hurrah—a campaign issue that allowed him scope for all his talents and energies.

Confronted by the enemy's herald, who warns him that he faces annihilation if he brings his sick and shabby force onto the field of battle, King Henry V retorts with pugnacity but without overmuch bravado: "We would not seek a battle as we are / Nor, as we are, we say; we will not shun it." This was not unlike the wager that Churchill made in his campaign against the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments in the late 1930s. He accused them of being militarily unready while simultaneously urging them to risk battle. The contradiction is forgiven in light of eventual triumph, as it was in the case of Agincourt. But the political underlay was epigrammatically understood by Churchill as early as 1934. Writing about the reactionary press baron Lord Rothermere, who was enthusiastically pro-Nazi and pro-empire, he said, "He wants us to be very strongly armed & frightfully obsequious at the same time." The left, he added with equal acuity, wanted Britain to remain "disarmed & exceedingly abusive." The central paradox of the epoch has never been better phrased. We are almost conditioned to forget that many of the anti-Churchill Tories were busily committed to rearmament, but regarded Churchill's constant drumming on the subject as vulgar and alarmist (as, indeed, it sometimes was).

The historian David Dutton seeks to rehabilitate Chamberlain and to write about Churchill as if he were, at last, approachable as a mere mortal. But in doing so he understates the way in which the Tory establishment of the time was subjectively, as well as objectively, pro-Nazi.

On closer examination the image of Churchill as the resolute and unwavering opponent of the 1930s' dictators—a reasonable basis from which to launch an assault upon Neville Chamberlain—begins to dissolve. His contemporary criticism of the aggression of totalitarian regimes other than Hitler's Germany was at best muted. When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 Churchill declared that there would be a general unwillingness to fight or to "make any special exertions in defence of the present government of China." Similarly, his record over Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War failed in reality to place him in a distinctly different camp from Chamberlain and the National Government. Nor did Churchill rush to denounce the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935. As late as 1937 he even seemed willing to give Hitler the possible benefit of the doubt. Accepting that history was full of examples of men who had risen to power by "wicked and even frightful methods" but who had gone on to become great figures, enriching the "story of mankind", he held out the possibility that "so it may be with Hitler" ... Before 1938 his most significantly outspoken criticism of government policy related to its failure to uphold Baldwin's pledge to maintain air parity with Germany. The government, however, had come to admit its failure in this respect and to begin to increase the pace of rearmament. [Italics added]

This is true enough in the formal sense. But one might as readily have summarized Lincoln's hesitations and evasions on the matter of slavery and abolition, and his long and tortuous attempts to avoid war, and his preference for the survival of the Union over other questions of principle. Yet when the arrogant exorbitance of "The Slave Power" compelled a confrontation, there was no length to which Lincoln would not go; no abolitionist group, however fanatical, that he would not befriend; and no extremity of pitiless violence to which he would not resort. His gift—better to say his instinct—for unifying and spirited phrasing promoted him well above the sordid battlefields for which those phrases were carpentered. Churchill (who in his writings actually betrayed a sympathy for the Confederacy) strikes me as a politician of that kind—a statesman who could use terms like "destiny" and "the Almighty" without seeming self-conscious; a Hegelian figure capable of entirely fusing himself with what he conceived as a fateful hour. In his contradictions he contained multitudes.

The word "appeasement" obscures some elements of this realization now, as it did then. It was the vague term chosen by the Tories themselves to mask a collaboration with fascism and also their candid hope that the ambitions of Hitler could be directed eastward against Stalin. It is as easy to imagine the RAF helping the Wehrmacht in the Caucasus—had things occurred in a slightly different order—as it was difficult for my gruff, reactionary Royal Navy father to find himself, under Churchill's orders, running guns to Stalin via Murmansk. In their neglected book In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion (to which I should confess I wrote the introduction), Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel deploy an arsenal of documents to argue that sympathy for the Nazi Party prevailed in the highest British circles even after the declaration of war in September of 1939. It wasn't at all that the British rightists were vacillating and pacifistic—an absurd notion to begin with. It was that they thought they could save their empire by a tactical alliance with Berlin. One simple proof of this can be adduced: British colonial and naval officials were historically very jealous of their country's predominance in the Mediterranean, which extended from the Strait of Gibraltar to the shores of Palestine. Mussolini's maritime challenge to this hegemony was vastly strengthened by Franco's advance in Spain, and British ships visiting Republican ports were actually sunk by Italian planes and submarines during the Spanish Civil War. Yet the cheers for Franco on the Tory benches never died away. Quite obviously, these people thought they saw in fascism a future ally and not a future rival.

Thus Professor Dutton is ungenerous to Churchill. He partly acknowledges as much, in the small concession above on the threat from Germany, which was qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from that posed by Italy or Spain or even—Churchill's greatest failure of prescience—Japan. But he omits to credit the way in which Churchill broke from his previous sympathy for fascism and the "appeasement" of it, and also the stern, memorable words he employed to make the breach. It was actually the realization about Britain's position in the Mediterranean, and not any sympathy for Republican Spain, that impelled him to recant his long-standing support for the Franco side. But when he made the switch, he made it wholeheartedly. The British ambassador in Paris did not especially object to Churchill's inviting Léon Blum to dinner during his unofficial stopovers (the leader of the Front Populaire was also an honored guest at Churchill's own country house at Chartwell). But he did put his foot down when Churchill asked him to produce some French Communist guests. Writing to a colleague about "The Focus," that loose-knit group of politicians and journalists and socialites that informally coordinated anti-appeasement information and activity in the late 1930s, Churchill once described it as a coalition seeking support especially from "those of the 'left.'" As a back-bencher with no official position, he repeatedly invited Stalin's ambassador, Ivan Maisky, to his home to discuss political strategy.

It is difficult to exaggerate the difference between this and all his previous stances. And so it is indeed strange, given the heavy emphasis placed by chroniclers on Churchill's sheer magnitude of personality, that the ingredient of pure ambition should be so much ignored or even disallowed. Churchill knew he had but one chance to put himself at the head of affairs. He was more than willing to amend or abandon all his previous allegiances in order to do so. To take only one example, Churchill had rashly enlisted on the side of King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson against Stanley Baldwin. He made such a fool of himself in the process (even Lord Jenkins concedes urbanely that he must have been hopelessly drunk at the crucial moment) as to jeopardize his newfound anti-Nazi connections. Yet only a short while later he jettisoned all his romantic and high-flown nonsense about being "a King's man" and rejected the absurd former monarch as if he, Churchill, were Hal and the King the cast-off jester. Rereading this record, and surveying the ever multiplying fund of fresh sources, we find ourselves reviewing the career of a vaulting prince of opportunists.

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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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