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

Indeed, it is fascinating to notice how often the colonial "periphery" was deemed the essential theater for avoiding an all-out war between Europeans. Chamberlain had cared far more about India (a much more faraway country) than about Czechoslovakia, whereas Churchill was willing to use imperial outposts as bargaining chips with both Roosevelt and Hitler; and in dealings with Washington the British were forced to mortgage what they actually held—in the Caribbean especially—as a down payment on Lend-Lease. It seems almost unbelievable now that the British should have panicked at the "prospect" of a Nazi invasion of Ireland, but it remains the case that Churchill (who had helped to fix the Partition of Ireland in 1921) offered to hand over Protestant Ulster to Eamon De Valera in exchange for the use of Irish ports. Hoping to preserve good relations with food-producing Argentina, the British considered relinquishing their dubious historical claim to the Falkland Islands.

Nor is this colonial dimension a sidebar to the main event. If anyone were to write a serious book about the moment when Britain and Churchill crossed the Rubicon and convinced those at home and abroad that there was no alternative to a war to the finish, the relevant time would not be the days of equivocation in May of 1940. It would be July 3 of the same year, when the order was given to destroy the French fleet in the port of Mers el-Kébir, or Oran, in Algeria. Having vastly and repeatedly overstated the will and the ability of the French to resist Hitler, and having nearly lost an entire British army on this delusion at Dunkirk, Churchill became his own polar opposite and decided that the surviving French naval force was in imminent danger of being grafted onto the German fleet. As it happened, Franklin Roosevelt and Cordell Hull were expressing precisely the same anxiety, at exactly the same time, about the British fleet. In none too delicate a fashion they suggested that Churchill dispatch the Royal Navy across the Atlantic for safekeeping. As late as June 27 Hull had proposed this very course, before being checked by an indignant reply from Churchill.

It can confidently be asserted, based on numerous records and recollections, that the British bombardment of the French navy put an end to this period of vacillation. In Parliament, Churchill's earlier and more famous speeches (which he did at least give in the chamber, leaving Norman Shelley to handle the airwaves) had been greeted by the Tory members with sullenness or sarcasm—with what one Minister described at the time as a "sinister" lack of enthusiasm. But the news from Mers el-Kébir precipitated the first real ovation of his stewardship as Prime Minister. It was also employed by him to rub in a very salient point: "I leave the judgment of our action, with confidence, to Parliament. I leave it also to the nation, and I leave it to the United States. I leave it to the world and to history." There was to be no more talk of compromise: "We shall on the contrary prosecute the war with the utmost vigor by all the means that are open to us until the righteous purposes for which we entered upon it have been fulfilled. This is no time for doubts or weakness. It is the supreme hour to which we have been called."

"Supreme hour" is just as effective as "finest hour," but this is one speech that has not come down to us by way of the Churchill school of historians. Why not? After all, it rallied opinion, spat defiance, dissolved factional differences, and mightily impressed both Washington and Moscow. It was also an unarguable act of war rather than an act of verbiage. It was a burning of the boats. Ah, but the boats were French. And so were the many hundreds of those who died in them. Moreover, no evidence has ever been produced to suggest that the French would have given over their fleet to the Nazis, and there is much evidence the other way: the ships had been moved to North Africa in the first place to avoid their impressment by Germany, and no surviving Vichy vessel was ever transferred to German control. The British commander who was ordered to open fire on a fleet that lay at anchor—Admiral James Somerville—confessed himself nauseated by the task. The French never forgave the incident. Chroniclers prefer to skate over it or, where possible, elide it altogether.

Yet here, if you will, is the Shakespearean or biblical element at work again. If Churchill would so cheerfully slay and humiliate his recent ally, as an earnest of his ruthlessness and resolution, then what might he not do? This was a much more literally and vividly "Churchillian" moment than most. It's just not—if I may put it like this—the sort of thing they teach you in school.

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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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