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

At the end of his almost parodically orthodox book Geoffrey Best asks himself why Lyndon Johnson did not attend Churchill's funeral, in 1965, and decides to leave this wounding question as an open one, almost incapable of rational explanation. Well, Churchill very pointedly did not attend Franklin Roosevelt's obsequies in 1945, and even Lord Jenkins allows one to speculate—in view of Churchill's addiction to Atlantic crossings and White House hospitality—that this was determined by pique, including pique at Roosevelt's repeated refusal to visit Britain during the war. Several years ago I read through the entire Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence and was astonished to find how much the two men had disliked and distrusted each other. Astonished, too, by the clarity and candor of this mutual disaffection, and by the way that official history, most notably Churchill's own volumes, downplayed the fact. The resentment on Roosevelt's side was rather petty: he did not forget being snubbed by Churchill at their first meeting, in 1918; did not care for his endless importunacy; and was often appalled by his alcoholism. For Churchill's part there was the detestation that is often felt by the mendicant; he hated having to be polite to the man he was asking for a loan. And to this was added the humiliation of the terms: Roosevelt always exacted payment, in gold or in bases, in advance, and was once described by his victim as "a sheriff collecting the last assets of a helpless debtor."

One might feel more sympathy for this complaint if Churchill had not employed precisely the same lofty and arrogant method with his own mendicants. The French and the Poles, much more injured in their pride and in their territory than the British (and this often as a result of listening to British promises), were bluntly and sometimes thuggishly told to know their place and to keep their mouths shut. One does not have to reopen the tattered conspiracy theory about the death of General Sikorski. But it is morally impossible to read Churchill's brutal injunction to Sikorski—that he drop the subject of the Soviet massacre of the Polish officer corps at Katyn—without reflecting that many more deaths were much more cynically covered up. (No serious British official doubted the truth or the justice of Sikorski's complaint, though Churchill continued to smokescreen the issue even in his memoirs.)

Roosevelt's case was slightly different. He was determined not to repeat the Wilsonian mistake of involving America in secret diplomacy; he was fighting the last war. But then, so was Churchill in his way. The issue foremost in Churchill's mind was the entanglement of the United States in the combat. He and his admirals regularly joked about the happy possibility that the German navy would provoke a confrontation with an American vessel in the North Atlantic. During the hunt for the Bismarck and its consort, Prinz Eugen, Churchill announced that "it would be better for instance that she should be located by a US ship as this might tempt her to fire on that ship, then providing the incident for which the US government would be so grateful." He may have been too jaunty about the second part of the hypothesis. But the evident reference was to the notorious sinking of the Lusitania, in 1915, which occurred during his first tenure at the British Admiralty. The official historian of British Naval Intelligence, Patrick Beesly, has already written about this as follows:

For my part, unless and until fresh information comes to light, I am reluctantly driven to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy deliberately to put the Lusitania at risk in the hope that even an abortive attack on her would bring the United States into war. Such a conspiracy could not have been put into effect without Winston Churchill's express permission and approval.

Those who like to refer to Churchill as an adventurer or a swashbuckler or a buccaneer do not like to hear their words come back to them in this fashion; the Beesly history is invariably omitted from the authorized version. But I venture the prediction that the next wave of Churchill revisionism will focus more and more acutely on this and similar incidents. If he has a titanic place in history, it is largely because he was instrumental in engaging the United States in two world wars, and thus acted as (inadvertent) midwife to the successor role of America as an imperial power. The disagreeable and surreptitious element of this story cannot indefinitely remain unexamined. (There is more than a hint in some recent work that the paranoid American right may be mistaken in its ancient belief that "FDR knew" about the imminence of Pearl Harbor. FDR probably did not know. But Churchill quite possibly did.) At any rate, Churchill got his wish, for a wholehearted American commitment to the war. But in exchange he had to sign a virtual British "Declaration of Dependence," on everything from currency to colonies.

Churchill's role in advancing the career and power of Joseph Stalin is the second guarantee of his enduring historical importance. In many of his communications and confidences one gets the distinct sense that he admired the great despot not in spite of his cruelty and absolutism but because of it. (He told Ivan Maisky of his admiration for Stalin's annihilation of the Trotskyists. And that was before the outbreak of war.) Thus, when he mounted the podium at Fulton and spoke of an "Iron Curtain" extending from the Baltic to the Adriatic, Churchill at least possessed the authority of someone who had done much to bring that curtain down. In his other character, as Anglo-American imperialist, he had also helped to determine Washington's role as guarantor of the other side of the curtain. Finally, he had helped to share the atomic secret as partial payment for a permanent seat for Britain at all superpower negotiations. A colossus by any measurement, if not the part avuncular and part growling figure depicted by those who trade in reassurance.

It is truth, in the old saying, that is "the daughter of time," and the lapse of half a century has not left us many of our illusions. Churchill tried and failed to preserve one empire. He failed to preserve his own empire, but succeeded in aggrandizing two much larger ones. He seems to have used crisis after crisis as an excuse to extend his own power. His petulant refusal to relinquish the leadership was the despair of postwar British Conservatives; in my opinion this refusal had to do with his yearning to accomplish something that "history" had so far denied him—the winning of a democratic election. His declining years in retirement were a protracted, distended humiliation of celebrity-seeking and gross overindulgence.

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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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