Mr. Churchill

Isaiah Berlin defends Churchill against the charge that his writings are windy and self-aggrandizing

By Isaiah Berlin

In the now remote year 1928, the eminent English poet and critic Herbert Read published a book dealing with the art of writing English prose. Writing at a time of bitter disillusion with the false splendors of the Edwardian era, and still more with the propaganda and phrasemaking occasioned by the First World War, Mr. Read praised the virtues of simplicity. If simple prose was often dry and flat, it was at least honest. If it was at times awkward, shapeless, and bleak, it did at least convey a feeling of truthfulness. Above all, it avoided the worst of all temptations—inflation, self-dramatization, the construction of flimsy stucco façades, either deceptively smooth or covered with elaborate baroque detail which concealed a dreadful inner emptiness.

The time and mood are familiar enough: it was not long after Lytton Strachey had set a new fashion by his method of exposing the cant or muddleheadedness of eminent Victorians, after Bertrand Russell had unmasked the great nineteenth-century metaphysicians as authors of a monstrous hoax played upon generations eager to be deceived, after Keynes had successfully pilloried the follies and vices of the Allied statesmen at Versailles. This was the time when rhetoric and even eloquence were held up to obloquy as camouflage for literary and moral Pecksniffs, unscrupulous charlatans who corrupted artistic taste and discredited the cause of truth and reason, and at their worst incited to evil and led a credulous world to disaster. It was in this literary climate that Mr. Read, with much skill and discrimination, explained why he admired the last recorded words spoken to Judge Thayer by the poor fish peddler Vanzetti—moving, ungrammatical fragments uttered by a simple man about to die—more than he did the rolling periods of celebrated masters of fine writing widely read by the public at that time.

He selected as an example of the latter a man who in particular was regarded as the sworn enemy of all that Mr. Read prized most highly—humility, integrity, humanity, individual freedom, personal affection—the celebrated but distrusted paladin of imperialism and the romantic conception of life, the swashbuckling militarist, the vehement orator and journalist, the most public of public personalities in a world dedicated to the cultivation of private virtues, the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Conservative Government then in power, Mr. Winston Churchill.

After observing that "these three conditions are necessary to Eloquence—firstly an adequate theme, then a sincere and impassioned mind, and lastly a power of sustainment, of pertinacity," Mr. Read drove his thesis home with a quotation from the first part of Mr. Churchill's World Crisis, which had appeared some four years previously, and added: "Such eloquence is false because it is artificial...the images are stale, the metaphors violent, the whole passage exhales a false dramatic atmosphere...a volley of rhetorical imperatives." He went on to describe Mr. Churchill's prose as being high-sounding, redundant, falsely eloquent, declamatory, which, in Mr. Read's woris derived from undue "aggrandization of the theme"; and condemned it root and branch.

Mr. Read's view was well received by the young men who were painfully reacting against anything which appeared to go beyond the naked skeleton of the truth, at a time when not only rhetoric but noble eloquence seemed outrageous hypocrisy. Mr. Read spoke, and knew that he spoke, for a postwar generation; the sequel to so much magnificence was very bitter, and left behind it a heritage of hatred for the grand style as such. The victims and casualties of the disaster thought they had earned the right to be rid of the trappings of an age which had so heartlessly betrayed them.

Nevertheless Mr. Read and his audience were profoundly mistaken. What he and they denounced as so much tinsel and hollow pasteboard was in reality solid: it was this author's natural means for the expression of his heroic, highly colored, sometimes oversimple and even naïve, but always absolutely genuine, vision of life. Mr. Read saw only an unconvincing, sordidly transparent pastiche, but this was an illusion. The reality was something very different: an inspired, if unconscious, attempt at a revival. It went against the stream of contemporary thought and feeling only because it was a deliberate return to a formal mode of English utterance which extends from Gibbon and Dr. Johnson to Peacock and Macaulay, a weapon created by Mr. Churchill in order to convey his particular vision. In the bleak and deflationary twenties it ,was too bright, too big, too vivid, too unsubtle for the sensitive and sophisticated epigoni of the age of imperialism, who, living an inner life of absorbing complexity and delicacy, became unable and certainly unwilling to admire the light of a day which had destroyed so much of what they had trusted and loved. From this Mr. Read recoiled; but his analysis of his reasons is unconvincing.

Mr. Read had, of course, a right to his own scale of values, but it was a blunder to dismiss Mr. Churchill's prose as a false front, a hollow sham. Revivals are not false as such: the Gothic Revival, for example, represented a passionate and intense attitude towards life, and while some examples of it may appear bizarre, it sprang from a deeper sentiment and had a good deal more to say than some of the thin and "realistic" styles which followed; the fact that the creators of the Gothic Revival found their liberation in going back into a largely imaginary past in no way discredits them or their achievement. There are those who, inhibited by furniture of the ordinary world, come to life only when they feel themselves actors upon a stage, and, thus emancipated, speak out for the first time, and are then found to have much to say. There are those who can function freely only in uniform or armor or court dress, see only through certain kinds of spectacles, act fearlessly only in situations which in some way are formalized for them, see life as a kind of play in which they and others are assigned certain lines which they must speak. So it happens—the last war afforded plenty of instances of this—that people of a shrinking disposition perform miracles of courage when life has been dramatized for them, when they are on the battlefield; and might continue to do so if they were constantly in uniform and life were always a battlefield.

This need for a framework is not "escapism," not artificial or abnormal or a sign of maladjustment. Often it is a vision of experience in terms of the strongest single psychological ingredient in one's nature: not infrequently in the form of a simple struggle between conflicting forces or principles, between truth and falsehood, good and evil, right and wrong, between personal integrity and various forms of temptation and corruption (as in the case of Mr. Read), or between what is conceived as permanent and what is ephemeral, or the material and the immaterial, or between the forces of life and the forces of death, or between the religion of art and its supposed enemies—politicians or priests or philistines. Life may be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others. And since we think largely in words, they necessarily take on the property of serving as an armor. The style of Dr. Johnson, which echoes so frequently in the prose of Their Finest Hour, particularly when the author indulges in a solemn facetiousness, was itself in its own day a weapon offensive and defensive; it requires no deep psychological subtlety to perceive why a man so vulnerable as Johnson—who belonged mentally to the previous century—had constant need of it.


Mr. Churchill's dominant category, the single, central, organizing principle of his moral and intellectual universe, is an historical imagination so strong, so comprehensive, as to encase the whole of the present and the whole of the future in a framework of a rich and multicolored past. Such an approach is dominated by a desire—and a capacity—to find fixed moral and intellectual bearings to give shape and character, color and direction and coherence, to the stream of events.

This kind of systematic "historicism" is, of course, not confined to men of action or political thinkers: the great Roman Catholic thinkers see life in terms of a firm and lucid historical structure, and so, of course, do Marxists, and so did the Romantic historians and philosophers from whom the Marxists are directly descended. Nor do we complain of "escapism" or perversion of the facts until the categories adopted are thought to do too much violence to the "facts." To interpret, to relate, to classify, to symbolize are those natural and unavoidable human activities which we loosely and conveniently describe as thinking. We complain, if we do, only when the result is too widely at variance with the common outlook of our own society and age and tradition.

Mr. Churchill sees history—and life—as a great Renaissance pageant: when he thinks of France or Italy, Germany or the Low Countries, Russia, India, Africa, the Arab lands, he sees vivid historical images— something between Victorian illustrations in a book of history and the great procession painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Riccardi Palace. His eye is never that of the neatly classifying sociologist, the careful psychological analyst, the plodding antiquary, the patient historical scholar. His poetry has not that anatomical vision which sees the naked bone beneath the flesh, skulls and skeletons and the omnipresence of decay and death beneath the flow of life. The units out of which his world is constructed are simpler and larger than life, the patterns vivid and repetitive like those of an epic poet, or at times like those of a dramatist who sees persons and situations as timeless symbols and embodiments of eternal, shining principles. The whole is a series of symmetrically formed and somewhat stylized compositions, either suffused with bright light or cast in darkest shadow, like a legend by Carpaccio, with scarcely any nuance, painted in primary colors with no half tones, nothing intangible, nothing impalpable, nothing half spoken or hinted or whispered: the voice does not alter in pitch or timbre.

The archaisms of style to which Mr. Churchill's wartime speeches have accustomed us are indispensable ingredients of the heightened tone the formal chronicler's attire, for which the solemnity of the occasion calls. Mr. Churchill is fully conscious of this: the style should adequately respond to the demands which history makes upon the actors from moment to moment. "The ideas set forth," he wrote in 1940 about a Foreign Office draft, "appeared to me to err in trying to be too clever, to enter into refinements of policy unsuited to the tragic simplicity and grandeur of the times and the issues at stake."

His own narrative consciously mounts and swells until it reaches the great climax of the Battle of Britain. The texture and the tension are those of a tragic opera, where the very artificiality of the medium, both in the recitative and in the arias, serves to eliminate the irrelevant dead level of normal existence and to set off in high relief the deeds and sufferings of the principal characters. The moments of comedy in such a work must necessarily conform to the style of the whole and be parodies of it; and this is Mr. Churchill's practice. When he says that he viewed this or that "with stern and tranquil gaze," or informs his officials that any "chortling by them over the failure of a chosen scheme" will be viewed with great disfavour by me," or describes the "celestial grins" of his collaborators over the development of a well-concealed conspiracy, he does precisely this; the mock heroic tone—reminiscent of Stalky & Co.—does not break the operatic conventions. But conventions though they be, they are not donned and doffed by the author at will: by now they are his second nature, and have completely fused with the first; art and nature are no longer distinguishable. The very formal pattern of his prose is the normal medium of his ideas, not merely when he sets himself to compose, but in the life of the imagination which permeates his daily existence.

Mr. Churchill's language is a medium which he invented because he needed it. It has a bold, ponderous, fairly uniform, easily recognizable rhythm which lends itself to parody (including his own) like all strongly individual styles. A language is individual when its user is endowed with sharply marked characteristics and succeeds in creating, a medium for their expression. The origins, the constituents, the classical echoes which can be found in Mr. Churchill's prose are obvious enough; the product is, however, unique. Whatever the attitude that may be taken towards it, it must be recognized as a large-scale phenomenon of our time. To ignore or deny this would be blind or frivolous or dishonest. The utterance is always, and not merely on special occasions, formal (though it alters in intensity and color with the situation), always public, Ciceronian, addressed to the world, remote from the hesitancies and stresses of introspection and private life.


The quality of Mr. Churchill's latest work is that of his whole life. His world is built upon the primacy of public over private relationships, upon the supreme value of action, of the battle between simple good and simple evil, between life and death; but above all, battle. He has always fought. "Whatever you may do he declared to the demoralized French ministers in the bleakest hour of 1940, "we shall fight on for ever and ever and ever," and under this sign his own whole life has been lived.

What has he fought for? The answer is a good deal clearer than in the case of other equally passionate but less consistent men of action. Mr. Churchill's principles and beliefs on fundamental issues have never faltered. He has often been accused by his critics of inconstancy, of veering and even erratic judgment, as when he changed his allegiance from the Conservative to the Liberal Party, to and fro. But with the exception of the issue of protection, when he supported the tariff as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Mr. Baldwin's cabinet in the twenties, this charge, which at first seems so plausible, is spectacularly false. Far from changing his opinions too often, Mr. Churchill has scarcely, during a long and stormy career, altered them at all. If anyone wishes to discover his views on the large and lasting issues of our time, he need only set himself to discover what Mr. Churchill has said or written on the subject at any period of his long and exceptionally articulate public life, in particular during the years before the First World War: the number of instances in which his views have in later years undergone any appreciable degree of change will be found astonishingly small.

The apparently solid and dependable Mr. Baldwin adjusted his attitudes with wonderful dexterity as and when circumstances required it. Mr. Chamberlain, long regarded as a grim and immovable rock of Tory opinion, altered his policies—more serious than Mr. Baldwin, he pursued policies, not being content with mere attitudes—when the party or the situation seemed to him to require it. Mr. Churchill remained inflexibly attached to first principles.

It is the strength and coherence of his central, lifelong beliefs that has provoked greater uneasiness, more disfavor and suspicion, in the central office of the Conservative Party than his vehemence or passion for power or what was considered his wayward, unreliable brilliance. No strongly centralized political organization feels altogether happy with individuals who combine independence, a free imagination, and a formidable strength of character with stubborn faith and a single-minded, unaltering view of the public and private good. Mr. Churchill, who believes that "ambition, not so much for vulgar ends but for fame, glints in every mind," knows with an unshakable certainty what he considers to be big, handsome, noble, and worthy of pursuit by someone in high station, and what, on the contrary, he abhors as being dim, gray, thin, likely to lower or destroy the play of color and movement in the universe. Tacking and bending and timid compromise—may commend themselves to those sound men of sense whose hopes of preserving the world they defend are shot through with an often unconscious pessimism; but if the policy they pursue is likely to slow the tempo, to diminish the forces of life, to lower the "vital and vibrant energy" which he admires, say, in Lord Beaverbrook, Mr. Churchill is ready for attack.

Mr. Churchill is one of the diminishing number of those who genuinely believe in a specific world order: the desire to give it life and strength is the most powerful single influence upon everything which he thinks and imagines, does and is. When biographers and historians come to describe and analyze his views on Europe or America, on the British Empire or Russia, on India or Palestine, or even on social or economic policy, they will find that his opinions on all these topics are set in fixed patterns, set early in life and later only reinforced. Thus he has always believed in great states and civilizations in an almost hierarchical order, and has never, for instance, hated Germany as such: Germany is a great, historically hallowed state; the Germans are a great historic race and as such occupy a proportionate amount of space in Mr. Churchill's world picture. He denounced the Prussians in the First World War and the Nazis in the Second; the Germans, scarcely at all. He has always entertained a glowing vision of France and her culture, and has unalterably advocated the necessity of Anglo-French collaboration. He has always looked on the Russians as a formless, quasi-Asiatic mass beyond the walls of European civilization. His belief in and predilection for the American democracy are too well known to need comment—they are the foundation of his political outlook.

His vision in foreign affairs has always been consistently romantic. The struggle of the Jews for self-determination in Palestine engaged his imagination in precisely the way in which the Italian Risorgimento captured the sympathies of his Liberal forebears. Similarly his views on social policy conform to those Liberal principles which he received at the hands of the men he most admired in the great Liberal administration of the first decade of this century—Asquith, Haldane, Grey, above all Lloyd George before 1914—and he has seen no reason to change them, whatever the world might do; and if these views, progressive in 1910, seem less convincing today, that flows from Mr. Churchill's unalterable faith in the firmly conceived scheme of things which he established within himself long ago, once and for all.


It is an error to regard the imagination as a mainly revolutionary force—if it destroys and alters, it also fuses hitherto isolated beliefs, insights, mental habits, into strongly unified systems. These, if they are filled with sufficient energy and force of will—and, it may be added, fantasy, which is less frightened by the facts and creates ideal models in terms of which the facts are ordered in the mind—sometimes transform the outlook of an entire people and generation.

The British statesman most richly endowed with these gifts was Disraeli, who in effect conceived that imperialist mystique, that splendid but most un-English vision which, romantic to the point of exoticism, full of metaphysical emotion, to all appearances utterly opposed to everything most soberly empirical, utilitarian, anti-systematic in the British tradition, bound its spell on the mind of England for two generations.

Mr. Churchill's political imagination has something of the same magical power to transform. It is a magic which belongs equally to demagogues and great democratic leaders: Franklin Roosevelt, who as much as any man altered his country's inner image of itself, of its character and its history, possessed it in a high degree. But the differences between him and the Prime Minister of Britain are far greater than the similarities, and to some degree epitomize the differences of continents and civilizations. The contrast is brought out vividly by the respective parts which they played in the war which drew them so closely together.

The Second World War in some ways gave birth to less novelty and genius than the First World War. It was, of course, a greater cataclysm, fought over a wider area, and altered the social and political contours of the world at least as radically as its predecessor, perhaps more so. But the break in continuity in 1914 was far more violent. The years before 1914 look to us now, and looked even in the twenties, as the end of a long period of largely peaceful development broken suddenly and catastrophically. In Europe, at least, the years before 1914 were viewed with understandable nostalgia by those who after them knew no real peace.

The period between the wars marks a decline in the development of human culture if it is compared with that sustained and fruitful period which makes the nineteenth century seem a unique human achievement, so powerful that it continued, even during the war which broke it, to a degree which seems astonishing to us now. The quality of literature, for example, which is surely one of the most reliable criteria of intellectual and moral vitality, was incomparably higher during the war of 1914-1918 than it has been After 1939. In Western Europe alone these four years of slaughter and destruction were also years in which works of genius and talent continued to be produced by such established writers as Shaw and Wells and Kipling, Hauptmann and Gide, Chesterton and Arnold Bennett, Beerbohm and Yeats, as well as such younger writers as Proust and Joyce, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot and Alexander Blok, Rilke, Stefan George, and Valéry. Nor did natural science, philosophy, and history cease to develop fruitfully. What has the recent war to offer by comparison?

Yet perhaps there is one respect in which the Second World War did outshine its predecessor: the leaders of the nations involved in it were, with the significant exception of France, men of greater stature, psychologically more interesting than their prototypes. It would hardly be disputed that Stalin is a more fascinating figure than the Czar Nicholas II; Hitler more arresting than the Kaiser: Mussolini than Victor Emmanuel; and, memorable as the were, President Wilson and Lloyd George yield in the attribute of sheer historical magnitude to Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

"History," we are told by a celebrated authority, "is what Alexander did and suffered." This notion, despite all the efforts of the social sciences to overthrow it, remains a good deal more valid than rival hypotheses, provided that history is defined as that which historians actually do. At any rate Mr. Churchill accepts it wholeheartedly, and takes full advantage of his opportunities. And because his narrative deals largely in personalities and gives individual genius its full and sometimes more than its full due, the appearance of the great wartime Protagonists in his pages gives his narrative some of the quality of an epic, whose heroes and villains acquire their stature not merely—or indeed at all—from the importance of the events in which they are involved, but from their own intrinsic human size upon the stage of human history; their characteristics, involved as they are in perpetual juxtaposition and occasional collision with one another, set each other off in vast relief.

Comparisons and contrasts are bound to arise in the mind of the reader which sometimes take him beyond 'Mr. Churchill's pages. Thus Mr. Roosevelt stands out principally by his astonishing appetite for life and by his apparently complete freedom from fear of the future; as a man who welcomed the future eagerly as such, and conveyed the feeling that whatever the times might bring all would be grist to his mill, nothing would be too formidable or crushing to be subdued and used and molded into the pattern, of the new and unpredictable forms of life, into the building of which he, Mr. Roosevelt, and his allies and devoted subordinates would throw themselves with unheard-of energy and gusto. This avid anticipation of the future, the lack of nervous fear that the wave might prove too big or violent to navigate, contrasts most sharply with the uneasy longing to insulate themselves so clear in Stalin or Chamberlain. Hitler too, in a sense, showed no fear, but his assurance sprang from a lunatic's cunning vision, which distorted the facts too easily in his favor.

So passionate a faith in the future, so untroubled a confidence in one's power to mold it, when it is allied to a capacity for realistic appraisal of its true contours, implies an exceptionally sensitive awareness, conscious or half-conscious, of the tendencies of one's milieu, of the desires, hopes, fears, loves, hatreds, of the human beings who compose it, of what are impersonally described as social and individual "trends." Mr. Roosevelt had this sensibility developed to the point of genius. He acquired the symbolic significance which he retained throughout his Presidency, largely because he sensed the tendencies of his time and their projections into the future to a most uncommon degree. His sense, not only of the movement of American public opinion but of the general direction in which the larger human society of his time was moving, was what is called uncanny. The inner currents, the tremors and complicated convolutions of this movement, seemed to register themselves within his nervous system with a kind of seismographical accuracy. The majority of his fellow citizens recognized this—some with enthusiasm, others with gloom or bitter indignation. Peoples far beyond the frontiers of the United States rightly looked to him as the most genuine and unswerving spokesman of democracy known to them, the most contemporary, the most outward looking, free from the obsessions of an inner life, with an unparalleled capacity for creating confidence in the power of his insight, his foresight, and his capacity to identify himself with the ideals of humble people.

This feeling of being at home not merely in the present but in the future, of knowing where he was going and by what means and why, made him, until his health was finally undermined, buoyant and gay; made him delight in the company of the most varied and opposed individuals, provided that they embodied some specific aspect of the turbulent stream of life, stood actively for the forward movement in their particular world, whatever it might be. And this inner élan made up, and more than made up, for faults of intellect or character which his enemies—and his victims—never ceased to point out. He seemed genuinely unaffected by their taunts: what he could not abide was, before all, passivity, stillness, melancholy, fear of life or preoccupation with eternity or death, however great the insight or delicate the sensibility by which they were accompanied.

Mr. Churchill stands at almost the opposite pole. He too does not fear the future, and no man has ever loved life more vehemently and infused so much of it into everyone and everything that he has touched. But whereas Mr. Roosevelt, like all great innovators, had a half-conscious premonitory awareness of the coming shape of society, not wholly unlike that of an artist, Mr. Churchill, for all his extrovert air, looks within, and his strongest sense is the sense of the past.

The clear, multicolored vision of history, in terms of which he conceives both the present and the future, is the inexhaustible source from which he draws the primary stuff out of which his universe is so solidly built, so richly and elaborately ornamented. So firm and so embracing an edifice could not be constructed by anyone liable to react and respond like a sensitive instrument to the perpetually changing moods and directions of other persons or institutions or peoples. And indeed Mr. Churchill's strength lies precisely in this: that, unlike Mr. Roosevelt, he is not equipped with numberless sensitive antennae which communicate the smallest oscillations of the outer world in all its unstable variety. Unlike Mr. Roosevelt, and unlike Gladstone and Lloyd George for that matter, he does not reflect a social or moral world in an intense and concentrated fashion; rather he creates one of such power and coherence that it becomes a reality and alters the external world by being imposed upon it with irresistible force. As this history of the war shows, he has an immense capacity for absorbing facts, but they emerge transformed by the categories which he powerfully imposes on the raw material into something which he can use to build his own massive, simple, impregnably fortified inner world.

Mr. Roosevelt, as a public personality, was a spontaneous, optimistic, pleasure-loving ruler who dismayed his assistants by the gay and apparently heedless abandon with which he seemed to delight in pursuing two or more totally incompatible policies, and astonished them even more by the swiftness and ease with which he managed to throw off the cares of office during the darkest and most dangerous moments. Mr. Churchill too loves pleasure, and he too lacks neither gaiety nor a capacity for exuberant self-expression, together with the habit of blithely cutting Gordian knots in a manner which often upset his experts; but he is not a frivolous man. His nature possesses a dimension of depth—and a corresponding sense of tragic possibilities, which Mr. Roosevelt's lighthearted genius instinctively passed by.

Mr. Roosevelt played the game of politics with virtuosity, and both his successes and his failures were carried off in splendid style; his performance seemed to flow with effortless skill. Mr. Churchill is acquainted with darkness as well as light. Like all inhabitants and even transient visitors of inner worlds, he gives evidence of seasons of agonized brooding and slow recovery. Mr. Roosevelt might have spoken of sweat and blood, but when Mr. Churchill offered his people tears, he spoke a word which might have been uttered by Lincoln or Mazzini or Cromwell but not Mr. Roosevelt, greathearted, generous, and perceptive as he was.


Not the herald of the bright and cloudless civilization of the future, Mr. Churchill is preoccupied by his own vivid world, and it is doubtful how far he has ever been aware of what actually goes on in the heads and hearts of others. He does not react, he acts; he does not mirror, he affects others and alters them to his own powerful measure. Writing of Dunkirk he says: "Had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation, I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this the represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end." And on the twenty-eighth of June of that year he told Lord Lothian, then ambassador in Washington, "Your mood should be bland and phlegmatic. No one is downhearted here."

These splendid sentences hardly do justice to his own part in creating the feeling which he describes. For Mr. Churchill is not a sensitive lens which absorbs and concentrates and reflects and amplifies the sentiments of others; unlike the European dictators, he does not play on public opinion like an instrument. In 1940 he assumed an indomitable stoutness, an unsurrendering quality on the part of his people, and carried on. If he did not represent the quintessence and epitome of what his fellow citizens feared and hoped in their hour of danger, this was because he idealized them with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as he saw them: "the buoyant and imperturbable temper of Britain which I had the honour to express"—it was indeed, but he had a lion's share in creating it. So hypnotic was the force of his words, so strong his faith, that by the sheer intensity of his eloquence he bound his spell upon them until it seemed to them that he was indeed speaking what was in their hearts and minds. If it was there, it was largely dormant until he had awoken it within them.

After he had spoken to them in the summer of 1940 as no one has ever before or since, 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, like Thermopylae or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. They went forward into battle transformed by his words. The spirit which they found within them he had created within himself from his inner resources, and poured it into his nation, and took their vivid reaction for an original impulse on their part, which he merely had the honor to clothe in suitable words. He created a heroic mood and turned the fortunes of the Battle of Britain not by catching the mood of his surroundings (which was not indeed at any time one of craven panic or bewilderment or apathy, but was somewhat confused; stouthearted but unorganized) but by being impervious to it as he has been to so many of the passing shades and tones of which the life around him has been composed.

The peculiar quality of heroic pride and sense of the sublimity of the occasion arises in him not, as in Mr. Roosevelt, from delight in being alive and in control at a critical moment of history, in the very change and instability of things, in the infinite possibilities of the future whose very unpredictability offers endless possibilities of spontaneous moment-to-moment improvisation and large imaginative moves in harmony with the restless spirit of the time. On the contrary, it springs from a capacity for sustained introspective brooding, great depth and constancy of feeling—in particular, feeling for and fidelity to the great tradition for which he assumes a personal responsibility, a tradition which he bears upon his shoulders and must deliver, not only sound and undamaged but strengthened and embellished, to successors worthy of accepting the sacred burden.

Bismarck once said something to the effect that there was no such thing as political intuition: political genius coinsisted in the ability to hear the distant hoofbeat of the horse of History—and then by superhuman effort to leap and catch the horseman by the coattails. No man has ever listened for this fateful sound more eagerly than Winston Churchill, and in 1940 he made the heroic leap. "It is impossible," he writes of this time, "to quell the inward excitement which comes from a prolonged balancing of terrible things," and when the crisis finally bursts he is ready because after a lifetime of effort he has reached his goal.

The position of the Prime Minister is unique: "If he trips he must be sustained; if he makes mistakes they must be covered; if he sleeps he must not be wantonly disturbed; if he is no good he must be poleaxed," and this because he is at that moment the guardian of the "life of Britain, her message and her glory." He trusted Roosevelt utterly, "convinced that he would give up life itself, to say nothing about office, for the cause of world freedom now in such awful peril." His prose records the tension which rises and swells to the culminating moment, the Battle of Britain—"a time when it was equally good to live or die." This bright heroic vision of the mortal danger and his will to conquer, born in the hour when defeat seemed not merely possible but probable, is the product of a burning historical imagination, feeding not upon the data of the outer but of the inner eye: the picture has a shape and simplicity which future historians will find it hard to reproduce when they seek to assess and interpret the facts soberly in the gray light of common day.


The Prime Minister was able to impose his imagination and his will upon his countrymen, and enjoy a Periclean reign, precisely because he appeared to them larger and nobler than life and lifted them to an abnormal height in a moment of crisis. It was a climate in which men do not usually like living; it demands a violent tension which, if it lasts, destroys all sense of normal perspective, overdramatizes personal relationships, and falsifies normal values to an intolerable extent. But, in the event, it did turn a large number of inhabitants of the British Isles out of their normal selves and, by dramatizing their lives and making them seem to themselves and to each other clad in the fabulous garments appropriate to a great historic moment, transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armor.

This is the kind of means by which dictators and demagogues transform peaceful populations into marching armies; it was Mr. Churchill's unique and unforgettable achievement that he created this necessary illusion within the framework of a free system without destroying or even twisting it; that he called forth spirits which did not stay to oppress and enslave the population after the hour of need had passed; that he saved the future by interpreting, the present in terms of a vision of the past which did not distort or inhibit the historical development of the British people by attempting to make them realize some impossible and unattainable splendor in the name of an imaginary tradition or of an infallible, supernatural leader. Mr. Churchill was saved from this frightening nemesis of romanticism by a sufficiency of that libertarian feeling which, if it sometimes fell short of understanding the tragic aspects of modern despotisms, remained sharply perceptive—sometimes too tolerantly, but still perceptive—of what is false, grotesque, contemptible in the great frauds upon the people practiced by totalitarian regimes. Some of the sharpest and most characteristic epithets are reserved for the dictators: Hitler is "this evil man, this monstrous abortion of hatred and defeat." Franco is a "narrow-minded tyrant" of "evil qualities" holding down a "blood-drained people." No quarter is given to the Pétain regime, and its appeal to tradition and the eternal France is treated as a repellent travesty of national feeling. Stalin in 1940-1941 is "at once a callous, a crafty, and an ill-informed giant."

This very genuine hostility to usurpers, which is stronger in him than even his passion for authority and order, springs from a quality which Mr. Churchill conspicuously shares with the late President Roosevelt—uncommon love of life, aversion for the imposition of rigid disciplines upon the teeming variety of human relations, the instinctive sense of what promotes and what retards or distorts growth and vitality. But because the life which Mr. Churchill so loves presents itself to him in an historical guise as part of the pageant of tradition, his method of constructing historical narrative, the distribution of emphasis, the assignment of relative importance to persons and events, the theory of history, the architecture of the narrative, the structure of the sentences, the words themselves, are elements in an historical revival as fresh, as original, and as idiosyncratic as the neoclassicism of the Renaissance or the Regency. To complain that this is not contemporary, and therefore in some way less true, less responsive to modern needs, than the noncommital, neutral glass and plastic of those objective historians who regard facts and only facts as interesting and, worse still, all facts as equally interesting—what is this but craven pedantry and blindness?


The differences between the President and the Prime Minister were at least in one respect something more than the obvious differences of national character, education, and even temperament. For all his sense of history, his large, untroubled, easy-going style of life, his unshakable feeling of personal security, his natural assumption of being at home in the great world far beyond the confines of his own country, Mr. Roosevelt was a typical child of the twentieth century and of the New World; while Mr. Churchill, for all his love of the present hour, his unquenchable appetite for new knowledge, his sense of the technological possibilities of our time, and the restless roaming of his fancy in considering how they might be most imaginatively applied, despite his enthusiasm for Basic English, or the siren suit which so upset his hosts in Moscow—despite all this, Mr. Churchill remains a European of the nineteenth century.

The difference is deep, and accounts for a great deal in the incompatibility of outlook between him and the President of the United States, whom he admired so much and whose great office he held in awe. Something of the fundamental unlikeness between America and Europe, and perhaps between the twentieth century and the nineteenth, seemed to be crystallized in this remarkable interplay. It may perhaps be that the twentieth century is to the nineteenth as the nineteenth was to the eighteenth century. Talleyrand once made the well-known observation that those who had not lived under the ancien régime did not know what true douceur de la vie had been. And indeed, from our distant vantage point, this is clear: the earnest, romantic young men of the early part of the nineteenth century seemed systematically unable to understand or to like the attitude to life of the most civilized representatives of the pre-revolutionary world, particularly in France, where the break was sharpest; the subtlety, the irony, the minute vision, the perception of and concentration upon fine differences in character, in style, the preoccupation with barely perceptible dissimilarities of hue, the extreme sensibility which makes the life of even so "progressive" and forward-looking a man as Diderot so unbridgeably different from the larger and simpler vision of the Romantics, is something which the nineteenth century lacked the historical perspective to understand.

Suppose that Shelley had met and talked with Voltaire, what would he have felt? He would most probably have been profoundly shocked—shocked by the seemingly limited vision, the smallness of the field of awareness, the apparent triviality and finickiness, the almost spinsterish elaboration of Voltaire's malice, the preoccupation with tiny units, the subatomic texture of experience; he would have felt horror or pity before such wanton blindness to the large moral and spiritual issues of his own day—causes whose universal scope and significance painfully agitated the best and most awakened minds; he might have thought him wicked, but even more he would have thought him contemptible, too sharp, too small, too mean, grotesquely and unworthily obscene, prone to titter on the most sacred occasions, in the holiest places.

And Voltaire, in his turn. would very probably have been dreadfully bored, unable to see good cause for so much ethical eloquence; he would have looked with a cold and hostile eye on all this moral excitement: the magnificent Saint-Simonian vision of one world (which so stirred the left-wing young men half a century later), altering in shape and becoming integrated into a neatly organized manmade whole by the application of powerfully concentrated, scientific, technical, and spiritual resources, would to him have seemed a dreary and monotonous desert, too homogeneous, too flavorless, too unreal, apparently unconscious of those small half-concealed but crucial distinctions and incongruities which have individuality and savor to experience, without which there could be no civilized vision, no wit, no conversation, certainly no art deriving from a refined and fastidious culture. The moral vision of the nineteenth century would have seemed to him a dull, blurred, coarse instrument unable to focus those pin points of concentrated light, those short-lived patterns of sound and color, whose infinite variety as they linger or flash past are comedy and tragedy—are the substance of personal relations and of worldly wisdom, of politics, of history, and of art.

The reason for this failure of communication was not a mere change in the point of view, but the kind of vision which divided the two centuries. The microscopic vision of the eighteenth century was succeeded by the macroscopic eve of the nineteenth. The latter saw much more widely, saw in universal or at least in European terms; it saw the contours of great mountain ranges where the eighteenth century discerned, however sharply and perceptively, only the veins and cracks and different shades of but a portion of the mountainside. The object of vision of the eighteenth century was smaller and its eye was closer to the object. The enormous moral issues of the nineteenth century were not within the field of its acutely discriminating gaze: that was the devastating difference which the Great French Revolution had made, and it led to something not necessarily better or worse, uglier or more beautiful, profounder or more shallow, but to a situation which above all was different in kind.

Something not unlike this same chasm divides America from Europe (and the twentieth century from the nineteenth). The American vision is larger and more generous: its thought transcends, despite the parochialism of its means of expression, the barriers of nationality and race and differences of outlook, in a big, sweeping, single view. It notices things rather than persons, and sees the world (those who saw it in this fashion in the nineteenth century were considered Utopian eccentrics) in terms of rich, infinitely moldable raw material, waiting to be constructed and planned in order to satisfy a world-wide human craving for happiness or goodness or wisdom. And therefore to it the differences and conflicts which divide Europeans in so violent a fashion must seem petty, irrational, and sordid, not worthy of self-respecting, morally conscious individuals and nations; ready, in fact, to be swept away in favor of a simpler and grander view of the powers and tasks of modem man.

To Europeans this American attitude, the large vista possible only for those who live on mountain heights or vast and level plains affording an unbroken view, seems curiously flat, without subtlety or color, at times appearing to lack the entire dimension of depth, certainly without that immediate reaction to fine distinctions with which perhaps only those who live in valleys are endowed, and so America, which knows so much, to them seems to understand too little, to miss the central point. This does not, of course, apply to every American or European—there are natural Americans among the natives of Europe and vice versa—but it seems to characterize the most typical representatives of these disparate cultures.


In some respects Mr. Roosevelt half-consciously understood and did not wholly condemn this attitude on the part of Europeans; and even more clearly Mr. Churchill is in many respects in instinctive sympathy with the American view of life. But by and large they do represent different outlooks, and the very high degree to which they were able to understand and admire each other's quality is a tribute to the extraordinary power of imagination and delight in the variety of life on the part of both. Each was to the other not merely an ally, the admired leader of a great people, but a symbol of a tradition and a civilization; from the unity of their differences they hoped for a regeneration of the Western world.

Mr. Roosevelt was intrigued by the Russian Sphinx; Mr. Churchill instinctively recoiled from its alien and to him unattractive attributes. "Mr. Roosevelt, on the whole, thought that he could cajole Russia and even induce her to be assimilated into the great society which would embrace mankind; Mr. Churchill, on the whole, remained skeptical.

Mr. Roosevelt was imaginative, optimistic, Episcopalian, self-confident, cheerful, empirically-minded, fearless, and steeped in the idea of social progress: he believed that with enough energy and spirit anything could be achieved by man; he shrank as much as any English schoolboy from probing underneath the surface, and saw vast affinities between the peoples in the world , out of which a new, freer, and richer order could somehow be built. Mr. Churchill was imaginative and steeped in history, more serious, more intent, more concentrated, more preoccupied, and felt very deeply the eternal differences which would make such a structure difficult of attainment. He believed in institutions and permanent characters of races and classes and types of individuals. His government was organized on clear principles; his personal private office was run in a sharply disciplined manner. His habits, though unusual, were regular. He believed in a natural, a social, almost a metaphysical order which it was neither possible nor desirable to upset.

Mr. Roosevelt believed in flexibility, improvisation, the fruitfulness of using persons and resources in an infinite variety of new and unexpected ways; his bureaucracy was somewhat chaotic, perhaps deliberately so. His own office was not tidily organized, he practiced a highly personal form of government. He maddened the advocates of institutional authority, but it is doubtful whether he could have achieved his ends in any other way.

These dissimilarities of outlook went deep, but both were large enough in scope and both were genuine visions, not narrowed and distorted by personal idiosyncrasies and those disparities of moral standard which so fatally divided Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau. The President and the Prime Minister often disagreed; their ideals and their methods were widely different; in some of the memoirs and gossip of Mr. Roosevelt's entourage much has been made of this; but the point was that the discussion was conducted on a level of which both heads of government were conscious. They may have opposed but they never wished to wound each other; they may have issued contrary instructions but they never bickered; when they compromised, as they so often did, they did so without a sense of bitterness or defeat, but in response to the demands of history or one another's traditions and personality.

Each appeared to the other in a romantic light high above the battles of allies or subordinates: their meetings and correspondence were occasions to which both consciously rose: they were royal cousins and felt pride in this relationship, tempered by a sharp and sometimes amused, but never ironical, perception of the other's peculiar qualities. The relationship born during the great historical upheaval, somewhat aggrandized by its solemnity, never flagged or degenerated, but retained a combination of formal dignity and exuberant high spirits which can scarcely ever before have bound the heads of states. Each was personally fascinated not so much by the other, as by the idea of the other, and infected him by his own peculiar brand of high spirits.

The relationship was made genuine by something more than even the solid community of interest or personal and official respect or admiration—namely, by the peculiar degree to which they liked each other's delight in the oddities and humors of life and their own active part in it. This was a unique personal bond, which Harry Hopkins understood and encouraged to the fullest degree. Mr. Roosevelt's sense of fun was perhaps the lighter, Mr. Churchill's a trifle grimmer. But it was something which they shared with each other and with few, if any, statesmen outside the Anglo-American orbit; their staffs sometimes ignored or misunderstood it, and it gave a most singular quality to their association.

Mr. Roosevelt's public utterances differ by a whole world from the dramatic masterpieces of Mr. Churchill, but they are not incompatible with them in spirit or in substance. Mr. Roosevelt has not left us his own account of his world as he saw it; and perhaps he lived too much from day to day to be temperamentally attracted to the performance of such a task. But both were thoroughly aware of their commanding position in the history of the modern world, and Mr. Churchill's account of his stewardship is written in full consciousness of this responsibility.

It is a great occasion, and he treats it with corresponding solemnity. Like a great actor— perhaps the last of his kind—upon the stage of history, he speaks his memorable lines with a large unhurried and stately utterance in a blaze of light as is appropriate to a man who knows that his work and his person will remain the object of scrutiny and judgment to many generations. His narrative is a great public performance and has the attribute of formal magnificence. The words, the splendid phrases, the sustained quality of feeling, are a unique medium which convey his vision of himself and of his world, and will inevitably, like all that he has said and done, reinforce the famous public image, which is no longer distinguishable from the inner essence and the true nature of the author: of a man larger than life, composed of bigger and simpler elements than ordinary men, a gigantic historical figure during his own lifetime, superhumanly bold, strong, and imaginative, one of the two greatest men of action his nation has produced, an orator of prodigious powers, the savior of his country, a legendary hero who belongs to myth as much as to reality, the largest human being of our time.

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