Looking for Mr. Churchill

In his cover story for the April Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens seeks to distinguish Winston Churchill the man from Winston Churchill the legend. In the popular imagination, and in scores of biographies, Churchill looms as the great statesman who brought England back from the brink of defeat and contributed significantly to Germany's downfall in World War II.


 
 

But in truth, according to Hitchens, though he does deserve recognition for having been the only world leader to defy Hitler for reasons of principle as opposed to self-interest, Churchill was, to a much greater extent than has been generally acknowledged, a bumbling, impulsive, bombastic and frequently drunk political climber who would abandon any past allegiance that might hinder his upward trajectory. Though some of his tactical mistakes cost innocent lives and jeopardized the Allied cause, in nearly every case, according to Hitchens, sheer luck saved him from blame by bringing about some new, more dramatic turn of events that drew attention away from his mistakes or turned them into victories. For example, when a British military enterprise in Norway of Churchill's devising failed disastrously, the British Parliament reacted by deposing the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, opening up the position for Churchill himself. And when Chuchill's confident belief that the Germans could be held at the Maginot Line was proven drastically wrong by the fall of France, he was able to use the opportunity to institute a new program of national unity which "stilled his critics and neutralized his rivals." "At almost every point," Hitchens writes, "Churchill was allowed by events to flaunt the medals of his defeats."

If we are to understand and learn from history, Hitchens argues, we should abandon the kind of hero worship that blinds us to the realities of what really happened. Only by acknowledging that Churchill was a flawed man—just as "the antique gods and emperors were mere mammals like ourselves"—can we genuinely appreciate those of his actions that were truly great.

Over the course of Churchill's career and after his death, a number of other Atlantic contributors have shared their thoughts on Churchill as politician, author, world leader, and personal friend. Their responses to him range from skepticism and disapproval to respect, affection, and awe.

In 1925 Ian Colvin, a British writer, wryly took note of Churchill's apparent "unsinkableness" as a politician. His impetuousness and bluster, Colvin pointed out, had played a major role in bringing about two significant British military disasters during World War I at Antwerp and the Dardanelles. Afterwards, when his efforts to run for various political offices as a member of the liberal party failed, he abandoned that party, and was rewarded by Stanley Baldwin, the new conservative prime minister, with an important position in the state department.

A notable change seemed to come over Mr. Churchill's politics as he moved through ... successive [electoral] defeats.... He was, in fact, making a stronger and stronger bid for Conservative support, as he saw the breach widen between the Liberals and himself. Yet he hesitated to burn his boats and clung desperately to a middle position of 'Constitutionalist,' between the Liberal sea and the Conservative shore....

Without actually calling himself a Conservative, he received Conservative support and was swept into Parliament in the wake of the great Conservative victory.

But Prime Minister Baldwin, Colvin suggested, may have been unwise to bring Churchill into his cabinet, given that Churchill's own ambitions would inevitably lead him to seek that office for himself: "There are thought to be no bounds to Mr. Churchill's ambitions. To have a cuckoo in one's nest is a misfortune; to put one there might be thought a folly." Moreover, he pointed out, many conservatives felt there was reason to worry about the consequences of Churchill's assuming a position of significant responsibility:

They allege that Mr. Churchill has made at least one capital blunder in every one of the many offices he has held; that—what is worse—he has never shown any sign of political principle; and that his only consistency has been in the pursuit of his own political fortunes.

As Colvin predicted, Churchill did realize his ambition of becoming prime minister—though not for another fifteen years. In 1940 when he took over from the deposed Neville Chamberlain, Churchill began working closely with Franklin Roosevelt to turn the tide of the war, and regularly gave impassioned speeches to bolster Britain's resolve. By the time Germany surrendered in 1945, Churchill was widely regarded as a hero.

In some quarters, though, there was still a feeling that he was something of a self-promoter and a fraud. Four years after the end of World War II, in "Mr. Churchill" (September 1949), the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin defended Churchill against criticism that his writings were windy and self-aggrandizing. In 1928 Herbert Read, a respected British poet, had published a book about the art of writing, in which he extolled the virtues of a modest, straightforward style. As a prime example of the kind of verbosity and inflated diction that he considered bad form he pointed to the "high-sounding, redundant, falsely eloquent, declamatory" writings of Winston Churchill.

Churchill had begun his career as a soldier and newspaper reporter, and his dramatic newspaper account of his capture by and escape from the Boers in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War had earned him widespread acclaim. As his political career progressed, he continued to write, publishing a number of books of history and autobiography.

Berlin suggested that Read's criticism was symptomatic of the pessimism and disillusionment that followed World War I:

Mr. Read spoke, and knew that he spoke, for a post-war 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.

But Berlin pointed out that Churchill's failure to suit a particular postwar mood did not necessarily mean that his writings were inherently lacking. "Mr Read and his audience," Berlin wrote, "were profoundly mistaken;" Churchill's lofty rhetoric and dramatic statements represented not mere bluster and lack of true substance, but "a passionate and intense attitude towards life."

Churchill's gift, Berlin argued, was his "historical imagination"—a capacity to see the present as part of the sweep of history and to imbue contemporary events and actors with epic significance. His rich imagination, and his facility for expressing it, succeeded in transforming Britain's perception of itself by mythologizing its struggles and casting its leaders as heroes in a profound battle.

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.... 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....

He appeared to them larger and nobler than life and lifted them to an abnormal height in a moment of crisis.

As it turned out, Berlin was not alone in appreciating the merits of Churchill's grandiloquent style: in 1953 Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values."


 
 

Sixteen years later, upon his death in 1965, The Atlantic devoted its March issue to Churchill, with an assortment of articles about him collectively titled "The Greatest Englishman." The Atlantic's editor, Edward Weeks, had begun soliciting these articles when Churchill was in his early eighties so that the magazine would be prepared to publish a special issue whenever Churchill died. (Little did Weeks imagine that Churchill would live to be ninety-one and that some of the articles, by then seven years old, would have to be sent back for updating to those of the authors who were still alive themselves.)

One of these articles, "The Lion's Heart," was by a close friend of the Churchills', Lady Diana Cooper. She wrote fondly of Churchill and his wife, Clementine, and offered a picture of their hectic home life at their country estate. It was there that Churchill worked on his writing projects and pursued his interest in painting—a hobby at which he was considered quite good. The house, according to Cooper, overflowed with books and piles of half-finished manuscripts and canvases. And because Churchill had a soft spot for animals, the estate tended to be overrun with them—"the dog of the day, the spoiled cat, ducks and swans to be fed." In his later years he had a parakeet companion which would sit "perched on his shoulder or on his glass's edge."

Cooper admired Clementine for her ability to cheerfully manage the unusual demands of being married to a man like Churchill. It was not an infrequent occurrence, Cooper writes, for her to have to "reorganize meals ordered for six at eight o'clock into meals for twenty at ten thirty." But she kept things running smoothly and without complaint. As Cooper wrote,

I never heard Winston nagged. All great men are more childish than good women, and there must have been, behind the scenes ... some of the scolding that a nanny gives her charge for childishness, showing off, overexcitement, obstinacy, or sulks, some promise extracted that such behavior would not happen again. I can hear this Prime Minister's professed penitence, the vow made and never kept by the incorrigible schoolboy.

Churchill with family was a different man, Cooper suggested, from Churchill the politician. Those who had worked with him during the war and been invited to his house had commented to her upon the transformation:

They might spend a whole afternoon listening to him as the great statesman, propounding plans on which the lives of millions of men and the world's future would depend, and a few minutes later, they would see him at the dinner table, a benevolent old codger, twinkling with humor, treated as a naughty child by his wife and mercilessly teased by his daughters.

In "Churchill at the White House," another of the March, 1965, special-issue articles, Eleanor Roosevelt reminisced about Churchill's occasional visits to the White House during World War II. She was somewhat bemused by his habits and his schedule. He was very fond of cigars and liquor, she recalled: "It was astonishing to me that anyone could smoke so much and drink so much and keep perfectly well."

After breakfast in bed at nine, he would remain in bed until eleven, working in his pajamas. Midday, he would appear downstairs for lunch and a brief period of work, but would retire to his bed again for a nap until five. It was only after dinner that he would buckle down to "the real work of the day," staying up into the wee hours of the morning. While Churchill was visiting, Franklin Roosevelt would frequently stay up part of the night as well, both to get work done and to enjoy the opportunity to spend time with him:

They seemed from the very first not only to have a good understanding of each other and an ability to work together easily, but also to enjoy each other's company. They both loved history, both loved the navy, and while I think Mr. Churchill had a more catholic interest in literature, they had some particular literary interests in common.

Eleanor's own relationship with Churchill was somewhat more ambivalent, as one episode reflects:

After my husband's death, I was lunching one day with Mr. and Mrs. Churchill at their home in London, and sitting by me, he suddenly turned to me and said, "You never have really approved of me, have you?" I was a little taken aback, because it would never have occurred to me to say I had not approved of Mr. Churchill. He seemed to me someone above approval or disapproval by an unimportant person like myself. I hesitated a moment and finally said, "I don't think I ever disapproved, sir," but I think he remained convinced that there were things he and I did not agree upon, and perhaps there were a number!

Twenty years later, following the publication of a collection of Churchill and Roosevelt's correspondence, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. considered the two leaders and the impact of their relationship on the outcome of World War II. In his article "The Supreme Partnership" (October 1984) Schlesinger contradicted Eleanor Roosevelt's suggestion that Churchill and Roosevelt were naturally compatible, arguing that the two men were in fact temperamentally ill suited to one another and did not at first get along. They were "an odd couple," he wrote, with "different styles of humor" and "different tastes in people":

Churchill worked by night, Roosevelt by day. Churchill relaxed in the company of men, Roosevelt in the company of women. Churchill painted watercolors and laid bricks; Roosevelt collected stamps. Churchill drank all the time; Roosevelt had a martini or two before dinner.... Churchill was a traditionalist with a grand and governing fidelity to the past and a somber sense of the tragedy of history. Roosevelt ... was an experimenter and an optimist who confidently embraced the future. They were hardly made for each other.

In fact, when they first met in 1918 at a dinner in London, Roosevelt was put off by Churchill's "cocky and condescending" manner, and Roosevelt made so little impression on Churchill that he did not afterwards remember having met him.

It was the war that brought them together a decade later. Roosevelt was aware of and admired Churchill's efforts to galvanize Britain against the Nazis, and was also appreciative of the fact that Churchill had been among the few to defend Roosevelt's decision in 1933 to abandon the gold standard. On September 11, 1939, just days after Britain had declared war, Roosevelt contacted Churchill (who was then First Lord of the Admiralty) and asked him to "keep me in touch personally with anything you want me to know about."

This overture led to a regular correspondence. In their early exchanges, Churchill lobbied Roosevelt to enter the war, and Roosevelt offered financial and material support for Britain's war effort. Following Pearl Harbor, when the United States finally declared war, Roosevelt and Churchill began working closely together, plotting military strategy and presenting a united front against the Axis powers—subordinating their personal differences for the sake of their greater shared goals. As Schlesinger put it,

The two men might have lacked natural affinity, but they were indissolubly joined by the sense of sharing a historic stage during a mortal crisis....

They marvelously kept their heads and their tempers, cheered each other up, differed with candor and grace, and handled a bewildering variety of strategic and diplomatic questions with impressive virtuosity.

Their contrasting personal styles were reflected in their correspondence. Though Roosevelt did occasionally express such mildly affectionate sentiments as "It is fun to be in the same decade with you," and "It is lovely to be working with you," most of his letters were straightforward and businesslike, frequently staff-written. Churchill's letters, on the other hand, tended to be more emotional and personal. "Anything like a serious difference between you and me," he wrote during a dispute over India, "would break my heart." Looking back on all that Roosevelt had done for Britain and for him personally, he wrote: "Our friendship is the rock on which I build for the future of the world."

As Britain and America's interests diverged toward the end of the war, Churchill and Roosevelt's correspondence cooled somewhat. But "the nobility of the comradeship remains," Schlesinger wrote. By coincidence, both men had almost been killed earlier in their careers—Churchill in a car accident, and Roosevelt by an assassination attempt. Had they not survived, Schlesinger reminded readers, the world might be a very different place today:

One might invite those who believe that individuals make no difference to history to tell us what would have happened to the world a decade later had the automobile killed Winston Churchill on Fifth Avenue and the bullet killed Franklin Roosevelt in Miami. Fortunately, the two men survived to find each other and to save us all.
—Sage Stossel
 
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Postscript: The Other Winston Churchill
 

We (mistakenly) advertised in the April Atlantic that this Flashback would include two articles by Winston Churchill, written early in his career. Our card catalogue, which indexes articles as far back as the magazine's founding in 1857, inaccurately attributed the articles "Modern Government and Christianity" (January 1912) and "Naval Organization, American and British" (August 1917) to "Churchill, Winston S. (The Rt. Hon. C.H. M.P.)." As it turns out, the articles are, indeed, by a Winston Churchill, but close reading of them reveals that they could not possibly have been written by Winston Churchill the British statesman, as they express an American point of view, and even refer on one occasion to the "brilliant" Winston Spencer Churchill in the third person. Further research turns up the fact that there was in fact another Winston Churchill—an American who lived from 1871-1947, and who was well known as the bestselling author of such historical novels as Richard Carvel (1899), The Crisis (1901), and The Crossing (1904).

So, for those interested in learning about Winston Churchill the novelist's thoughts on government, religion, and naval management, we offer: "Modern Government and Christianity" (January 1912), and "Naval Organization, American and British" (August 1917).