The Qualities of Leadership: Churchill as Diplomat

A veteran of World War I who was gassed in the Argonne breakthrough and was decorated personally by General Pershing, and a Democratic congressman who served three years from his home state, Arizona, LEWIS W. DOUGLASwas our ambassador to the Court of St. James during the critical period of 1947-1950, years which brought him into constant and sometimes intimate association with Sir Winston.

The Qualities of Leadership:

BY LEWIS W. DOUGLAS

IT IS very difficult for me to give an adequate reflection of Sir Winston Churchill without viewing him against the perspective of my personal experiences, modest as they were, during the last thirty years, when I had occasion to observe his extraordinary talents and personality. I hope I shall be pardoned for writing in this vein. I cannot truly mirror my view about one of the greatest men of modern history without committing, in a sense, this offense against the proprieties. For I did not have the opportunity of watching constantly the course of the career which Churchill charted through the crosscurrents and sometimes turbulent waters of British politics.

I had, from the early days of World War I, admired the qualities so varied, so intriguing, and so original which divine Providence, combined perhaps with an extraordinary inheritance, had assigned to Sir Winston. I had always thought that his venture in Antwerp in the early days of World War I, had the necessary support been available, might have recast the mold which gave shape and form to this first world conflict of the twentieth century. The Belgian Army, under the command of courageous King Albert, probably would not have been able to hold out in Antwerp until the last possible moment had not three ill-equipped British brigades of Marines, with Winston Churchill to inspire them, crossed the Channel to provide sorely needed reinforcements. The Belgian Army, reinforced with these brigades, engaged and diverted effective German forces from the “race to the sea,” enabling the British to maintain their position at Ypres and on the Yser, and it became possible for the Belgian Army to beat an orderly retreat from Antwerp, to join up with the British left flank, and to survive intact in order to fight victoriously another day.

As a complete novice, I was impertinent enough to think that, had Sir Winston’s conception of the great flanking movement in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli been executed with sufficient skill and vigor, the Russians would not have been so badly defeated by the Germans, the Black Sea would have been opened up, the stalemate on the Western front might well have been shattered into bits, and possibly the Bolshevik Revolution might have been postponed, if not averted. How different history might have been !

I know the bitterness with which Churchill has been attacked for being the soul of this undertaking, but it was not, it seemed to me then, and so it seems to me now, the conception which was faulty but the execution of the conception. For the execution, Sir Winston cannot be held accountable before the bar of history.

I am not unaware of those who take the great man to task because, over his long career in British politics, he shifted from party to party, and I know that some of his most bitter critics ascribe this shift in party loyalties to a spirit of opportunism concealed behind the magnificent veil of an extraordinary command of the English language. But a careful examination of Sir Winston’s movement from party to party is, I suggest, more properly explained by an outstanding, possibly even the massively dominant, characteristic of this man who possessed so many brilliant facets in the crystal of his personality. More engaging, perhaps, than his talent as an artist, which is not of a low order; more arresting, perhaps, than his beautiful command of the English language, a strange combination of the vocabulary and the style of the Elizabethan period with the vocabulary and the style of the Bible; more unusual, perhaps, than the amazing compatibility which existed between him and the members of the House of Commons, even among most of his political enemies, was the unusual urge within him to question the ancient molds of behavior, to seek new answers to old problems, to propose with an imagination scarcely equaled by the most uninhibited of the world’s great novelists a whole variety of suggested remedies to the problems of war and the issues of peace. He came, for example, to the United States in 1931 (when I first met him) to lecture in support of free silver.

I can remember so well lunching with him not very long ago, when he put the question to me, “My dear Lew, and what do you think of the commodity dollar?” When I gave him my rather jaundiced view of the matter, I can recall vividly the vigor with which he came to its defense. His suggestions were not always ones which had validity, but at least the wide variety of novelties which he would advance, sometimes with enthusiasm, sometimes with great modesty, document this curious, infrequently found quality of mind, which is always probing for new answers to old questions.

Although Sir Winston was steeped in the traditions, pageantry, and ancient symbols of British life, and although he believed deeply in their significance to the Empire and the Commonwealth, his mind was always engaged in exploratory reconnaissance. It was this peculiar roaming inquisitiveness, combined with deep convictions, which influenced him from time to time to shift his political loyalties from party to party, as each party moved from one position to another. It is perhaps a recognition of this extraordinary inquisitiveness that accounts for the special place he held in the hearts of his countrymen and for the affectionate regard and respect which he commanded among the members of the Conservative Party, to which he belonged at the start of his political career, from which he departed, and to which he returned during the early twenties after the close of World War I. Throughout the last golden decade of his active life, enthroned as the leader of his party and of his nation, he influenced in a blaze of glory the whole course of more recent history.

He used to refer to the time when Britain returned to gold, in 1924, while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and often he used to be caustically critical of the action for which he, as Chancellor, was responsible. Who could — who did, in fact, in 1924? — foresee the difficulties under which the gold standard labored, the effect on it of the internal rigidity of costs, of the frightful burden of debt arising out of World War I, of the huge expenditures which had been foisted upon the state by the social security measures which became effective upon the termination of the war, and of the reversion to protectionism of one of the world’s greatest creditors? Churchill’s criticisms of himself, it always seemed to me, were too severe. It was not so much the return to gold which was the error; it was the unwillingness of government — possibly even the inability of government and of society — to restore that degree of flexibility to the internal British system which was essential if sterling in its relationship to gold was to find some firm and stable foundation.

AMERICANS think of Churchill more particularly as the great inspiration of the Western world, and they revere him for the qualities of leadership, unequaled perhaps by any other man in modern history, which he displayed during the course of the second great crisis of the twentieth century. In those dark days of 1940 and 1941, when Western civilization hung in the balance, he inspired the British people and touched the stubborn qualities of character which they so generously possess. By the sheer force of his personality and ability to reflect his own indomitable spirit in the English language, he forged links among the members of the Western community of peoples.

We think of him, too, as the person who foresaw, before public opinion was prepared to accept his view, that the Kremlin, and the Communist order of society which it represented, could not be relied upon to behave as a friendly companion in the great post-war task of repairing the devastation of moral, social, political, and material values which had been wrought upon the world on a scale unprecedented in the history of mankind. The speech which Churchill delivered at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946 was greeted with a lack of enthusiasm, if not sharp criticism, on this side of the water and on his own. Within eighteen months men of lesser stature found it convenient and to their advantage to advance the same opinions and to utter the same warnings without attributing to Churchill the origin of their views.

It is probably true that the probing, roving disposition of his mind caused many of his associates during the war and during the period of his ascendancy in peace as much annoyance as stimulation. Yet, even those who were annoyed the most and who were required to sharpen the edge of their mentalities retained for him an affection as deep and lasting as was their admiration.

Throughout his career Sir Winston was always a little bit ahead of the passions and prejudices and thoughts of the moment. It was he, in the thirties, who foresaw the threat of Hitler. It was he, in the forties, who conceived of modern war as a series of great flanking movements. It was he who warned us of the danger of placing too great confidence in Soviet post-war behavior.

I remember vividly the morning in May of 1948 when I called upon him at 28 Hyde Park Gate to acquaint him with the proposal which I had put to His Majesty’s Government — Mr. Attlee, Mr. Bevin, and Sir Stafford Cripps — that the United States be permitted, even possibly be asked, to base bombers for training purposes on the soil of the United Kingdom. There was very grave evidence that indicated trouble in Berlin, even the probability that the Soviets would attempt to blockade the Western powers from reaching the Western sectors of this city buried 110 miles deep in the heart of the Soviet zone of Germany. And, after he exacted from me a promise to keep his confidence until the United States presidential election of 1948 was over, I recall with great clarity his cablegram dated, if my memory is correct, May 5, 1945, and his more elaborate letter of May 12, 1945, which his secretary brought to him and which he read to me. He addressed them to the authorities in Washington and reminded us that the Soviets had by then breached their contracts about Middle Europe. He stated that we were under no further moral obligation to observe the arrangements that had been made for Germany. American troops were on the border of Czechoslovakia, and British troops were on the shores of the Baltic. He urged that we keep our troops precisely where they were and gave us assurance that the British would keep their troops on the Baltic until the question of Germany had been finally settled.

One can give away expendable articles — ships, food, clothing — but to give away territory is a wholly different matter. It seemed to Sir Winston in the spring of 1945 that to withdraw to our zones in Germany from the position of advantage which we then held would make trouble for the Western powers for a long, weary stretch of time. It might even be the cause of a third world war.

Once more, Sir Winston’s advice was not followed, and Berlin has become a site of continuing crisis. Within its Western sector, two and a half million people who cherish liberty and freedom continue to live under a shadow. Sir Winston’s view in the spring of 1945 is another example of the way in which his thinking penetrated into the future, far ahead of that of his contemporaries and much more profoundly than the popular opinions and prejudices of the moment.

With all these rare talents — vision, inquisitiveness, intellectual power, and the indomitable spirit of an invincible fighter — there were combined a touching generosity of spirit, a moving consideration for his fellowman, and a kindliness even, at times, toward those who were unkind to him or critical of his measures. I can remember one occasion in particular. Hugh Dalton had been removed as Chancellor of the Exchequer because, only a minute or so before he entered the House to make his budget speech — I think it was in the spring of 1948 — he had made some comment to a representative of the press. This in British politics was a heinous error. But Winston, notwithstanding the many sharp barbs which Dalton had thrown in his direction from time to time over the course of a good many years, took the floor and expressed the view that His Majesty’s Government had been more severe to the Chancellor than his act had deserved.

WORRIOR though he was, Winston had no illusions about war as an institution. He himself had been under fire in many battles. It may be that the excitement of battle thrilled him. We have indelibly etched on our memories those photographs of him in the combat zone, a living symbol of bravery and encouragement, flashing that V-sign, the sign he gave to buoy up any flagging spirit, whether in his dear but badly battered London, or in Washington, or along the front line. But if the danger and excitement of war stirred his imagination, he knew only too well what a toll war takes of human lives, especially of the young men who are the solid foundation of a country’s future. He knew what the loss of almost a million young men during the holocaust of 1914 to 1918 had meant to Britain, Canada, Australia, and the entire Commonwealth. He knew, too, how France had been denuded by the loss of almost two million of her best young men. And he recognized the urgent need that both Britain and the Commonwealth had for their young men when at last peace would settle on the land. He was too sensitive to be insulated against this urgency, and too conscious of the past.

War to him was not like a game of tennis which one won on the courts and after which one showered and went about one’s business as though nothing had happened. War to Sir Winston was the last final desperate measure of foreign policy. Primarily, it was to be won, but to be won with our troops flying our flags in the strategic areas of Middle Europe, and even the Orient.

This explains some of the issues that developed at Teheran, Cairo, the Quebec conferences, and at other meetings held during the last few years of the war. This explains, too, his urgent recommendation that we should not retreat from the Czechoslovakian border and the Danish peninsula until the question of Germany had been settled. Some of us thought that Winston was concerned only with Britain’s post-war welfare. Doubtless, this was a part of his preoccupation. But in fact his concern went far deeper. He wanted both Britain and the United States, when the fighting stopped, to be in a strong geographical position so that we could more effectively fashion a lasting and enduring peace.

He came to call upon me after I had demonstrated my accuracy as a fly fisherman and had lost sight in one eye. I was halfway propped up in bed. With a cherubic expression upon his face and that engaging dimple in his left cheek, he sat down beside me, gave me autographed copies of his books, gently patted my knee, and said, “My dear Lew, you must not let this disturb you. You must remember that Nelson had only one eye.” This was merely another example of his consideration for his friends and his constant endeavor to bring consolation to those who he felt were troubled.

His mind stretched out over the future in much the same manner as General Smuts’s mind refused to be constrained by present events. The three of us were lunching one day. The subject which consumed most of our speculation and which was the center of our discussion was the atomic bomb. This luncheon took place after it was known that the Soviet Union had made a successful test. Although both Churchill and Smuts in one sense regretted that science had developed such a frightfully lethal weapon, they both expressed the view that it was much more likely that this awesome power of destruction would deter nations from launching the human race into what might be a final great convulsion than that it would hasten the advent of another war.

Winston’s wit and humor, sometimes carefully rehearsed, sometimes quite spontaneous, were always telling. One evening, before a debate which was to be held in the House of Commons on foreign policy the next day, Lord Halifax, Lord Swinton, Winston, and I were dining together. About 11:30, after a rather spirited discussion of personalities and other matters, Winston looked across the table and said, “My dear Lew, you must now excuse me if I depart. I must prepare my impromptus for the debate which will be held tomorrow.”

Sir Winston was a curious complex of prescience, of the qualities of the prophet, of the historian, of the indomitable antagonist, of the artist, and of the optimist. But it was because he saw history through the eyes of the historian that he looked upon the future with the knowledge of the past. Events, both large and small, that an ordinary memory would not recall seemed to me indelibly recorded among his recollections.

In January, 1935, he invited me to visit him at Chartwell. This was during the period when he was something of an outcast, when he had been partially ostracized from politics and was displaying his abilities, which were very formidable, as a mason by building walls around his house, fish ponds for his goldfish, and pools for his Muscovy ducks. He showed me his handicraft with great pride and finally took me into his studio, where he had hung all his paintings, convincing evidence of the sincerity of the title which he gave to his charmingly written book Painting as a Pastime. Some of the paintings were very lovely; all of them were very colorful. But there was one of elephants in a circus ring, standing on their tubs while the klieg lights shone down upon them through the atmosphere of a smoke-filled tent. The colors were superb; the subject was original.

I stopped in front of it and said, “Mr. Churchill, this is, I think, not your most beautiful, but it is one I shall never forget.”

More than fifteen years passed. No mention was ever made by either of us of my first visit to Chartwell. About a week before Mrs. Douglas and I departed from London in late 1950, Sir Winston and Lady Churchill invited us to their house at 28 Hyde Park Gate for dinner, and there, in one of the most touching private ceremonies of my experience, Winston presented this picture of the elephants to us. He reminded us of my comment of some fifteen years before and said, “My dear Lew, I do not give my children away lightly.”

When one views the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of popular passions and prejudices of Churchill’s period, and when one gets a perspective of Sir Winston Churchill in the many different circumstances through which he lived; when one looks upon him as the person who more than any other man saved the Western world from one of the greatest of all calamities, one cannot escape the conviction that divine Providence somehow preserved this singularly remarkable man to play the role of savior of the civilized community of people during one of the blackest hours of history.