The political history of the 20th century
can be written as the biographies of six men: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler,
Mao Zedong, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The first four
were totalitarians who made or used revolutions to create monstrous
dictatorships. Roosevelt and Churchill differed from them in being
democrats. And Churchill differed from Roosevelt--while both were
war leaders, Churchill was uniquely stirred by the challenge of war
and found his fulfillment in leading the democracies to victory.
Churchill came of a military dynasty.
His ancestor John Churchill had been created first Duke of Marlborough
in 1702 for his victories against Louis XIV early in the War of the
Spanish Succession. Churchill was born in 1874 in Blenheim Palace,
the house built by the nation for Marlborough. As a young man of
undistinguished academic accomplishment--he was admitted to Sandhurst
after two failed attempts--he entered the army as a cavalry officer.
He took enthusiastically to soldiering (and perhaps even more enthusiastically
to regimental polo playing) and between 1895 and 1898 managed to
see three campaigns: Spain's struggle in Cuba in 1895, the North-West
Frontier campaign in India 1897 and the Sudan campaign of 1898, where
he took part in what is often described as the British Army's last
cavalry charge, at Omdurman. Even at 24, Churchill was steely: "I
never felt the slightest nervousness," he wrote to his mother. "[I]
felt as cool as I do now." In Cuba he was present as a war correspondent,
and in India and the Sudan he was present both as a war correspondent
and as a serving officer. Thus he revealed two other aspects of his
character: a literary bent and an interest in public affairs.
He was to write all his life. His "Life
of Marlborough" is one of the great English biographies, and "The
History of the Second World War" helped win him a Nobel Prize for
literature. Writing, however, never fully engaged his energies. Politics
consumed him. His father Lord Randolph Churchill was a brilliant
political failure. Early in life, Winston determined to succeed where
his father had failed. His motives were twofold. His father had despised
him. Writing in August 1893 to Winston's grandmother, the dowager
Duchess of Marlborough, he said the boy lacked "cleverness, knowledge
and any capacity for settled work. He has a great talent for show-off,
exaggeration and make-believe." His disapproval surely stung,
but Churchill reacted by venerating his father's memory. Winston
fought to restore his father's honor in Parliament (where it had
been dented by the Conservative Party). Thirty years after Lord Randolph's
death, Winston wrote, "All my dreams of comradeship were ended.
There remained for me only to pursue his aims and vindicate his memory."
Churchill entered Parliament in 1901
at age 26. In 1904 he left the Conservative Party to join the Liberals,
in part out of calculation: the Liberals were the coming party, and
in its ranks he soon achieved high office. He became Home Secretary
in 1910 and First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. Thus it was as political
head of the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the First World War in
1914 that he stepped onto the world stage.
A passionate believer in the navy's historic
strategic role, he immediately committed the Royal Naval Division
to an intervention in the Flanders campaign in 1914. Frustrated by
the stalemate in Belgium and France that followed, he initiated the
Allies' only major effort to outflank the Germans on the Western
Front by sending the navy, and later a large force of the army, to
the Mediterranean. At Gallipoli in 1915, this Anglo-French force
struggled to break the defenses that blocked access to the Black
Sea. It was a heroic failure that forced Churchill's resignation
and led to his political eclipse.
It was effectively to last nearly 25
years. Despite his readmission to office in 1917, after a spell commanding
an infantry battalion on the Western Front, he failed to re-establish
the reputation as a future national statesman he had won before the
war. Dispirited, he chose the issue of the Liberal Party's support
for the first government formed by the Labour Party in 1924 to rejoin
the Conservatives, after a spell when he had been out of Parliament
altogether. The Conservative Prime Minister appointed Churchill Chancellor
of the Exchequer, but when he returned the country to the gold standard,
it proved financially disastrous, and he further weakened his political
position by opposing measures to grant India limited self-government.
He resigned office in 1931 and entered what appeared to be a terminal
Churchill was truly a romantic, but also
truly a democrat. He had returned to the gold standard, for instance,
because he cherished, for romantic reasons, Britain's status as a
great financial power. He had opposed limited self-government for
India because he cherished, for equally romantic reasons, Britain's
imperial history. It was to prove more important that as a democrat,
he was disgusted by the rise of totalitarian systems in Europe. In
1935 he warned the House of Commons of the importance not only of "self-preservation
but also of the human and the world cause of the preservation of
free governments and of Western civilization against the ever advancing
sources of authority and despotism." His anti-Bolshevik policies
had failed. By espousing anti-Nazi policies in his wilderness years
between 1933 and 1939, he ensured that when the moment of final confrontation
between Britain and Hitler came in 1940, he stood out as the one
man in whom the nation could place its trust. He had decried the
prewar appeasement policies of the Conservative leaders Baldwin and
Chamberlain. When Chamberlain lost the confidence of Parliament,
Churchill was installed in the premiership.
His was a bleak inheritance. Following
the total defeat of France, Britain truly, in his words, "stood alone." It
had no substantial allies and, for much of 1940, lay under threat
of German invasion and under constant German air attack. He nevertheless
refused Hitler's offers of peace, organized a successful air defense
that led to the victory of the Battle of Britain and meanwhile sent
most of what remained of the British army, after its escape from
the humiliation of Dunkirk, to the Middle East to oppose Hitler's
Italian ally, Mussolini.
This was one of the boldest strategic
decisions in history. Convinced that Hitler could not invade Britain
while the Royal Navy and its protecting Royal Air Force remained
intact, he dispatched the army to a remote theater of war to open
a second front against the Nazi alliance. Its victories against Mussolini
during 1940-41 both humiliated and infuriated Hitler, while its intervention
in Greece, to oppose Hitler's invasion of the Balkans, disrupted
the Nazi dictator's plans to conclude German conquests in Europe
by defeating Russia.
Churchill's tendency to conduct strategy
by impulse infuriated his advisers. His chief of staff Alan Brooke
complained that every day Churchill had 10 ideas, only one of which
was good--and he did not know which one. Yet Churchill the romantic
showed acute realism in his reaction to Russia's predicament. He
reviled communism. Required to accept a communist ally in a struggle
against a Nazi enemy, he did so not only willingly but generously.
He sent a large proportion of Britain's war production to Russia
by Arctic convoys, even at a time when the convoys from America to
Britain, which alone spared the country starvation, suffered devastating
From the outset of his premiership, Churchill,
half American by birth, had rested his hope of ultimate victory in
U.S. intervention. He had established a personal relationship with
President Roosevelt that he hoped would flower into a war-winning
alliance. Roosevelt's reluctance to commit the U.S. beyond an association "short
of war" did not dent his optimism. He always hoped events would work
his way. The decision by Japan, Hitler's ally, to attack the American
Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, justified his hopes.
That evening he confided to himself, "So we had won after all."
America's entry into the Second World
War marked the high point of Churchill's statesmanship. Britain,
demographically, industrially and financially, had entered the war
weaker than either of its eventual allies, the Soviet Union and the
U.S. Defeats in 1940 had weakened it further, as had the liquidation
of its international investments to fund its early war efforts. During
1942, the prestige Britain had won as Hitler's only enemy allowed
Churchill to sustain parity of leadership in the anti-Nazi alliance
with Roosevelt and Stalin.
Churchill understandably exulted in the
success of the D-day invasion when it came in 1944. By then it was
the Russo-American rather than the Anglo-American nexus, however,
that dominated the alliance, as he ruefully recognized at the last
Big Three conference in February 1945. Shortly afterward he suffered
the domestic humiliation of losing the general election and with
it the premiership. He was to return to power in 1951 and remain
until April 1955, when ill health and visibly failing powers caused
him to resign.
It would have been kinder to his reputation
had he not returned. He was not an effective peacetime Prime Minister.
His name had been made, and he stood unchallengeable, as the greatest
of all Britain's war leaders. It was not only his own country, though,
that owed him a debt. So too did the world of free men and women
to whom he had made a constant and inclusive appeal in his magnificent
speeches from embattled Britain in 1940 and 1941. Churchill did not
merely hate tyranny, he despised it. The contempt he breathed for
dictators--renewed in his Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Mo., at
the outset of the cold war--strengthened the West's faith in the
moral superiority of democracy and the inevitability of its triumph.