Allen Barra on Winston Churchill
Posted on Jan 1, 2010
By Allen Barra
Johnson succeeds in compressing a staggering amount of material and illuminating detail into a small space. Other biographers may have noted that among Churchill’s favorite movies were “Stagecoach” and “Destry Rides Again” (he walked out of “Citizen Kane” in disgust), but if they did, I have not noticed. It’s hard to come up with flashes of the great man’s wit that haven’t been run into the ground; I had not previously seen Churchill’s remark about Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles: “That man makes a beautiful declension: Dull, Duller, Dullest.” And I find it inspiring that a man could fight a world war and write enough books to fill a small library while consuming an estimated 20,000 bottles of champagne.
What Johnson misses, however, he misses big. Johnson and Lukacs (and numerous historians before them) are correct in calling Churchill the key figure of the Second World War—“There was no one else,” Johnson maintains, “who could have done what he did in 1940”—but he fails to address the question that is perhaps most important to readers in the 21st century: Should we have an interest in Winston Churchill outside of World War II? (One might say the question was first asked by Hitler in 1940: “But had this war not come, who would speak of Churchill?”)
To put it another way, did Churchill’s life before and after World War II leave anything lasting for posterity? To call his career before 1939 checkered is generous, even while acknowledging that, as Johnson says, “The  Anglo-Irish treaty must be counted another of his positive achievements.” He was, even allowing for the prejudices of his time and class, irrevocably wrong on a great many important issues such as British rule of Ireland, India, women’s suffrage and, in more practical matters, his monetary policies, including his disastrous decision in 1925 to return Britain to the gold standard, precipitating a major recession.
It may be true, as he said, that “I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes,” but should he have been allowed so many? Even a catalog of blunders during his greatest years, from 1941 to 1945, are eye-opening. He may not have been solely responsible for the debacle in the Dardanelles during World War I—Johnson lets him off the hook almost entirely—but what could excuse his miscalculation in the Second World War that the Mediterranean coast was “the soft underbelly of Europe”? The minor disaster at Dieppe, in Norway, and his major failure to understand the threat of Imperial Japan are not easily ignored. (“I do not believe,” he said in 1924, “there is the slightest chance of it [war with Japan] in our lifetime.”)
Do we excuse him for these and other mistakes just as serious? Of course, because, as he once said to an attendant in excusing his own rudeness, “I am a great man.” He was a warrior, but in no way a warmonger.
In Johnson’s judgment, “Churchill was sufficient of a realist to grasp that wars will come, and that a victorious one, however dreadful, is preferable to a lost one.” Or as Churchill himself wrote in “My Early Life,” “I have always been against the Pacifist during the quarrel, and against the Jingos at its close.”
No matter how many books Winston Churchill inspires, it is probably no longer possible for us to truly understand him. Vital as he was to the 20th century, he was still, as he put it, “A child of the Victorian era,” assuming the white man’s burden with a born allegiance to an empire that no longer matters to us, that no longer even holds nostalgia for us—although I suspect it holds more than a little nostalgia for Paul Johnson.
The great lines from Churchill’s great speeches are still alive to us, but they evoke the past without illuminating the future. In contrast, Franklin Roosevelt appears to us as one of the first representatives of the modern Western society that would come to dominate the postwar world, while Winston Churchill appears to us now only as the avatar of a past still strongly felt but only dimly remembered. The memory, though, is one from which his image can never fade. Never.
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