Churchill

The life of Winston Churchill offers an abundant supply of extraordinary material for biography.

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    Churchill
    By Paul Johnson
    Viking
    192 pp., $24.95
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“We are all worms,” Winston Churchill observed to a dinner companion early in his political career. “But I really think I am a glowworm.” There is much to be said for Churchill’s boast, for the British statesman is certainly among the most important political figures of the 20th century.

Born in 1874, Churchill was prime minister during World War II, his country’s sternest test. And during Britain’s other great international challenge, World War I, he served as first lord of the Admiralty, directing the world’s largest navy. Along the way, he filled a variety of cabinet posts, often brilliantly, and even became prime minster a second time, in the 1950s, at an age when most men are content to pass their days with a leisurely stroll in the park.

Churchill was not merely the leading British politician of his era; he also wrote millions of words during a long life, authoring histories, biographies, and even fiction. In 1953, his memoirs on World War II were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Nor was Churchill’s talent for language confined to the printed page. He is considered one of the 20th century’s most gifted orators, whose wartime speeches inspired the British during those perilous days when Hitler’s armies were steamrolling across Europe and threatening Britain’s sovereignty. Reading Churchill’s words can still make the heart quicken:

“We shall fight on the seas and oceans ... we shall fight on the beaches ... we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

Lest one assume that Churchill’s Type-A personality precluded any relaxation, it is worth recalling that the British parliamentarian was a marvelous amateur painter, whose canvases were praised enthusiastically by those in the know. Aside from skillfully wielding a paintbrush, Churchill also savored a full champagne glass, consuming vast quantities of Pol Roger, his preferred brand.

The life of Winston Churchill thus provides an ample supply of extraordinary material for the biographer, and in Churchill, Paul Johnson relishes every bit of it. Therein lies the problem.

From the outset, one realizes that Johnson, an Englishman who has written prolifically over many years on a range of historical topics, is enthralled by his subject. On the first page, he makes clear his unalloyed admiration for Churchill. Of all the 20th century’s “towering figures,” he writes, Churchill was “the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likeable.”

Later, Johnson reports that Churchill had the best marriage of “all the twentieth-century ruling elites” and was (not surprisingly) a pillar of marital fidelity. Should one doubt Churchill’s fortitude, Johnson claims that he seemed not to experience “physical fear.” There was never “a more courageous politician,” he declares.

There is a word for this sort of thing: hagiography. This is not to suggest that Johnson’s adoring study is not a pleasure to read. A wonderful prose stylist, Johnson composes one graceful sentence after another. Despite the elegant writing, in his effort to sanctify Churchill, Johnson is reluctant to train a critical lens on his subject.

There were reasons, for example, that Churchill’s political foes called him a warmonger, a charge Johnson dismisses too easily. Consider a letter Churchill wrote to his wife on the eve of World War I: “Everything tends toward catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up, and happy.” And once the war began, Churchill acknowledged that it was “smashing and shattering the lives of thousands.” Yet, he said, “I cannot help it – I love every second I live.” It would be worth probing Churchill’s attitude toward war, something Johnson fails to do in a serious way.

Given Johnson’s lack of objectivity in evaluating Churchill, his claim that the British leader saved his country during World War II rings hollow, as does his assertion that “no one else could have done it.”

Moreover, Johnson’s declaration that “the facts and documents at our disposal” confirm this proposition does nothing to strengthen his case, which is, of course, unprovable. Such hyperbolic language undermines an important point, namely, that Churchill’s wartime leadership was exemplary.

In assessing Churchill’s historical writing, Johnson is overly kind. Early on, Johnson writes that Churchill possessed a “historian’s mind.” He was “eager to grapple with facts” and wanted “to answer the who, how, where, when questions.”

But if Churchill possessed such a mind, he failed to employ it when writing history. As recent scholarship has shown, Churchill’s six-volume study of World War II, for all its grandeur, is an utterly unreliable work of history. One historian who has examined it calls it an “exercise in self-defense and self-promotion,” which is “willfully inaccurate” and filled with “attempts to deceive.”

Even Johnson, in evaluating Churchill’s massive examination of the war years, writes that the British leader was determined to fight for “his ultimate place in history. What was at stake,” Johnson observes, was Churchill’s “status as a hero.” While this is no doubt true, it belies Johnson’s contention that Churchill had the mind of a historian.

Johnson’s mellifluous prose and passion for his subject might have made this a genuinely engaging book on an extraordinary man. Instead, because he was unwilling to apply any critical detachment in composing this study, Johnson has created an unreal portrait of a figure who often appears ready for canonization. But with all Churchill achieved, he can afford to be seen for what he was – a man, not a saint.

Jonathan Rosenberg teaches American history at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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