Winston's War

This excellent biography turns a laser-like focus on five years in the life of Winston Churchill.

Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 Knopf Doubleday 576 pp., $35

Winston Churchill’s singular accomplishment was his heroic leadership of Britain during the darkest days of World War II. More than 50 years after his death, the stories and legends that surround him make it hard for historians, let alone the public, to get a clear, unvarnished picture of this towering figure.

Sir Max Hastings, the author of several exceptionally well-received books about World War II in Europe and Asia, has turned his thoughtful eye to Churchill’s record as a wartime leader. Winston’s War covers just five years, from the Battle of France in May 1940 when he became prime minister to the general election in July 1945 that ended his tenure. What Churchill did before and after are barely mentioned.

This laserlike focus on a relatively short period of Churchill’s long and eventful life allows Hastings to examine his subject in great detail. The picture that emerges is both very flattering and highly critical. Hastings clearly admires Churchill and begins the book by proclaiming that he “was the greatest Englishman and one of the greatest human beings of the twentieth century, indeed of all time.” He repeatedly applauds Churchill’s bulldoglike determination, courage, and remarkable ability to inspire his countrymen and to move the world.

Most notable among his accomplishments was his delicate and persistent effort to make American President Franklin Roosevelt a committed ally. Churchill realized that Britain had no hope of actually defeating Germany until the United States joined the struggle. But few of his countrymen shared Churchill’s high regard for their erstwhile ally. Hastings writes, “Among Churchill’s priceless contributions to Britain’s salvation was his wooing of the United States when many of his compatriots were rash enough to indulge rancor towards what they perceived as the fat, complacent nation across the Atlantic.”

But this is not hagiography. Hastings devotes great attention to Churchill’s “follies and misjudgements, which were many and various.” One notable example – now largely ignored – was the need for a “Second Dunkirk.” Shortly after the remnants of the British Army had been miraculously rescued at Dunkirk in May 1940, Churchill impetuously sent 200,000 more troops to France. Just two weeks later, this army was also pulled out. Hastings leaves no doubt that the decision to send these troops to France was a grave mistake and that their subsequent evacuation was a second miracle of amazing proportions. He notes: “No staff college war game would have allowed so indulgent an outcome.”

Another of Churchill’s bad ideas ended, fortunately, without implementation. In May 1945, dismayed by the triumph of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, Churchill instructed the British Chiefs of Staff to develop plans for a joint Anglo-American military attack on Russia to secure “a square deal for Poland.” Nothing came of the exercise labeled ‘Operation Unthinkable,” but word of the exercise quickly reached Stalin and undoubtedly inflamed his suspicions about the postwar intentions of his allies.

Hastings does not confine himself to the strategic and tactical matters. He details Churchill’s less attractive personal characteristics – he was self-obsessed, vain, selfish, and rash – which many biographers excuse or minimize.

Parts of the book will come as a revelation to American readers because Hastings’s assessment is inconsistent with our widely held assumptions about the war in Europe. He writes that Churchill’s relationship to Roosevelt was not as close as we believe, especially as the end of the war approached. Moreover, he criticizes the tendency to romanticize the contributions of the French Resistance and concludes that it was never as important as we usually assume.
And he convincingly argues that, despite our tendency to see World War II as a triumph of Anglo-American might and sacrifice, the “military outcome of the contest was overwhelmingly decided by forces of Soviet tyranny.” He concluded that the cold war has probably clouded our judgments – we are less likely to appreciate the full importance of the Russian contribution than were those who actually lived through the war.

Hastings is an authoritative writer and “Winston’s War” is what readers have come to expect from him: exhaustively researched, scrupulously fair and balanced, and compulsively readable. He gives equal attention to Churchill’s greatness and his shortcomings, his achievements and his blunders. Despite the small library of books about this legendary figure, he offers fresh insights on every page. Quite simply, this is a marvelous book.

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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