Review by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor
Paul Johnson, Churchill, New York: Viking, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-670-02105-5, 166 pp. $24.95
Winston Churchill played so large a role on the world stage for such a long time that it would seem futile to attempt to write a brief biography summarizing his life. His official biography, begun by his son Randolph and completed by Martin Gilbert, runs to eight huge volumes. Gilbert condensed that work into one volume for a popular audience, but even that runs to nearly a thousand pages. William Manchester’s unfinished biography of Churchill, The Last Lion, is in two volumes, more than 1600 pages, and ends on the eve of Churchill’s wartime premiership. Roy Jenkins’ well-received one-volume biography of Churchill is more than a thousand pages. Churchill’s own histories of the First and Second World Wars each run to six volumes. Is there any sense to writing a 166-page biography of this towering historical figure?
The answer is yes, if the author is Paul Johnson. Johnson may be the best, and is surely one of the most insightful, of our modern historians. His history of the 20th century, Modern Times, is an unmatched examination of the forces, trends, and people that shaped the post-World War I world. His The Birth of the Modern brilliantly explores the cultural, political, and geopolitical events of the immediate post-Napoleonic world. His History of the American People is a breathtaking popular history of America since its settlement in the early 17th century.
Johnson’s Churchill combines economy of words with brilliant insights on every page. Moreover, Johnson manages in 166 pages to convey every important aspect of Churchill’s life and career and still provide penetrating analysis and reflection. No words are wasted. No important aspect of Churchill’s life goes unremarked. Johnson’s book is a masterpiece of concision and synthesis.
The facts are well known. Churchill was born on November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace. He was the son of Randolph Churchill, a Member of Parliament and descendant of the Duke of Marlborough, and Jennie Jerome, the daughter of an American financier. Both parents had precious little time for Winston who, instead, was raised by Elizabeth Everest, his nurse.
Churchill was educated at Harrow and Sandhurst with a military career in mind. He developed a love of history which led him to devour Gibbon and Macaulay, and also fell in love with the English language. As Johnson notes, “Winston became not merely adept but masterly in his use of words.”
Churchill saw his first action in India as part of the Malakand Field Force. In Africa, he participated in the Battle of Omdurman in which British forces smashed a Muslim jihadist army. He gained international fame in South Africa during the Boer War when he was captured by Boer forces and staged a dramatic escape.
In 1900, Churchill entered Parliament as a Conservative. He joined the Liberal Party in 1904 and two years later, at the age of thirty-one, was rewarded with his first government office, undersecretary to the colonies. He later served as president of the Board of Trade and Home Secretary.
Churchill married Clementine Hozier who, Johnson notes, “devoted herself completely to her remarkable husband” for the rest of their lives. They had five children: a son, Randolph, and four daughters, one of whom died in infancy.
Churchill moved to the Admiralty in 1911. There, he energetically prepared the Royal Navy for the approaching conflict. When war broke out in 1914, the fleet was ready because of Churchill’s leadership.
During the war, Churchill promoted several schemes to break the deadlock on the western front, including the Dardanelles expedition that ended in failure and cost Churchill his office. He subsequently served at the front for six months as a battalion commander. Later, Churchill was brought back into the government as minister of munitions and head of the War Office.
After the war, Churchill was one of the few statesmen to recognize and speak out about the dangers of Bolshevism. In 1921, he took over the Colonial Office where he helped shape the modern Middle East. Two years later, he began writing The World Crisis, his multi-volume history of the Great War, which Johnson calls Churchill’s “best large-scale book.”
In the mid-1920s, Churchill purchased a country home in Kent—his beloved Chartwell. There, he wrote, painted, built brick walls, oversaw excavations to create lakes, and entertained lavishly. He re-joined the Conservative Party and served as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929.
Churchill spent much of the 1930s in the political wilderness, excluded from office by his own party. Beginning in 1933, he spoke often and eloquently in the Commons about the danger to Britain and the world posed by Hitler’s Nazi regime. When events vindicated Churchill’s warnings, he was brought back into the government as First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of the war.
On May 10, 1940, the same day that German forces attacked France, Churchill became Prime Minister. He later wrote of this moment that he felt that he was walking with destiny and that all his past life had been a preparation for this supreme task. When France surrendered, Britain stood alone against Germany.
Churchill braced his country for the task ahead (“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”), starkly explained what was at stake (“without victory there is no survival”), and focused the government and people on one overriding goal (“victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be”). After the British Expeditionary Force was rescued from Dunkirk, Churchill, in the face of efforts by some in the government to explore a negotiated peace with Germany, pledged that Britain would “not flag or fail,” and would fight in France, “on the seas and oceans…in the air…on the beaches…on the landing grounds…in the fields…in the streets…[and] in the hills.” He defiantly roared, “We shall never surrender.”
After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and was at war with the United States, Churchill gained powerful allies. As the war continued, Churchill’s influence over events waned as Britain’s contribution to the war effort diminished relative to his Soviet and American allies.
Toward the end of the war, Churchill participated in efforts to shape the postwar world, attempting to salvage what was left of the British Empire and persuade the United States to resist Soviet geopolitical ambitions. After the defeat of Germany, but before the surrender of Japan, war-weary British voters ended his premiership.
Johnson is surely correct in concluding that in those five years as wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill saved Britain. “[He] had done it,” explains Johnson, “by his personal leadership, courage, resolution, ingenuity, and grasp, and by his huge and infectious confidence.”
Out of power, Churchill wrote his six-volume history of the Second World War. As Johnson notes, and as historian David Reynolds has recounted in his recent book In Command of History, Churchill’s The Second World War was a team effort, presided over and directed by Churchill. Churchill’s six-volumes remain an indispensable resource in understanding the momentous events from 1919 to 1945.
Even before the war ended, Churchill foresaw the approaching Cold War and tried, unsuccessfully, to influence U.S. policy to resist Soviet encroachments. Later, when out of power, he publicly warned of the Soviet threat in his famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946. Reflecting on his repeated and unheeded warnings of the Nazi threat in the 1930s, he remarked, “Last time I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my own fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention.” He urged his audience, which included President Truman, to avoid repeating the follies of the democratic powers in the 1930s, which resulted in a war that “desolated such great areas of the globe.” He pleaded, “We surely must not let that happen again.”
In 1951, at age 75, Churchill returned to power as Prime Minister. His second premiership lasted until April 1955. He won his last election to the Commons in 1959. He died on January 24, 1965 at the age of 90. Following a majestic state funeral, Churchill was buried in the family plot in Bladon churchyard, a short distance from Blenheim Palace.
Johnson concludes his book with a concise summary of Churchill’s accomplishments, and attributes his success to five factors: (1) Churchill always aimed high, whether it was in politics, writing, painting, or other aspects of his life; (2) he worked very hard, putting tremendous energy into everything he did; (3) he never let failure or mistakes keep him down for very long; (4) he was rarely mean or vindictive for any length of time—he did not waste his energy on hatred; and (5) he took time to relax and enjoy the pleasures of life.
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century, and has written lengthy introductions to four other books on U.S. foreign policy. He is the author of numerous articles and book reviews on historical and foreign policy topics that have appeared in American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, National Review, The Human Rights Review, and Presidential Studies Quarterly. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University. He is also a contributing editor of American Diplomacy.