“Churchill Defiant”: 2010 Churchill Book of the Year

by Richard M. Langworth on 11 January 2011

“Where Oth­ers Heard Taps, Churchill Heard Reveille”

Churchill Defi­ant: Fight­ing On 1945-1955, by Bar­bara Leam­ing. Lon­don: Harper Press, 394 pages.

“Great cap­tains must take their chance with the rest. Cae­sar was assas­si­nated by his dear­est friend. Han­ni­bal was cut off by poi­son. Fred­er­ick the Great lin­gered out years of lone­li­ness in body and soul. Napoleon rot­ted at St. Helena. Com­pared with these, Marl­bor­ough had a good and fair end to his life.” —Churchill, Marl­bor­ough: His Life and Times, 1936, vol. IV

On the sur­face, Bar­bara Leaming’s book on Churchill’s last ten years of active pol­i­tics is “pop­u­lar his­tory”: only 300 pages, para­phrases instead of lengthy quotes, no con­ven­tional foot­notes (the back pages pro­vide line ref­er­ences). There is none of the clin­i­cal, chrono­log­i­cal approach of Mar­tin Gilbert, and lit­tle that chal­lenges his findings.

But Leam­ing adds an unique per­sonal dimen­sion that places her book well above the long array of potboilers—making it the most impor­tant sur­vey of Churchill’s last active decade since Anthony Seldon’s Churchill’s Indian Sum­mer thirty years ago, and maybe the best yet. It will be par­tic­u­larly valu­able to young peo­ple or oth­ers new to Churchill in its keen insight to his life­long defi­ance of long odds and for­mi­da­ble adversaries.

Describ­ing his last polit­i­cal decade, Leam­ing takes the mea­sure of Churchill’s ear­lier expe­ri­ence. For exam­ple, she spots some­thing he wrote of uniquely gifted peo­ple in 1937: “One may say that sixty, per­haps sev­enty per­cent of all they have to give is expended on fights which have no other object but to get to their bat­tle­field.” That, she observes, nicely describes “the arc of Churchill’s own polit­i­cal career. By the time he had real­ized his supreme ambi­tion of becom­ing prime min­is­ter, in 1940, he had spent decades fight­ing to reach his par­tic­u­lar bat­tle­field. Again, after being hurled from power in 1945, Churchill ded­i­cated an addi­tional six years to fight­ing his way back.” (135)

Why did he fight on after 1945? In two words: world peace. It was, he said repeat­edly, “the last prize I seek.”

Churchill con­sid­ered him­self uniquely gifted for what he called “par­leys at the sum­mit.” Even at Ful­ton, as he warned of the Iron Cur­tain, he believed that if only the heads of gov­ern­ment could sit down together, the dan­ger of Apoc­a­lypse could be eased. Repeat­edly he risked rup­tur­ing the spe­cial rela­tion­ship he val­ued above all oth­ers, chal­leng­ing a reluc­tant Eisen­hower to meet with him and the Rus­sians. Most notable, Leam­ing writes, was his speech of 11 May 1953, which she regards an equal to his great war speeches. “Where oth­ers heard taps,” she con­cludes, “Churchill heard reveille.”

Rely­ing heav­ily on diaries and mem­oirs of the pri­mary play­ers (but care­fully cir­cum­spect about the views of Churchill’s doc­tor Lord Moran), Leam­ing con­structs an intensely per­sonal por­trayal not only of Churchill, but of col­leagues and adver­saries, led by Stalin and Eisen­hower. And make no mis­take, Eisen­hower was an adver­sary. Rosy por­traits of their rela­tion­ship have obfus­cated Churchill’s low view of Ike as Pres­i­dent, deem­ing him short on vision, stag­nant in think­ing. Above all, the Pres­i­dent was sub­servient to his Sec­re­tary of State, John Fos­ter Dulles, “whose breath stank and whose left eye twitched inces­santly and disconcertingly”—whom Eisen­hower sent at reg­u­lar inter­vals “to try to turn Churchill from his purpose.”

Leav­ing Hitler's Bunker, Berlin, 1945

The reader is at Churchill’s shoul­der from page 1, where, in Berlin in 1945, he descends the stairs to Hitler’s bunker, hes­i­tates halfway down, climbs wearily back and—when a Russ­ian sol­dier shows him where Hitler’s body was burned—turns away in revul­sion. Or 1946, in Miami, “seated beside a bed of red poin­set­tias near the pink brick sea­side house,” his trop­i­cal tan suit “snugly across his stom­ach,” pon­der­ing what he must tell the world at Ful­ton. We read par­al­lel sketches of Stalin around the same time, hol­i­day­ing on the Black Sea, ail­ing, exhausted, para­noid, sus­pi­cious of plots against him, tor­tur­ing a for­mer doc­tor he believes is a spy.

Leaming’s insight is extra­or­di­nary. Why, for exam­ple, did Tru­man invite Churchill to Ful­ton, when the Pres­i­dent was seek­ing to avoid con­fronta­tion with Moscow? “At a time when Tru­man had yet to emerge from Roosevelt’s shadow,” she sug­gests, “it might be dif­fi­cult polit­i­cally to depart from his predecessor’s Soviet pol­icy. The Ful­ton speech, deliv­ered by a pri­vate cit­i­zen who also hap­pened to be a mas­ter of the spo­ken word, as well as a fig­ure of excep­tional appeal to Amer­i­cans, would allow Tru­man, at no polit­i­cal cost to him­self, to see if the pub­lic was ready to accept a change.” (67)

Clemen­tine Churchill is quoted spar­ingly, yet under­stood inti­mately. From the 1945 elec­tion she yearned for her hus­band to retire. In their daugh­ter Mary’s words, she would “gladly exchange the splen­dours and mis­eries of a meteor’s train for the qui­eter more banal hap­pi­ness of being mar­ried to an ordi­nary man.” Yet she backs him, wish­ing him go on his terms, respond­ing angrily when out­siders urged her to inter­vene. Asked in mid-1954 if she wanted Win­ston to retire, she replied: “Yes I do indeed, but I don’t wish to be told that by Mr. Harold Macmil­lan.”

Churchill’s Tory col­leagues do not show well under Leaming’s light. Nearly to a man, they hoped he would retire as early as 1945, each of them in pro­found self-interest. “Bob­bety” Sal­is­bury wanted Anthony Eden, know­ing he could not as eas­ily con­trol “Rab” But­ler; But­ler dan­gled a coali­tion before Labour as a way to sup­plant Eden as heir appar­ent. Macmil­lan first shunned the retire­ment cabal, hop­ing it would fail, paving his own way to the top, while urg­ing Clemen­tine and pri­vate sec­re­tary Jock Colville to tell Win­ston to go.

Eden, ever the pre­var­i­ca­tor, flopped first one way and then the other over demand­ing Churchill quit. No won­der the wheels nearly came off the Churchill Cab­i­net at sev­eral junctures—in ways remind­ful of pol­i­tics today.

We may not have appre­ci­ated the degree of sep­a­ra­tion between WSC and Eden—and for how long. Recall Churchill’s 1936 remark when Eden became for­eign sec­re­tary: “I think you will now see what a light-weight Eden is.” Churchill Defi­ant reminds us of what WSC said the night before his res­ig­na­tion as Prime Min­is­ter in April 1955: “I don’t believe Anthony can do it.” Churchill’s judg­ment was on the mark.

Eden, who resigned soon after Eisen­hower refused to back his march on Suez in 1956, “could be a prickly and peev­ish char­ac­ter,” but was cir­cum­spect with Churchill: Leam­ing quotes the his­to­rian P.J. Grigg: Eden was noto­ri­ous for “bul­ly­ing peo­ple who could be bul­lied and col­laps­ing before those who couldn’t.” (137)

The book leaves us with poignant and sor­row­ful real­iza­tions, national and per­sonal. Nation­ally, Britain’s place in the world fell pre­cip­i­tously in the decade after the war. The “spe­cial rela­tion­ship” proved more spe­cial to Lon­don than to Wash­ing­ton, and the dis­agree­ments over a sum­mit evolved to a major rup­ture over Suez.

On the per­sonal level, Churchill, as he wrote of Marl­bor­ough, “had a good and fair end to his life.” He never gave in. He faced down col­leagues who pressed him to resign with all the res­o­lu­tion of his joust with Hitler. He glo­ried in bat­tles won, as when turn­ing som­er­saults in the sea for actress Merle Oberon after a great speech in Stras­bourg. He despaired when he hit a stone wall, like Eisen­hower at Bermuda. (When asked about their next meet­ing at the Bermuda Con­fer­ence Eisen­hower replied, “I don’t know. Mine is with a whisky and soda.”)

Never give in, he had told the boys at Har­row: Never give in, except to con­vic­tions of hon­our and good sense….” Who can say whether he was right or wrong about a sum­mit with the Rus­sians? It was never tried. When hon­our and good sense told him it was time, Churchill went—convinced that a sum­mit was beyond his declin­ing powers.

Bar­bara Leam­ing offers no sum­mary chap­ter, no list of the faults or mis­takes of play­ers in the drama. Unlike cer­tain authors, she does not sug­gest that any­one by their actions changed his­tory. But her opin­ions reg­is­ter through­out the book, and nowhere more force­fully than toward the end:

When Churchill refused to retire in 1945, his deci­sion had flowed from every­thing that was essen­tial to his char­ac­ter; so had his sub­se­quent deci­sions to fight on. At the begin­ning of 1955, the deci­sion that con­fronted Churchill was dif­fer­ent, harder. This time, rather than ride the wave of his obsti­nacy, he had to over­come it. He had to crush his life­long refusal to accept defeat. He had to con­quer the pri­mal sur­vival instinct that had allowed him to spring back so many times before. This time, Churchill’s bat­tle was not really with Sal­is­bury, Eden, Eisen­hower or any antag­o­nist. It was with him­self. (306)

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