Nashville (4). Churchill as Warmonger in World War I

Nashville (4). Churchill as Warmonger in World War I

“Winston…has got on all his war-paint” (Asquith)

In 1914, the Great War arrives, and fables about Churchill mul­ti­ply. A pop­u­lar one, kept alive by pun­dits and his­to­ri­ans, alike, is that Churchill led the war­mon­ger par­ty into World War I. Remarks to the Churchill Soci­ety of Ten­nessee, Nashville, 14 Octo­ber 2017. Con­tin­ued from Part 3...

Patrick J. Buchanan is an affa­ble tory who wrote speech­es for Nixon and ran quixot­ic cam­paigns for Pres­i­dent of the U.S. three times in 1992-2000. (I vot­ed for him once!) He’s an effec­tive con­trar­i­an, and his debat­ing skills are renowned. I assist­ed Pat research­ing facts (as opposed to fic­tion) for his book, Churchill, Hitler and the Unnec­es­sary WarHe has a real tick about Sir Win­ston, and I knew his book would be crit­i­cal. But he’s such a charm­ing gent that it was fun to cor­re­spond. We became friends, dis­agree­ing utter­ly. We exchanged books with lit­tle digs at each oth­er in the inscriptions.

I too wrote a book about the com­ing of World War II, Churchill and the Avoid­able War. Of course I sent one to Pat, say­ing I mar­shaled more facts in 94 pages than he did in 546. As Churchill said of Stan­ley Bald­win, “Occa­sion­al­ly he stum­bled over the truth, but hasti­ly picked him­self up and hur­ried on as if noth­ing had happened.”

Pat’s case was that World War II would have been unnec­es­sary if nobody lis­tened to Churchill—ever. Heck, even World War I might have been dodged (and Nazism and com­mu­nism with it), if Churchill wasn’t around to play the war­mon­ger in 1914.

 

Warmonger Winston

Here is the par­tial quote used  to label Churchill a war­mon­ger. It’s from a let­ter to his wife on 4 August 1914: “Every­thing tends towards cat­a­stro­phe & col­lapse. I am inter­est­ed, geared-up & happy….”

But the rest of that para­graph (which Pat omits) casts an entire­ly dif­fer­ent light: 

…Is it not hor­ri­ble to be built like that? The prepa­ra­tions have a hideous fas­ci­na­tion for me. I pray to God to for­give me for such fear­ful moods of lev­i­ty. Yet I would do my best for peace, and noth­ing would induce me wrong­ful­ly to strike the blow.

The admirable his­to­ri­an Max Hast­ings, in his com­pre­hen­sive account, Cat­a­stro­phe 1914, is sad­ly on Buchanan’s side. And Hast­ings adds anoth­er red her­ring. “Churchill,” he writes, “adopt­ed a shame­less­ly cyn­i­cal view….‘if war was inevitable this was by far the most favourable oppor­tu­ni­ty and the only one that would bring France, Rus­sia and our­selves together….’”

warmonger
Beaver­brook with Churchill, en route to Amer­i­ca, Decem­ber 1941. (UPI)

But that remark is not from 1914. It’s from a 1925 let­ter from Churchill to Lord Beaver­brook, com­ment­ing on Beaverbrook’s war memoirs—and Hast­ings omits the rest of it:

I should not like that put in a way that would sug­gest I wished for war and was glad when the deci­sive steps were tak­en. I was only glad that they were tak­en in cir­cum­stances so favourable.

Delet­ing this casts Churchill in a very dif­fer­ent posi­tion than the one he actu­al­ly took.

Not Warmonger but Peacemaker

In real­i­ty Churchill tried to save the peace. He did two things. First, in 1912, he pro­posed a “Hol­i­day” in British and Ger­man bat­tle­ship con­struc­tion. This was greet­ed with deri­sion by Kaiser Wil­helm and his naval chief, Admi­ral von Tir­pitz, who were bent on chal­leng­ing the Roy­al Navy.

The sec­ond was his last-ditch pro­pos­al for what could have been the world’s first sum­mit con­fer­ence. “I won­dered,” he wrote his wife in late July,

whether those stu­pid Kings and Emper­ors could not assem­ble togeth­er and reviv­i­fy king­ship by sav­ing the nations from hell but we all drift on in a kind of dull catalep­tic trance. As if it was some­body else’s operation!

He pro­posed this in cab­i­net and the idea actu­al­ly reached Berlin. The Ger­mans reject­ed it, say­ing it would amount to “a court of arbitration.”

warmonger
Bar­gain­ing on Navies, in Punch, 19 Feb­ru­ary 1913. Churchill: “What price Ger­man Navy?” Tir­pitz: “Give you 8 to 5.” Churchill: “I want 2 to 1.” Tir­pitz: “Well, I’ll make it 16 to 10.” Churchill: “Right, I’ll take you.”

Yet we still have these skewed pic­tures of Churchill in 1914, spread by every­one from pun­dits to sea­soned his­to­ri­ans. The truth is that Churchill strove longer and hard­er than any British states­man to pre­vent war, which he hat­ed and feared all his life.

N.B.: Time pre­vent­ed com­plete doc­u­men­ta­tion of Churchill’s efforts to pre­serve the peace in this speech. They may be read and con­sid­ered in full, with exten­sive end­notes, in Win­ston Churchill, Myth and Reality.

Between the Wars…

More Churchill fables pile up between the wars. Churchill was an alco­holic. He flip-flopped over Bol­she­vism. All Jews, he wrote, were com­mu­nists. He hat­ed Gand­hi. A clos­et fas­cist, he fan­cied Mus­soli­ni. But no tall tale is quite so per­ni­cious as the idea, main­tained now for two decades, that Churchill admired Hitler.

Con­tin­ued in Part 5Win­ston Churchill, Myth and Real­i­ty is now avail­able in paper­back, with a low­er price for the Kin­dle edi­tion.  Click here.

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