Awk! After the umpteenth article on Churchill’s Fatal Flaws,* citing old chestnuts long disproven (poison gas, Bengal Famine, opposing all self-determination, consistent hostility to Gandhi), I began to wonder: Don’t these writers ever do research?
Throughout the 2015 Churchill death commemoration we’ve read: Well, yes, he saved the West—but he was human and he made mistakes (duh!). Why, he even said things that would shock us in our modern enlightened age: this age of beheadings and massacres and and drone strikes and burning people alive—so far removed from the bad old days of the Pax Britannica.
Well, just so the scoffers have something to talk about, here are twenty really serious Churchill misjudgments—five during his finest hours—which got him or the world into trouble—and reliably prove that he was not infallible:
1) 1904: Deserting his natural home, the Conservative Party, for political advantage, only to be forced back to them later, being ever after regarded by both Liberals and Conservatives as a turncoat.
2) 1915: Championing the Dardanelles and Gallipoli operations despite sloppy planning and worse execution by military commanders, without plenary authority to force a chance of success.
3) 1915: Relying too much on the mercurial, disloyal, hypocritical Admiral Fisher, who brought about his (temporary) political demise. (“In war you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times.”)
4) 1921: Failing to press his demands for Kurdish and Jewish states while in Cairo helping to draw up the borders of the modern Middle East.
5) 1925: Restoring the Gold Standard without commensurate reforms in employment, tax and wage policies.
7) 1930s: Wasting political capital opposing the India Bill, which had thumping majorities in all parties. (Of course it can be said that devotion to principle is not a fault.)
8) 1934: Trying to skewer Sir Samuel Hoare on an issue of Privilege (immunity from prosecution) for attempting to influence legislation, when Hoare’s Conservative friends could stack the deck to protect him despite his guilt.
9) 1935-37: Listening to the Foreign Office, which insisted he tone down his rhetoric and give Hitler the benefit of the doubt in his articles and books.
10) 1936: Muting his opposition to Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland, in the hope of gaining political office.
11) 1936: Standing up too long for Edward VIII in the Abdication Crisis, long after the King had lost the right to support from anybody.
12) 1940: Miscalculation during the Norway campaign of April 1940, although some of this was owed to Cabinet dithering.
13) 1940: Placing too much faith in the French Army.
14) 1940: Accepting leadership of the Conservative Party, instead of remaining a non-party leader at the head of the wartime coalition.
15) 1940: Confusing Blitzkreig with the static warfare of World War I.
16) 1941-42: Stressing Singapore’s seaward defenses, and believing that capital ships were largely immune from hostile aircraft.
17) 1941-45: Believing he could trust Stalin.
18) 1945: Comparing Attlee and the Labour Party to “a kind of Gestapo” in the General Election.
19) 1953: Believing that his brand of personal diplomacy would make a difference Cold War relations after Stalin’s death.
20) 1956: Not interceding more forcefully to resolve the Anglo-American split during the Suez Crisis.
Not everyone buys everything on this list; there are contrary arguments on some items, especially 1, 9, 10, 14, 17 and 19.
But Churchill himself considered many criticisms valid: 2) “…a supreme enterprise was cast away, through my trying to carry out a major and cardinal operation of war from a subordinate position” (Their Finest Hour, chapter 1, 1949).
5) “Everybody said that I was the worst Chancellor of the Exchequer that ever was. And now I’m inclined to agree with them” (1930).
11) “I’m glad I was wrong” (1953).
13/15) “I was shocked by the utter failure to grapple with the German armour, which, with a few thousand vehicles, was encompassing the entire destruction of mighty armies” (Their Finest Hour, chapter 3, 1949.)
16: “The efficiency of the Japanese in air warfare was at this time greatly underestimated both by ourselves and by the Americans” (The Grand Alliance, chapter 12, 1948).
All these judgments, or misjudgments—unlike the disproven canards ignorant critics constantly trot out—are worthy of consideration. They remind us that Churchill’s faults were, like his virtues, on a grand scale—but that the latter outweighed the former.
In the words of Professor Paul Addison, whom I never cease quoting: “I always feel that, paradoxically, it diminishes Churchill when he’s regarded as super-human.”
*No sooner was the linked article out than the Washington Post chimed in.