“Churchill Defiant”: 2010 Churchill Book of the Year

“Churchill Defiant”: 2010 Churchill Book of the Year

“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.”

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)

5 thoughts on ““Churchill Defiant”: 2010 Churchill Book of the Year

  1. after read­ing it and re read­ing i think its less good than i thought first . but very good nev­er­the­less. too much empha­sis on churchill health .

  2. Richard,

    Thanks for your com­pre­hen­sive review. I was look­ing to learn more about Churchill’s post war career, but the mixed reviews regard­ing Ms. Leaming’s JFK book gave me pause.

    Need­less to say your endorse­ment puts it near thev­ery top of the read­ing list.

    Alec Rogers

  3. I for­ward­ed your kind com­ment to Ms. Leam­ing. I see so many spu­ri­ous and over­rat­ed books about Church­ll that when one like hers comes along, I like to celebrate. 

    N.B. Lord Nor­wich is the son of two bril­liant lights of the Churchill era, Duff and Diana Coop­er, a daz­zling cou­ple who were them­selves fine writ­ers. His edi­tion of Duff’s Diaries is on my library shelf, along­side Artemis Cooper’s edi­tion of their let­ters (A Durable Fire) and their own memoirs.

    Lady Diana Cooper’s won­der­ful trib­ute to Lady Churchill, which first appeared in The Atlantic in 1965, was unknown to Lord Nor­wich when he gave per­mis­sion to reprint it in Finest Hour in 1994. A .pdf, just read­able, can be found at: http://xrl.us/bie8js

  4. I knew Win­ston Churchill in his last years – as well as a cal­low 18-year-old can know a great man and world leader more than half a cen­tu­ry old­er; and I am astound­ed at Bar­bara Leaming’s almost uncan­ny per­cep­tion of the work­ings of his mind.

  5. This is a book to own, then. Many writ­ers have entered the Churchill field; only a few, like Gilbert, Rams­den, Reynold­son and Geof­frey Best may be called “mae­stro.” And now Ms. Leaming.

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