“Churchill Defiant”: 2010 Churchill Book of the Year

by Richard 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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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

GILBERT February 4, 2011 at 10:13

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 .

Alec Rogers January 25, 2011 at 11:57


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

Richard M. Langworth January 18, 2011 at 17:21

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

John Julius Norwich January 18, 2011 at 12:42

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.

gilbert January 13, 2011 at 13:42

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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