“Churchill Defiant,” by Barbara Leaming: Still the Best on Churchill Postwar

“Churchill Defiant,” by Barbara Leaming: Still the Best on Churchill Postwar

Barbara Leaming: “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.” —Win­ston S. Churchill, Marl­bor­ough: His Life and Times, 1936, Book Two.

A decade on, still a book to read

LeamingRead­ers some­times ask for the best books to read on Churchill’s career after the Sec­ond World War. The Hills­dale Churchill Col­lege Churchill Project names three spe­cial­ized stud­ies. (Which is not to for­get the fine post­war cov­er­age in the great biogra­phies by Mar­tin Gilbert, Andrew Roberts and sev­er­al oth­ers.) The best of the spe­cial­ized works is over a decade old now. But it’s still hard to improve upon.

On the sur­face, Bar­bara Leaming’s book on Churchill’s last ten years of active pol­i­tics is “pop­u­lar his­to­ry.” It runs only 300 pages, tend­ing to sub­sti­tute para­phras­es for lengthy quotes. It car­ries 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 a unique dimen­sion that places her book well above the long array of pot­boil­er biogra­phies. Real­ly, Churchill Defi­ant is the most impor­tant sur­vey of Churchill’s last active decade since Antho­ny Seldon’s Churchill’s Indi­an Sum­mer 40 years ago. And maybe the best yet. It is par­tic­u­lar­ly valu­able to young peo­ple or oth­ers new to Churchill in its keen insight to his life­long defi­ance of long odds and for­mi­da­ble foes.

Why did he carry on?

Describ­ing his last polit­i­cal decade, Leam­ing takes the mea­sure of Churchill’s past expe­ri­ence. For exam­ple, she spots some­thing he wrote about gift­ed peo­ple in 1937: “One may say that 60, per­haps 70 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.”

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.”

The Leaming touch

Leam­ing relies heav­i­ly on diaries and mem­oirs of the pri­ma­ry play­ers (but is care­ful­ly cir­cum­spect about the views of Churchill’s doc­tor Lord Moran). She con­structs an intense­ly per­son­al por­tray­al of Churchill, his 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 mixed views of Ike as Pres­i­dent. Churchill deemed him short on vision, stag­nant in think­ing, and sub­servient to Sec­re­tary of State John Fos­ter Dulles, “whose breath stank and whose left eye twitched inces­sant­ly and dis­con­cert­ing­ly.” Eisen­how­er sent Dulles at reg­u­lar inter­vals “to try to turn Churchill from his purpose.”

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

Perception and understanding

Leaming’s insight is extra­or­di­nary. Why, for exam­ple, did Tru­man invite Churchill to Ful­ton for what became known as the “Iron Cur­tain Speech“?  Wasn’t Tru­man was seek­ing to avoid con­fronta­tion with Moscow? “At a time when Tru­man had yet to emerge from Roosevelt’s shad­ow,” Leam­ing observes, “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—better indeed than by some of her recent biog­ra­phers. 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. She responds angri­ly when out­siders urge 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 familiars

Churchill’s Tory col­leagues do not show well in 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. But he urged 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.

Bet­ter than any­one, Leam­ing shows the degree of sep­a­ra­tion between WSC and Eden. Recall Churchill’s 1936 remark when Eden became for­eign sec­re­tary: “I think you will now see what a light­weight 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 resigned soon after Eisen­how­er refused to back his march on Suez in 1956. “He 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)

Unspecial relationships

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. 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 retire with all the res­o­lu­tion of his joust with Hitler. And 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 in Hamil­ton, Eisen­how­er replied, “I don’t know. Mine is with a whisky and soda.”)

Honour and good sense

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 by Churchill or oth­er 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 in his char­ac­ter; so did 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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