Part 3 “Cureless Folly Done and Said…”: Why Churchill was Downcast
What is the scene which unfolds before us tonight? It is certainly not what we had hoped to find after all our enemies had surrendered unconditionally and the great world instrument of the United Nations had been set up to make sure that the wars were ended. It is certainly not that. Peace does not sit untroubled in her vineyard. —Churchill on 14 January 1952, Chateau Laurier, Ottawa
Toward the end of his life, the old lion who had had implored, “never despair,” was himself gripped by melancholy. His despondence has been noted in varying degrees by critics and champions, historians and pyschoanalysts, family and contemporaries. What was at the root of it?
For twenty years beginning 1983 I had the privilege of several long visits with Sir Anthony Montague Browne, Churchill’s last private secretary, and we often pondered Sir Winston’s late-life despondency. “He’d made a deep study of history, and he had an extreme sensitivity to the winds and crosscurrents of world situations,” Anthony reflected…
…I think that towards the end of his life this prophetic power was an unhappiness to him. He saw all too clearly what was happening to the civilised world, and to the stern values that stand out so clearly in his life’s work….He used to quote this sad verse of Housman‘s: “Cureless folly done and said, and the lovely way that led, to the slime pit and the mire, and the everlasting fire.”
I tried to rally him. I spoke of the extraordinary life he had enjoyed, culminating in the fact that at the end, with all he had said and done, he was almost universally popular and admired. When he went to make the Charlemagne Prize speech in Germany in 1956, as he drove through the streets of Aachen and Bonn, he was cheered. It astonished him. After all, it was not very long after the end of the war. I referred to his Nobel Prize in Literature, the vast scope of his activities. How, I concluded, could he be so downcast, when he had achieved so much?
I noted his reply verbatim, and he said the same thing on other occasions: “Yes, I worked very hard all my life, and I have achieved a great deal—in the end to achieve nothing.”
As we talked I offered Anthony two reasons, from a perspective much inferior to his, why I thought Churchill took this view. The first was the realization, probably as early as the Teheran Conference, that he had fought down one monster only to create another, and that the settled peace he had striven for had never materialized. The second was the continued inability of the English-Speaking Peoples to forge the close relationship on which he had placed so much hope.
Anthony’s reply came in a speech he made at a dinner in his honor in 1985:
I think that is a very incisive view. I do indeed believe that the lack of true cooperation between the three great powers had been a terrible and increasing disappointment to him, going back as far as Teheran and Yalta. I was not with him at that time, but this is certainly the impression he gave me in his later years. I do not think in his heart of hearts that he ever expected anything very different from the Soviet Union, though he had hopes—dismally unfulfilled—of a change of heart after victory. But the euphoria of the early relationship with President Roosevelt during the first years of the war was gradually to die away, as the American administration believed that it could do business with “Uncle Joe.” Some business.
The so-called “special relationship” with the United States was largely of British making, and something of an illusion even from the very start. It was not for nothing that Winston Churchill called the last volume of his war memoirs Triumph and Tragedy.
I have the greatest respect for Anthony’s opinions from so unique a vantage point, and I have quoted these words often. But in considering Churchill’s views on the great issues of peace and war, it is always appropriate to have his thoughts on record.
Sir Anthony Montague Browne KCMG CBE DFC (1923-2013) was an RAF fighter pilot and a diplomat who gave up a promising Foreign Office career to serve as Churchill’s private secretary from 1952 to 1965. His essential and poignant memoir, Long Sunset, is available in various formats from Amazon.