Built at the beginning of the 18th century, with 187 rooms on 2,000 acres, Blenheim, the home of the dukes of Marlborough, is the only non-royal, non-episcopal palace in England. It would be nice if we could say Winston Churchill’s birth there is all you need to know about him, but like all beginnings, no matter how auspicious, it is only part of the story.
Churchill’s famous lineage did partly guide his career, as Andrew Roberts illustrates in his fine recent biography, “Churchill: Walking with Destiny.” Yet Churchill had no title – his father was the duke’s third son – and had to work for a living, churning out dozens of articles and 30 books while serving as a member of Parliament and a cabinet minister.
What makes his story compelling is the distance he traveled from his class as a war leader and in politics. He was mercurial in both, a compulsive risk-taker, and often far from the conservative bulldog of satire. Any account of Churchill’s life must lead to his role in the second World War, but it is the measure of Roberts’ book that it is freshly informative and corrective long before then.
By the time of the first World War, Churchill was first lord of the admiralty, where he urged the forcing of the Turkish straits that ended with the slaughter of allied soldiers at Gallipoli in 1915. (The biggest blunder of his life, however, he later concluded, was taking Britain back to the gold standard, in 1925.) Forced from office, he returned to the army as an officer on the Western Front, exposing himself to danger again and again. “He was like a baby elephant out in no-man’s land at night,” one of his junior officers recalled.
Yet Churchill, who loved war like champagne, was eager to get back to the planning center of events, in London, something he contemplated in the spring of 1916. He wrote often from the front to his wife, Clementine, who in return gave him some of the best advice he ever got, Roberts says.
“You are in an honorable, comprehensible position until such time as a portion of the country demand your services for the state,” Clementine wrote. “If you come back before the call, you may blunt yourself ... For once only I pray be patient ... You are always an interesting figure, be a great one my darling.”
He returns unscathed. Germany is defeated, and devastated, as is victorious, wearied England, having lost a good part of its promising youth. Churchill is already focused on fighting the next enemy, Russia.
In 1954, speaking at the National Press Club in D.C., he said, “If I had been properly supported in 1919, I think we might have strangled Bolshevism in its cradle, but everybody turned up their hands and said, ‘How shocking!’”
It was also in 1919, upon the suggestion that Russia be invited to international talks, that Churchill said, “One might as well legalize sodomy.”
The commoner and prime minister David Lloyd George, Churchill’s benefactor, would later remark that Churchill’s attitude toward communism was prejudiced owing to his aristocratic blood. “Yet that background,” Roberts writes, “had not prevented him from leaving the [conservative] Tory Party ... haranguing the House of Lords and supporting death duties, land taxes and Irish Home Rule.” He might have added unemployment insurance, prison reform and daylight saving time.
Churchill’s extravagances in his anti-Communism undermined “the very accurate predictions he made about the vast numbers of Russians that the Bolsheviks would kill,” Roberts notes. Churchill was right about Communism, which was ultimately responsible for around 100 million deaths in the 20th century, and “simply continuing to speak the uncomfortable truth about this deadly totalitarian ideology” prepared him well for the 1930s, Roberts says, “when he did the same thing for Bolshevism’s sister-creed, Nazism.” The extravagances would be flung in his face when he allied England with Russia in 1941, “but he did not rescind a word.”
Neither religious nor ideological, Churchill believed in the British Empire and the destiny of the English-speaking peoples, ideas that seem chauvinistic and futile today, but in his times were mild. What may be more notable about his beliefs is that he was a font of ideas who had practically no gap between thought and deed. He was an impossible subordinate. Neville Chamberlain, his rival for power, was not alone in thinking Churchill undependable – but consider the source.
Revisionism has come for Churchill as it must for us all if we have any distinction. It is not unusual to hear today that he was a racist and a colonial and class oppressor. Some of the sins attributed to him are those of the British Empire. Most unrolled before Churchill was born. Instead, he lived through its unraveling – and did with great regret.
After Gary Oldman won the Oscar for best actor last year, for his Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” Shashi Tharoor, author of “Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India,” wrote for The Washington Post under the headline: “Hollywood rewards a mass murderer.”
Churchill wanted to use “chemical weapons” against natives in India, Tharoor said, citing remarks about Iraq in 1919, as Roberts shows, that referred to the use of tear gas. Tharoor said that Churchill wished to bomb Irish protesters in 1920; Churchill was referring to the dispersal of Irish Republican Army soldiers, Roberts notes, after the IRA had committed 67 attacks that year.
The most common charge leveled against Churchill is that he was a warmonger, but this is imprecise. When war came, as it did with both world wars, while his colleagues glumly fretted, Churchill had a manic glee – and it may be this peculiar quality that saved his island nation.
On the many other charges, he was in some ways no more than the product of his time and place. Yet if that were all of him, there would have been 10,000 of him. As Andrew Roberts shows beautifully, there was really just the one.