The Last Lion — Winston Spencer Churchill by William Manchester (3 volumes)

It is fitting that my first book review be on the greatest author-statesmen of the 20th Century. The breadth and depth of WSC’s accomplishments is truly awe inspiring: the amount of material written on Churchill is a testament to that fact. From his record as a war hero in the Boer war, his (politically tragic) involvement in the Great War, his involvement in Middle Eastern politics in the 1920s, his lonely protestations against His Majesty’s Government (HMG) policy toward Germany in the 1930s, to his monumental leadership in WWII, each chapter in his life is worthy of a book on its own. Lucky for us then, that Churchill wrote many a volume on the various chapters of his life. Churchill himself may have contributed the best argument to history as to his greatness through his own written word. His writings covered everything from his early life, his military career, countless essays and articles on various subjects for magazines and journals, a comprehensive history of World War I and World War II, to a history of English speaking peoples. He even wrote multivolume histories of his father and Marlborough. Add to that his voluminous correspondence with his mother, then his wife and other family members and coworkers, and his countless speeches in Parliament and on the campaign trail, Churchill’s is a mind we know well. William Manchester and Paul Reid have nicely tied all of this together in the magesterial and massively entertaining three volume biography.

His outlook was one forged in a tough upbringing both in childhood and in politics. Though never materially austere— Churchill’s world was a gilded one to be sure — his life experience taught him quite young that getting by requires a hefty dose of will. Beyond that, success would require even something extra.

Neglected by both of his parents from an early age, his was an unhappy childhood. Although his father groomed him for a career in the military due to his youthful war gaming, the first thing he was ever great at was writing. So he ran with it, planning to start a political career by first getting himself in the front lines of the colonial wars of the day, then writing about it for any publication that would print what he had to say. It is obvious that he had mastered his English early, for even his first publications lack none of the literary and inspiring prose that was so well known in his later books and wartime speeches.

It is easy to look back on the time in which Churchill began his life with envy, simply because he was born into an age in which men were obligated to take time to elucidate their thoughts in writing for even the most routine communications. Thus, he was raised from an early age to distill his thoughts into coherent patterns that would eventually turn into a lightning sharp wit. He also was fond of great dinner conversations, and later in his life, of monologue. Dinners with Churchill nearly always included discussions and lectures on politics and history. This is something that is sorely lacking in today’s world of Facebook statuses, TV dinners, and one or two line emails. Correspondence and dialogue are lost arts.

Churchill ended his military career and entered parliament in 1900. He quickly rose to the cabinet post of undersecretary of state for the colonies in 1904. However, he rose to an even more prominent role in the eyes of Britons for his role in the Dardanelles campaign as First Lord of the Admiralty. His original plan was to bring Turkey to its knees by taking the Straits of the Dardanelles, thus cutting Istanbul off from their lifeline of commerce, the Mediterranean. Churchill proposed to take the straits through naval gunfire alone, but when the naval bombardment was called off (tragically, historians later found out that this call was made just before the Turks gave in and surrendered the city), a land invasion was settled on as the only remaining option. The land invasion was an even bigger quagmire, culminating in a humiliating withdrawal, and resulting in the eventual deaths of 53,000 English and French soldiers.

Churchill has been vindicated by history, but the public believed at the time that the whole campaign was his idea and was carried out at his behest. In fact, as Manchester explains, the idea was not necessarily his alone. He argued vehemently against the land campaign and was the only member of the Government who knew how close to success the original naval bombardment had been. It was simply a matter of political expedience for the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith to stick him with responsibility for the failure. It was to be his first major political stumble, a catastrophe that would have ended the career of a less talented politician.

Churchill was forced to leave the Admiralty and vacate his seat in Parliament for the time being. He used his time off to spend time on the front lines in France commanding troops, adopting the headgear of a French infantry man, causing the rank and file to view him with a skeptical eye. He also learned to fly airplanes, an unimaginably dangerous activity for an MP at the time.

But it wasn’t long before he was back in Parliament, becoming Minister of War for Munitions in July of 1917. His spectacularly effective work in this post was seen far and wide as a boon for the troops at the front. Later in the war, he also became Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air. After the war had ended, he turned his attention to less thrilling, though no less important work. His work on the Cairo conference of 1921 is still heavily discussed for its role in shaping the reality we face in the Middle East today.

In 1924, Churchill bolted to the Conservative party (he left the Tories in 1904 for the Liberal party. He later quipped “Anyone can rat. It takes real ingenuity to re-rat.”) and secured the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was during these years in the 1920s that he enjoyed his greatest successes to date. His yearly speeches introducing the budget were looked forward to and highly regarded by all. he also brought the country back to the gold standard, a decision that many argue brought on the general strike of 1926, among other general forms of economic malaise. He later came to regard it as one of his greatest mistakes.

However, it was his reaction to the strike that produced one of his finest hours before 1940. He relished the kind of political combat that the strike engendered. He commandeered the facilities of a local London newpspaper and began printing government propaganda to undercut the strikers. He also enjoined middle and upper class citizens to volunteer to fill the jobs the strikers had left. Eventually the strike was broken.

Early in the 1930s, he broke with his party over tariff issues and the India question. He was a firm believer that it was better for India to remain a protectorate of the Crown. Though his predictions of bloody civil war between Muslims and Hindus came true, he was in the end standing on the wrong side of history. It was during these middle years of the 1930s that his courage and tenacity were on full display for future generations. He was relegated to a minor status among his party, lost a fortune in the stock market crash of 1929, and was even hit by a car, an accident from which he was lucky to escape alive.

Although he remained an MP, he was no longer a cabinet Minister. Churchill used the spare time he found to lay bricks and beautify Chartwell, his country estate in Kent. He also painted and wrote, finishing his work on the Great War. Various magazines and newspapers carried his work, his primary way of supporting himself after losing so much in the stock market. Most importantly, however, Churchill was among the first to track with suspicious eyes the meteoric rise of Adolf Hitler.

Recognizing the existential threat that Hitler posed to European peace, he immediately became a one-man opposition in a Parliament rife with appeasers. The establishment was supported by a populace that was still suffering from war-weariness more than a decade after Versailles. In the face of such staunch opposition, he stood firm in his belief that something terrible was brewing. He expanded his knowledge of the German military build up and British unpreparedness by networking with people in the know as well as by gaining access to confidential government documents on the subject. Thus he saw that HMG was selling a message to the public that was at best stretching the truth to fit the popular isolationist fervor of the day.

Slowly, throughout the 1930s (despite major setbacks like the succession crisis of 1936), Churchill collected allies. The Sudetenland Crisis and The Munich Agreement further accelerated this trend. By 1939 Churchill’s political stock was reaching new heights. Neville Chamberlain, the current PM refused to abandon his stubborn dedication to the appeasement policy until the very end.

By the time he succeeded to the premiership in 1940 at the head of a coalition governement, Churchill’s popularity was unassailable. Not for nothing: the country found itself in as deep a quagmire as any it had faced before.

Churchill did not shy away from his burden in any way, calling the dark days of 1940, when Nazi invasion was thought to be nigh and Britain stood alone amongst the democracies against Hitler, his country’s “finest hour.” Churchill’s wartime speeches are simply extensions of the tenacity he had forged in himself during the political trials of his already long tenure in Parliament. This was perhaps his greatest quality: his dogged determination to “never, never, never give up,” despite overwhelming odds. It was the exact quality of leadership the country and world needed at that moment. He implored the entire British nation to “…defend our island, whatever the cost may be,” commanding (or warning) all who listened that

“we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

When asked late in life what year of his life he would relive if given the choice, he replied without hesitation, “1940. 1940 every time.”

After the Battle of Britain guaranteed that no Nazi invasion of Britain was forthcoming (Hitler had postponed the invasion indefinitely sometime in September), Churchill turned himself to the task of enlisting American help in the war effort. In the meantime, the news that Hitler had invaded Russia despite the pact between Germany and the Soviets was welcome news. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on the United States, Churchill knew that although many many trials lay ahead (the first half of 1942 being particularly difficult), it was only a matter of time before the Nazi regime succumbed.

There are so many ways in which decisions made by Churchill during the war contributed to the makeup of the world today. There are far too many to recount here in toto, but most important of them as 1942 drew to a close was his efforts to contain the Soviet Union, an effort in which he was not reinforced by American President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The lack of prior coordination between the British and Americans (at FDR’s behest) at the Tehran and Yalta conferences, combined with Eisenhower’s tremendously damaging “broad front” strategy in Europe after D-Day all but ensured that the Soviets would come to politically dominate any areas that they liberated from the Germans.

When World War II came to an end, it was obvious that Britain and the rest of the free world had no one to thank more so than Churchill. But the political winds were not in his favor, for shortly after the war ended, a general election was called and the Labour party took control of Parliament. Churchill was out.

Churchill used his time as leader of the opposition to write his war memoirs, and finish his History of the English Speaking Peoples. He consolidated his finances and ensured that he would have a secure retirement. But he yearned to return to power, to end his career by resigning instead of being voted out.

In 1951, he got his wish. Although he could have crusaded to undo the changes the Labour party had wrought since taking power, he instead focused on foreign affairs. His last fight was to be to secure a summit meeting between Britain, the U.S., and the U.S.S.R. He hoped that throught high-level talks nuclear war could be definitively avoided.

Alas, it was not to be. Although on the domestic front, important housing and mining legislation was passed, his primary goal of securing talks was not to be. His health declining, he resigned in 1955.

It has been nearly 50 years since Winston Churchill died. And yet, the final volume of this magesterial 3 volume work, published in 2012, still ranks at #30 on amazon’s list of best-selling presidential and heads of state biographies (although as PM, neither of these descriptions is apt). Just what is it about this character that continues to fascinate us to this day? It certainly must be more than the fact that he was the Prime Minister of Britain during World War II. This would make him notable but not necessarily beloved.

Part of it must certainly be his vivacious love of life. He was a man who seized life despite all the negative he got. Parental neglect from an early age, innumerable setbacks as a politician, taking the reigns of power when the fall of Britain seemed inevitable… The list could go on for quite a while. None were ever enough to douse his flame of vivacity. He continued to push through, to stubbornly seize opportunities despite the hand he was dealt.

In an even more important sense, Winston Churchill was one of those rare people in whom both history and personality culminated. He provided the resolve and exhibited the indefatigable tenacity that his country and the world required at that singular moment. The dark days of 1940 when England stood alone against the German juggernaut was the exact kind of environment in which he flourished, and for which he had prepared all his life. We are very fortunate that this man was who he was. For this alone allowed him to do what he did.

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