Lynne Olson, a former Moscow correspondent for the Associated Press and White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, is the author of Citizens of London, Troublesome Young Men, Freedom’s Daughters and co-author, with her husband, Stanley Cloud, of A Question of Honor and The Murrow Boys. She lives in Washington, D.C.
British historian Max Hastings has entered a very crowded field with Winston’s War, his new book about Winston Churchill’s direction of the British effort in World War II. Hastings, the author of the acclaimed military histories Armageddon and Retribution, readily acknowledges the problem, noting that no human being has been written about more than Churchill. Yet he accomplishes what he has set out to do--provide an insightful, compelling portrait of the political outcast who came to power at the gravest moment in his country’s history and, over the course of a desperate summer, rallied the British to stand alone against Hitler.
Hastings is clear-eyed about Churchill’s not inconsiderable shortcomings as a warlord, including a penchant for rash, ill-thought-out raids and other military operations "more appropriate to a Victorian cavalry subaltern than to the director of a vast industrial war effort." Yet, as he points out, that same capacity for boldness enabled Churchill--one of the few British prime ministers ever to have fought in a war himself--to spur into action not only his demoralized countrymen but also Britain’s sclerotic military establishment, whose fortress mentality was the bane of his wartime existence.
Equally important was Churchill’s assiduous courtship of the American people and their president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the prime minister’s relationship with Roosevelt was never as close as Churchill later claimed, he exerted a sizable influence on FDR’s decisionmaking early in the war, including the critical decision to launch a 1942 invasion of North Africa, rather than the premature assault on France that the U.S. military brass had been urging--an attack that almost certainly would have ended in disaster.
In the last two years of the conflict, however, the prime minister’s influence in Washington waned dramatically. To his considerable pain and alarm, Roosevelt paid far more heed to the wishes and demands of Stalin and the Soviets than to Churchill and the British, who now were consigned to junior partnership in the Grand Alliance. Yet Hastings makes a convincing case that Churchill’s still-commanding stature in the United States helped maintain Britain’s status as a key, if diminished, player during the war’s endgame--a time when this exhausted country could easily have been pushed into the shadows as "a backwater, supply center and aircraft carrier for American-led armies in Europe."
Above all, though, Churchill will be remembered for his clarion calls of defiance and hope in the summer of 1940, almost singlehandedly changing the mood of his nation and rousing the British to fight on in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. "Gradually we came under the spell of that wonderful voice and inspiration," one London woman later wrote. "His stature grew larger and larger, until it filled our sky."(Photo © Stanley Cloud)
Max Hastings on Winston's War
Why another Churchill book? We have been told more about him than any other human being. Most of my own research for this book has been done not in the Churchill papers, gutted by historians, but among military and civilian diaries, newspaper files, British, American and Russian records. What I have tried to do is to portray the story of Churchill at war in the context of his relationships with the British and American peoples, the armed forces, the Russians. All these were more complex than is sometimes acknowledged.
It is easy to identify his strategic errors and misplaced enthusiasms. Yet the outcome justified all. The defining fact of Churchill’s leadership was Britain’s emergence from the war among the victors. No warlord, no commander, in history has failed to make mistakes. It is as easy to catalogue the errors of Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon as those of Churchill. He towers over the war, standing higher than any other single human being at the head of the forces of light. Without him, Britain’s part would have seemed pretty small by VE-Day. Russia and the United States had played the dominant parts. No honourable course of action existed which could have averted his nation’s bankruptcy and exhaustion in 1945, its eclipse from world power.
Churchill did not command the confidence of all the British people all of the time. But his rhetoric empowered millions to look beyond the havoc of the battlefield, the squalor of their circumstances amid privation and bombardment, and to perceive a higher purpose in their struggles and sacrifices. This was, of course, of greater importance in 1940-41 than later, when the allies could commit superior masses of men and material to securing victory. But Churchill’s words remain a lasting force in causing the struggle against Hitler to be perceived by posterity as ‘the good war’.
He cherished aspirations which often proved greater than his nation was capable of fulfilling, which is one of my central themes. But it is inconsistent to applaud his defiance of reason in insisting that Britain must fight on in June 1940, and denounce the extravagance of his later demands upon its people and armed forces. Service chiefs often deplored his misjudgements and intemperance. Yet his instinct for war was much more highly developed than their own.
History must take Churchill as a whole, as his wartime countrymen were obliged to do, rather than employ a spoke shave to strip away the blemishes created by his lunges into excess and folly, which were real enough. If the governance of nations in peace is best conducted by reasonable men, in war there is a powerful argument for leadership by those sometimes willing to adopt courses beyond the boundaries of reason, as Churchill did in 1940-41. His foremost quality was strength of will. This was so fundamental to his triumph in the early war years, that it seems absurd to suggest that he should have become more biddable, merely because in 1943-45 his stubbornness was sometimes deployed in support of misjudged purposes.
As he left Chequers for the last time in July 1945, he wrote in its visitor’s book: ‘FINIS.’ Three weeks later, on 15 August, Japan’s surrender brought an end to the Second World War. Churchill was among the greatest actors upon the stage of affairs the world has ever known. Familiarity with his speeches, conversation and the fabulous anecdotage about his wartime doings, does nothing to diminish our capacity to be moved to awe, tears, laughter by the sustained magnificence of his performance. He has become today a shared British and American legend. If his leadership was imperfect, no other British ruler in history has matched his achievement nor, please God, is ever likely to find himself in circumstances to surpass it.
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
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