Paul Johnson's Churchill.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 29 2009 6:35 AM

How Heroic Was Churchill?

Paul Johnson distills lessons from his life.

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In his 166 pages, Johnson gives us what amounts to an elegant survey with a maxim-filled epilogue: in essence, the best possible dinner conversation about Churchill one could ever have with a gifted interlocutor, followed by what PowerPointers might think of as "take-away points." The book's most original offering is—in characteristically vivid prose and a consistent intelligence and urbanity—Johnson's distillation of life lessons from Churchill's storied career. This is biography as commencement speech—think highbrow how-to. (Examples of didactic wisdom: "always aim high"; "there is no substitute for hard work.")

I was disappointed that Johnson, one of the world's greatest living historians, did not at least briefly give us his view of the competing camps of Churchill scholarship. There are the Manchesterians, those historians and biographers who, following in William Manchester's footsteps, see Churchill as the savior of liberty, the fabled Last Lion. Then there is the Charmleyite school of pro-imperial revisionists, named after John Charmley, who essentially believe that Churchill made the wrong bet by banking on a special relationship with the Americans. The price of the wartime alliance—the Charmleyites would say wartime bondage—was the empire and a stronger British hand in devising and executing policy toward the Soviet Union.

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And there is Pat Buchanan, roughly a school unto his own, who thinks Churchill's economic policies helped precipitate World War II, which Buchanan argues (unconvincingly) was unnecessary. To Buchanan, the Germans and the Soviets should have been left alone to fight over Eastern and Central Europe, and Poland was not worth going to war for. The view that Churchill was wrong to oppose Nazism with all of Britain's strength, while struggling to enlist all of America's strength, is so morally treacherous that one hardly knows where to begin. Suffice it to say this: The Manchesterians may err on the side of hyperbole, but in this case, hyperbole is justified. We live in a better, freer world because Churchill did what he did in 1940 and beyond.

That essential point is made clearly and often in Johnson's book. Yes, Churchill could be wrong, woefully so. (See India and the abdication.) But he is not a bad place to look for examples of how to live and govern. "In a sense his whole career was an exercise in how courage can be displayed, reinforced, guarded, and doled out carefully, heightened and concentrated, conveyed to others," writes Johnson. "Those uncertain of their courage can look to Churchill for reassurance and inspiration."

Johnson's account of Churchill's tumultuous life offers readers a hybrid of Shakespeare and Dr. Phil, which, perhaps, is not so far off the mark. There is the great sweep of the overlooked little Victorian boy who rose to the pinnacle, enduring, in his phrase, "storm and strife" until finally man and moment met in May 1940. In looking back on his ascendancy, Churchill said, in oft-quoted words, that he felt as if he were "walking with Destiny." He went on in that passage in his war memoirs to say: "I was sure I would not fail." Few others were so sure, and the history of how he prevailed is one that will be told as long as human beings struggle through what George Eliot called the "dim lights and tangled circumstance" of politics and of life. In that crucial sense the Churchill story—not his legend but his story, complete with details of his defeats as well as his victories—may outlive even the language itself. How he would love that idea—FDR be damned.

Jon Meacham is the editor of Newsweek and the author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston.

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