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.

Churchill by Paul Johnson.

In November 1940, on learning of Franklin Roosevelt's defeat of Wendell Willkie, Winston Churchill composed one of his many flattering and importuning telegrams to the president in Washington. He had, he told FDR, prayed for the president's re-election. "Things are afoot which will be remembered as long as the English language is spoken in any quarter of the globe," Churchill wrote, "and in expressing the comfort I feel that the people of the United States have once again cast these great burdens upon you, I must avow my sure faith that the lights by which we steer will bring us all safely to anchor." It was a brilliant and lovely note—and Roosevelt never replied, an omission that bothered Churchill for years.

Any of us who has had a heartfelt letter go unacknowledged knows the feeling: We want to be sure our words hit the mark, and nothing is more maddening in such a moment than silence. Churchill asked Roosevelt about the congratulatory note at the close of another cable but heard nothing, and the episode so bothered Churchill that he was still thinking about it long after the war. When he reprinted the telegram in his war memoirs, he added: "Curiously enough, I never received any answer to this. … It may well have been engulfed in the vast mass of congratulatory messages which were swept aside by urgent work." Perhaps—or perhaps FDR, always a cool, coy mistress, was trying (with success, obviously) to keep Churchill off balance.

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In this small incident, we glimpse the human Churchill beneath the grandeur of the deity of history he has long since become. The human Churchill is Paul Johnson's chief concern in his brief new biography, Churchill, but I raise the Case of the Unacknowledged Telegram because it contains one of Churchill's finest forgotten phrases: "Things are afoot which will be remembered as long as the English language is spoken in any quarter of the globe." It is an interesting test of the significance of any event, that: Will the problem or crisis of the hour be remembered—cue kettle drums—as long the English language is spoken? Damn little will meet that criterion, but Winston Churchill is among the things that will.

Which, predictably, presents biographers with great promise and great peril. The promise lies in the fact that Churchill repays one's imaginative investment of time and contemplation, but it is perilous because, as even Churchill remarked on being told of a planned biography of him, his life was "well ploughed."

Before reading Johnson's book, I would have said that those who are drawn to write about Churchill are basically compelled to do one of two things: find a particular aspect of the great man's life and, as we now say, go vertical, or attempt to advance a provocative argument about the meaning of it all. A book of mine, published six years ago, is an example of the former: I reconstructed Churchill's fraught relationship with Roosevelt. A book of Pat Buchanan's, The Unnecessary War, published last year, is an instance of the latter. Johnson has found a third way, though not a startling one.

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