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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.