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.

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.

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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