Churchill: Walking with Destiny
Viking, 2018, 1,152 pp., $40
Is This the Best One-Volume Biography of Churchill Yet Written?
Richard Aldous in the New York Times
Churchill in All His Complexity
Jeffrey Herf in The American Interest
Carolyn Stewart in The American Interest
Richard Aldous: Congratulations on the new book. You have a great quote from Churchill near the beginning saying that, “Far too much has been written about me,” and that was in the 1920s. What made you want to add your own biography of Britain’s wartime Prime Minister?
Andrew Roberts: Well, yes, you’re right. There have been 1,009 biographies of Winston Churchill; as you can imagine, it’s fairly hubristic to want to add anything at all to that avalanche of biography. This, by the way, is the fifth book that I’ll have written with Churchill in the title or the subtitle, so he’s been with me for a long time, ever since I started off as a historian 30 years ago. But actually in the last ten years, in particular, there has been an absolute cornucopia of new sources of Churchill.
At Churchill College, Cambridge, there have been no fewer than 41 major sets of papers that have been deposited since the last big biography of him. The Queen allowed me to be the first Churchill biographer to use her father’s wartime diaries, and King George VI met Churchill every Tuesday of the Second World War, and Churchill trusted him with all the major secrets of the war, which the King then dutifully wrote down in his diary, so that was also an extremely useful and important contemporary source.
But we’ve also got the Ivan Maisky diaries of the Soviet ambassador. We’ve got the verbatim accounts of the War Cabinet, Pamela Harriman’s love letters. All of these have come out in the last decade, so there’s something pretty much on every page of this biography of mine of Churchill which has never appeared in a Churchill biography before.
RA: You do a wonderful job of evoking Churchill’s character and as you point out, that character partly comes from the sublime self-confidence—self-reliance, you say—that comes from someone who knew where he came from and who he was. Tell us a bit about that.
AR: Yes. Well, I think quite a lot of people will criticize that today as having a sense of entitlement, which he most certainly did. He very much came from the apex of the Victorian aristocracy at a time when the Victorian aristocracy were pretty much at the top of the world. His grandfather was the Duke of Marlborough. He was born in a palace, and not just any old palace, Blenheim Palace, a palace that the royals envy. And so this was certainly a man who knew where he was in life, and the answer was at the top, which meant that he could, and indeed did very often, disregard the views of other people. And of course very often that was a bad thing in politics; you can’t disregard the views of the voters for very long. But nonetheless, when it came to the 1930s, when he was being attacked violently for his views warning against Nazis and Adolf Hitler, this sublime self-confidence in which he didn’t really care what anybody else thought of him became extremely useful.
RA: I suppose, in some ways, he’s what we would describe now as a damaged personality, isn’t he? I mean he’s got these terrible, selfish parents, an awful relationship with his father, a patchy education, they’re always struggling for money. And so in some ways, as you point out, he has this cold-blooded determination to become a hero and what he would describe as a great man.
AR: That’s right, yes. He was very much brought up in the great man theory of history when he was being taught at Harrow. He, as you say, had a pretty patchy education. This was partly due to the fact that he was horribly physically abused as a child, beaten in the most sadistic way by his headmaster at his prep school. His parents never visited him. This was allowed to go on because his parents showed no interest in him at all. His father, of course, was an aloof, disdainful, but very successful Victorian politician, became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his mother was a fairly vacuous socialite who just went from party to party and—
RA: And some of the letters that she sends him at school are absolutely hair-raising.
AR: Yeah. Well, they’re heartbreaking, aren’t they? They’re heartbreaking in that she should demand that he write when she only wrote to him six times, and he wrote to her 76 times. And some of his letters to her are absolutely heartbreaking, obviously really asking for love and attention and not really getting either. You’ve got this parental thing. The person he was closest to was his nanny, who also featured in the book, a very important part of his early life. And then, of course, he goes off to various wars around the world, five campaigns on four continents, very much as a way of trying to make a name for himself before going into politics.
RA: One of the older biographies of Churchill by Robert Rhodes James has the subtitle A Study in Failure, with the idea that, if he died in 1939 before he becomes Prime Minister the next year, he would have primarily been remembered as a failure. Do you agree with that?
AR: Not at all, no, although of course it’s a brilliant sort of counterintuitive subtitle to give a book. I think that Robert Rhodes James, who I knew quite well, is not giving Churchill enough credit for having been the First Lord of the Admiralty who readied the fleet for the Great War, and made sure that it was ready for the war when it broke out in 1914. He underplays his role in creating a welfare state in Britain and leaving the appalling, grinding, wretched lot of the working classes in the period before the First World War as well.
He’s rather dismissive, and I think wrongly, of the period when Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer and presented five budgets. There are lots of great things that Churchill did which mean that had he died in 1939, he would nonetheless have been thought of as a much more substantial figure than simply a failure. He did have failures, and I mean several appalling failures, especially whilst he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, taking Britain on to The Gold Standard.
RA: And as you describe quite movingly in the book, he was almost haunted by going around the country and how people would shout “Dardanelles” at him. Tell us about that and how deeply he felt that particular failure in the First World War.
AR: Yes. The Gallipoli campaign, which sprung from the failure of the Royal Navy to get through the Dardanelles Straits and thereby threatened to bomb Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, and take the Turks out of the Great War, was a brilliant idea but failed so dismally in its implementation. That failure, which ultimately led to the killing or wounding of 157,000 allied lives was something that was blamed on Churchill and pretty much Churchill alone, even though other people are to be blamed, should be blamed for it, primarily Herbert Kitchener as Secretary for War who shilly-shallied terribly at the time of the Campaign.
And so, this was hung around his neck and people shouted, “What about the Dardanelles?” at him, all the way through the twenties and into the 1930s at public meetings. So yes, that’s another disaster which would support the thesis of Robert Rhodes James. However, of course he learnt from this catastrophe, and never once in the Second World War did he overrule the Chiefs of Staff. When the Chiefs of Staff all agreed on something he could rant and rave against it, but he never actually used the constitutional powers that he had as Minister of Defense as well as Prime Minister in order to overrule them.
RA: One of the themes in the book is the way in which Churchill very often responds to these failures by writing about them, or writing about them in the context of history: his history of the First World War, of his own childhood and youth, his great four-volume biography of Marlborough, and so on. How important is Churchill the writer to Churchill the statesman?
AR: Very important indeed. He had to write books because he was broke all the time. He didn’t actually get out of the red until he was in his early 70s, and signed the book contract for his history of the Second World War. Before that, because he employed 14 servants and lived very high on the hog—and didn’t always have the money to pay for it—he was forced to write lots of books, and thank God he did, because they’re wonderful and most of them absolutely superb, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for them in 1953. But also, they let us historians see into Churchill’s mind, as well as anything else that he did, including I would say his public speeches.
So they are invaluable, and also it was tremendously useful for him as a historian to be able to therefore put Adolf Hitler into the long continuum of British history. He explains how you couldn’t allow somebody in charge of Germany to obtain hegemony on the continent. Britain’s historical task was to prevent that from ever happening. Not just the Germans but anyone: Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, Napoleon of course, and then the Kaiser. What he saw was Adolf Hitler trying to do the same thing as Britain had prevented each of those four from doing before in history.
RA: There’s the great moral courage that he shows, particularly during the Munich Crisis in 1938 and more generally in the way that he stands up to Hitler. Some historians have been critical of Churchill in terms of his own views. Some have even claimed that he himself is anti-Semitic. How did you deal with that very delicate subject in the book?
AR: Well, I go straight for it, as you can imagine, and make an important thing of it. His Philo-Semitism is extremely important to him. He had grown up with Jews, his father liked Jews, he considered Jews to have given the Western world their ethics. He was a supporter of the Balfour Declaration. He represented Manchester Northwest, a very heavily Jewish constituency, and he was a Zionist. The idea that he was anti-Semitic all spreads from a paragraph in a 1920 article in the Sunday Dispatch and of course it’s been wildly torn out of context by his detractors.
When you see it in context, which I do in the book, you recognize that he’s not being anti-Semitic about the whole Jewish race, just simply those Russian Jews who supported the Russian Revolution, which he hated of course. People like Trotsky.
RA: Some historians have tried to put that in the context of what they see as Churchill’s broader racism, for example his comments about India. But you actually take quite a hard line on that in the book and push back very firmly.
AR: Well, yes. You see he was born in 1874 and whilst Charles Darwin was still alive, and the neo-Darwinist attitude towards race was supreme. It was considered at the time a scientific fact that there were hierarchies of race, and we consider it quite rightly today to be a completely obscene and ludicrous idea. But in those days it was considered to be scientific fact, and so I don’t think you can wrench, in a kind of politically correct way, the views of Winston Churchill so much out of their time as to criticize him for something that everybody else was guilty of too, and which would have not made any sense to him at all. It’s a bit like, I don’t know, criticizing Oliver Cromwell for not supporting socialized medicine.
RA: It is one of the things that you draw up very nicely in the book, this sense that Churchill really is a Victorian and that by the time he becomes Prime Minister in 1940, it is just by the skin of his teeth. It’s the very last moment that he could have achieved this kind of high office.
AR: That’s right, yes. I mean if anything actually you almost see him as a pre-Victorian character, as a Regency figure. Something of a rake, of course, when it came to his indulgences and his attitude toward his predators. He was somebody who wore his heart on his sleeve. He was driven by his passions and his emotions. He burst into tears 50 times during the Second World War, for example. So he’s not the buttoned-up late Victorian aristocrat of many of his class and background. He’s a much more interesting and complicated figure than that.
And as you say, it took a world war for him to become Prime Minister. The British establishment didn’t trust him, understandably on one level in that he had made lots of errors of judgment: he supported the wrong side in the abdication crisis, for example; he’d opposed women’s suffrage. But as I say, the great thing was that he did learn from each of his mistakes.
RA: In reading the book, that’s the thing that comes across the strongest to me. Yes, there is this sense of destiny, which you talk about and Churchill was very strong on himself, but you make a compelling case that experience is almost as important. By 1940 he is battle-hardened, he’s had these successes, he’s had these catastrophic failures, but whatever we think about him in 1940 he’s ready and he’s learnt from those successes and those failures.
AR: Well, that’s right. I mean he put it, as usual far better than anybody else possibly could in the last paragraph of the first volume of his war memoirs, The Gathering Storm. He said of the day that he became Prime Minister, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny and that all my past lives had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” And that seems exactly what it was, because he had been First Lord of the Admiralty twice in two world wars. He had been Minister of Munitions when he was in charge of two and a half million factory workers turning out war material. He had been Home Secretary, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Minister for the Colonies, so this was a man who really had spent his past life preparing precisely for what was to break on the 10th of May 1940, the day he became Prime Minister. Earlier that same day, of course, Hitler unleashed blitzkrieg on the West and invaded Holland and Belgium and Luxembourg.
RA: And the thing you say that is his single most important contribution is really not even that he stopped the German invasion. It’s that he stopped the British government from making peace with Hitler.
AR: That’s right. In the key moment in May 1940 Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, whose biography I’ve also written (admittedly 30 years ago) wanted to come to some kind of arrangement whereby the British Expeditionary Force was allowed back from Dunkirk, and the Germans were allowed to keep the continent and we would have peace. And the peace would of course allow the British to retain their Empire. And that is a crucial moment in history, a turning point in history where history failed to turn, thank God, because it was essential, not least to keep the Americans feeling positive about Britain, that we should continue the struggle.
RA: And of course his rhetoric is very important in this: the famous “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” and those kind of speeches. But you also make the point that because he’s a British icon we often forget that he’s half American, and that half-American side is important because it makes him in your words, “thrusting” in a way that is almost un-British and at odds with the cult of the amateur. Essentially, he’s not afraid to upset the applecart, is he?
AR: No, not at all. And of course this makes him very unpopular. If you look at many of the criticisms of Churchill by British establishment figures throughout his life, the fact that he’s half American, the fact that his mother was born in Brooklyn, is always held against him. It’s never far from the surface, this racial element; in fact some people call him a half-breed American. And therefore they think of him, because his grandfather was also a stock market speculator, as being just an adventurer and wholly untrustworthy.
You get a very strong sense of the anti-Americanism, especially amongst the British governing class in the 1930s. I’m afraid Chamberlain, and indeed Halifax, were prey to this attitude. However, then the flip side comes when Churchill becomes Prime Minister and is able to go off to Washington and speak, and make remarks about being half American which worked enormously to his advantage.
RA: Now what do you make of the relationship with Roosevelt and indeed the one with Stalin? Different historians have said at various times he’s perhaps too much in thrall to both of these leaders. What do you make of that?
AR: I don’t think that’s true. I think that he was very heavily and constantly conscious of Britain’s declining power in the world, vis-à-vis the United States in terms of money and material and of course Russia in terms of the postwar great power status. And so you see him, especially in late 1943 and early 1944, highly conscious of being the person in between these two coming superpowers, knowing that Britain wasn’t going to be a superpower after the war.
In the calendar year 1944, when Britain produced 28,000 war planes and the Germans and Russians produced 40,000, the United States produced 98,000 war planes—almost as much as the rest of the world put together. So of course we weren’t going to ultimately have the final say on things like when D-Day was going to take place, and who was going to command it.
RA: He loses in the general election in 1945, and then I suppose as a fitting coda he makes this wonderful speech with Truman where he defines the notion of the Iron Curtain. But then he comes back in 1951 until 1955. You’ve been very critical of that government in your earlier work. What did you make of it in this biography of Churchill?
AR: Yes, you’re quite right. Back in 1994 I wrote a book called Eminent Churchillians in which I looked at the naval policies and some of the financial policies of that ’51 to ’55 government, and saw it really as a time when Britain was just treading water, unable to find a role in the world, and largely blamed it on Churchill (and some of his ministers, of course). I think on re-examining it 25 years later, I’m less harsh on him, although I still don’t see it as a great shining moment in British history by any means. But nonetheless, I think that he was taking on a long period of austerity. He had a few signal successes like building a million council houses, and also abolishing rationing. And maybe as a young man I was expecting too much of the old man.
RA: It’s one of the fascinating things about reading this book, that as you say you’ve been working on Churchill now for 30 years. The biography of Halifax, Eminent Churchillians, the books that you’ve written on strategy in the Second World War, and the biography of Salisbury immediately spring to mind. How do you feel over that 30-year period that your general view of Churchill has evolved and changed?
AR: Well, I started off as a bit of an enfant terrible and I don’t think of myself as one now. It’s rather difficult in one’s mid-fifties to think of oneself as an enfant anything! But yes, I don’t see the 1950s government through the lens of the 1990s any longer, obviously. I think I’m much more understanding. But I’m highly critical of the way in which he kept holding on to power, when he should have handed it over to Anthony Eden, either early on in the Ministry, or at the time of the Coronation in June 1953, or the following month when he had a debilitating stroke and it was kept secret from the people. And he didn’t even resign at his 80th birthday in November 1954. These were opportunities which each would have been perfectly reasonable and honorable moments to go. But instead, the acquisition and hanging on to power was such a part of his DNA over half a century in public office that he simply had to have his fingers prised from power.
RA: That’s one of the wonderful things, surely, in working on these kind of characters over a lifetime of scholarship—that they constantly change, you change. If you were still thinking the same things now as you were thinking in the 1990s, that would be a bad sign for you as a historian, not a good one, wouldn’t it?
AR: That’s an interesting way of putting it. Yes, I suppose so. I mean, I’m a Thatcherite Tory and I don’t think my overall political principles have changed terribly much since I left Cambridge University, frankly. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not able to change with the times. Toryism has been changing with the times for 300 years.
RA: And why do you think it is that Churchill remains so popular, on one level more popular than ever? Your own book sits very happily on the New York Times bestseller list. There’s a real sense that he’s somebody who still has resonance, including all the way to the White House. I think President Trump has the famous Epstein bust in the Oval Office.
AR: Well, I like the idea of it sitting happily in the bestseller list! I’m certainly very happy, I can tell you that, Richard. But I think one of the reasons, as well as the Second World War being an absolutely central period in the history of civilization, and therefore the leaders are very important and always will be, is that he stands for a number of things that people will always be looking for in politics. This thing that we discussed earlier about learning from his mistakes is very important in politicians. The idea of him having moral and physical courage is a very attractive one as well. I think his ability before the First World War to spot the threat, before the Second World War to spot the threat, and at the beginning of the Cold War to spot the Soviet threat shows that he has a Themistoclean foresight, which is also of course a very important attribute in politics.
And then one of the last great attributes that he showed was his eloquence and his speeches, 8,000 pages of which he gave over the course of his public life. They bear rereading now, and some of them are as good as Shakespeare, in my opinion. They will live for as long as the English language lives.
RA: You make the point very persuasively that politics was his life, but that it’s defined in the very broadest possible way: as you say, he was a writer thinking in historical context. Britain is going through some political turmoil at the moment with Brexit. It’s very often said that there’s a lack of leadership, and perhaps that comes because politicians don’t really have the kind of experience that Churchill had. They don’t have the hinterland, the depth of background, and so on.
Do you think that’s a fair criticism, or do you think that it’s just a case of different politicians for a different time?
AR: Well, as I said earlier, I don’t think he’d have become Prime Minister in peacetime. And thank God we’re nowhere near wartime, so one can’t expect Churchills to be popping up in our politics for that reason. Also, I don’t know how well he would have done in modern-day politics. He wasn’t an alcoholic, but he drank a lot. He wasn’t a depressive, but he did get depressed. He would make jokes that today are considered completely unacceptable. Even funny jokes can rebound on you very badly in politics today, it strikes me.
I don’t know how great he’d have been on social media. I think he’d have been pretty good on Twitter, because many of his putdowns are brilliant and very sharp, and they could fit into 280 characters or fewer. But I don’t think today you could get away with having made a mistake like the Dardanelles catastrophe and then come back from it. I think it would be pretty nigh impossible.
But nonetheless, can leaders learn from him today? Of course they can. The more the merrier, especially this idea of learning from mistakes. I think that would be very helpful. There was also a very modest side to him, where he didn’t grab as much of the glory as he possibly could for all of his successes. That’s a very attractive feature in a politician and one that of course we see relatively little of nowadays.
So yes, I think he still stands as a role model for politicians, but also for us ordinary people. Many of his maxims about how to work, how to live, and how to look at life really do stand the test of time.