Churchill: Walking with Destiny
Viking, 2018, 1,152 pp., $40
Anyone writing a biography of Winston Churchill faces a daunting task. The basic story and its many details have been superbly presented before, most extensively in Martin Gilbert’s eight volumes (several with two or three parts) published from 1966 to 1988, William Manchester’s three volumes published in the 1980s, and Roy Jenkins’s astute study published in 2002. Gilbert, Manchester, Jenkins, and, of course, Churchill himself in The Gathering Storm, have told the now-familiar story of the voice in the wilderness who warned of the Nazi threat, rejected the policies of appeasement in the 1930s and led Britain in 1940 when it fought on alone, prevented Hitler’s early victory and made possible the latter’s eventual defeat. Walking with Destiny, however, rises to the challenge by drawing on an impressive range of Churchill’s vast output of journalism, selections from his 37 published books, and scores of speeches in the House of Commons and elsewhere—as well as on more recently opened private correspondence, diaries, and on memoirs of Churchill’s contemporaries, including those of Churchill’s long-standing secretary, John Colville; Alan Brooke, Field Marshal and Chief of Staff of the British armed forces; and the remarkable diaries of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador to London. The result is a complex and compelling depiction of one of the most important political leaders of the 20th century, one sure to enlighten and provoke both those familiar with Churchill and those who may know little beyond, as a recent film puts it, Britain’s darkest hour.
One of the distinctive contributions of Roberts’ book is that it manages to speak to our own times. It avoids hagiography and bitter revisionism yet shows full awareness of the intellectual and political currents that distance us from Churchill’s passionate belief in the fundamental goodness and greatness of the British Empire. Roberts confronts a central paradox of Churchill that figures less prominently in the previous biographies: The same political leader who expressed profound belief in the goodness and value of British imperialism was the political leader who raised the early warnings about the danger of Nazism, prevented a Nazi victory in 1940, played a major role in shaping the strategy that defeated Hitler and the Nazis in 1945 and “saved liberty.” Roberts makes a compelling case that Churchill’s fight against Nazism was, in his own mind and heart, not at cross purposes with his belief in British imperialism. For Churchill, Roberts reminds us, the British Empire stood for fundamentally liberal values and for spreading those values to places such as India, where he believed illiberal values predominated. Roberts does not seek a retrospective justification of British imperialism. Rather, Walking with Destiny offers an explanation of the ways in which Churchill’s life before the finest hour made it possible for him to fight Nazism, support liberal democracy, deepen the link to the United States, and ally with the Soviet Union—all of which were fueled by Churchill’s deep hatred of Hitler and his dictatorship, anti-Semitism, and racism.
These are not the only paradoxes Roberts delves into expertly. He reminds us that Churchill was “the last aristocrat to rule Britain,” a fact that stands in apparent conflict with “his image as savior of democracy.” Yet, he concludes, “had it not been for the unconquerable self-confidence of his caste background he might well have tailored his message to his political circumstances during the 1930s, rather than treating such an idea with disdain.”
The value of experience is another major theme for Roberts, and one that should resonate in the United States, Britain, and Europe, where publics are experimenting with politicians who lack such seasoning. Churchill brought vast experience as a journalist, soldier, cabinet minister, and member of the House of Commons, all of which he acquired before, at the age of 66, becoming Prime Minister.
Walking with Destiny explores Churchill’s mistakes as well. He opposed the vote for women before World War I, continued the Gallipoli operation in 1915 past the point when success was likely, deployed the paramilitary Black and Tans in Ireland, and failed to appreciate the military capacity of the Japanese, among other errors. Yet Roberts’ Churchill is also a person who, perhaps because of that aristocratically nurtured self-confidence, was able to learn from his mistakes. That element of Walking with Destiny also resonates in today’s politics, when admitting error is often regarded as a fatal political blunder. Churchill developed the wisdom to know the limits of his own knowledge and had the self-confidence to surround himself with competent people such as Field Marshal Alan Brooke, whose diary presented his criticisms of and intense arguments with Churchill. Despite the centrality of Churchill’s battle against appeasement and the stirring leadership he articulated in his summer 1940 House of Commons oration (“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”), Roberts makes a compelling case that Churchill was not merely “the first significant political figure to spot the twin totalitarian dangers of Communism and Nazism, and to point out the best ways of dealing with them,” but also “the quintessential fox, who knew and did many things, not a hedgehog.” Those “many things” included making unprecedented use of the cryptographic breakthroughs that were crucial in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Battle of Britain, and, as Richard Breitman revealed some years ago, in revealing the Einsatzgruppen murders in 1941. He was also a knowledgeable advocate of air power, long before the Battle of Britain. His fascination for science led him to grasp the military applications of nuclear fission. His early “writing about Islamic fundamentalism prepared him for the fanaticism of the Nazis,” while “his prescient, accurate analysis of Bolshevism laid the ground for his Iron Curtain speech.”
Walking with Destiny pays considerable attention to Churchill’s command of the English language, a skill refined in dozens of books, hundreds of speeches, and decades of journalism and historical writing. In Roberts’ view, that facility with language was indispensable to his fight against appeasement and to his speeches, which rallied the country in 1940 and after. “Above all,” writes Roberts, Churchill’s experience as First Lord of the Admiralty and in World War I, when he prepared the Navy, shared responsibility for the debacle at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, spent time in trenches in France, and served as Cabinet minister of munitions, “gave him vital insights that he put to use in the Second World War.” Experience, learning, curiosity, detailed knowledge of the technical issues involved in both modern war and diplomacy, a fierce will, and a broad and deep grasp of history–all gave Churchill the wherewithal to rise to the threat Hitler’s Germany posed to democratic civilization.
Many readers in this country will be familiar with the remarkable correspondence between Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, available in a three-volume set edited by Warren Kimball. Roberts examines their exchange in June and July 1940, as Churchill presented the dire consequences for the United States of a British defeat that would place the British Navy at Hitler’s disposal and thus pose an imminent threat to the continental United States. Roberts offers a detailed examination of just how serious the possibility was that, especially in the absence of support from Roosevelt, political figures in the Conservative Party would have sought a negotiated settlement with Hitler. The historians of Nazi Germany during World War II and the Holocaust have documented in enormous detail the centrality of the drive for “living space” and the race war on the Eastern Front. Churchill at the time grasped the fanaticism and evil at the core of Hitler’s policy. He understood that, were Hitler to succeed in his war in the East, he would then turn against an even more isolated Britain. Roberts makes excellent use of the fascinating three-volume diary of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador to London before and during World War II, to fill in details of the development of Churchill’s view that Nazism was a greater threat than Communism. This view led the famous anti-communist to offer an alliance with the Soviet Union immediately following the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941 and fueled his determination to aid the Soviet Union in the following four years.
Walking with Destiny is a tour de force when it comes to military strategy and the domestic politics of 1940. “The important point about Churchill in 1940 is not that he stopped a German invasion that year, but that he stopped the British Government from making peace.” If [Lord Edward] Halifax been the British prime minister at that time, he would have at least wanted to discover what Hitler’s terms for a negotiated peace “might be.” Roberts argues that “they would probably have been very reasonable,” as he “simply could not see how Britain could possibly win once driven off the continent, when France was about to fall, the Soviet Union was a German ally, Italy was about to become another, and the United States was in no mood to declare war on Germany. Halifax was merely a rationalist when the need was for a stubborn, emotional romantic.” Churchill understood that, if the Germans destroyed the Soviet Union and gained control of a blockade-proof continental empire, such a development “would have soon afterwards spelt disaster for Britain” and “destroyed the credibility with the Americans, as well as looking bad in history.” Roberts elucidates a central message that Churchill conveyed in his letters to Roosevelt and in the famous speeches of the summer of 1940: the point for Britain was not to lose in the short run and, by denying Hitler another quick victory, make possible victory in the longer run.
It is understandable that the hero of the finest hour became a hero to American foreign policy conservatives, and that American liberals in the post-Vietnam era and the years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would look elsewhere. In reminding us of the militant centrism at the core of Churchill’s politics—the mix of defense of the market economy, liberal democracy, individual rights, and even the 20th-century welfare state—Roberts has written a book for center-left and center-right liberals as well. For Churchill was indeed a strong supporter of the welfare state. According to Roberts, the Prime Minister responded to the publication of William Beveridge’s report on social policy in 1942 as follows:
“You [Beveridge] must rank me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from cradle to grave,” and, [he] added, . . . everyone must work, “whether they come from the ancient aristocracy or the modern plutocracy, or the ordinary type of pub-crawler.” He had no compunction in saying, “We must establish on broad and solid foundations a National Health Service. Here let me say that there is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies. Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.” Just as radically, Churchill promised, “No one who can take advantage of a higher education should be denied this chance. You cannot conduct a modern community except with an adequate supply of persons upon whose education, whether humane, technical, or scientific, much time and money have been spent.”
Roberts places these remarkable statements, so unlike anything to come out of the core of the Conservative Party, into Churchill’s long-standing political identity as a “Tory Democrat.” He was both a fierce opponent of socialism (and of course communism) and a supporter of those elements of the welfare state that contemporary conservatives have wasted so many decades trying to dismantle.
There are those who have read Churchill as advocating a Britain apart from Europe. Sadly, that is the way Margaret Thatcher and her successors in the Europhobic wing of the Conservative Party read him as they advanced Brexit. Yet one can see similarities between the Brexiteers of today and the Conservative Party members against whom Churchill rebelled in the 1930s in favor of a worldly and, yes, cosmopolitan British patriotism. The figure who emerges from Roberts’s pages strikes me as one who would have realized how much Britain had to gain from being embedded in the European Union, as well as how much the EU had to gain by including the fount of liberalism and parliamentary government among its members. As his resistance to Indian independence after World War II made clear, he was not happy about the end of the British Empire, but this work presents a man who faced facts and the problems of the present and future.
In short, Roberts has given us a great gift. He presents a Churchill in all of his complexity: man of letters, supporter of the natural sciences, fierce critic of socialism and communism who nevertheless allied with them both when needed. At the same time, he was a supporter of the British Empire who became the most prominent and enduring antifascist and defender of liberal democracy in his time. What makes this book essential for those who care about reviving and defending liberal democracy in our time is that it reminds us that, even at moments when old hatreds burn bright and few are willing to swim against the current, it is still possible for great leaders to emerge. Pessimists say that the inanities of social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the cult of celebrity have made it impossible for a figure like Churchill to emerge. Andrew Roberts seems to suggest otherwise; I hope he is right. I hope that the qualities of courage, experience, and conviction evident in Churchill: Walking with Destiny are present not in one great man or woman but in many of our fellow citizens.