The terrorist attacks on the United States last year, and the subsequent military operations in Afghanistan, led politicians and editorial writers to quote Churchill for inspiration and wisdom. In fact Churchill offers much more than pithy quotes, as two recent biographies amply demonstrate.
Roy Jenkins (Churchill: A Biography) provides the perspective of a well-placed British political insider; he entered the House of Commons in 1948 and eventually rose to become Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post Churchill himself once held. (Jenkins, like Churchill, also switched parties, moving from Labour to become one of the founding members of the Social Democratic Party.) Geoffrey Best (Churchill: A Study in Greatness), a well-regarded historian, emphasizes Churchill’s strategic insights and wartime managerial style. Both men have the benefit of being able to recall directly the great events of the War. Jenkins was introduced to Churchill by his father, a Labour MP, in 1941. Best, as a young boy living in a suburb of London, grew up listening to Churchill’s wartime radio addresses.
Best notes that Churchill had strong and well-established ideas about how wars ought to be fought. Churchill’s views were by no means limited to his experience in World War II. Young Winston participated in fighting hostile tribes in Afghanistan in the 1890s; as an old man, six decades later, he made major contributions to the West’s thinking about nuclear weapons. Jenkins and Best both argue convincingly that Churchill was not a warmonger or a militarist, even as he rejected the pacifism and aversion to conflict that often mark liberal democracies.
Churchill was instead “an unusually honest ’war-fighter’” (Best’s expression). He was brutally frank about the nature and necessities of war, including the realization that casualties are part of battle. Although Churchill was determined to avoid general bloodletting if at all possible, he was ready to risk heavy loss of life in particular actions if the reward was worth the risk. He assumed the British people would understand that this was the necessary and right way to wage war. Churchill thought big. He sought to place specific operations in their grand strategic context. He always looked to go on the offensive, to gain or regain the initiative, particularly—and perhaps even especially—when things looked bad. When one plan was rejected or failed, he moved at once to another.
To be sure, war had its own fascination for Churchill, as it did for other Great Captains of history such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. War demands the full exercise of the virtues of statesmen and peoples—war understood in the comprehensive sense, to include its just settlement and prospects for enduring peace. Churchill insisted that civilians (a small group, to be sure) be in charge, able to give the whole of their minds to the highest questions of strategy and foreign policy, and to the management of the war.
Strategic direction from the top provides the necessary impetus for tactical and technical innovation. From the time of his own youthful experience as a soldier, Churchill had become impatient with the military’s traditionalism, particularly its attachment to familiar weapons and methods. He saw this attachment as the reason for the disastrous focus on battle by attrition in World War I. Churchill first tried to get around the stalemate in the West by supporting operations against Turkey (the Dardanelles campaign). He later promoted new weapons and tactics to overcome German defenses, such as the massive and rapid application of tanks to restore mobile warfare. During the 1920s, instead of using large numbers of troops in Iraq (the mandate for which Britain gained after World War I), Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, successfully pioneered the use of military aircraft to control rebellious villages. He constantly pushed for the promotion of unconventional military commanders: “This is the time (he wrote during World War II) to try men of force and vision and not to be exclusively confined to those who are judged thoroughly safe by conventional standards.”
Churchill sought war not for war’s sake, but as a means to preserve the British Empire. As Best writes: “Two of his deep-down passions and principles were, first, the rule of law as protector of civil and religious liberty, and of the standards of civilization; and secondly, the place and prestige in the world of Great Britain and its Empire, as necessary both for the security of the English-speaking people and for the welfare of its other subjects.” This defense of the Empire led him to such controversial stances as opposing self-government for India during the 1930s. As Best observes, the preservation of the Empire itself was instrumental to a higher purpose:
His over concern was indeed with India, but India was only a part, admittedly a very large part, of his concern about the Empire as a whole; and even the Empire was not the whole of what he was concerned about. Beneath his often buoyant exterior, and apart from his recurrent depressions, he entertained profound anxieties about the future of the world, the state of the Empire and…the condition of Europe.
Churchill’s anxiety stemmed from the dangers posed to civilization by modern science and modern ideologies. To be sure, he believed in the possibility—not the certainty—of progress in the condition of mankind, especially in the lives of ordinary men and women. Science offered immense possibilities for material abundance. But with scientific progress came the chilling prospect of human retrogression, of a new Dark Age. Technology could be combined with radically new approaches to political life in a disastrous effort to conquer the limitations of human nature. For the Nazis, “progress” meant the improvement of human nature through destruction of certain races; for the Communists, it meant the destruction of certain classes. Science offered modern despots means of destruction and political control on an immense scale. (Today, we face the threat of zealots operating under the guise of religion, who seek to use the technology of civilization to destroy that civilization and return to some imaginary 7th century utopia.)
For Churchill, the response to scientific totalitarianism was that of liberal, constitutional democracy, building on the foundation of millennia of human experience with liberty. Churchill’s rhetoric aimed not only to call lovers of liberty to arms and action, but to explain to them the great part they were playing in world history.
This brings us back to Churchill’s defense of the British Empire, which he regarded as one of the great historical pillars of human liberty. What mattered for Churchill was not merely self-government but good government: the rule of law, the administration of impartial justice, and the preservation of peace between otherwise hostile religious and racial communities. Churchill doubted that India—which he thought was more of a geographic expression than a country—could achieve good government without the presence of outside and impartial (i.e., British) authority. He believed that as soon as the British left, Hindus and Moslems would begin to slaughter one another. (Churchill would undoubtedly not be comforted by the fact that the Hindu and Moslem successors of British rule have now acquired one of the fruits of modern science, nuclear weapons.)
We Americans tend to reject this justification for empire, having ourselves long ago decided that good government ultimately requires self-government. But we should appreciate that Churchill defended the Empire because Churchill was British, not American, and statesmen must work with the materials at hand. When the old Empire was no longer viable, and when Britain herself could no longer claim the status of a great power, Churchill did not despair or indulge in nostalgia. As in war, when one path was blocked, he looked for another, always moving forward, seeking the initiative. He entertained new and different forms of cooperation among the democracies and their allies.
First, he supported the transformation of the Empire into a Commonwealth, including India. Second, he advocated the creation of a United Europe that would reconcile the French-German antagonism (Britain itself would remain apart from, although associated with, European union). Third, and most importantly, he stressed Britain’s “Special Relationship” with the United States, which was focused after 1945 upon the containment of the latest threat to civilization, Soviet Communism.
Churchill’s three intersecting circles by no means meshed smoothly. For example, Britain is constantly pulled between Europe and the United States, and Jenkins among others believes that London has missed important opportunities to strengthen its ties with the continent. But each of these circles should be understood as potential barriers against barbarism (or as the offensively-minded Churchill might say, beachheads for the further advance of civilization). They are tools for statesmen, not ends in themselves. We in America can devise our own instruments and institutions for liberty, in cooperation with others, appropriate to our time and place in history.
Jenkins and Best are certainly not uncritical admirers of Churchill. They review and often embrace the standard criticisms: Churchill’s tendency to sound too extreme and too violent; his restless interference in others’ business; his lack of a sense of proportion. To this, one can only observe that great men often have large flaws. As Jenkins concludes, with flaws and all, Churchill is “the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street.”
As for taking the time to read these books, with their combined length of over 1,300 pages: You can’t have too much of a good thing.
Patrick Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.