The Hope of Churchill

The final volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill has been eagerly awaited for more than two decades. The first two volumes of The Last Lion triptych, subtitled Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 and Alone, 1932-1940, did much to kindle admiration for Churchill in the United States. Unfortunately, although he had assembled notes for the third volume, Defender of the Realm 1940-1965, Manchester’s failing health prevented him from writing it. Paul Reid, a former reporter for the Palm Beach Post, courageously accepted the baton passed to him by Manchester’s gifted but faltering hand.

“This work is a biography, not a history,” Manchester wrote at the beginning of Alone. “The two are often confused,” he continued, “and understandably so, for both recount the past. But there is a distinction. History is a chronological account of prior events. Biography focuses on one figure…” Yet the two genres, while not identical are, as Manchester knew well, inextricably joined: “there can be no enlightening life which does not include an account of the man’s times.” When the subject is a man of action operating on the highest levels of authority, the need for context can indeed become demanding. While Visions of Glory covered a fifty-eight year span, Alone covered just eight years, recounting Churchill’s sojourn in the political wilderness. “If a man casts a long shadow, as Churchill did, extensive research leads to lengthy books,” Manchester noted, and the third installment has proven the lengthiest by far. The length is hardly surprising, as it covers the dramatic apex of Churchill’s story, his leadership of Britain in the Second World War. To write a single volume giving an adequate historical account of the war, apart from the demands of biography, is itself an arduous task. But, even then, the story is not yet done, for it must be continued through a second premiership and the final, gentle close of a life well-lived. Such was the monumental task which Mr. Reid agreed to shoulder and, though deprived of Manchester’s guidance by his death in 2004, has now brought to completion.

Writing a biography of Churchill is no doubt a daunting task for many reasons. So much has already been written about him. Upon the publication of Manchester’s first volume in 1983, some reviewers were already asking why yet another biography of Churchill was necessary. That was almost thirty years ago, and a strong and steady stream of books on Churchill have passed beneath the biographical bridge since then. Should another be added to the swelling tide? The burden of how or even whether to attempt to say something novel must hover over the author. The subject himself is also challenging for the biographer. Churchill’s personality and achievements were so remarkable, the historical events in which he was involved were so numerous and complex that the project of conveying in writing the reality of a life so extraordinary must appear formidable to the boldest writer who is also honest. Further, the density of Churchill’s life and experiences, the scope and breadth of his involvement in world-altering events necessarily attracts not only those with an interest in the man himself, but also readers whose historical attention is focused on one or more of the events in which he played a part. To completely satisfy the diverse curiosities and requirements of such a reading public is impossible. To these challenges must be added those uniquely faced by Mr. Reid in continuing another’s work—both in following a path set out by another and meeting the expectation of a long-awaited literary event.

Yet, despite these challenges, Reid has succeeded admirably. While Defender of the Realm is not a book for specialists, largely because of a lack of full attention to the vast amount of Churchill scholarship that has been produced since the project was conceived, it is a solid and readable account that is likely to continue Manchester’s legacy of fostering interest in Churchill. The volume is, of course, heavily weighted toward Churchill’s role in the Second World War, which stands out above the rest of even Churchill’s not-uneventful life as his finest hour. Indeed, as is clear from Manchester’s preamble to Visions of Glory, the drama of his entire project was directed toward this hour and this trial. Even so, the relatively few pages given to the remainder of the Churchill tale stir some feelings of narrative imbalance and regret for the sense of haste in the closing scenes.

In May of 1940, Churchill, prime minister for just a few weeks, looked out over a world falling into shadow. The German blitzkrieg had pierced deep into the vitals of the West, the massive French army had shown itself impotent before the onslaught, and the British forces that had gone to their aid were trapped and facing imminent destruction. France would soon surrender. Britain, woefully unprepared, would face the Nazi threat alone. Churchill stood at the helm; he would bear the burden of charting a course through dark and plunging seas. But what kind of man was he? That question is at the heart of the unending fascination with Churchill and was certainly no less interesting a question to those who were about to pass through peril with him. They were soon to find out. One can only gaze with astonishment on a man whose virtues, eccentricities, and foibles all loomed larger than life, whose persona was so robust that it could imprint itself upon the life of an entire nation. Churchill seemed a man of a previous century, whose colorful peculiarities had more than once in his long political career caused the British people to doubt his soundness. But that he had been formed for precisely this moment became rapidly clear. England needed “not a shrewd, composed, balanced leader, but a prophet, a heroic visionary, a man who could dream dreams of victory when all seemed lost.” He refused to parley with the fearsome enemy, declaring famously “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” His resolution, his character, was stamped upon Britain so that, after the near-miraculous rescue of so many men from Dunkirk, Churchill was able to speak honestly to them of harsh realities, of the foreboding future, of suffering, and of sacrifice. But now they saw them through his eyes, as a chance for glory and for greatness illuminated by the hope of ultimate victory. With that speech, the author writes, “Churchill won the complete confidence of the British people, which he had never before enjoyed. Whatever was to happen, Churchill’s place in the national life was assured; he would never be in the wilderness again.”

From the fall of France until the United States became an active belligerent, the British experience of the war, and Churchill’s, can well be characterized as “desperately short on time and desperately lacking in matériel.” Britain was lacking in planes, armaments, and supplies of every kind, was being slowly strangled by German U-boats, mercilessly pummeled by German bombers, losing its imperial possessions, and suffering a series of military setbacks. That Churchill’s leadership survived this difficult period is itself remarkable. He underwent both a vote of confidence debate and a motion of censure in the House, surviving both largely because of the tremendous hoard of public confidence he had banked in 1940—and no matter how dark the horizon, Churchill’s invincible determination was apparent to all. He yearned constantly for the moment when the shield could be exchanged for the sword, “offense, not defense, underlay his strategic vision.” Hitler’s decision to invade Russia rather than press an invasion of Britain, the entry of the United States, and the long-awaited victory at El Alamein lessened the immediate threat to British survival; but the widening scope of the war created new burdens, and Churchill, having combined in himself the offices of prime minister and minister of defence, insisted on shouldering much of their weight himself. His insistence stemmed in part from his firm belief that the military and political aspects of the war should not be separated. This dual role was often a source of great frustration for his Chiefs of Staff, as well as to himself when the military plans, political strategies, and visions of the post-war world favored by his allies differed from his own. While the war showed that Britain still possessed all the grit and spirit of its glorious past, it was also inescapably forging a different kind of world, a world in which Britain would play a far smaller part. This realization struck him forcefully at the Teheran Conference: “Churchill had arrived in Persia secure in the nineteenth-century belief in England’s imperial destiny; he left having learned a cold lesson. He now had no choice but to regard the status of his small island nation from a mid-twentieth century vantage point, and it was one of declining geopolitical might.” He was increasingly discouraged by the anti-imperial stance of the Americans and FDR’s unwillingness to guard against Stalin’s grasping designs. When victory in war removed the menace of Nazi Germany and its allies, Churchill took on the new burden of warning of the rising Soviet threat. He would pursue the defense of the West against that threat for the remainder of his political career and close his life with his place in the historical pantheon of the heroes of freedom firmly established.

Defender of the Realm is not a book attempting to make a case or prove a contentious thesis. It is simply a telling of Churchill’s story, a telling which Reid performs ably and well. Splashes of literary color and moments of dramatic pause aid the reader in accompanying Churchill through his lengthy journey. To be sure, the book contains a great deal of detail, such are the demands of context, but so central was Churchill to these momentous events that he is never far away, and Reid lets us see the man in the midst of the action. Biographies are often criticized     if no new discovery or insight is forthcoming. Yet such novelties are not necessary to justify another biography of Churchill. That he should be presented to a new generation of readers, and that an older generation should be reminded of his greatness, are justifications enough. For Churchill’s importance is not confined to the horizon of his own lifetime. He was more than the defender of a realm bound to an historical moment, he was a defender of law, of liberty, and of principles of right that echo down the corridors of time. Indeed we must always hope, for our own sake, for the sake of our children, and for the sake of freedom, that the fame of Winston Churchill never fades.