The Magazine

Jewel in the Crown

The sun never set on Winston Churchill’s allegiance

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By ROBERT WARGAS
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

American naval assistance in the Pacific helped repel Japanese task forces, most famously at the Battle of Midway. More losses for the Axis would follow: Hitler’s push to take Stalingrad, a move which would have secured a route through the Caucasus to precious Middle East oilfields, failed in February 1943, when 90,000 German troops surrendered. The empire was still alive, but for how long? Lend-Lease, after all, was not a charity program, and James is relentless in making sure the reader knows just how raw a deal it was for Britain. By the war’s close, in 1945, the British owed a fortune, with many imperial assets, including gold reserves, having already been sold.

Throughout all this, Churchill remained fiercely protective of the troubled empire; reading about it is like watching a man frantically trying to steer an out-of-control car. In one of this book’s finest chapters, James documents Churchill’s attempts to hang on to the Raj. The chaos of world war had only emboldened the Indian independ-ence movement, forcing Churchill to contend with Mohandas Gandhi, who was prepared even for Japanese occupation if it meant casting off British rule. One senses Churchill’s desperate rage in these moments, summarized well by Leopold Amery, the secretary of state for India: “Winston .  .  . hated the idea of giving up all his most deeply ingrained prejudices merely to secure more American, Chinese and Left Wing support.” Dependency breeds resentment, and even the pro-American Churchill seethed over what he saw as American attempts to steer British policy in India.

By the time of his death in 1965, Churchill had become an anachronism. The empire, the leitmotif of his passion and existence, had disappeared. In his nine decades of life, he had clung to the Victorian ethos of his youth, in which Britain took pride in its dominion. But the modern world had come to regard empire as a cruel and oppressive construct, and James’s account of the public’s staid reaction to Churchill’s death makes it clear that, while he was indeed regarded as a brave national leader, his passion for imperial greatness had already become an embarrassment. 

Robert Wargas is a writer in New York.