A smart, funny, timely tribute to the Great ManNov 24, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 11 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
A book about a statesman by a politician prompts two questions: Do we learn anything new about the statesman, and do we learn anything useful about the politician? In this case, the answer to both questions is yes.
First things first: The Churchill Factor is not intended for scholars, nor for readers with a detailed knowledge of Winston Churchill. But it is directed at two spacious segments of the reading population: those who know something about Churchill, and those who know nothing. A half-century after Churchill’s death, Boris Johnson is rightly despairing about ignorance of his subject; but his evidence is almost wholly anecdotal—and to those who worry about such things, not a shock. The average Englishman knows as little about Admiral Nelson as the average American knows of General Grant.
If the reader’s knowledge of Churchill is a blank slate, this is a lively, and pertinent, introduction to him. Johnson makes the claim, and he is surely correct, that Churchill’s historic influence is palpable, undeniable, almost wholly benign—and relevant to our times. Most readers are likely to know something, however, and they will benefit not only from this book’s wealth of lore and information, but from Johnson’s corrective opinions and analysis. Some of what we know about Churchill is mythology; some of what we know is plainly wrong; and some of what we know derives from the distortions of ideology and journalism. Johnson believes that “the Churchill factor”—the difference one astonishing life can make in the progress of humanity and advancement of freedom—refutes the doctrine that history is a random series of events, pushed and pulled by abstractions. “There has been,” declares Johnson, “no one remotely like him before or since.”
There is, to begin with, the sheer quantitative sweep of Churchill’s life and work. He was already famous when Queen Victoria was alive, and he died in the year the Beatles won the MBE. He started near the top—duke’s grandson, moneyed family, wide social connections—but his life was a propulsive, one might say obsessive, march forward: He soldiered, he wrote, he traveled, he governed, he sought danger and knowledge and power with limitless energy. His appetites were exceeded only by his enterprise. In America, we tend to think of him as the pugnacious war leader who defied Hitler by inspiring his countrymen; but Churchill’s long influence began with his architecture of the British welfare state and ended with his warnings about the postwar Soviet Union and nuclear conflict.
Nor was Churchill a stranger to contradiction. An instinctive man of action—a bust of Napoleon still stands in his study at Chartwell, his country estate—he wrote for a living, and for spiritual sustenance. He possessed many of the biases and presumptions of his time and place, but his lifelong allegiance to Britain’s empire was tinctured with an empathetic view of its inhabitants. The physical embodiment of John Bull, his politics were the “Tory democracy” of his father, and his instincts were a Whiggish devotion to human progress. Churchill’s comprehension of Hitler and the Nazis was intuitive, and his hostility was absolute; but he hated tyranny, not the Germans, and in his famous words, was magnanimous in victory. He had a policeman’s view of the law but a clergyman’s attitude toward justice. He was romantic, simultaneously, about Britain and Europe.
Then there is the qualitative scope of his career. Churchill had a genius for turning up at opportune moments, and making the most of them. He began at the last cavalry charge of the British Army (Sudan, 1898) and finished by pleading for the first Cold War summit (Geneva, 1955). He invented the notion of Britain’s “special relationship” with America, promoted the development of the tank and Royal Flying Corps in the Great War, charted the map of the modern Middle East, introduced the concept of a united states of Europe. His Nobel Prize for literature might be seen as more political than literary, but few statesmen have written influential volumes on their politician-father’s reputation, on their ancestors’ historic achievements, on the two world wars, on painting, on politics, on the idea of the “English-speaking peoples.”
He was, in short, the personification of the Great Man in history—and in Johnson’s view, the greatest in the history of Great Britain, certainly. Churchill dominated the world he inhabited, and he saved freedom from tyranny. But he enhanced that stricken world as well, influencing not just events but individual lives, and making Britain a more prosperous, just, and humane society. Indeed, Churchill’s greatness is a tangible thing, not least in the way his life, and his life’s example, have inspired the author’s devotion.
The Americanization of Canadian politicsNov 24, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 11 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
When John F. Kennedy addressed the Canadian parliament in 1961, he depicted relations between the two nations in beautiful prose: “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.”
Beating the heat with the help of technologyNov 17, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 10 • By THOMAS JOHNSON
Air conditioning is a hot topic in the nation’s capital.
A refreshing account of the environmental movementNov 17, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 10 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
One criticism that can be made of Patrick Allitt is that he usually writes with the historian’s “objective” detachment, concealing his own opinions or conclusions about his subject matter. His previous histories, on religion and on American conservatism, are very well done; but at the end you have no idea whether Allitt approves of, or agrees with, any of the figures or ideas he treats.
An English satirical talent hits his strideNov 17, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 10 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Although Edward St. Aubyn has received handsome praise from a number of more than respectable novelists and critics, my sense is that he is still something of a secret, less known than he should be to readers who try to keep up with contemporary fiction.
A critical look at commanders and commanders in chiefNov 17, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 10 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
In a country as disposed to war as the United States has been, the relationship between the commander in chief and his admirals and generals is as critical as that between the president and Congress. Just how critical that relationship may be is the theme of this book, the first full-length history of its subject. It should be required reading in the White House, the Pentagon, and Foggy Bottom—in this, and every succeeding administration. The history it relates is sobering.
Some things change, and more things stay the same.Nov 10, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 09 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
I first visited Estonia—or more specifically, its capital, Tallinn—in August 1993, two years after the small Baltic state regained its independence after nearly half-a-century of Soviet occupation. Tallinn was in the process of uneasy, edgy transformation. The Soviet past was not yet cleanly past. It was still lurking in the dwindling Russian military bases.
Is there a formula for Republican success with Latino voters? Nov 10, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 09 • By JAY COST
Since Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012, immigration reform has been at the top of the national agenda. Of course, very little has come of it—apart from some legally dubious executive actions, as well as a lot of blather from pundits, left and right, who seem to have no understanding of the Hispanic community. All we ever get are variations on the same theme: Unless they accept a terrible immigration bill, loaded up with payoffs to special interests, conservatives will be doomed to a permanent minority status.
Following the elephants to victory in BurmaNov 10, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 09 • By TEMMA EHRENFELD
The fighting in Burma would be the longest campaign of World War II, under conditions so bad that the Japanese called the place jigoku—hell. Soldiers hiked across hot, dry plains one day and slogged through mud under pelting rain the next. They fought off blackflies, mosquitoes, ticks, and leeches, as well as dysentery, cholera, dengue fever, scabies, trench foot, yaws, and malaria.
What is slang, and where does it come from? Nov 10, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 09 • By SARA LODGE
Charlotte Brontë liked to let her hair down linguistically from time to time. In an unpublished piece of early fiction, she imagines a scene at a horse race in which the owner of the defeated favorite suspects that his horse was doped. Ned Laury introduces an underworld informer, Jerry Sneak—the man who interfered with the horse—but demands: “Who’ll provide the stumpy, the blunt, the cash as it were to pay for the liquor that cousin of mine will require before he peaches?”
Art is born in the experience of lossNov 10, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 09 • By JULIANNE DUDLEY
In her debut collection, Chloe Honum takes the popular theme of springtime and rebirth, and turns it on its head. Or rather, she digs deeper. Rebirth is only possible—only has meaning and significance—because of the reality of death.
Every year my sister and I
sifted through the clutter
of early spring,
Doctor Gawande’s practical prescriptionsNov 3, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 08 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
If you are one of the growing number of older Americans who scan the newspaper obituaries of strangers—at what age did the Grim Reaper strike, and how?—Atul Gawande’s new book is for you. But it is not for the elderly alone. This is the fourth of the Boston surgeon’s book-length discussions of modern medicine, its frontiers, its promises and hazards. Its easy, informative style will be familiar to those who read his medical pieces in the New Yorker.
The self-delusion of Seneca’s service to tyrannyNov 3, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 08 • By DANIEL LEE
In All the King’s Men (1946), Robert Penn Warren’s novel inspired by Huey Long, Warren uses a narrator, Jack Burden, to show the simultaneously corrosive and transformative effect that proximity to power can have, even on people of goodwill. We learn in James Romm’s Dying Every Day that it has ever been thus, with the stakes even higher in first-century Rome.
A royal road to American independence? Nov 3, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 08 • By JACK N. RAKOVE
Eric Nelson is a young historian of political thought at Harvard whose basic ambition is to transform every topic he studies. He has published three books in the past decade, and each seeks to transform a major subject in the study of early modern (16th-18th century) political ideas.
Classic style for the modern temperamentNov 3, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 08 • By DAVID SKINNER
Vladimir Nabokov, who knew a thing or two about the subject, once wrote, “Style is not a tool, it is not a method, it is not a choice of words alone.