by Paul Johnson
Viking, 192 pp., $24.95
Paul Johnson, who typically produces large books about large subjects (Modern Times, A History of the American People, A History of the Jews), has produced a very small book about a large topic: Winston Churchill. Fans of Johnson and Churchill might wish that he had written more, yet Johnson’s succinct treatment still manages to introduce some little known facts and unusual insights into the great man while offering a useful literary model for short-form biography.
Almost unnoticed, Johnson’s book divides into equal halves. The first half is a brisk but not wholly conventional narrative of Churchill’s life and political career up to 1940, when he became prime minister. Then Johnson’s approach changes, like a composer switching from minor to major key: Instead of continuing with a pocket narrative of Churchill and the events of World War II, Johnson adopts a thematic approach, listing the 10 key “factors and virtues” that made Churchill a successful wartime leader. Many of Johnson’s 10 factors are familiar—Churchill’s oratory, grasp of strategy (especially airpower), relentless energy, and knack for priorities—but in Johnson’s handling they add up to more than the sum of the parts.
“These ten points,” Johnson concludes, “are essential to answering the question: Did Churchill save Britain? The answer must be yes. No one else could have done it.”
Though Johnson is plainly a Churchill admirer, he is not without strong and occasionally harsh criticism of Churchill’s character and judgments. Johnson says that Churchill was by nature “adventurous and reckless,” sometimes with a “childish toy soldier mentality,” and that he had “a pernicious habit” of violating departmental boundaries and speaking out of turn in cabinet. Johnson does not shrink from labeling several Churchill actions as “huge mistakes,” sometimes even “foolish” or “grotesque.”
These criticisms are important to note because Churchill is a peculiar provocation for many conventional thinkers, as the reaction to Johnson’s treatment of Churchill makes evident. Writing in the Washington Post, James Mann acknowledges that Churchill “ranks as one of the 20th century’s greatest wartime leaders” but still sniffs that Johnson presents “a cartoon version” of Churchill, and that Johnson wants to “explain . . . away” all of Churchill’s mistakes and blunders (which is manifestly untrue, even in a hasty reading). Mann says “the match of author and subject here is a hagiography made in heaven.” In the New Republic, Isaac Chotiner uses Johnson’s book as an occasion to decry “right-wing Churchill worship” verging on “a rather sickly Anglophilia.” Neither of these judgments can be derived from Johnson’s text.
There is more going on here than a critical disagreement with Johnson’s approach to Churchill, or even a mere dislike of Johnson’s Tory leanings. Mann and Chotiner are hardly alone among center-left writers in disdaining Churchill and decrying the fondness conservatives display for him. Both Christopher Hitchens and Michael Lind have written disparagingly of the “cult of Churchill” on the right, with Lind going further to designate Churchill as the patron saint of neoconservatives, which is tantamount to saying that Churchill should be regarded as something of a devil.
This lazy disdain for Churchill reveals yet another facet of the decaying liberal mind, for Churchill ought to be as much of a hero of liberals as he is for conservatives. He was an enthusiast of Progressivism and the New Deal, and an early architect of the British welfare state. In American politics Churchill preferred Democrats to Republicans, got on well with Truman but badly with Eisenhower—indeed, he confided to several people that he preferred a Stevenson victory over Ike in 1952. (Lind’s complaint against Churchill as a neocon icon is based partly on seeing it as another Straussian/Republican plot, apparently unaware that Leo Strauss was also a Stevenson supporter.)
Churchill’s political philosophy, Johnson notes, was somewhat opaque; late in life Churchill told a Labour MP, “I’ve always been a liberal.” Johnson notes that Churchill “found the center attractive,” and Churchill’s dislike of partisanship, manifested in his multiple party switches, makes him the ideal prototype for today’s fetishists of post-partisanship. There’s seldom been a better example of ending “gridlock” in government. Far from sending Churchill’s bust back to London from the Oval Office, Barack Obama should have added another layer of polish and adapted the legacy to himself.
To be sure, Churchill has had significant liberal admirers: Isaiah Berlin and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. come to mind. John F. Kennedy was one, and was greatly disappointed that he could not lure him to the White House during Churchill’s final visit to the United States in 1961. And there are a few contemporary liberals (Chris Matthews, Sen. Dick Durbin) who count themselves as Churchill fans. The most popular biography was written by William Manchester, an old school liberal, while Johnson thinks Roy Jenkins, a longtime Labour party leader, wrote the best one-volume biography (in which Jenkins says he changed his mind about Churchill in the course of his writing, coming to regard Churchill as “the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street”).
For the most part, however, liberals are happy—eager in fact—to cede Churchill as a conservative property, and beyond outliers such as Manchester and Jenkins, one looks in vain for a liberal writer treating Churchill well or at length. The left’s hostility, or boredom, about Churchill has several sources, a few of them narrowly substantive (old complaints about imperialism) but mostly derived from the twin scourges of modern liberalism: egalitarianism and nihilism. No amount of liberal acts from Churchill can counterbalance his inegalitarian sentiments—and his example of human excellence. When liberals decry Churchill “hero worship” by the right, it isn’t the worship that arrests them but the hero part. What rankles the critics of Paul Johnson’s biography is its plain recognition of Churchill’s greatness, and the “joy” (Johnson’s term) of writing his life. Seeing the churlish response to Johnson’s brief biography recalls the judgment of the British historian Geoffrey Elton:
When I meet a historian who cannot think that there have been great men, great men moreover in politics, I feel myself in the presence of a bad historian. And there are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill—whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of the man and his career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man.
Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders.