"Imperialist” is a dirty word, one of many clubs with which to beat one’s opponents beyond the margins of society. And it is too easy to forget, in our solipsistic age, that the language of empire once aroused pride and dignity rather than guilt and shame. Lawrence James, a historian of unusual fairness, is in masterful form with this study of Winston Churchill’s adoration for (and service to) the British Empire.
Its subtitle might seem an affront to those who want to remember Churchill as a statue of untarnished bronze, free from the taint of any taboo. This is, oddly, particularly true of Americans: I have heard several Britons say that one is more likely to find a Churchill devotee in the United States than in the United Kingdom. Even if this is hyperbole, it still reveals an important bit of truth: Churchill remains as much a figure of myth as of history.
Though the book contains no Marxist “anti-imperialist” posturing-—-the author holds much sympathy for the British Empire, a subject on which he has written several well-received volumes—James does not hide his subject’s warts. Nearly all of Churchill’s political views would, today, make him an untouchable public figure. His patriotism derived at least partly from his belief that the white race was specially endowed to civilize the world. Belief in one’s necessary righteousness, of course, usually entails some necessary cruelty. Churchill, for instance, was prone to tirades about “worthless” Arabs and Indian “baboos.” His time as an imperial servant included suppressing rebellions in places like Iraq, though James gives the lie to those who insist that Churchill gassed the Kurds as Saddam Hussein did.
“Liberal imperialist” would be the most accurate term for Churchill, who once wrote that the Raj had rescued India “from ages of barbarism, tyranny and internecine war.” It was a distinctly Victorian view. As a writer and historian, Churchill betrayed a Whiggish belief in the empire’s historical role as a vessel of liberty. An aspiring master strategist, he read the necessary literature: Edward Gibbon on imperial decline, Alfred Thayer Mahan on the importance of naval power. After a stint as home secretary, he became first lord of the Admiralty in 1911—a powerful position that afforded him control over the empire’s external security. It was also the position in which he suffered one of the worst defeats of his career, as the author of the Gallipoli campaign.
It would take another world war to immortalize Winston Churchill as the tenacious, bulldog-jowled leader of Great Britain. He became prime minister in May 1940, on the same day the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries, and he immediately made himself minister of defense. This allowed him to circumvent the “backstairs intrigue” and “cancerous bickering” (as James calls it) of Britain’s military commanders. In the author’s estimation, two decisions by Churchill, made early in his premiership, were “war winners.” One was his rejection of a negotiated peace with Hitler—a favorite point of contention among isolationists and revisionists—and the other was to court the United States for assistance, a necessity considering Britain’s dire finances.
To the half-American Churchill, the United States was connected to Great Britain through shared blood and tradition. But the “special relationship” was then merely a suspicious one. Americans were not keen on helping the British Empire, and Franklin Roosevelt was ultimately motivated by realpolitik: The United States could not afford to see Hitler swallow Europe or the Axis control the Atlantic and Pacific with acquired Royal Navy assets. The Lend-Lease Act, passed by Congress in March 1941, ensured that Britain had the means to fight on; it also ensured that true defeat for the British Empire would come not in war but in peacetime.
The fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 was a humiliating loss for Britain and for Churchill, who called it “the greatest disaster to British arms in history.” For many around the world, the episode meant that British imperialism was (in Walter Lippmann’s words) “obsolete and obviously vulnerable.” Japan would soon take over Borneo, the Gilbert Islands, Papua and New Guinea, and other British possessions.
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.