Winston Churchill: Hero or Fool?
New books argue that he should have let Hitler go -- and India, too.

Reviewed by Edwin M. Yoder Jr.
Sunday, June 22, 2008


The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age

By Arthur Herman | Bantam. 721 pp. $30


How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World

By Patrick J. Buchanan | Crown. 518 pp. $29.95


The Dire Warning

By John Lukacs | Basic. 147 pp. $24


How the Friendship Between Churchill and Lloyd George Changed the Course of History

By Robert Lloyd George | Overlook. 303 pp. $29.95

There was a time not so long ago when Winston Churchill, England's World War II prime minister, was all but universally admired among English-speaking peoples -- and not by them alone. He had stood against Nazism for two years, then in partnership with Franklin D. Roosevelt had won the war and saved Western civilization.

Revisionism has set in, however. The best of the current revisionist books is Arthur Herman's Gandhi & Churchill, a worthy successor to his wonderfully readable How The Scots Invented the Modern World. Herman depicts Churchill as one party to a rivalry that "destroyed" the empire he had vowed to save. Mohandas Gandhi, whose saintly reputation also seems to be tarnished by time, was his partner in that liquidation.

Churchill certainly committed his share of blunders, even "failures," as a noted book by Robert Rhodes James argued nearly 40 years ago. Impetuousness, leading to occasional misjudgments, was one facet of his genius. And among his alleged failures, resistance to the Indian independence movement stood paramount. Churchill's blindness to Indian claims estranged him from fellow conservatives and (together with his eccentric attempt to get Wallis Simpson accepted as a royal consort in 1936) rendered England less attentive than it should have been to his prescient warnings about Germany's rearmament.

When the showdown over Britain's rule in India began in the late 1920s, the new viceroy, Edward Wood, moved into a palace of 340 rooms, larger than Versailles, whose architect, Sir Edwin Luytens, conceived it as a symbol of permanence. But within a decade and a half the power of the Raj was fading, the most protracted and traumatic of all Britain's postcolonial adjustments.

Herman's book focuses on two imposing figures who epitomized the clash between traditional imperialism and the gathering anti-colonial insurgency, and he tells their stories stylishly and eloquently. But one warning is in order: It is an exaggeration to claim, in the words of Herman's subtitle, that the Churchill-Gandhi rivalry "destroyed an empire" and "forged our age." That verbal extravagance carries the Great Man theory of history much too far and is contradicted by Herman's subtly textured treatment. No two men can fully account for tidal changes in history.

Although Herman constantly juxtaposes the long and eventful lives of both protagonists, their interaction -- they met only once, and that casually and in passing -- was symbolic, distant and political, not personal. Gandhi had studied for the bar in England and revered its legal institutions. Churchill had served as a young army officer in India. Each was well acquainted with the other's background and attitudes. (Churchill famously described Gandhi as "a seditious . . . lawyer now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the vice-regal palace.") Both men had extensive knowledge of India, but they viewed the subcontinent's history from such drastically different perspectives that no meeting of minds was conceivable. Thus, Herman's narrative design entangling the two is a historian's artifice.

On the other hand, he has probed beneath the stereotypes to show that Gandhi, like Churchill, was an unpredictable maverick and that Churchill's doubts sprang from genuine worry that an independent India could be ripped apart by the communal stresses of her countless sects, castes, languages and regions. And, indeed, the murderous Muslim-Hindu conflict that erupted before and just after independence in 1947-48, and led to the separation of Pakistan, tended to vindicate Churchill's doubts. They showed that Churchill's opposition to independence went beyond colonial caprice. There was a certain idealism in his otherwise entrenched and complacent imperialism: He believed that British law and administration were far better for dependent peoples than untried native government.

In Churchill, Hitler and "the Unnecessary War" (which also comes with an extravagant subtitle), political pundit Patrick Buchanan resurrects an old revisionist argument about the paradoxes of the 20th century's world wars. In the 1930s such isolationists as Charles A. Lindbergh and Joseph P. Kennedy, dazzled by Hitler's power, argued that the western Allies should leave the Nazi dictator to the East European conquests he had projected in Mein Kampf. Buchanan assumes that Hitler's ambitions would eventually have entangled Germany in a ruinous clash with Stalinist Russia in which the tyrannical behemoths would have ground one another to powder. As in all counter-factual history, many stubborn actualities must be minimized or skirted.

Buchanan presses this shaky argument with boldness and brio, but it is unclear that he has digested the secondary sources he mentions in more than 1,500 footnotes and quotations. For instance, he frequently cites the Oxford historian Niall Ferguson but largely ignores Ferguson's own assessment of Churchill's heroic defiance of Hitler. In his recent Empire, Ferguson calls Hitler's offer to split the world with Britain a "diabolical temptation . . . wholly insincere" and writes that "Churchill, to his eternal credit, saw through Hitler's blandishments."

John Lukacs's Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat and Robert Lloyd George's David & Winston are faithful to the pre-revisionist view of Churchill's greatness. Lukacs's short book is the latest of several penetrating miniatures in which he explores Churchill's confrontation with Hitler, in particular during the critical days of mid-May 1940. The title's reference is to Churchill's immortal first address to parliament as prime minister, in which he refused to minimize the coming ordeal. Churchill, Lukacs believes, knew that the war might be lost but preferred death to surrender, and his defiance proved to be contagious.

Lukacs has an eye for what G.K. Chesterton called "tremendous trifles." He notes, for example, that when Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain, he took care to treat his fallen adversary with consideration in the ensuing War Cabinet debates, with the result that Chamberlain did not second Lord Halifax's urging in May and June 1940 that the time had come to seek negotiations with Hitler. Magnanimous manners, which were usual with Churchill, had historic consequences.

Robert Lloyd George's book about his great grandfather's friendship with Churchill is a pleasantly anecdotal account of an alliance that began when the two men collaborated on the radical "people's budget" of 1909, an early adumbration of the British welfare state. Lloyd George, the radical Welsh lawyer, and Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough's soldierly grandson, made an odd couple. But their friendship survived considerable discord over party, politics and policy. That it "changed the course of history" is another subtitular stretch. ยท

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., an Alexandria writer, is the author of "The Historical Present: Uses & Abuses of the Past."

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