James Mann reviews 'Churchill' by Paul Johnson

By James Mann
Sunday, January 3, 2010


By Paul Johnson

Viking. 181 pp. $24.95

Winston Churchill made many huge blunders during his long career. In this slim but worshipful new biography, Paul Johnson wants to explain them all away.

By any standard, Churchill ranks as one of the 20th century's greatest wartime leaders and an unsurpassed orator. Yet among conservative intellectuals, he is also something else, virtually a patron saint, for having stood up to Hitler's tyranny and for having persevered in virtual isolation against the 1930s mood of appeasement. For his own part, Johnson, the author of books such as "Modern Times," is a prominent conservative writer. The match of author and subject here is a hagiography made in heaven.

"Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable," Johnson says in the book's opening words. "It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it. None holds more lessons, especially for youth." It is hard to maintain this sort of reverential tone, even in a work that is really more a longish essay than a full-scale biography. But Johnson certainly tries.

In World War I, Churchill was ousted as lord of the admiralty for his role in the British disaster at Gallipoli. Back at the war office a few years later, he sent British troops to Archangel to try to reverse the Russian Revolution. Both of these campaigns failed, and Churchill was blamed. Unfair and unfair, writes Johnson; his colleagues and subordinates were responsible.

In the 1920s, as chancellor of the exchequer, Churchill supported the gold standard, a contributing factor to the Great Depression. Although Churchill himself later admitted this was wrong, Johnson says that in retrospect he was right: "We can now see that there was much to be said for the gold standard." When the author concedes that Churchill ran astray in demeaning Mahatma Gandhi as a "half-naked fakir," you almost expect him to add that anyway, the Indian leader was half-clothed. (He doesn't go that far.)

Indeed, the one regret Johnson has about Churchill is that, by current standards, he wasn't conservative enough. Voted out of office at the end of World War II, he returned as prime minister from 1951 to 1955, but made no effort to reverse the growth of Britain's postwar welfare state. "The country had to wait till Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s," writes Johnson mournfully.

Still, this is a sometimes entertaining little book, because Churchill himself was so entertaining. Johnson barely has room to summarize Churchill's career, but he does manage to include the most memorable lines from Churchill's speeches and the best of his quips and aphorisms.

In private, Churchill's wit was scathing. He called U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles "the only bull I know who carries his china shop around with him." (And he added, for good measure, "That man makes a beautiful declension: 'Dull, Duller, Dulles.' ") Churchill coined phrases that are now common expressions: When he spoke to both houses of Congress about Britain's role in the world, he said he hoped to "punch above my weight." It was Churchill who said of diplomacy: "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war." In Johnson's account, Churchill may not have been the originator of the terms "iron curtain" and "cold war," but he popularized them both.

His series of wartime speeches loses nothing with time. Upon taking office in 1940, he declared, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." Less than a month later came his famous pledge: "We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender." Later that summer, he said of Britain's fighter pilots, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Johnson argues plausibly that despite all the oratory, "the most important act of persuasion in Churchill's entire career" was his successful campaign to get the United States, under Franklin Roosevelt, to give top priority to defeating Germany first in World War II, rather than Japan.

Insights such as this into Churchill's strategy are too rare, however. Johnson is not interested in a complex portrait. He declares with supposed certainty that Churchill never looked at another woman besides his wife, and asserts that while he was regularly photographed with cigars, "he did not inhale."

Churchill does not need this sort of prettifying. In the end, Johnson's book gives us a cartoon version of the man.

James Mann is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan."

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