IN COMMAND OF HISTORY *
Churchill Fighting and Writing
the Second World War
By David Reynolds
Random House. 631 pp. $35
"We are all worms," the young Winston S. Churchill confided. "But I do believe I am a glow-worm." In his spin on World War II, told over six volumes and nearly 2 million words in which he depicts himself as seldom guilty of a mistake, Churchill indeed glows. Between 1923 and 1931, he had published a six-volume history of World War I and its aftermath, The World Crisis, which A.J. Balfour, a former prime minister, described as "Winston's brilliant Autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe." In that vein, David Reynolds, a Cambridge University historian, adroitly dissects Churchill's second vast war memoir, illuminating how and why it was written and its worth as narrative and chronicle. Churchill used his epics to build and buttress his reputation; In Command of History dismantles it.
The 1953 Nobel laureate for literature comes off here as rather deficient as a historian and human being. Eight years in the making, The Second World War earned millions in syndication and royalties that Churchill drew on to facilitate his self-indulgent lifestyle. Still, he was motivated more by his zeal for vindication than by financial greed or necessity. Ousted from office a month before the surrender of Japan in August 1945 as voters registered reluctance about having him manage the peace, he wanted to manipulate the way "his" war would be remembered.
When Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, he began to order official documents and correspondence set in type for his personal file, anticipating the history he knew he would one day publish. Having already "done" one war, he knew that it was easier to exploit contemporary papers than to write retrospective history. Also, time pressed. In his seventies when the war ended, he had survived several strokes, but he itched to be back in Downing Street. The project had to be completed while he was still in the political wilderness. And he had a plan.
He wrote history, Churchill once remarked, "the way they built the Canadian Pacific Railway. First I lay the track from coast to coast, and after that I put in the stations." He set up a sequence to shape the content, then employed research assistants, whom he called his "Syndicate," to gather relevant material and even ghost-write many of the chapters, each elaborately padded with "key pieces of evidence." (For The World Crisis, he apparently only cherry-picked his own documents.) His team included experts drawn from government, academe and the army. Churchill tweaked their drafts into his Augustan rhetorical style. He also deleted "many of the embarrassing parts" about his failures, especially where public bravado concealed private doubt.
To his credit, Reynolds reveals some haunting -- and humanizing -- examples drawn from the Churchill papers at Cambridge. Returning in June 1940 from visiting his tottering allies in France, the prime minister confessed to his military secretary, Gen. Hastings Ismay (later one of the Syndicate), "We fight alone."
"We'll win the Battle of Britain," Ismay insisted.
Bleakly, Churchill replied, "You and I will be dead in three months time."
Recalling this episode in July 1946, Ismay appealed to his interlocutor not to use it: "I would prefer that this intimate heart to heart conversation were never given to the world." Reynolds gives it to us.
The ongoing texts were typeset into galleys so that Churchill could see how they looked in print, but the Syndicate had no professional proofreader. That led to the description in one volume of the prewar French army as "the poop of the life of France." (Churchill meant "the "prop.") The error was more accurate than intended, but thereafter he engaged a professional to oversee the books' spelling and grammar.
Although Churchill was incensed when Time magazine referred in 1948 to his "squad of helpers," the press hardly noticed. As with many hyped books, critics reviewed the celebrity author, not the work. In a rare exception, Michael Foot, a journalist and member of Parliament, derided the initial volume in the Labour-affiliated Tribune newspaper as Churchill's Mein Kampf. And when parts of Samuel Eliot Morison's history of American naval operations were lifted for a chapter on the war at sea, Churchill only "rewrote the opening and sharpened some phrases." Morison noticed; unawed, he demanded future credit.
In the study at his home, Chartwell, usually after a well-lubricated dinner, Churchill would dictate dramatic, often embellished reminiscences that became the most striking aspects of the volumes. Some recollections were so personal (and so self-serving) that the Syndicate could not validate their authenticity. Having it both ways, Reynolds asserts that while "factual inaccuracy was balanced by poetic truth," the history, especially those parts told in the first person, is "willfully inaccurate," replete with "attempts to deceive his readers" (as in falsifying his schemes to thwart D-Day) and blatant cover-ups. As always, the purpose was to "reposition the image of Churchill."
Several tactics contributed to this. Churchill's centrality is enhanced by concealment and distortion (as with the agreements at Yalta, the advance on Berlin and various Churchillian strategic fiascos). Also, 20/20 hindsight is employed through a plethora of "counterfactuals," retrospective cases for the "ifs" of history -- things that allegedly weren't done, despite his urging. Reynolds also cites the gross suppressions in these pages. British anti-Semitism and the Nazi extermination camps vanish. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union remains only on the margins of Churchill's vision: The sweeping work includes almost nothing about the German catastrophe at Stalingrad, while El Alamein -- a lesser British victory at about the same time -- is magnified as the hinge of the war.
As the volumes soldiered on, and as his Labour successors began faltering, Churchill was also situating himself for a comeback. Writing now not only to vindicate his past stewardship but also to foreshadow his return to Downing Street (which he again inhabited from 1951 to 1955), he pulled his punches about autocrats and allies whom he abhorred (including Stalin, Tito and de Gaulle) and watered down his wrangles with Eisenhower.
Although Churchill conjured an epic, he wound up creating "a complicated literary text -- not entirely Churchill's work and not simply memoirs." Reynolds does not think this diminishes Churchill's achievement and suggests a parallel in the field of science, "where it is the norm for a major figure to direct a research group." Yet in a scientific publication, associated researchers are identified along with the primary author. Here, as Churchill intended, he stands alone. Beyond his financial incentives, he was fighting and managing two wars -- the historical one in which he was a senior statesman and a meddling strategist, and the emerging historiographical one that questioned his leonine self-image. The memoirs furnish an opportunity for Reynolds to examine Churchill's reinvention of his wartime role and the mechanics of his egocentric revisionism. Ironically, that may be their ultimate value. The history he wrote now seems much less magisterial than the history he made. *
Stanley Weintraub's books include "Long Day's Journey into War: Pearl Harbor and a World at War" and "The Last Great Victory: The End of World War II."