The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965
By Rachel Kunjummen Paulose
AAP guest columnist
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Book I, The Fellowship of the Ring)
Winston Spencer Churchill, the person most responsible for emancipating the world from the terror of Adolf Hitler, is a man who belongs to the ages, to borrow Edwin M. Stanton’s tribute to the Great Emancipator. Many historians have depicted Churchill’s life, but William Manchester produced a two volume biography, “The Last Lion,” which remains the most popular among Churchill devotees.
Unfortunately for Manchester as well as his readers, Manchester died in the process of compiling the final volume of what was intended to be a three volume series. Manchester’s timeline of Churchill thus ended in the spring of 1940, the most critical juncture of Churchill’s career. Some of us took the loss personally.
Fortunately, Manchester chose a successor, Paul Reid, then a reporter for The Palm Beach Post. Critics sniped that Reid lacked the appropriate credentials for so Herculean a task. The critics were wrong. Reid has risen to the occasion and completed Manchester’s epic work in grand fashion.
Reid picks up where Manchester left off, just as Churchill was offered the post he had sought for a lifetime, prime minister of Great Britain. Facing a demoralized citizenry, a seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine, and a world on fire, Churchill stood indomitable.
Citing amply from Churchill’s own speeches, the authors demonstrate how Churchill rallied a shaken people to “stand up to” Hitler’s genocidal tyranny. Edward R. Murrow famously said of this unique leader who wrote all his own speeches, “Now, the hour had come for him to mobilize the English language and send it into battle.” Churchill summoned his people in words that remain immortal: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
For eighteen agonizing months from the fall of France in June 1940 to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Britain stood alone. While the Communist Soviet Union negotiated a peace treaty with Germany and a war weary United States remained adamantly isolationist, Hitler rained down bombs on London in the ferocious Blitz.
Churchill took no prisoners. At Mers-el-Kebir, Churchill ordered the bombing of a French fleet in danger of falling into Nazi hands.
Even more, Churchill imparted his courage to his people. British civilians dramatically saved their own army from massacre at Dunkirk. The Royal Air Force took the battle to the Germans in brave bomber missions, even while suffering tremendous casualties.
A diplomat as well as a warrior, Churchill convinced a reluctant President Franklin D. Roosevelt to increase aid to Britain, including with the much vaunted Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the British to prosecute the war against overwhelming odds. He maneuvered the ever scheming Duke and Duchess of Windsor to the Bahamas, where they could inflict minimal damage. Churchill also massaged the frequently insufferable Charles de Gaulle, who was unmanageable even in exile.
When Germany reneged on its treaty with the Soviet Union, and even more significantly, Japan attacked the United States, Churchill understood at once the tide had turned. Their common enemy led to a remarkable joint effort among Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Churchill tirelessly traveled to meet world leaders, including at the “Big Three” conferences at Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam.
The authors examine Churchill’s successful partnerships with both FDR and Premier Joseph Stalin, both of whom were cunning, convincing, and charming. Churchill’s friendship with FDR was especially poignant. We see Churchill at his sentimental best, arranging for the stricken president to be carried to the pyramids of Egypt, a site FDR had never visited. It was an alliance that lasted “even to the end,” as Roosevelt’s advisor Harry Hopkins promised.
As he had warned the world of appeasement at Munich, Churchill was the first to sound the alarm on Soviet aspirations to his wartime allies. In 1946, Churchill would describe the descent of the Russian “iron curtain” in a speech he gave in Fulton, Missouri. Unlike Cassandra, Churchill’s warnings were eventually heeded, consequentially but not catastrophically late.
With the Soviets pushing for a second front to relieve pressure on their people, decimated by the millions, the Americans and British responded from the west on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The landings at Normandy marked another turning point in the war, with the military momentum on the ground now decidedly shifted towards the Allies. Within months, France was liberated, the horror of the “Final Solution” was unearthed, and the Allies chased the retreating Germans to Berlin. Hitler committed suicide, and the war in Europe ended in May 1945.
The great powers carved up dominions, sometimes dividing people groups in painful ways that evoke Michael Ondaatje’s warning in The English Patient: “We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men.”
Even as the sun was setting on the vast English empire, Churchill maintained an abiding faith in the inherent greatness of his island nation. As the crowds gathered to celebrate V-E day, a humbled Churchill told his people, “This is your victory.” They roared back, “No, it is yours.”
For a man who turned 71 the year the war ended in Europe, Churchill showed an unflagging energy that tired the much younger men who served him. Churchill began his typical work day at midnight in his home, and retired for only a few hours before returning to work. The authors suggest that Churchill’s prodigious schedule allowed him to essentially pack two work days into one.
In one of the remarkable turns of history, the British people turned Churchill out after the war. Churchill remained in the House of Commons as part of the loyal opposition. Even more remarkably, he returned as Prime Minister in 1951 and served until 1955.
The book is primarily a military history of WWII. The authors do not delve deeply into Churchill’s personal life, including his relationship with his wife and children, all of whom he adored.
Likewise, Churchill’s post premier years are given very little attention. The authors perfunctorily catalogue Churchill’s receipt of honors late in life: the Nobel Prize in Literature, knighthood, and an honorary American citizenship. When Churchill died in 1965 at the age of 90, he was accorded a state funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral. “Operation Hope Not” planned the majestic farewell for five years, but Reid does not portray Churchill’s funeral services.
Reid addresses noteworthy questions that divide Churchill scholars to this day. Convincingly, Reid presents evidence that Churchill was neither habitually prone to suicidal depression nor abusive of the bottle. Less convincingly, Reid argues Churchill was a man devoid of faith. Reid simply ignores evidence to the contrary, never even citing Churchill’s oft quoted affirmation to the American Congress after the United States joined the war: “He must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honor to be the faithful servants.”
Reid does not explicitly answer the most intriguing question of all: where in the pantheon of history’s great leaders does Churchill stand? Other Churchill biographers did not hesitate to issue their own verdict. Roy Jenkins, himself a member of the House of Lords, declared Churchill “the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street.” Indeed, Manchester opened volume I with a Churchillian oration that described his subject as “England’s last chance,” and opined in volume II he was, at the least, the “greatest Englishman since Disraeli.” In 2002, an unequivocal British public voted Churchill the “greatest Briton” of all time.
By contrast, Reid prefers to invoke the assessments of others, including Churchill’s contemporaries, many of whom recognized Churchill as a living legend.
In one respect only is Reid’s analysis deeply flawed. Reid depicts a benevolent Churchillian colonial policy, particularly with respect to India. Reid asserts that India’s economy was protected by its “tether” to the British empire, and he claims the empire sought no “financial gain” from its colonies.
Even the great man himself never portrayed his imperialist ambitions so charitably. The history of the British in Asia was one of plunder. To this day, priceless artifacts including the Kohinoor diamond have never been returned to the nations from they were purloined, to say nothing of the massive natural resources seized. Prime Minister Cameron objects to sending all native treasures back as the “British Museum will be emptied,” which is one way of admitting the colonial powers were major league looters.
Reid’s shallow scrutiny of Churchill’s colonial policy is striking in light of the liberation movements of the twentieth century, all of which were rooted in Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence and first strategically deployed against the British. However, Reid’s lack of understanding on this issue is but a minor distraction in an otherwise compelling biography.
Reid’s writing style is close enough to Manchester’s to give this third volume a sense of authenticity as the closing movement of a much lauded symphony. History is rendered as poetry as admirals “sall[ied] forth to fight;” “searchlights threw long spears of light into the night sky;” and a burning London was initially mistaken for the “tangerine handiwork of the setting sun.” Even when writing about the highly technical advancements Churchill helped set in motion through radar, chemical warfare, and the atomic weapon, Reid is engaging.
Likewise, this book is a multilayered story accessible to readers new to the Churchill legend. Simultaneously, the scholarship is sophisticated enough to rivet true devotees. The book makes frequent allusions to literary classics and persons of note without breaking up the story’s drama by laboriously identifying sources. In one passage, the authors note Churchill’s electioneering for William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington. The casual reader will appreciate Churchill’s generosity, while students of history will smile at this clever insertion of Kennedy kin in the Churchill narrative of unfailing fidelity, notwithstanding Joseph P. Kennedy’s treachery against the Court of St. James.
After nearly three decades and 3000 published pages, Manchester and Reid have completed their joint mission: a stunning study of a truly great man. Another remarkable Englishman writing another timeless trilogy counseled, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Those who cherish freedom will be ever grateful Churchill courageously completed his mission. In the time that was given him, Winston Spencer Churchill never surrendered.