Churchill, Winston Spencer (1874-1965)

Photograph of Winston S. Churchill
Wikipedia Commons

Winston S. Churchill was one of the outstanding figures of the 20th century.  He was the son of a British politician and an American socialite and a graduate of the British military academy at Sandhurst.  He first came to public attention for his adventures in the Boer War and was elected to Parliament as a Liberal prior to the First World War.  During the war, he served as First Lord of the Admiralty (equivalent to the U.S. Secretary of the Navy) and was a major advocate of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.  On the other hand, he was also the political godfather of the tank.

Between the wars, Churchill switched party affiliation to the Conservative Party.  Alienated from his old Liberal colleagues and distrusted by other Conservatives, who considered him a political opportunist, he became “the voice in the wilderness,” warning against the Nazi threat from 1933 onwards.  When war came, his foresight earned him a place in Chamberlain’s cabinet.  Though he took considerable (and probably deserved) criticism for the Norwegian fiasco, he became Prime Minister just as the battle of France began in 1940, largely because the leaders of Labour and Liberal Parties made it clear that they would not join a national government led by any other Conservative.  Churchill remained Prime Minister until nearly the end of the war.

Churchill was an excellent writer and superb orator whose greatest contribution was sustaining British resistance in the difficult year between the spring of 1940 and the spring of 1941.  His military leadership was sometimes faulty; he had a fondness for wild and impractical schemes that he hoped could end the Second World War without the bloodshed that characterized the First.  Another of his blind spots was his stubborn opposition to Indian self-rule. But he usually took the advice of his generals and admirals on the overall conduct of the war.  He was a champion of radar and electronic warfare, the escort carrier, and strategic bombing, but supported the Normandy invasion only with great reluctance.

Churchill's initial reaction to the Pearl Harbor attack was relief that the United States was finally a full belligerent on the Allied side. However, having previously underestimated the Japanese, he was stunned by the destruction of Force Z, dismayed at the early capitulation of Hong Kong and shocked by the fall of Singapore. His Pacific war policy was thereafter aimed at holding India and restoring British prestige in the Far East, and he was unenthusiastic about the Burma campaign and Allied efforts to supply China. The war ended before the British could recapture Singapore by force of arms, and Britain never recovered her lost prestige, presaging the postwar independence of her former territories from Pakistan to Borneo.

The friendship between Churchill and the American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a major theme of Churchill's postwar memoirs, but Churchill wrote with magnanimity. Prior to the Atlantic Conference, the famous correspondence between the two was cautious, and Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's right-hand man, and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King were essential intermediaries. Even after the Conference, the trust between the two men, while considerable, was never complete. Roosevelt disliked the British Empire and did not consider it a benign force in history, while Churchill was an unabashed imperialist. Roosevelt's attempt to charm Stalin at Churchill's expense at the Teheran Conference significantly cooled their friendship.

Churchill appears to have suffered from bouts of severe depression, as illustrated by the account in his own writings of a visit to the fleet at Scapa Flow early in the war.  He self-medicated with liberal doses of alcohol. Mike Reilly, the U.S. Secret Service chief during one of Churchill's Washington visits, reported that "He ate, and thoroughly enjoyed, more food than any two men or three diplomats; and he consumed brandy and scotch with a grace and enthusiasm that left us all openmouthed in awe. It was not the amount that impressed us, although that was quite impressive, but the complete sobriety that went hand and hand with his drinking" (Smith 2007). He adored his wife Clementine, who was usually a pillar of strength during his black periods.

For all his faults, Churchill became one of the great heroes of Western democracy, who more than any other single individual saved the West from another Dark Age. His leadership was crucial in the desperate days of 1940, when Britain stood alone against Germany. Had Britain capitulated, it is possible Russia would have succumbed to the German invasion of 1941, and the United States would have found itself standing alone against the Axis powers. Churchill was arguably the greatest figure of the 20th Century.


Churchill (1950)

Fleming (2001)

James (1997)

Smith (2007)

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