Venerations

by Isaac Chotiner | January 15, 2010

Right-wing Churchill worship is a well-known phenomenon. It has been picked apart with a thoroughness to match the study of Churchill himself. Caspar Weinberger—Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of defense—kept a large store of Churchill memorabilia and rarely passed up the opportunity to laud the British hero. Republican presidents from Nixon to George W. Bush have found it useful to summon the great man’s image. At the dawn of the Gulf war, the late Jack Kemp chose to quote Churchill’s diary during a cabinet meeting at which he had been asked to recite a prayer. The substitution must have gone almost unnoticed among politicians who tend to view Churchill as a kind of deity. When Barack Obama, soon after taking office, returned a bust of the former prime minister (first installed in the Oval Office by his immediate predecessor, naturally) to London, the conservative blogosphere almost lost its mind. 

Strangely enough, the one time in recent memory where the comparison between a long-dead Tory and a living Republican politician merited attention was immediately after 9/11, when Rudolph Giuliani was hailed as our era’s Churchill. Look closely: Here was a frequently unpleasant, often thuggish, and much-despised public figure whose finest hour (the style is infectious) occurred during the biggest crisis of his time. The American right has tended, then, to focus on the period stretching from Munich through the summer of 1945, when British voters expelled Churchill’s government from office even before V-J day and after a particularly despicable election campaign. This narrowed frame has two things to recommend it: Churchill’s career prior to his premiership was an almost total failure, and the years between Munich and his electoral defeat were indeed as remarkable as even the most tiresome idolaters claim them to be.

This rather sickly Anglophilia is distinct from the ways in which many British right-wingers approach Churchill. A not insignificant number of Tory intellectuals and historians admire Churchill for exactly the wrong reasons. For his warm embrace of imperialism, his obstinacy on Indian independence, his ugly stance on Ireland, and his contempt for the labor movement, he is to this day admired by unsavory figures on the British right. But Churchill was also responsible for the forfeiture of the British Empire and the rise of the Pax Americana—or so this thinking goes—and the resulting bitterness tends to outweigh all other considerations. John Charmley, in his interesting and nasty book about World War II, infamously captioned a photograph of Joseph Kennedy and Churchill thusly: “Two appeasers, 1940. Ambassador Kennedy wanted to appease Hitler, Prime Minister Churchill wanted to appease Roosevelt.” As Arthur Schlesinger wrote in a TNR review of Charmley, the latter essentially argued that, “If only Britain had made an early peace with Nazi Germany the British Empire would still be a place where the sun never sets.”  Even though Tory politicians—Thatcher foremost among them—have tended to call upon the aura of Churchill, his relationship to the British right has always been more complex than the outright gushing that greets any mention of his name in conservative circles here.

It is for this reason—and only for this reason—that Paul Johnson’s new biography of Churchill is worth a look.  Johnson is a famous intellectual figure and crank in Britain, an editor and author who has moved steadily to the right over the past half century. His charm is an acquired taste. For example: “I don't fall for the hype about Nelson Mandela, under whose timid rule South Africa went straight for the rocks. The only man to emerge with credibility from the total devastation of recent years is poor old Ian Smith of Rhodesia, who has been proved right on every point and whose popularity with the Africans rises all the time.” This nicely captures Johnson’s grumpy reactionary tendencies, which extend to almost every area of his historical analysis. His book Modern Times is an out-and-out attack on modernity because it brought with it sexual deviancy and greater social freedoms. Intellectuals, which appeared in 1988, is a crude assault on the personal lives of everyone from Marx to Edmund Wilson. Like many of the lefties that he loves to hate, the personal is the political for Johnson. He later wrote a history of the American people, which secured him a place as the American right’s favorite foreign-born historian (“[P]erhaps the most important history of the American people in our generation,” Newt Gingrich gushed in The Weekly Standard). In this version of the American story, FDR was an authoritarian and Nixon was a great wartime leader.

Johnson’s new book is very slight; he manages to tell Churchill’s entire life story in just a couple hundred generously spaced pages. Johnson announces the tone that he will take on the very first page. Quoting Churchill, who once said, “We are all worms. But I really think I am a glowworm,” Johnson adds: “Why did he glow so ardently? Let us inquire.” Churchill’s father’s unremarkable career is given a nice sheen, and his mother is described as follows: “[S]he looked, moved, talked, laughed, and danced with almost diabolical magic.” If he says so. Winston’s schooldays are touched on lightly, as is the young man’s gift for words, something which Johnson does not share. (“[Words] became the verbal current coming through his views as he shaped his political manhood.”) Pretty soon Churchill is off to Cuba, then India, then Egypt, and finally South Africa. A budding parliamentary career led to his appointment as first lord of the admiralty during World War I (Johnson, predictably, euphemizes Churchill’s role in the Gallipoli disaster). The 1920s saw Churchill as chancellor of the exchequer, where he oversaw a return to the gold standard. The decision was criticized by Keynes, among others, and although Churchill later admitted to being disastrously wrong on the subject, Johnson summarizes the matter by saying that Thatcher’s economic policy proved Churchill correct. Before Johnson convincingly explains why this is the case, we are in the 1930s, and all eyes have turned to the oncoming fascist menace. 

But not really. Even Johnson is forced to admit that Churchill was extremely slow to see the danger of aggressive Japanese imperialism, but he makes a mystery where none exists by pleading bafflement as to why this was so. This is of a larger piece with his playing down the fascist sympathies of a huge number of Britons, especially in the Conservative Party. The Abdication Crisis of 1936 was another humiliation for Churchill, but he managed to turn things around in heroic fashion. After the hideous disgrace of Munich, Churchill became the strongest opponent of fascism, and brilliantly succeeded in outlining the moral and practical obligations of the Western democracies. As the leader of the alliance against fascism and then communism, Churchill really was a hero. But Johnson has almost nothing new to add about what is arguably the most analyzed period in world history. Churchill’s final twenty years, which included a second stint as prime minister, and increasingly desperate attempts to reach agreements on arms control, are glossed over. Amazingly, Johnson claims that Churchill was “glad he was spared the duty of setting India free,” which is amusing considering that Churchill never thought his countrymen had a duty to set India free. Johnson is smart enough to know who his audience is, however; the book displays almost no resentment towards America. It does this by skipping over most of the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence (which is filled with a shocking amount of resentment and bad feelings), and playing down Churchill’s rage at having to play the junior partner in a wartime alliance. This is history without controversy or irony. 

At a time when Barack Obama seems uninterested in taking Gordon Brown’s phone calls, it is easy to sneer at the “special relationship” and the whole style of history that Johnson both writes and personifies. But the Anglo-American relationship is special. Paul Johnson has written a mediocre and boring book that should be ignored by people who want to get a real sense of Churchill the man, and of the complexities of twentieth-century history more generally; but the object of Johnson’s admiration is the right one. And the idea of not having any books like this—the idea that the special relationship is historically obsolete, and that Winston Churchill may no longer be generally revered—is a rather melancholy thought. Fareed Zakaria recently praised Obama as “the anti-Churchill.” What sort of praise is that, not least in these days of war against a different sort of totalitarian enemy? The problem today is not that too few public figures get labeled “Churchillian;” the problem is that they are not Churchillian enough.

Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book. 

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