Friday, January 24, 2014

From the file cabinet: Keegan on Churchill

It's probably just a sign of when I was born, but I have a file cabinet stuffed with hard copies of various things. Not that my files are in great shape. Just now I went to put something in the file labeled "WW1 & 2; Holocaust; Cold War" (yes, a single file for all that) and Iooking idly through it I came across a piece by John Keegan published in U.S. News & World Report of May 29, 2000. It's a hagiographic piece on Churchill on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his coming to office as prime minister in May 1940. Skimming through it I found a reference to Churchill's having become, during and especially after the war, "a hero in the United States, his mother's homeland, where he remains today the object of a cult status he does not enjoy in his own country." This cult status, especially but not only among certain American conservatives and neocons, is one reason there was a bit of a controversy when Obama a few years ago took the entirely reasonable decision to return the Churchill bust in the White House to the British embassy from which, iirc, it had been on loan.

Keegan also refers, earlier in the piece, to Churchill's commitments to "liberty" and "the rule of law." (To which I silently added an asterisk having to do with the Empire.) To give the flavor of the article more fully, I'll quote the concluding paragraph:
Churchill's sun, at the beginning of the third millennium, has risen and, if it should seem to shine fitfully at times and places, is nevertheless the light of the world. No other citizen of the last century of the second millennium, the worst in history, deserved better to be recognized as a hero to mankind.
I do think Churchill was a great war leader and that the particular moment matched his particular skills as orator and, to quote David Jablonsky, "Victorian man of action." However, the statements that the 20th century was "the worst in history" and that Churchill is the twentieth-century figure most deserving of the title "hero to mankind" are debatable. (Note: not wrong, just debatable.)

ETA: I'm reminded of a post a while back at R.P. Wolff's blog in which he went through a list of (supposed) 'great men' of the 20th cent., denying they were great, until he got to Mandela, who was, in his estimation, great (and in my estimation too, I'd hasten to add).


Anonymous said...

I am considerable of a Churchill admirer, despite his faults, but 1940 made his reputation. It is remarkable that, when a melodramatic villain like Hitler threatened to conquer Europe, a politician who'd spent his life longing to be the hero of a melodrama was able to leap into the role.

LFC said...

yes, interesting -- I'd never thought of it exactly like that.

Ronan said...

I hate to even comment on this, because I'm going to just sound like a contrarian troll, and this period isnt something Im overly interested in,but my impression was that history hasnt been too kind to Churchills legacy - that he's now largely seen (if we yadda yadda away ww2) as an incompetent goon (which sits nicely with my old history teachers contention that he was a gin soaked egomaniac- more or less)
Though he made some good speeches and all, I guess.
But if the only thing that could save his legacy was an apocalyptic war, what does that say about his legacy?

Anonymous said...

Well, no one wants a Churchill flame war here, but I think "incompetent" is just wrong. History affords lots of examples of incompetent politicians and war leaders, and I think they contrast with Churchill.

Gallipoli is usually thrown at him, but I don't think he was responsible for the awful execution of a strategically sound concept. But then, I am an "Easterner" who thinks the Allies should have stood on the defensive in the West and supported Russia in the East.

Churchill's 1930s evaluation of the German threat is pretty hard to fault.

Presumably we will spot him 1940.

After that, it's a question of his enthusiasm for a Mediterranean strategy. Max Hastings's recent book on Churchill as war leader is pretty good in sizing up his hits and misses.

As a pure politician, Churchill was pretty much a reactionary dinosaur after WW1 (which is why he got voted out after V-E Day). Tho in his negotiations with the IRA, for instance, he had his moments.

LFC said...

Bit short on time at the moment but I think Churchill's worldview was rooted in late-19th cent. He was a Victorian imperialist in outlook, fought as a young man in S. Africa, etc. His commitment to keeping the Empire caused some tensions w FDR, who in the end subordinated his anticolonialism
to the goal of Allied unity.

I think Anderson knows more about Churchill's strategic hits and misses during WW1 and 2 than I do.

On the alcohol note: from what I've read Churchill definitely liked to drink. (Tho he prob. held it pretty well, most of the time.)

LFC said...

I'm actually not sure why I put up the post -- it was one of those spur-of-the-moment things. I censor about 75-80% of those but this one got through.

On a totally diff subject I have an El Salavador-related anecdote I might post about later.

There's obvs a lot of other stuff going on re e.g. U.S. aid to Afghanistan; Syria developments; Pakistan. But not sure i have anything that insightful to say about 'em.

Ronan said...

"Well, no one wants a Churchill flame war here, but I think "incompetent" is just wrong."

I was just being a polemical ass tbh.I dont know enough about it so most of what I do know (as far as it goes) is only second hand. My impression was that a few recent biographies (including Hastings?) have been quite critical of him though ? certainly incompetent goon was over the top.

Im interested in the bit vis a vis the IRA though. Im only getting back into reading Irish history recently after going off it for a while, but (genuinely) what do you mean by 'had his moments'? afaicr during the treaty negotiations(which he wasnt directly involved in iirc) he was generally a reactionary force on the outside pushing the negotiations ever further from a compromise that would have been acceptable in ireland. (maybe no compromise would have been acceptable in ireland, but afaict history hasnt been that kind to the british negotiating position - being hostile to genuine irish independence, pushing 'symbolic' clauses like the oath to the king etc. All understandable at the time, but still difficult to justify now)

Im reading the book fatal path by the irish historian ronan fanning at the minute (a well respected historian and by no means a blinkered nationalist) and he's not painting a great picture of Churchill (although its early in the book still) My reaction was only in that context really, and i know that man has to be judged in a larger light than these parochial concerns

Ronan said...


My history teacher didnt neccessarily use 'gin soaked' completely negatively. afacr he saw him as a bit melodramtic at times, but wasnt blindly hostile.

I remember an anecdote he told about him (perhaps its well known) that churchill was approached by (i think) his secretary at/or after a party, where he'd been drinking, and she said 'mr churchill, youre drunk!'
to which he replied 'i might be drunk dear X, but you are ugly. And tommorrow Ill be sober, whereas youll still be ugly'

i dont know how true that is, and i think my teacher takeaway was that it was quite funny. Mine was more that C-Hill seemed a bit of an asshole

LFC said...

yes that anecdote is well known. But in the version I've heard it's not his secretary but some sort of titled or high-society woman (lady, whatever).

The other anecdote in that vein is the one where a woman says to him "Mr Churchill if I were your husband I'd give you poison" and he replies "Madam, if I were your husband I'd take it."

They may both be apocryphal...

Anonymous said...

LFC: the 2d anecdote, I believe, was with Nancy Astor, and I think it's for real.

Also, from what I recall of Wm. Manchester's bio, Churchill's poison of choice was Johnnie Walker Red, which he sipped at pretty much all day, considerably watered down with soda.

When you bear in mind that (1) he ate quite a bit, (2) he had the body weight to match, and (3) alcohol use was much more condoned, I think WSC's drinking was under control. Certainly as compared to, say, Pitt the Younger, who IIRC drank himself to death.

LFC said...

Yes, I think I've also seen the ref to Nancy Astor.

LFC said...

Btw Ronan thks for mentioning that Reus-Smit book. Looked at it on Amazon 'look inside' the other day and it seems like something i shd prob. read.

LFC said...

A comment by B. Waring at CT reminded me just now about the 1943 Bengal famine, which definitely goes on the negative side of the Churchill ledger.