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domingo, 23 de dezembro de 2018

Churchill: o indispensável - biografia de Andrew Roberts (The New Criterion)

Nem todo grande estadista é isento de erros e falhas graves em sua carreira. Ao longo de sua extensíssima trajetória na política inglesa, ocupando diversos postos ministeriais, Winston Churchill teve a "oportunidade" de cometer inúmeros e graves erros, que custaram a vida de muita gente, como se encarrega de lembrar seu biógrafo mais recente, Andrew Roberts: 

As Roberts reminds us, Churchill was unsuccessful in a number of those positions, but never incompetent. He acquired a vast administrative and legislative experience and by that time had been considered for decades one of Britain’s greatest orators. Roberts enumerates a long list of Churchill’s serious errors in public life, before and after his elevation in 1940. These include his opposing the vote for women; his handling of much of the Gallipoli operation and perhaps the entire concept (which led to 250,000 casualties in a failed effort to break open the Dardanelles in 1915); his treatment of Ireland and India; his keenness for reversion to the gold standard; his support of Edward VIII in the abdication crisis, his mismanagement of the Norway campaign; his assistance of Greece in 1941; his gross underestimation of the military strength of Japan; his faith in Italy as “the soft underbelly” of Hitler’s Europe; his advocacy of peripheral campaigns in the Dodecanese, Norway, Trieste, and Sumatra; and his deporting the alleged Soviet deserters back to Russia at the end of the war (another 1.2 million executions on Stalin’s gruesome ledger).

Mas, ele também escreveu um bocado, o que me parece um traço excepcional de inteligência: 
... wrote thirty-nine books, countless articles, and five thousand major speeches— totalling eleven million written words and perhaps fifteen million spoken words—and won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Paulo Roberto de Almeida

Winston Churchill at his desk in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street, London, in 1942. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The indispensable man

Like all of Andrew Roberts’s histories, Churchill is massively researched and exquisitely written.1 The author’s sharp sense of humor is often in evidence and warmly complements Churchill’s own. As a chronology of an exceptional life, this is a very fine book that bears comparison with the generally best-regarded single-volume lives of Churchill by Roy Jenkins and Geoffrey Best. (It would not be fair to anyone to bring in Sir Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume official biography, with many accompanying volumes of relevant documents.) Disclosure requires that I mention that Andrew Roberts is a good friend of many years, and that we have written many positive reviews of each other’s books. If I were not conscientiously able to write a good review, I would have declined the assignment.
Churchill’s complicated relations with his parents, rather unloved upbringing (except for his nanny, the admirable Mrs. Everest), tempestuous school career—throughout which he defied sadistic school masters who caned him fiercely but to no effect—are all fairly well known, but this author adds touches that are the fruit of surpassing research. It was generally known that Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome of New York, had had an affair (like many other attractive women) with the then–Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. It was not so well known that she had an elevator installed in her home to convey the ample royal caller effortlessly to her private quarters (after the death of Winston Churchill’s father, Randolph, in 1895, aged forty-five).
Churchill’s early life and fast-moving career are familiar to many, but nowhere better described than in Roberts’s book: the dashing soldier and war correspondent (often simultaneously) in India, South Africa, on the Nile, and in Cuba; the astounding self-acquired knowledge of British, American, and classical history, and English and classical literature; and the ability, which he retained well into his eighties, to recite verbatim vast swaths of stirring prose and poetry. His talent for publicity and his confident and aggressive personality landed him quickly in politics, and into the House of Commons in the waning days of Victoria. Churchill knew everyone who served as British monarch from Victoria (r. 1837–1901) to the present; every leader of his Conservative Party from the Marquess of Salisbury, in office 1880–1902, to Margaret Thatcher, who relinquished the leadership in 1990; and every president of the United States, though a few very casually, from Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, a period covering 1901 to 1974. He was a prominent figure and household name in Great Britain and much of the British Commonwealth, and ultimately the whole world, for sixty-five years. When he finally earned the long-sought office of prime minister, in the most dangerous circumstances in the country’s history, on May 10, 1940, it was after thirty-nine years in Parliament and nine different cabinet positions, including the Exchequer, Home Office, colonies, trade, war, munitions, air force, and the largest navy in the world in both world wars (though it was surpassed by the United States in 1942).
As Roberts reminds us, Churchill was unsuccessful in a number of those positions, but never incompetent. He acquired a vast administrative and legislative experience and by that time had been considered for decades one of Britain’s greatest orators. Roberts enumerates a long list of Churchill’s serious errors in public life, before and after his elevation in 1940. These include his opposing the vote for women; his handling of much of the Gallipoli operation and perhaps the entire concept (which led to 250,000 casualties in a failed effort to break open the Dardanelles in 1915); his treatment of Ireland and India; his keenness for reversion to the gold standard; his support of Edward VIII in the abdication crisis, his mismanagement of the Norway campaign; his assistance of Greece in 1941; his gross underestimation of the military strength of Japan; his faith in Italy as “the soft underbelly” of Hitler’s Europe; his advocacy of peripheral campaigns in the Dodecanese, Norway, Trieste, and Sumatra; and his deporting the alleged Soviet deserters back to Russia at the end of the war (another 1.2 million executions on Stalin’s gruesome ledger).
As a veteran politician and cabinet member, Churchill exercised serious governmental responsibilities for twenty-seven years before becoming prime minister and minister of defense. He served a total of sixty-three years in Parliament, forty-two years in government or as the leader of the opposition; engaged personally in five wars, sustaining many injuries and a few wounds; wrote thirty-nine books, countless articles, and five thousand major speeches—totaling eleven million written words and perhaps fifteen million spoken words—and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. To say it was a monumental career would be, even by British standards, an understatement.
Roberts makes the point that the uneven career Churchill had in most of his ministerial positions counts for little when compared to the fact that he was among the first who saw that Germany was a serious turn-of-the-century rival, that Nazism was a mortal threat, and that Stalinist communism would emerge as an almost equal threat to the whole West. This could be challenged to some degree—there was no shortage of prominent Britons who saw the Wilhelmine threat. And Western opinion, with massive incitement from the United States, picked up the Red Scare pretty quickly. Churchill’s sublime and critical moment—a short thirty months between a long career of controversy that seemed almost to have played itself out and a lengthy, bittersweet but majestic and revered twilight—was when he was the only, the indisputable, and the absolutely irreplaceable man to take the headship of the British Commonwealth as the Nazi war machine erupted into France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and holding it until the Russians and Americans had each been savagely attacked. By the end of 1942, the British had defeated the Germans and Italians in North Africa, the Russians had defeated the Germans at Stalingrad, and the Americans had defeated the Japanese at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal. There was no longer any danger of a German invasion of Britain or a Japanese invasion of Australia.
By his gigantic organizational and galvanizing efforts in 1940 and 1941, Churchill had roused his people and the Commonwealth to a mighty effort that not only won the Battle of Britain in the sky but also the first Battle of the Atlantic. What is more, he had assisted President Roosevelt in changing American opinion from outright isolationism to a desire to give all aid, short of going to war, to the British and Canadians. It enabled Roosevelt to conduct the greatest arms buildup in world history, so that when he broke a tradition as old as the republic and sought a third presidential term in 1940, the unemployment rate was low in the United States, there was peacetime conscription, and aircraft and shipbuilding construction programs of world-unprecedented proportions were underway.
Up to 1940, Churchill had been a great but somewhat quixotic romantic. Then he suddenly became the only man who could prevent Hitler, his then-ally Stalin, and the Japanese from taking over the entire Eurasian landmass.
Up to 1940, Churchill had been a great but somewhat quixotic romantic. Then he suddenly became the only man who could prevent Hitler, his then-ally Stalin, and the Japanese from taking over the entire Eurasian landmass. Without him, in a conflation of two of Roosevelt’s great 1940 addresses, “We in this hemisphere would be living at the point of a gun . . . fed through the bars [of our prison] by the unpitying masters of other continents.” By his at-times almost hypnotic oratory—and replacing the previous prime ministers Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, and Neville Chamberlain, who completely exasperated Roosevelt and Stalin with their weakness—Churchill enabled Roosevelt to see how Hitler could be overcome. He knew as well as Churchill did, and as early, that if Hitler consolidated his control of Central Europe, within two generations Germany would be as great a power as the United States and a mortal threat to it, especially when in league with Japan, which could not challenge the United States for control of the Pacific on its own.
Churchill had to keep Britain afloat and fighting until Roosevelt was ready to go to war and could find a pretext to provoke one. Roberts could have given greater attention to such variances to American neutrality as Roosevelt extending U.S.territorial waters from three to 1,800 miles and ordering the U.S. Navy to attack on detection of any German vessel while the United States sold Britain and Canada anything they wanted with the understanding that they would pay for it when they could through the Lend-Lease Act. Now Roosevelt could envision assisting the United Kingdom to stay in the war while the United States became fully prepared to enter it.
What could not be immediately seen, but Roberts might have mentioned, was that Hitler thought Roosevelt was cranking up to go to war with him, as his ambassador in Washington, Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff (a very competent man, despite being the brother-in-law of Hitler’s imbecile foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop), had warned him. (Roosevelt pulled his ambassador from Berlin after the Kristallnacht massacres in November 1938. Hitler did the same and the countries did not exchange ambassadors again until 1951.) It was the recognition that Roosevelt was going to go to war with him eventually that drove Hitler to attack Russia, so that the Anglo-Americans would have to remove the Nazis from a completely entrenched position throughout Europe, with Russia conquered and banished across the Urals. The German attack on Russia might have been more successful if Roosevelt had not cut off all oil shipments to Japan, which at the time imported 85 percent of its oil from the United States. This required Japan either to cease its invasion of China and Indochina, which Roosevelt knew they would find too humiliating to do, or to attack to the south, especially the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), which Roosevelt had advised them he would consider an act of war. When Japan moved its army on the Siberian border south to attack the Dutch East Indies, Roosevelt alerted Stalin, who moved twenty divisions from the Far East along the Trans-Siberian Railway for the final defense of Moscow and Leningrad.
The greatest “what if” of all is what would have happened if Hitler, having been delayed in Russia by the coup in Belgrade that the British and Americans had organized, and by the shambles Mussolini had created in attacking Greece, had poured ten more crack divisions into Egypt and had taken the Iraqi oil fields and made them available to the Japanese (provided they didn’t provoke the Americans), and then coordinated with Japan to attack at both ends of the Soviet Union in the spring of 1942. Hitler, however, had no patience and thus did not coordinate anything with Japan and instead assaulted Russia after the spring of 1941. This left Japan to imagine that its pride and dignity required it to attack the United States, a nation at least three times as powerful as itself. After a year of Allied mobilization and counterattacks following Pearl Harbor, the Axis was doomed. From then on, the battle was for the shape of the post-war world, and since neither Roosevelt nor Stalin (correctly) thought the British Empire had any chance of enduring much longer, power passed steadily to them.
Churchill, even after the end of his turn as the irreplaceable man who resisted the rise of Nazism and held the fort until the Axis gambled everything on the defeat of Russia and America, remained a glorious and formidable ally to the end. But he was less powerful than the others, and his forces were in secondary theaters. The British had 750,000 troops in the Middle East, several hundred thousand in India, about ten divisions in Burma, and ten more in Italy. The Americans provided 95 percent of the men, ships, and planes for the Pacific Far East, about 40 percent in Italy (a theater they never wanted to be in), and over 70 percent in Western Europe, where Britain had sixteen divisions to America’s seventy-five. (Churchill claimed an additional six Canadian divisions in France and Italy, but Roosevelt, who had a house in Canada and knew the country well, was aware that the Canadians, though close to the British, were an independent country, and Eisenhower allotted Canada its own army.)
Among its few shortcomings, this book doesn’t really mention Churchill’s plan to assist the Finns against the Russians from 1939 to 1940 (getting into war with Russia would have been an unspeakable disaster) and doesn’t precisely identify the geopolitical drift of events as the war progresses. Roberts has exhaustively read the notes of all the meetings between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin (all three official versions are now available) and the diaries of such key personalities as Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Roberts is aware that Churchill’s and Brooke’s skepticism about the D-Day landings was very strong and could only be quelled and overcome by a general offensive by Roosevelt of remarkable virtuosity, which included staying in the Soviet legation in Tehran and satisfying himself before the conference began that Stalin would support the cross-Channel landings. Churchill was still imagining he could draw Turkey into the war, as he had Italy and Romania in World War I (to their great subsequent regret). Brooke was convinced, and Churchill may have suspected, that Roosevelt had been gulled by Stalin into invading France, because Stalin thought the Germans would drive the Brits and Americans into the sea again, as they did at Dunkirk and in Greece and Crete, giving him a clear run through Germany and perhaps to Paris. Roosevelt also thought Stalin might believe that, but he saw that with overwhelming Western Allied numbers of men, tanks, artillery, and aircraft, the Germans would never be able to stabilize the Western Front.
Roberts tries to maintain the theory that Churchill and Brooke were master military strategists, but the truth is slightly more complex. They were resourceful tactical improvisers, shifting weight from one foot to the other until the Russian and American massed armies and the immense American naval and air fleets became available. Apart from the honorable but almost catastrophic assistance to Greece in 1941 that nearly cost Britain Suez and Middle East oil, Brooke and Churchill kept the balls in the air with agility and panache. After that, they never recognized that if a serious second front weren’t opened without undue delay, Hitler and Stalin could reconcile their differences, as they had in 1939. (There were German–Soviet talks in Stockholm in the summer of 1943, as Stalin was happy to mention at Tehran.)
And as Britain had not had an election since 1935, Churchill took little notice of the possibility that if Roosevelt did not go a long way to winning the war by November 1944, he might not be reelected. Churchill largely missed the political side of being a war leader. Roosevelt warned him at Tehran, speaking as the winner of five straight large elections—two as governor of New York and three as president—that if he didn’t present his voters with a dazzling view of the post-war world, he could be defeated. He argued that voters have little gratitude and vote for who they think will do more for them post-election. Roosevelt believed that Churchill’s post-war vision was flawed in its support for an unaltered class system toiling on in defense of Empire and would not fly with voters. (Roosevelt had just presented a massive benefit plan for returning American veterans that promised to usher them all into the post-war middle class.) He also was skeptical of the popular appeal of Churchill’s belief that something like the European balance of power of the previous four hundred years could be resurrected.
This book does, however, give a superb account of the dormant anti-Churchill forces that acquiesced during his premiership—but only temporarily. Churchill the mighty historic lion did not command the entire respect of the old Tories and the hard Left, and the snipings of Chips Channon, Sir John Reith, and even Lord Beaverbrook, are well recorded. All recognized his stature and courage and oratorical powers, but those who had disdained Churchill before the war largely continued to do so, even if only in malicious schoolgirl whispers to each other.
This book succeeds better than any other in debunking the theory that Churchill was seriously depressive—though he naturally did have moments of discouragement—as well as the related theory that he was an alcoholic. He drank consistently and rather heavily all his adult life, but was very rarely intoxicated. In this narrative it becomes clear how Churchill came to be regarded as a talented and formidable but erratic man, after the terrible mistakes of the Gallipoli Expedition, his rather unsuccessful term as chancellor, and the abdication fiasco. At first, his railings against the Nazis seemed to be more of his quixotry. Yet it was obvious from his first day as prime minister that he was the perfect man to mobilize the Commonwealth, convince the Americans that he was worth supporting, and hold his own while what was an Anglo-German war from May 1940 to June 1941 became a world war with the addition of Russia and America to Britain’s side against Germany and Japan. Churchill, de Gaulle, and Stalin all said to their entourages on the day of Pearl Harbor that there would be hard fighting, but that the Axis had no chance of defeating such a mighty coalition. Roberts stretches it a little when he claims that Roosevelt told his cousin Margaret Suckley in June 1942 that victory was “not necessarily” certain. What Roosevelt clearly meant, and which Geoffrey Ward supports, was that it was conceivable that if everything continued to go badly, there might be something less than a complete victory. He never doubted that the Allies would win.
From that point on, Churchill’s role, though noble, gradually becomes sad. He loved the British Empire; it was, as Roberts writes, to some degree his religion. But India was on the verge of independence; the Middle East was a powder keg; Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand were independent (though friendly) countries; and little of the rest of the Empire except Gibraltar, Malta, Singapore, and Hong Kong had any strategic value. His enmity towards the Americans at times is also something of a revelation. The Churchill–Brooke–Montgomery hostility to Eisenhower is particularly striking. Eisenhower largely planned and commanded the greatest military operation in world history, was an outstanding soldier-diplomat, was never identified with a losing battle or poor strategic initiative or command decision, and would probably have got his armies across the Rhine without the Germans being able to mount their Ardennes offensive but for Montgomery’s catastrophic Market Garden debacle, which—though this book doesn’t tell us—cost the American airborne forces more dearly than the British. The Churchill–Brooke–Montgomery demand for a charge up the Adriatic and through the “Ljubljana Gap,” which the Americans claimed did not exist, was bunk, as Roberts implicitly acknowledges. Their opposition to “Dragoon,” the Southern France landings six weeks after D-Day, was also unjustified. The Dragoon forces crossed the Rhine in September 1944 and captured 150,000 German troops fairly effortlessly.
Roberts is right that the “naughty piece of paper” on which Churchill and Stalin demarcated their spheres of influence in post-war Europe in Moscow in October 1944 saved Greece from the communists, but omits mention that Stalin later demanded control of Hungary and that not only Poland, but also Czechoslovakia was not discussed at the meeting. Stalin predictably took this as a blank check, despite the pious guarantees of free elections and autonomy he had promised for Eastern Europe at Yalta (as the Americans and British promised and fulfilled in Western Europe). Roberts is correct to dismiss the tired charges that Churchill and particularly Roosevelt handed Eastern Europe to Russia, but is too gentle on Churchill for his incitement of precisely that inference. Churchill told King George VI that between the Russian bear and American elephant, only the “British donkey knew the way home.” The American position was that if the atomic bomb didn’t work, they wanted Russia to take a share of the anticipated million casualties in subduing the home islands of Japan, as Stalin was certainly going to take what he wanted from Japan and the Far East anyway. Roosevelt’s plan was to use an atomic monopoly and the enticement of a huge economic aid package to produce Soviet compliance with its Yalta obligations. (He died on April 12, 1945, and the atomic bomb was not successfully tested until July.) Roosevelt was already withholding all of the 6.5 billion dollars of aid that he had dangled in front of Stalin because of Soviet conduct in Romania and Poland.
It was disingenuous of Churchill, who pressed for the demarcation of occupation zones in Germany, to demand from Truman that the European Advisory Commission zones be ignored and that the United States’s central army group take Berlin. Truman knew nothing about it, but made the mistake of referring it to the Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, who passed it on to Eisenhower as theater commander. These were strategic decisions that the president, however suddenly and recently thrust into the position, should have taken. Eisenhower said that he would of course follow orders but did not see why the lives of American, British, Canadian, and French soldiers should be expended in taking territory that they had intended to hand over to the Soviet Union anyway, unless it was Truman’s intention to tear up the occupation zone agreement. Truman was advised not to do that because of the possible need for Soviet collaboration against Japan. Churchill had wanted the occupation zone agreement because he was afraid that with only fifteen divisions in Germany, against more than seventy American and more than one hundred Soviet, Britain would have a tiny occupation zone. This very thorough book should not have followed the customary aversion of British historians to mentioning the eac occupation zone agreement. The chairman of the European Advisory Commission was British: Sir William Strang, the third-ranking Foreign Office official after Eden and Cadogan, who had been part of the Munich delegation and the ill-fated mission to Moscow just before the Nazi–Soviet Pact. His apologia for the zone agreement in his memoirs is possibly the lamest such excuse offered by any substantial memoirist of the entire war (without it, he wrote, Stalin might not have entered Germany).
Roberts makes it clear that Churchill’s 1945 election defeat that stunned the world, including Stalin, was not so surprising to the members of Parliament, including Churchill and his chief opponent, the incoming prime minister, Clement Attlee. The Conservatives had no program except their war record. As the Labour Party government’s incumbency proceeded, resentment at the continuation of wartime rations and taxes and the slow reconstruction of Britain from bomb damage gradually overcame the electorate’s gratitude for universal health care. The loss of India and Palestine, which grieved Churchill, was a matter of public indifference, as there was little affection for Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, or Jews in Britain and the majority thought, as Liberal and Labour leaders had tended to, that the Empire was a fraud and a distraction from which Britain did not benefit at all.
Though Churchill made a few speeches calling for European cooperation, he never intended that Britain should be part of it, and he did nothing in either of his terms of government or in opposition to do anything about it. Before the rise of Konrad Adenauer in West Germany and the return of Charles de Gaulle to power in France, Churchill’s prestige among European statesmen was rivaled only by Stalin, who was generally a terrifying figure in Western Europe. But he abdicated the leadership of the revival of the major Western European powers entirely to Adenauer and the Italian leader Alcide de Gasperi, and ultimately to de Gaulle, mistakenly placing all his bets on the Commonwealth and the American alliance.
Churchill finally got his well-earned victory lap with his general election win in 1951, at the age of seventy-six. He had a tranquil Indian summer; his big success was in ending rations. No more chunks of the Empire fell away, though the Mau Mau revolt was underway in Kenya and Britain had to commit to an independent Malaya to gain the defeat of the local communists (a lesson the French in nearby Indochina conspicuously failed to take on board). Churchill’s chief interest, especially after the death of Stalin in 1953, was to attend a conference with Eisenhower and Malenkov. He had met so often with the world’s greatest leaders, and had, as he acknowledged, based so much of his career on “my tongue and my pen,” uttering several of the greatest speeches in the history of the world, that he was, in the autumn of his days, attempting to substitute his eloquence for the fading influence of his country. As the chief architect of Britain’s survival, he can certainly be forgiven for not seeing clearly the decline of its influence.
Roosevelt, too, was a great orator, but he was also a Yankee cynic, made, perhaps, more unsentimental by having to overcome a severe handicap to make his political career, what Churchill called in his parliamentary eulogy of Roosevelt “an extraordinary effort of will-power over physical infirmity.” And he had, as Churchill also said in the same address, “raised the strength, might, and glory of the Great Republic to a height never attained by any nation in history.”
Churchill preferred the 1952 Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai E. Stevenson, whom he scarcely knew (Stevenson had been Roosevelt’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the Governor of Illinois), to Eisenhower, whom he feared, incongruously, would be a “warmonger.” Eisenhower, as the Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe, had been much more wary of needless casualties, and of bumbling into conflict with the Russians, than Churchill. He had negotiated extensively with Stalin in Moscow just before the surrender of Nazi Germany. Roberts hints at, but doesn’t exactly lay out, the obsolescence of Churchill’s perceptions of the international correlation of forces. He was groping for a middle way between the American and Russian superpowers, counting on the Commonwealth, a moral standing in Europe because of the British role in defeating Nazism, and the special relationship with America to forge that third path. He believed, as always, in personal negotiation to delineate national interests and did not recognize the extent to which democracy, which he had done more than anyone except Roosevelt to save and promote, was now in an epic contest with a totalitarian power throughout the world. He had declared the descent of the “Iron Curtain” in a speech sponsored by President Truman in his home state of Missouri in 1946, but seemed now not to understand that there was no room for intermediate states if they wished any influence. People whom he had opposed but then embraced, such as India’s Nehru and Yugoslavia’s Tito, could posture as neutrals, but effectively all power in the world reposed in Washington and Moscow, and, to a slight extent, Beijing.
The last volume of Churchill’s wartime memoirs, titled Triumph and Tragedy, was assumed to refer to victory over the Nazis and the advance into Europe of the communists, but to some extent it also referred to Churchill’s life. He loved Parliament and affairs of state, but was a Conservative in foreign and military policy and empire and a Liberal or even Labour man in social and industrial questions, so he was never altogether happy in any party. And nor were they with him. This caused him, unjustly, to be mistrusted. He was eloquent, and occasionally prophetic, about Britain’s relations with Europe, the United States, and the advanced Commonwealth countries, but he never got the balance exactly right—other than when the future of civilization rested on him and Roosevelt almost alone. He triumphed personally and was almost certainly the most admired man in the world in his last twenty years; and he had played an unsurpassably heroic role in the destruction of the satanic evil of Nazism, having been called to the task when Hitler’s “infected and corroding fingers” were almost at Britain’s throat.
He was, without apparently thinking in these terms, the chief architect of the most artistic and dignified transition in the history of the world: from the leading power to the chief ally of the new leading power, with little lost prestige in the act—an astounding triumph. Yet for Churchill himself there was great sadness in the end of empire and of the sophisticated, intricate great power diplomacy of Richelieu, Pitt, Palmerston, and Bismarck, as well as in the entry into a stark new world of immeasurable power, including the power to annihilate life, with only two players. He also regretted the transformation of great power politics to a combination of traditional nationalism with the competition of ideologies. Against Moscow’s professed equality of all against the evils of rapacious capitalism, Roosevelt’s heirs in the elaboration of American national security policy posited “the free world” fighting godless communism; never mind that most of the alliance were dictators, and Churchill, unlike Roosevelt and de Gaulle, was not really a practicing Christian. Churchill had seen the evils of Bolshevism, but he loved negotiating with Stalin. The status of Britain and the nature of great power rivalry were changing. There was in this an element not of tragedy, but of sadness for Churchill. He had trouble coming to grips with it, as Roberts describes, and trouble realizing his own genius in moving his country from the greatest of powers to the third greatest, while retaining immense credibility with its successor. All this can be seen, clearly and affectingly, in this book, but could have been more precisely stated in key places.
The summit Churchill so ardently wished for took place at Geneva in 1955, a few months after he had left office. Eisenhower presented an imaginative proposal for “Open Skies,” mutual reconnaissance by air, as a tension-deescalating and confidence-building measure. Its time came many years later. The factional struggles after the death of Stalin were still raging and the Soviet delegation consisted of a group of competing factions, represented by Khrushchev, Marshal Zhukov, Molotov, and Bulganin. All they could agree on was to reject everything the Americans proposed. Churchill did not entirely understand the Kremlin’s belief that it had a chance to promote world Bolshevik Revolution, and that the United States, whose isolationist tendencies Churchill had fought from 1914 to the Korean War, was now bent on containing and overpowering the Red Menace, without military force if possible, but by recourse to it if necessary. Thus, in confusion and disappointment, did Churchill finally withdraw from public responsibilities, though he was universally admired. (He waffled about admitting Germany to nato and initially disapproved of heavy-handed American intervention in Guatemala, until Eisenhower warned him off.)
Andrew Roberts vividly portrays Churchill’s gradual sail into the sunset at the end of a magnificent and very long career. After a long preamble of controversy and fluctuating fortunes, Churchill had served like his heroes from his reading of the classics, Leonidas and Horatius, or even Themistocles, and he had survived and been acclaimed as a great orator in the Demosthenean and Ciceronian traditions, and a great writer in the footsteps of the historians Herodotus, Livy, and Plutarch. He ended by writing history in which he was himself a world-historic protagonist. Roberts does justice to this extraordinary man, rivaled only by Franklin D. Roosevelt as the greatest statesman democracy has produced since Lincoln. There are occasional areas that might have been highlighted or shaded a bit differently. But this is a brilliant work, by a very fine historian, on a permanently heroic and always fascinating figure.

Conrad Black is the former publisher of the London Telegraph newspapers and The Spectator.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 4
Copyright © 2018 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com 

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