Oblivious to the Weight of History
By Grant Havers - September 14, 2010

Anyone in search of a short yet useful introduction to the life of Sir Winston Churchill will find it in Paul Johnson's biography. Johnson, a long-established historian of the modern age, has penned a readable and informative account of the life, personality, thought, and actions of a political leader who is aptly described as a "mass of contradictions." (p. 19) Out of these contradictions Johnson has culled a portrait of a statesman who not only saved Britain from Nazi tyranny; he saved the cause of civilization itself.

Despite an occasional criticism of his subject here and there, the author leaves no doubt in the reader's mind as to what citizens of modern democracies should believe about Churchill. "Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable." (p. 3) Moreover, everyone "who values freedom under law, and government by, for, and from the people, can find comfort and reassurance in his life story." (p. 166) Why do we need this comfort and reassurance at this moment in history, especially in light of the mammoth literature that has already been devoted to the legend of Churchill?

Readers who are already familiar with Churchill's life will be hard pressed to find anything new or startling in Johnson's narrative. As he makes clear from the beginning, Johnson's purpose is to explain why Churchill managed to "glow so ardently" throughout his life, and he fulfils this purpose admirably. In his nobility and courage, Churchill always stands apart from everyone – his family, his contemporaries, the century in which he lived. Despite his fairly conventional political views – Johnson accurately portrays him as a lifelong liberal – what never ceases to fascinate the student of history about Churchill is his passion for great political deeds that would transform the twentieth-century.

Unlike Churchill's many critics, Johnson does not restrict his account to the fateful years between 1940 and 1945, when he served as prime minister. Although the author enthusiastically praises Churchill for mobilizing Britain's military machine and persuading President Roosevelt to join the struggle against Hitler, he also spies Churchill's greatness of purpose and resolve much earlier in his life.

While most writers see World War 1 as a period of failure for Churchill's ambitions (after the disastrous Dardanelles campaign over which Churchill presided in 1915, as First Lord of the Admiralty), Johnson finds more success in this time of life than perhaps even Churchill did himself. More than anyone else in the British cabinet, Churchill pushed for the crushing of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, a failed intervention for which he received (unfairly) all of the blame. Johnson makes clear what might have been, had this Allied intervention prevailed. "If it had succeeded, more than 20 million Russian lives would have been saved from starvation, murder, and death in the gulag. It is most unlikely that, with Bolshevism crushed, Mussolini could have come to power in Italy, or still less, Hitler in Germany. Imagine the post-war world without either triumphant Communism or aggressive Fascism!" (p. 60) Even in failure, Churchill possesses a nobility and wisdom that is unshared by his contemporaries.

Praise like this will make some readers wince when they recall the aftermath of Yalta some 25 years later, when Churchill and Roosevelt stood accused of selling out Eastern Europe to Stalin and his occupying Red Army. Perhaps in anticipation of this now famous criticism of Churchill, Johnson puts all the blame squarely on FDR, who was "undersuspicious" of Stalin's desire for territory while he was "oversuspicious" of Churchill's intent to preserve the British Empire. (p. 130) Johnson is hardly the first historian to unload the primary responsibility for Yalta onto the president, who died before he could write his own account of the war, as Churchill did.

In Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship (1989), Robert Nisbet also exposes the president's shocking lack of attention to the horrific nature of Stalinism and what it would mean for the occupied peoples of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Nisbet, unlike Johnson, however, does not let Churchill off the hook altogether, since the prime minister's excessive (if insincere) praise of Stalin at Yalta likely made a bad situation somewhat worse by persuading the wily dictator that the West would never resist Soviet expansionism.

Yalta is not the only example of a controversial decision in Churchill's life where Johnson refrains from leveling any serious criticism of his subject. Churchill's redesign of the Middle East after World War One, when he headed the Colonial Office, included the creation of the modern state of Iraq, a seething cauldron of religious and ethnic conflict that hardly stands as a lasting testimony to the wisdom of western interventionism.

Once again, however, Johnson is determined to place the persistent troubles of the Middle East on American shoulders, not British ones. In his view, it was the American support of Saudi Arabia after World War II that contributed to the Islamic fanaticism which plagues the Gulf states to this day, not the earlier British intervention, despite the fact that both powers were out for the same reward, the mass oil deposits of the region. (pp. 62-63) Considering the long history of British involvement in Iraq, Iran, and Palestine, it seems a tad unfair to fault primarily the Yanks for all that has gone wrong with the Middle East.

In any case, Johnson assures his readers that these events should not detract from the overwhelmingly positive qualities of Churchill. The virtues that he cites are familiar enough: ambition, hard work, self-confidence, gentle humor (even towards his enemies), and joy in living life to the fullest. (pp. 162-165) The author also wisely qualifies this celebration of Churchill's character with acknowledgement of his fortuna: Churchill had the good luck to become prime minister at a time when politicians were more trusted than generals (a reversal of attitudes that had prevailed during World War I), a blessing that made him the most powerful prime minister in British history. (pp. 109-110)

Amidst these long lists of qualities and conditions that contributed to Churchill's success, there is no mention of his extensive knowledge of history. It is ironic that an historian of Johnson's experience omits this fact. (Churchill's masterpiece, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, is mentioned only once.) It is beyond doubt that Churchill's own criteria for success would include knowledge of the history of nations with which one is dealing. It is not enough for a leader to have courage, resolve, or confidence in one's abilities: George W. Bush had these qualities in spades. Unlike most leaders, Churchill knew history; he wrote it as much as he made it.

In his history of World War II, Churchill chided his comrade-in-arms FDR, who was pressuring the British to bring democratic government to India as soon as possible, for avoiding basic facts of history. The prime minister was stunned by the president's ignorance of the massive historic differences between India and the United States, an ignorance that rested on perceiving merely "superficial resemblances."

It is equally ironic that many of Churchill's most stalwart defenders in the neoconservative movement, who have dreamt of reinventing Iraq and Afghanistan as functioning democracies, have ignored their hero's scolding of those who are oblivious to the weight of history; after all, these howling wildernesses have never enjoyed a liberal democratic tradition. Tempting though it may be to seek comfort and reassurance in Churchill's defense of democracy, as Johnson insists, we must also heed Churchill's (and Eric Voegelin's) warnings about leaders who dream of changing history while they ignore the history that humbles this ambition.