Friday, May 14, 2010

Book Review: CHURCHILL by Paul Johnson (Viking, 2009)

Johnson, the "great explainer" of modern times and expert dissector of the pretensions of modern intellectuals, has been coasting on his reputation of late. ART: A NEW HISTORY was robust (and colorful) enough, but I wasn't particularly taken with either CREATORS or HEROES. With this engaging "quick sketch" of the life of Winston Churchill, the author is back on form. Some snarky reviews to the contrary, this is not a hagiography, though it certainly gives Churchill the benefit of the doubt more often than not. Its simple goal is to explain why Churchill must be regarded as a major historical figure, regardless of what one thinks of the man and his policies.

The book divides neatly into two sections. Part one is a more or less straightforward biography which takes us up to the point at which Churchill first became Prime Minister in 1940. Johnson avoids the cliche of saddling Churchill with all the responsibility for the failure of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16, instead focusing on other, rather less dramatic examples of Churchill's tendency for occasional lapses in judgment. Foremost among the latter is Churchill's bull-headed defense of King Edward VIII during the 1936 Abdication Crisis. This stand had severe consequences for Britain, as Churchill became so unpopular that his (increasingly heeded) warnings of the menace of a rearming Germany were tossed aside as a result.

Johnson then devotes the bulk of the remainder of the volume to an analysis of Churchill's record as a war leader. Johnson sees Churchill as the "indispensable man," the key to Britain's survival, and lays out the reasons why. These reasons are generally convincing, though I wish that even more was made of the salient fact that Churchill regarded both forms of 2oth century totalitarian tyranny -- Fascism and Communism -- as equally evil. While always willing to "jaw-jaw" to preserve peace whenever practicable, he did not fall into the trap of "pas d'ennemis a gauche (ou a droit)" that hinders a sense of moral clarity. One wonders how history would have been altered had Britain and the U.S. heeded Churchill's advice and met the Red Army as far to the East as possible.

The book's ending is its weakest point. Johnson skims over Churchill's second premiership (1951-54) with indecent haste and concludes with a list of "lessons Churchill teaches us today." The latter has the tone of a particularly uninspired business seminar, while it is telling that Johnson prefers to tell us what Churchill did not do during his second turn at the top. (A.N. Wilson's OUR TIMES treats the second Churchill government in a considerably harsher manner, and, given the state of the war-ravaged country and Churchill's own age and weariness, Wilson's treatment rings a bit truer to me.) Happily, in an afterword, Johnson is generous enough to recommend more in-depth treatments of Churchill and his times. If CHURCHILL encourages the reader to forge ahead to these other works, then it will have done its job.


Mark Lungo said...

Could you please provide a translation of the French phrase?

Chris Barat said...


It means "no enemies to the left (or right)".