Book Review: Churchill by Paul Johnson 158 Pages

Posted: November 11, 2012 in Books

Winston Churchill was a mix of his mother’s ebullient personality and a drive to supersede his father’s political ambition.  Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph, was a member of Parliament but never got farther than that.  At a very young age, Winston felt that he would not only follow his father into politics, but exceed his father’s position.  Winston was not very good in school, but at Harrow, the school he was sent to, the young Winston developed a fondness for military strategy, and soon after graduating from Harrow went to the Royal Military College in Sandhurst. Churchill sought out as many wars as he could find and wrote dispatches about them. To make money, he became a war correspondent of sorts, writing newspaper articles about the Spanish fighting Cuban guerillas. In 1895, he fought for the British against a Sikh uprising in India.  In 1896 and 1897, he participated in a British cavalry charge in the Sudan in 1898, and in 1899, he covered the British participation in the Boer War.  He was both war correspondent and soldier and got paid handsomely for his duties.  When he saw atrocities, Churchill reported them too, like the shooting of 25 Tibetans in Lhasa, and he argued for generosity to the Boers as part of their peace treaty.

Churchill entered politics as a liberal, but he wore many labels as a politician, Constitutionalist, Unionist, Conservative all in order to continue his public service. He was quite an effective legislator, he was able to get signed into law, the Trade Boards Act in 1909, which ended “sweated labor,”  The National Insurance Act in 1911, which provided unemployment insurance, and the Shops Act, which mandated a tea break for all employees.  Always the contrarian, Churchill took on the trade unionists next as Home Secretary in 1910  and used the military to beak up a miners strike in Wales.  Churchill was then made part of the admiralty in 1911, and sensing a threat  from Germany set out to build the largest British warships ever built, to counteract German U-Boats. Churchill even volunteered to lead a group of British soldiers in Antwerp Belgium at the start of the war in 1914.  That idea was a bad one, Antwerp fell, Churchill was ordered home and 2000 British soldiers died.  Churchill was put in charge of an attempt to clear the Dardanelles, a narrow straight in Turkey, in order to use the Russian army more effectively. Churchill ordered the Gallipoli landings, this also ended in disaster. Churchill was removed from the admiralty and by 1922, the Tories were out of power.
The 1920’s were a decade of peaks and valleys for Churchill and the Tory Party, by 1924, Churchill was back in power under Prime Minister Baldwin as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the person who handled budgetary priorities in the British government.  Churchill served from 1924-29, and despite his sterling reputation and new moniker, “The Smiling Chancellor” he and Baldwin were ousted in 1929,  Churchill quit his position as a member of Parliament over Indian self-determination, and set off to America to make money in the American stock market.  Unfortunately, the market crashed in 1929, and Churchill lost all of his money, at the same time he was involved in a car accident as a pedestrian.  He wrote an article about the accident that earned him 600 pounds.
The 1930’s were mostly one of political exile for Churchill.  Churchill seemed to be one of very few arguing for the re-armament of British troops, but after the disastrous results of WWI, very few people were willing to think of another war on Europe.  Just as Churchill’s views were starting to gain credence, he supported Edward VIII’s attempt to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson in 1936, and keep his crown.  This stance destroyed Churchill’s credibility, until 1938, when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia,  and occupied Austria. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did nothing to stop Hitler, still under the sway of the doves in Britain. By 1939, Hitler had annexed the Sudetenland, and was threatening Poland with invasion.  Prime Minster Chamberlain tried in vain to get Russia to join the war on the Allies side, but Hitler quickly signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin and by 1940 a British attempt to stop the Nazis from invading Norway was easily repelled by the Germans.   By this time, Franco had taken over Spain, Mussolini in Italy, and Tojo was named Secretary of War in Japan.
The British responded by making Churchill Prime Minster and Minister of Defense in May of 1940.  Churchill immediately emphasized production of British aircraft, by 1940, England had 26,000 aircraft.  The production of aircraft was very important as it helped Britain prevail in the Battle of Britain, that took place between September and August of 1940.  After the Battle of Britain, Germany would never again threaten Britain with invasion.  Before the US was actually part of the war, Churchill convinced Roosevelt to support a Lend Lease Act.  The act easily passed the Congress and was signed into law in March of 1941.  1942 was a difficult year for Churchill, Singapore fell, two ships, the Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk, and German General Rommel was marching into North Africa and retaking territory. But soon the tide turned in 1942, General Montgomery of Britain, beat Rommel in the battle of El-Alamein and paved the way for the Allied invasion of North Africa, code named Operation Torch.  From 1942 to 1945, the Allies kept up a non-stop bombing campaign against, German cities and those bombings along with the D-Day invasion  and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively ended the war.  VJ Day was on August 15th 1945, Churchill lost re-election before WWII actually ended, on July 26th 1945.
This book is very insightful about the facts of Churchill’s life and his motivations to get into public life.  It’s clear that Churchill’s father’s failure to move up the ranks in the parliamentary system drove Churchill to seek higher and higher office.  It is clear however, that the author, Johnson is a fervent admirer of Churchill and that makes the book lose some objectivity in regards to Churchill himself.  For example, why did Churchill change from a Liberal to a Conservative?  Was it truly a change of heart or simply political expediency?  Was Churchill the only one demanding that Britain re-arm against a belligerent Germany?  Lord Lloyd seems to be the first British politician to advocate this position.  Churchill definitely had mixed feelings on Hitler, as late as 1937, he held out hope that Hitler could still go down in history as the man who restored Germany to its former greatness.  Until 1937, Churchill still supported Mussolini and thought he could be an ally.  Churchill underestimated the ferocity of the Japanese under Tojo.  Churchill was just plain wrong about the self-determination of India.  The reason Churchill was wrong about India and Japan is because he still thought of India and Japan as colonies, docile and willing to be controlled by imperial Britain.  He could not have been more wrong, and Johnson seems to ignore Churchill’s obvious lapses in judgment and lionize the things Churchill did right.
What about the bombings of Dresden, and other German population centers, did Johnson have any qualms about the hundreds of thousands of civilians that were killed in the bombings, he never lets on.  How about Churchill being named Prime Minister and Minister of Defense at once?  Does Johnson have a problem with so much power being concentrated in one person?  Churchill did not hold any of his commanders responsible for any of their excesses during the prosecution of WWII.  Does that trouble Johnson?  The readers will never know.
Johnson also radically underplays the importance of America to the Allies success in World War II.  In Johnson’s eyes, America is the junior partner, an isolationist, to be dragged into war by the wise and all-knowing Churchill.  While it is true that America was isolationist until 1941, when it was attacked on December 7th, 1941 at Pearl Harbor, it became fully engaged in fighting and winning WWII.  I find Johnson’s condescension of America quite insulting, and can say this without fear of contradiction, without America in WWII, Britain would have eventually lost WW II. I’m surprised to see such Anglo-centric hubris from a historian. Don’t get me wrong, Churchill took huge risks and won the Battle of Britain without the US, but the British could not have maintained that level of fighting for 5 years without the help of US air forces and ground troops.
All in all, its still a good book if you are looking to learn a basic biographical sketch of Churchill.  It does better in describing the personal life of Churchill and editorializes too much about his military prowess, in my opinion.
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