oliticians love to picture themselves as Winston Churchill, circa 1940. It's a satisfying role to play: the heroic figure cutting through the ambiguity and complication of foreign and domestic politics to expose a battle between good and evil. To win this battle, we just need to do whatever the new Churchill says. To disagree is to be another Chamberlain or Hitler.
This fancy has contributed to some of the worst foreign adventurism of the past decades. Churchill was correct in 1940, but only because he identified the right action in the right circumstances. He acted prudently. To learn prudence, we need studies of statesmen, as they understood and judged the world through changing circumstances.
Will Morrisey’s Churchill and De Gaulle: The Geopolitics of Liberty purports to do precisely this with the lives of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. Challenged by the worst tyranny and aggression of the 20th century in the two World Wars and the Cold War, Churchill and de Gaulle sought to preserve liberty for their peoples. Studying their writings and speeches, Morrisey shows how they judged different circumstances and challenges to defend self-government.
Both offered their country a “Greatness Agenda.” Churchill argued that Britain’s greatness lay in promoting international commerce throughout her Empire and the world. Militarily, British greatness depended on a strong navy; diplomatically, it depended on cultivating alliances with the other English-speaking peoples. Britain’s Parliamentary democracy was the regime best equipped to realise the ideal of self-government for Britain and to combat tyranny and militarism abroad.
De Gaulle shared Churchill’s adherence to self-government but reformulated it for the French context. Unlike the United Kingdom, France’s politics encompassed factions—Monarchists, liberals, Bonapartists, Communists—with radically different visions of the regime. In Federalist 10, Publius argued that giving more factions the chance to achieve political power weakened the likelihood of a single faction abusing power. But because France’s factions expressed deep regime-level disagreements, de Gaulle believed that giving them more power would lead to political paralysis.
Unlike the United States or the United Kingdom, France shared a land border with its strongest enemy. To counter this threat—and the threat of the nation coming apart—de Gaulle advocated republicanism with a strong executive leader. To rule well, this leader needed to be above party factions and to have the support of the people. By interpreting the virtue of moderation as mesure, De Gaulle sought to recover a classical conception of statesmanship, balanced between weak (like the Third Republic) and hubristic (like Napoleon's) governments.
Morrisey argues political judgement is subject to “the realm of necessity” through four geopolitical constraints: the constraint of a particular place; the constraint of technology; the constraint of regime; and the constraint of political order (the political community understood with respect to the size of territory, population, and degree of government centralisation). Churchill and de Gaulle had to balance these elements in forming “coherent strategies of self-defence” to preserve self-government through three different wars. Assessing the “The World Crisis” of 1914, Churchill believed technological developments and the increasingly centralised modern state made limited war a thing of the past. Because the political and military elite misunderstood these changes, their actions produced the calamity of the Great War. For de Gaulle, the origins of the First World War lay in the pernicious influence of Friedrich Nietzsche in Europe: in Germany, Nietzsche created an insolence inclining toward tyranny; in France, he birthed a nihilism inclining toward servility.
If the Germanic Nietzschean supermen preferred the primacy of force, British parliamentarianism won WWI through the primacy of speech, and French republicanism won through the primacy of deeds. Yet neither de Gaulle nor Churchill got what they hoped for: the Third Republic fell back into its negligent politicking, and the League of Nations, lacking American support, was ineffective. As Churchill wrote, “the story ended in 1922 with universal gloom.”
In the following decades Churchill and de Gaulle each played the part of Cassandra, accusing their countrymen of failing to apply the lessons of the Great War. Technological transformations had changed the constraints under which France and England pursued self-defence. Churchill argued that Britain neglected the creation of an air force; de Gaulle, that France neglected to create mobile armoured divisions. The political failures of France and Britain ensured that, when war came, the circumstances facing both powers were desperate.
In 1940, Britain was saved from defeat by her geography, last-minute technological investments and Churchill’s leadership. In contrast, France’s geopolitical situation, combined with the incompetence of her political elite, threw her into the most sombre hours of her history. Americans rarely grasp the depth of France’s catastrophe. By the end of May 1940, it was clear that the Germans were going to overrun all of metropolitan France. Surrender seemed a dignified way to end the bloodshed. Whereas in Britain the head of government opposed surrender, in France only one junior government minister did so—de Gaulle. Though peace with Germany looked like acquiescence to mere foreign occupation, de Gaulle grasped that a more existential issue was at stake.
The Germans intended to transform France, making it a servile henchman in Nazi crimes. In The Silence of the Sea, the classic story of the French resistance, an invading German argued: “We have the chance to destroy France. And she shall be destroyed. Not only her power: her soul as well. Her soul especially. Her soul is the greatest danger.” De Gaulle saved France’s soul by transporting it to London and vowing to fight on. He gave the French a vision of what national greatness could look like post-war, with a new republican regime untainted with the disgrace of Nazi collaboration.
Though the Second World War brought Churchill and de Gaulle together, their evaluation of its causes and consequences differed. Churchill thought the story of the 1920s and '30s one of a botched international order. He sought to prioritise the Anglo-American relationship—even when it meant subordination. De Gaulle, on the other hand, blamed France's faulty regime, which prevented it from anchoring European order. In the Cold War, Churchill was a stalwart defender of self-government but sympathetic to liberal internationalism, which included preserving much of the British Empire. He supported regional federations and spoke in favour of a “United States of Europe.” De Gaulle in contrast was sceptical of liberal internationalism. He encouraged regional alliances based on the principle of national self-government and a national foreign policy.
Statesmen are not omnipotent—their prudence also discloses their limitations. Morrisey does not forget this. Churchill’s alliance with Stalin was necessary, but it produced Soviet hegemony. The special relationship with America saved Britain, but the price was much of Britain’s greatness. De Gaulle's France failed to shape the souls of the next generation. In May 1968 it rose up against him. Ever since, that generation has hated de Gaulle, and discarded his vision of a Europe of strong nation-states—l’Europe des patries.
Morrisey’s book is not without its limitations. First, in focusing on what de Gaulle and Churchill wrote it downplays how they acted. In his memoirs The Second World War, for example, Churchill suppressed the May 1940 Cabinet exchanges that showed how close Britain came to peace with Hitler. Second, it takes at face value “the realm of necessity” as Churchill and de Gaulle understood it. Was de Gaulle’s declaration that “the Algeria of our fathers is dead” truly a judgement of necessity? Many disagreed, fracturing the French right up to the present. Nevertheless, there are few better places to study Churchill and de Gaulle’s evaluation of their circumstances. We are in debt to Morrisey for providing such a superb resource.