A review of Churchill and America, by Martin Gilbert

Peel away the layers of the Left's disdain for the Bush Administration and you find a fundamental discomfort with the idea of American exceptionalism—the idea, as old as the founding itself, that America is a special, even providential nation because it is, in Leo Strauss's words, "the only country in the world which was founded in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles." In sum, the chief political division of our time may be over the nature and meaning of America itself.

It is not surprising, then, that Europeans, committed to an increasingly watery internationalism, take exception to American exceptionalism. Winston Churchill was one of the few foreign statesmen of the last century who embraced American exceptionalism and understood its importance for the world. "My faith in the progress of America is unshakeable," he said in middle age. Churchill believed in "Anglo-Saxon superiority"; he saw America's greatness as the fruit of democratic principles first sown in Britain. In 1955, during his final Cabinet meeting as prime minister, he adjured his Cabinet, "Never be separated from the Americans," an axiom his successors have largely heeded.

Sir Martin Gilbert's new book, Churchill and America, is the most complete account of Churchill's lifelong attraction to the Great Republic (as he called the U.S.). On the surface, it is difficult to imagine anything left for Gilbert to say about Churchill, having completed the eight-volume official biography that his son, Randolph Churchill, began in the 1960s. (Initially a researcher for Randolph, Gilbert took on the project himself after Randolph had finished the first two volumes; Gilbert composed the last six over a 20-year period.) And yet, as Gilbert recounts the often day-by-day story of Churchill's sentiments, words, and deeds concerning America, a number of details left out of most biographies emerge. Above all, Churchill's admiration for the U.S. is reaffirmed and amplified.

As with most of his previous books (more than 70 now), Gilbert writes a strict chronological narrative. This straightforward method sometimes attracts criticism for its seeming lack of interpretation. But Gilbert's intelligence and restraint, combined with his thoroughness, are virtues that will make his books the definitive works about Churchill for centuries to come. Although the new volume ends with Churchill's death in 1965, the reader cannot help drawing forward its sentiments to the present moment, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair reprises Churchill's role as America's best friend in time of crisis.

Churchill's appreciation of American exceptionalism was arguably hereditary; he was half-American ("half-alien and wholly reprehensible," his critics liked to say). "What an extraordinary people the Americans are!" he wrote to his American mother during his first stateside visit in 1895 at age 21. Beyond America's democratic character, Churchill came to believe in what we call the American Dream. As he told Harry Truman en route to Fulton, Missouri in 1946, "If I were to be born again, there is one country in which I would want to be a citizen. There is one country where a man knows he has an unbounded future—the USA."

During his early visits to America, Churchill acquired a set of convictions that would seem to sit uneasily with each other: an admiration for free markets, private enterprise, and American-style opportunity, as well as a liking for progressive government, the New Deal, and the Democratic Party—with the exception of William Jennings Bryan, whom he saw as a demagogue. (Bryan's proposal to inflate the currency through free silver, said Churchill, "is like an inebriate regulating a chronometer with a crowbar.")

* * *

Churchill's keen observations in America helped him develop his own political sense. During his first trip, for example, he took a dislike to American paper money, calling the dollar "the most disreputable 'coin' the world has ever seen." At the same time he marveled at the "magnificent system of communication" (by which he meant New York City's physical infrastructure). In attempting to reconcile this magnificence with "the abominable currency," he wrote: "The communication of New York is due to private enterprise while the state is responsible for the currency: and hence I come to the conclusion that the first class men of America are in the counting houses and the less brilliant ones in the government."

After World War II, Churchill advocated a "United States of Europe," a precursor in some ways to today's problematic European Union. He broached the idea as early as 1914 as a means of preventing general war in Europe. But he always placed a higher priority on union with America, even proposing at one point common citizenship between the U.S. and the British Commonwealth, and in another advocating a merger of the nations' currencies, which he denominated the "Sterling Dollar."

Gilbert offers revealing glimpses into Churchill's character, missed by most of the standard biographies. For instance, after a taxicab struck and nearly killed him on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1931, Churchill, who admitted at the scene that the accident had been entirely his fault, became "deeply concerned lest the driver's part in the accident might hinder him in getting work." He received the driver, Mario Contasino, as a visitor in the hospital, and later gave Contasino a signed copy of one of his books. In 1944, Churchill's schedule for a visit to the U.S. held up the sailing of the Queen Mary for nearly a week. When Churchill learned that his delay might cut into the leave-time of a large number of American soldiers on board, Churchill appealed directly to Roosevelt that their leaves be made whole. (FDR agreed.) Both episodes demonstrate a thoughtfulness rarely found in high-level politicians.

But in at least one respect, Churchill departed from his typical admiration for America: his regret, verging at times on bitterness, over American isolationism between the wars. Gilbert quotes Churchill on the U.S.'s refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles in November 1919: "A more melancholy page in human history could hardly be conceived. We cannot believe that it will be written by American hands." "For the rest of his life," Gilbert notes, "Churchill saw America's failure to become part of the League of Nations as a turning point in the prospects not only for European but for global peace."

Churchill returned to this theme many times in succeeding decades, including in his speech to Congress shortly after Pearl Harbor: "If we had kept together after the last war, if we had taken common measures for our safety, this renewal of the curse need never have fallen upon us." This, says Gilbert, was greeted with "less applause" than some of his other pronouncements. And there was silence when Churchill added: "Five or six years ago it would have been easy, without shedding a drop of blood, for the United States and Great Britain to have insisted on the fulfillment of the disarmament clauses of the treaties which Germany signed after the Great War." Churchill was arguably being unfair, inasmuch as Neville Chamberlain had rejected FDR's offer to mediate an international conference with Germany, which might have drawn America closer to the fray earlier on, or at least provided FDR with a greater latitude for action. Yet one must admire Churchill's patient understanding of the constraints imposed on FDR by American public opinion.

* * *

Although Gilbert's chronological approach is readable and highly useful to other scholars because of its comprehensiveness, it thwarts a more thematic examination of Churchill's relationship with America. One crucial theme downplayed by Gilbert's approach is Churchill's thought on the nature of American and British democracy, and the differences between them. This bears especially on Churchill's longstanding grievances with American isolationism. He attributed American isolationism in part to the Constitution: "The American Constitution was designed by the Founding Fathers to keep the United States clear of European entanglements—and by God it has stood the test of time." Churchill, it seems, disliked the separation of powers at the heart of American constitutionalism, which constrains the president's power in war and foreign policy. In the 1950s, Churchill said he thought the U.S. Constitution should be amended so that at least half the president's cabinet would have seats in Congress, thus making the American system more like parliamentary government.

One wonders, then, how complete was Churchill's understanding of American democracy. Gilbert's book only touches on this tantalizing question. For although he mentions Churchill's July 4, 1918, speech to the Liberty Day meeting of the Anglo-Saxon Fellowship, Gilbert omits what Churchill had to say about the Declaration of Independence:

The Declaration of Independence is not only an American document. It follows on the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights as the third great title-deed on which the liberties of the English-speaking peoples are founded…. The political conceptions embodied in the Declaration of Independence are the same as those expressed at that time by Lord Chatham and Mr. Burke and handed down to them by John Hampden and Algernon Sidney. They spring from the same source; they come from the same well of practical truth….

Churchill is on solid ground in championing British thought as the wellspring of American liberty; Thomas Jefferson included Sidney among the sources of the Declaration of Independence, after all. But it is unclear here whether Churchill went so far as to affirm Lincoln's belief in the Declaration as the expression of the case for the liberty of all people, not just English-speaking ones.

Such doubts are offset, however, by Churchill's remarkable appreciation of The Federalist in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples. (Gilbert doesn't mention this.) He calls The Federalist "among the classics of American literature," and observes that "their practical wisdom stands pre-eminent amid the stream of controversial writing at the time." Churchill also quotes extensively from the famous Federalist 10, or should I say the now famous Federalist 10, for Churchill wrote at a time when The Federalist was distinctly out of fashion in Anglo-American political science. Clearly there is still more to be said about the great man's understanding of America.

Nonetheless, this understanding resides at the very heart of the Anglo-American "special relationship." If that partnership is to endure, it requires confidence, both in Britain and at home, in the principles behind American exceptionalism. The ordeal in Iraq is testing this relationship, as is the general undertow of European decadence. Yet there is reason for encouragement. A year ago Gilbert reflected in the Observer on whether George W. Bush and Tony Blair might become heirs to the legendary Churchill-Roosevelt partnership:

Although it can easily be argued that George W. Bush and Tony Blair face a far lesser challenge than Roosevelt and Churchill did—that the war on terror is not a third world war—they may well, with the passage of time and the opening of the archives, join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill. Their societies are too divided today to deliver a calm judgment, and many of their achievements may be in the future: when Iraq has a stable democracy, with al-Qaeda neutralised, and when Israel and the Palestinian Authority are independent democracies, living side by side in constructive economic cooperation….

Bush recently said at a White House meeting with Blair: "I am a lucky person, a lucky President, to be holding office at the same time this man holds the prime ministership." This brings to mind Roosevelt's comment to Churchill: "It is fun being in the same decade as you." Behind these words are a hidden wealth of allied cooperation on the future. 

Let us hope so.