There is a war on. Forces commanded from Afghanistan have raided across the border, not this time into India, but into New York City and Washington, D.C. The Mideast is in flames. America and Britain have gone into the government-changing business in Afghanistan and may open franchises elsewhere. Putting a name to these actions, a senior British diplomat has called for a new form of Empire.

How interesting that we should pick this time to renew our acquaintance with Winston Churchill. Roy Jenkins, a member of Parliament for years in the socialist Labour Party that Churchill worked all his life to destroy, has written a biography calling Churchill the greatest modern Prime Minister. Oxford historian Geoffrey Best has written the finest among many short biographies of Churchill under the subtitle “A Study in Greatness.” HBO has produced a special that is surely the finest drama ever made about Churchill. Taking notice of this trend, the Atlantic Monthly in April published a cover article on Churchill by Christopher Hitchens. Though Hitchens attempts more blame than praise, his blaming is derived mostly and unwittingly from sorry old slanders long disproved, and he collapses at the end into reluctant respect.

The first remarkable thing about this new attention to Churchill is how highly favorable it is to the man as war leader and enemy of Hitler. The second is the uniformity and finality with which it rejects Churchill’s idea of empire. We have therefore a chance to measure both Churchill and ourselves, a chance that comes at a decisive moment.

Churchill the warrior appears most vividly in the film, which however is not about the war but its coming. “The Gathering Storm” demonstrates the stubborn and unshakable courage with which Churchill faced down the appeasers. Then as now, politics was a contact sport. In Parliament in the 1930s, Churchill was derided as old and out of touch. Opposing the conservative government on devolution in Egypt and India and on appeasement, he was scorned as a tired old traitor to his party, seeking glory alone. This charge is repeated by Christopher Hitchens today.

Words were not the only form of hostility. Churchill’s station and his livelihood were assaulted. “The Gathering Storm” tells in detail the story of Ralph Wigram, a Churchill contact in the Foreign Office who gave him information. Wigram had a wife and child, the latter in need of special medical care. So of course his wife was threatened with his transfer to a place obscure where his family could not follow. Churchill’s son-in-law, MP Duncan Sandys, was confronted with an Attorney General’s investigation over his possession of information about the state of German arms. Efforts were made by the government to deprive Churchill of his seat in the House of Commons. Publishers pressed Churchill to change his views or lose his job, and over imperial policy he did lose one of his publishing contracts.

Meanwhile Churchill argued day after day to an empty house, and wrote article after article to a public that would not listen. His wife, generally a fortress in their common cause, went away for months on a cruise with a handsome young man. His bank manager inquired frequently how Churchill would replace the funds he had lost in the Crash of ’29. He lost more in the Crash of ’36. He was hit by a car, nearly killed, and laid up for weeks. The bills piled up. He and the staff worked night and day. Between the ages of 56 and 64, after a lifetime of success now submerged in rejection and failure, Churchill did the best writing and speaking of his life. From this period comes his wonderful Marlborough: His Life and Times, probably Churchill’s greatest book. He fought, surrounded and outnumbered, yet always on the attack. Historian William Manchester argues that this, and not the 1940s, was Churchill’s finest hour. Indeed, few would have had the heart for such a lonely battle. HBO’s “The Gathering Storm” shows this part of his story magnificently.

The film features Albert Finney, who becomes the man. He has not only the famous determination, but also the zest. He shows not only the massive productiveness, but also its cost in weariness and pain. He shows the bluster and the sympathy, the eloquence and the wit, the deadliness to strike and the impact of the blows he suffered. Unlike Richard Burton, who once played a wonderful Churchill that was not very much like Churchill, Finney has mastered the cadence and pace of his speech and makes the lisp discernible but not distracting. Vanessa Redgrave is also very like Clemmie. Even when she throws a plate, which the real Clemmie did, she like the real Clemmie shows not hate but hurt. The power of the acting is embellished by insights from many good historical sources, especially the beginning of William Manchester’s second volume on Churchill that paints a brilliant picture of Churchill’s daily life. Though the film fails in a place or two (they should have hired Martin Gilbert, as was done in a previous documentary to great benefit), in a brief space it shows the very nature of the man and his deeds and his time.

Both the new biographies have their virtues, too. They both for instance do a good job describing the 1930s rearmament debate that is the feature of the film. Jenkins’s strength throughout is that he is himself a politician, and he often recounts the political conversations that happened behind the scenes with insight. He tells the story of Churchill’s greatest few days, from May 24 to 28, 1940, almost as well as John Lukacs in his splendid Five Days in London. Jenkin’s book being much longer than that of Best, he is free to reprint extensive passages from Churchill’s speeches, though not so free as Martin Gilbert in his official biography, from which all else is written if it is written well. It is always good to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

Best tells the story in the mere twinkling of an eye, just over 350 pages to cover a life long, rich, and uncommon. He accomplishes this by writing essays on each period of Churchill’s life. He summarizes what is happening with clarity and a high degree of accuracy, and he has a good understanding of what Churchill is thinking and what he means. Alas, there are exceptions.


Neither best nor Jenkins is at his best when discussing India, for example. The film is just as bad, with blessed brevity on the subject.

The HBO drama is about Churchill’s wilderness years. As a drama for our times, this part of Churchill’s story has however a flaw: it does not begin in the right place. Too bad that Churchill did not break with Stanley Baldwin first about Hitler, or even Stalin. That would make a good clean tale, and we should not have to make the point that Churchill was “wrong about India, as he has so often been wrong.” “The Gathering Storm” places this speech in the mouth of Desmond Morton, one of Churchill’s closest colleagues and best sources of information. This is the same Morton who wrote to Churchill in December 1934: “India in the Commons was a person triumph for you.”

Roy Jenkins calls his chapter on India “Unwisdom in the Wilderness.” Geoffrey Best takes the same line. He begins by congratulating the National Government that proposed and accomplished Indian constitutional reform:

[The plan of Indian constitutional reform] proceeded from the basis that British Imperial theory, notwithstanding the gibes of Leninists and indigenous nationalists, was sincere in its declared principle that oversees territories were held by the British for the benefit of their inhabitants…and for only so long as it took those inhabitants to acquire the capacities and capabilities to govern themselves.

Best implies that Churchill disagrees with this, and he goes on to say that Churchill threw himself into what Best calls “a reactionary posture.” Best comments that some in Churchill’s crowd “talked as if” Winston were “en route to a political coup,” and that “something of that sort may have been in his mind…” Goodness. It is impossible to track from this statement who said what. One hopes that Best means only a coup to win the premiership in the parliamentary party committee. The vagueness of this criticism betrays the absence of facts characteristic of this whole chapter.

Churchill, Best accurately reports, believed that as soon as the British began to leave India that the “Hindus and Muslims would begin to slaughter one another.” Moreover, he continues, Churchill had no “serious knowledge about Indians or any other nonwhite peoples.”

Best does not mention that the Hindus and Muslims did begin to slaughter one another, by the hundreds of thousands (Gandhi was one of the slain); that they ultimately partitioned the country into two separate states both now possessing nuclear weapons and having fought several wars between them. At this moment the Indian army is conducting major military maneuvers along the Pakistani border. Pakistani terrorist, the friends of Osama bin Laden, attempted recently to invade the Indian Parliament and kill those within it. Tensions, as the say in international coverage, remain high.

Churchill, moreover, had very considerable experience both with Indian and with “nonwhite peoples.” He had fought in Afghanistan and served in India. He had fought in both northern and southern Africa. He had been Secretary of State for the Colonies, in which post he had negotiated the founding of Arab states and supported the founding of modern Israel. He had done this on the spot in the Middle East, just over a decade earlier.

In his book on the Boer War, Churchill had written that the real issue between the Boers, who were South Africans of Dutch extraction, and the English, was that the former “would never accept the equality of the Kafir.” In an Independence Day speech in 1918, when America and Britain were allies in the First World War, he had said of the Declaration of Independence that “by it we lost an empire, and by it also we preserved an empire. By applying its principles and learning its lessons we have maintained our communion with the powerful Commonwealths our children have established beyond the seas.”

To be sure, India was not part of the Commonwealth, and it was not self-governing. Why, one may ask, was India not entitled to the same treatment as Australia, Canada, or New Zealand?

Churchill addresses that question at considerable length in his many speeches on the Indian question. He asserts repeatedly the right of the Indians to govern themselves. For example, in August 1930: “let me…reaffirm the inflexible resolve of Great Britain to aid the Indian people to fit themselves increasingly for the duties of self-government. Upon that course we have been embarked for many years, and we assign no limits to its ultimate fruition.” This is a common theme and cannot be missed by anyone who reads the speeches.

At the same time he holds that India is not ready. He mentions the division between Muslim and Hindu. He mentions the pervasive illiteracy, the other differences of religion, the division into royal kingdoms, the caste system. He mentions the fact that peace and order have reigned in India under British rule, and because of that the population has grown, and so Britain bears a responsibility at least for those people who are part of the increase. The weight of these things is hard to feel now, when India is becoming a great nation, developing its economy, building a middle class, and achieving the peaceful alternation in power of its chief political parties. More than 60 years have passed, and the hope that India may now present was distant in those days. Some of the problems persist in India today.

We may, however, soon enough have cause to understand these things again. We are talking of building democracy in places like the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Iraq, and North Korea. Let us say, for example that we form the view that children in some distant land should not be taught the method and the rightness of suicidal murder of civilians. Let us say that they should not be taught to kill people because of their race or religion—and also that their families should not be paid large sums when they do it. Let us say that teenagers should not be instructed how to carry ugly bombs around as if they were knapsacks. Let us say that we propose to stop this. We will not find this easy to do.

Whether we act under the authority of an international bureaucracy, as the British diplomat Robert Cooper suggests, or under the authority of the U.N., or under American authority, we will find that we are interfering in the closest matters of local policy. We will need to regulate what happens in villages and little towns, in their schools and perhaps—for this is where the problem often is—in their churches. We may try to find local leaders who are responsible and good and put them in power. In that case we will be choosing their rules, and by that principle we will be tempted if they fail us to replace them, and replace them again if need be.

Churchill said there would be bloodshed in India if the British left, and there was. We are now on a global quest to prevent bloodshed in our own cities. We are acting on at least one of the principles that Churchill embraced. In his book on the war that he fought in Afghanistan as a young man, Churchill calls the last chapter, “The Riddle of the Frontier.” He writes there that it is very hard to go into Afghanistan and subdue the raiding tribesmen. Our troops, recently winning a glorious victory are however still engaged in the work. We have not found Osama.

Churchill writes that it is also very hard to hold a defensive line, ever at the ready along the great border, when thee tribesmen may rest when they please and strike where they wish. He favors the more active policy. Both are full of difficulty.

Now we have a greater cause than Churchill had in 1896. If we wait, we may lose not a building but a city. Lately, Mr. Warren Buffet, who is in the insurance business, has written that we are bound to do precisely this. In earlier days he would sometimes explain that he makes large margins in the insurance business because his company is big and sound enough to handle the biggest risks. One year he may lose, but most years he wins. But this terrorism, he says, is a risk too big for him. Only the government, he says, is big enough to handle it. But the government is all of us. How long would it take us to replace the immeasurable value in people and things that can be found today in New York City, if that were the place attacked? And it may not be just one place.

Before we blush and mumble that Churchill was a racist—which he was not—we should think how things are now. If the past is the key to the future, then perhaps some reflection on our own problems in the present might open our eyes to the living problems of the past. Here is a moment when we might revisit not the new, but the old kind of liberalism upon which Churchill built his view of empire.

Wilderness Years

The keys to Churchill in the 1930s are that he knew, and had known since before the First World War, how grave a European war would be; and that he judged foreign affairs by the same criteria he judged those at home.

Churchill saw the nature of modern warfare as it emerged on some small battlefields of the late 19th century, where he demonstrated the cool sort of bravery that is attributed to George Washington. He never got a chance to show if he could see the battlefield with a general’s eye, but he did see it with the eye of a statesman. He had watched the Dervish Army charge with fervor upon the British line at Omdurman. He had noted the fury of muscle, bone, and blood with which they galloped. He had compared this to to the “tedious” and mechanical efficiency with which the British had destroyed them almost before they came into sight. In 1901, he said in the House of Commons: “…European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors.”

In 1925, Churchill published a frightening essay titled, “Shall We All Commit Suicide.” He writes:

Mankind has never been in this position before. Without having improved appreciably in virtue or enjoy wiser duidance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination. That is the point in human destineies to which all the glories and toils of men have at least led them. They would do well to pause and ponder upon their new responsibilities. Death stands at attention, obedient, expectant, ready to serve, ready to shear away the peoples en masse; if called on, to pulverize without hope of repair, what is left of civilization. He awaits only the word of command. He awaits it from the frail, bewildered being, long his victim, now—for one occasion only—his Master.

One may find passages like this throughout Churchill’s adult life. In his speeches on the hydrogen bomb one hears from a man who had, already a generation before, pronounced the doom that it entails. Today things are of course worse. Today we must face the fact that some city that required a hundred years to build can be demolished, its location polluted beyond reclaim, by a man with a satchel bomb and a venomous heart.

Churchill, facing the specter of Hitler, knew very well what such people might do. In his 1955 speech on nuclear war, Churchill describes his policy of nuclear deterrence that he helped to invent. Then:

I must make one admission, and any admission is formidable. The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics or dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dug-out. That is a blank. But happily we may find methods of protecting ourselves, if we are all agreed, against that.

The past repeats itself, and lately. Osama and Saddam retired, like Hitler, underground. Their missiles are soon to be much better than the V2. Like Hitler they see us coming, and they work furiously on their anthrax spreaders, dirty bombs, and atomic bombs, just as Hitler did his rockets and atomic bombs after the invasion of France. Hitler’s bombs and rockets and jet aircraft were almost ready in time. But for Churchill, they might have been. Unless we find another like him, Osama and Saddam will meet their deadline.

The keenness of Churchill’s insight into these horrors only makes more wonderful the energy with which he opposed them. By 1934 everyone knew what Churchill had known for decade: modern war is horrible. Baldwin, Chamberlain, Halifax and the appeasers learned this when a million British were killed and wounded in the trenches in Flanders. Their reaction was to contrive a policy in which war would be prevented by the absence of weapons. When Germany built weapons, they retreated to demonstrations of friendship and weakness together. Repelled by the awfulness of war, uncertain of support from a people made fearful by slaughter, they tried for a time to lay low. Stanley Baldwin explained that his plan for the Nazis to fight the Bolshies. “Too easy to be good,” replied Churchill.

What then was his plan? If the relentless advance of weapons is leading to the place where mankind may “commit suicide,” how are we to stop it? That was as much the question of Churchill’s day as of ours.

Churchill’s answer is the answer not of the philosopher but of the statesman. It is the kind of practical answer that both scholars and statesmen today often miss. He summarizes his answer under the title, “Arms and the Covenant.” By the Covenant he means not merely the covenant of the League of Nations, which proved weak and unable to distinguish the urgent from the merely important. He means rather an alliance between all who would resist Hitler, beginning with the advocates of the League but leading anywhere. He consorted with socialists and communists and the Spanish and Italian fascists. He courted unions and civic groups and anybody else at home and abroad. Anyone who was a lesser threat than Hitler was a candidate. In this he was of course “inconsistent,” for he deplored both socialism and Communism and thought they differed from Hitler “as the North Pole differs from the South.” But the “consistency” implied in this standard is unknown to the statesman, who first task is the necessary.

As for arms, Churchill meant predominance if he could get it and parity if he could not. He preferred overwhelming force, as soon as it could be got, in the greatest abundance available. If you wish to know how he sounded to the ears of 1934, listen to Mark Helprin or Victor Davis Hanson today.

Looming above this argument for war preparation is a greater thing still, Churchill’s early recognition of Hitler for what he was. As Hitchens in the Atlantic Monthly rightly points out, this achievement seems facile today. But it was not so in 1933 when Hitler came to power. Hitler played the politics of each potential enemy with the mastery that he displayed in Germany itself. To the visiting Tory politician he was an anti-Communist. To the visiting socialist he was himself a socialist, trying to better the lot of the German worker, which, by the by, he did for a time. To all he was attempting to redress the real grievances of an unjust peace. Behind these soft and reasonable words there was also the hint of the threat; threats made to nations so wounded were fearful things.

In a telling passage, Hitchens gives Churchill credit for seeing through this. He writes:

I find that I cannot rerun the tape of 1940, for example, and make it come out, or wish it to come out, any other way. This is for one purely subjective reason: …alone among his contemporaries, Churchill did not denounce the Nazi Empire merely as a threat, actual or potential, to the British one. Nor did he speak of it as a depraved but possibly useful ally. He excoriated it as a wicked and nihilistic thing…[S]ome saving intuition prompted Churchill to recognize, and to name out loud, the pornographic and catastrophically destructive nature of the foe. Only this redeeming x-factor justifies all the rest—the paradoxes and inconsistencies, to be sure, and even the hypocrisy.

It is hard to see why this is a “purely subjective” reason. It follows a passage in which Hitchens speculates that Hitler would have died early anyway. If war had not been declared when it was, then, Hitchens suggests that perhaps its misery might have been avoided or abbreviated. But the war began when Hitler attacked Poland, before Churchill was a member of the government. Hitler’s death was hastened, not postponed, by Britain’s (and the Allies’) declaration and winning of the war. He blew his own brains out because he was about to be captured, and he would have died later if he had not shot himself. When he died he was making weapons of a kind that would have been decisive in his hands, and he was obstructed from the completion of those weapons by the war being waged upon him from Britain.

Also, it is no secret why and how Churchill understood Hitler to be an evil force. In 1934, while visiting Germany, Churchill had the chance to meet Hitler. Hitler canceled the meeting because Churchill told its organizer that he meant to ask Hitler what he had against the Jews. In the very speech that Hitchens cites above, a few lines before the quotation, Churchill makes the point exquisitely plain:

You have to consider the character of the Nazi movement and the rule which it implies …[T]here can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality, the threat of murderous force. That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy.

It took a certain kind of genius to see this early, when Churchill saw it, and it took an amazing persistence and courage to advance it against the forces Churchill faced. But the thing he saw was not “subjective.” Nor was it some mysterious x. It was the difference between tyranny and free government, the distinction upon which Churchill built his political life. If we cannot honor those who see it in time to save our freedom, we cannot honor anyone.

Churchill receives well-deserved honor in each of these works. Maybe we are on the way back. We have a way to go.